Why Mastodon and the fediverse are “doomed to fail”

Judging by the amount of media coverage Mastodon is getting, you might conclude that it's already dead. Of course, plenty of folks have predicted long ago that Mastodon won't survive or is dead in the water.

Wait, then why are there more than a million active accounts on Mastodon and other fediverse platforms? Why are there thriving communities for art, language learning, and academia? Why have I had far more rewarding interactions on the fediverse than on Twitter?

There seems to be a contradiction here. A vast number of people find Mastodon, Pleroma, WriteFreely, Pixelfed, and the many other wonderful fediverse tools useful, yet we hear about these platforms almost entirely by word-of-mouth, not from the technology sections of major news sites, or even dedicated tech blogs.

A bottom-up gift economy is funding instance operators and developers via Patreon, OpenCollective, LiberaPay, Ko-Fi, and similar tools. Again, this seems remarkable in its own right, given the predominant business model of the Internet (advertising and surveillance). Why isn't that a bigger story?

The truth is that the dollar amounts here add up to a very small total. The Mastodon main project acount on Patreon is only raising about $5,800 a month as of this writing. That still doesn't even add up to the salary of a single Silicon Valley engineer. Typical medium-size instances raise funds in the $50-$100/month range to cover their costs.

One way to look at this is that the return on this investment is incredible. A vast global community is deriving enormous value from the fediverse, with a tiny investment of funds. But another way to look at it is that there's just not enough money in it for it to be interesting.

In a capitalist media ecosystem, the primary frame of reference for understanding the world of technology is profit. If something doesn't generate profit, has no obvious pathway to profit, and isn't backed by people who are viewed as experts on making profit, it is assumed to be a failure by default. From that point forward, any success is accepted reluctantly, slowly, or not at all.

The headlines to be found on tech news sites like TechCrunch are as consistent as they are mind-numbing:

If the dollar sign is not in the headline, it's in the content. Profit (real or imaginary) is the lens that distorts everything.

That's why I won't read in mainstream publications about Karrot.world, a social network for reducing waste. They won't tell me about the amazing work that Framasoft is doing to build platforms like Mobilizon (for managing events) and PeerTube (for sharing videos).

If you talk to people about these projects and they respond with cynicism — “it won't scale”, “it's just a bunch of hobbyists”, “it can't compete” — what is really at work here is the default prejudice against bottom-up self-organization without a profit motive.

Mastodon and the fediverse are not doomed to fail (they are in fact succeeding), but they are “doomed to fail”, meaning that they will be unavoidably and repeatedly characterized through the distorted lens of a capitalist media ecosystem. Through that same lens, server Linux is only successful because it is used by corporations, and desktop Linux continues to be the butt of jokes, even though it is used by millions.

Spoken word performer Gil Scott-Heron famously had this to say about revolutions:

The revolution will not be right back After a message about a white tornado White lightning, or white people You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl The revolution will not go better with Coke The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath The revolution will put you in the driver's seat

Whatever revolutionary potential you think technology like social media has, if it is greater than zero, it is very doubtful that the most promising such technologies will be widely recognized and celebrated.

But we have our own media now, and we are no longer dependent on the distorted judgments within the capitalist frame. We can celebrate our successes here, and build on them. We can operate platforms serving hundreds of thousands of people without a profit motive, and gradually expand the solidarity economy.

We won't win people over by default, and we will make plenty of mistakes along the way. But we must recognize, and reject, the biases at play that cause people to belittle, ignore, and misunderstand any initiative that's astonishingly successful without making anyone rich.

[@eloquence 2020-07-08, public domain]