Mastodon, cyberpunk, and THE FEDIVEEERSE!!!
My first two full weeks on Mastodon have gone swimmingly, and I've surprisingly gotten in touch again fast with the old '80s cyberpunk crowd, most notably through a recent fun exchange with pioneer John Shirley. Today, some thoughts back to my '80s punk rock youth, and why they seem to gel with a decentralized federated social network.
#mastodon #twitterMigration #fediverse #fediveeerse! #1980s #cyberpunk #pioneers #punkrock #survivalresearchlaboratories #mondo2000 #futuresex #boingboing #cultofthedeadcow #hackers
So, my first two full weeks on Mastodon have been going great, and I'm getting this much bigger level of engagement all of a sudden over what I ever used to get at the old legacy Web 2.0 places like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. One of the major reasons, I'm coming to realize, is because no algorithmic dirty tricks are being played on anyone's updates within this worldwide federated universe of groups running Mastodon servers, no behind-the-scenes dark magick (oops, I mean “dark patterns”) designed to keep engagement artificially inflated for all the corporate-friendly Kardashian Dancing With the Coca-Cola nonsense of the world, at the price of burying all my updates before they can be found by the small but intense crowd of fellow weirdos who like my stuff.
But then part of it, I've been slowly finding out, is because all the old '80s online crowd are at Mastodon, the cyberpunks and happy mutants who largely informed my first indie sensibility when I graduated high school in the mid-1980s and headed to the University of Missouri. In fact, Mastodon is a very hacker-friendly kind of concept, which is what has drawn so many of these people there, after becoming disgusted with the legacy networks long before the rest of us did. So, for example, I recently started following this new-to-me but previously famous media person and hardcore coder, and she mentioned on her profile that she's a member of the infamous hacker organization Cult of the Dead Cow (CDC), and so I sent out a jokey update (what Mastodon calls a “toot” instead of a “tweet,” get it) about how I hadn't heard that name since I had been an undergraduate and getting high with the SubGenius guys while they excitedly traded bootleg videotapes of Survival Research Laboratories performances. And who should respond back to this but cyberpunk pioneer John Shirley, asking if I had gone to college in the Bay area and was talking about SubGenius founder Ivan Stang?
No, John, I wasn't! Ha ha! I was talking about a circle of little no-nothing nerds back in Columbia, Missouri, getting like third-hand knowledge of what all you cool people were doing out there in California and New York! In the cable-new, way-pre-Web mid-'80s, it was still legitimately hard to find out about the cool indie things that existed when you lived in small-town Missouri, so we were always trying to piece together the bits and pieces we heard about underground culture here and there. For example, you would go to sci-fi conventions, then you hung around the interesting hacker-like people there, and they always knew of the best parties and could recommend the best movies, and loan you the best albums, etc. And then sometimes you hunted it down through field trips yourselves; like, I had an old college friend in those years who lived in Manhattan's Lower East Side (yes, during the RENT YEEEEAARSS!! No, we didn't actually go down the sidewalks singing back then), and whenever I'd visit him, I'd hit all the interesting weird newsstands down there in that area, and that for example is where I first learned of publications like Mondo 2000, Blind Spot, Spy, bOING bOING and Futuresex (filled with goofy shit every month, but also packed with interviews with interesting music innovators and media creatives).
And of course sometimes people in our circle there in mid-Missouri had a legitimate in with some legitimately cool people; one of my friends there, for example, this fucking crazy loon named Omar, was a member of said hacker group CDC, and he was the one who would come back from the hacker convention with video footage of the latest weird-ass shit going on in San Francisco, and other legitimate firsthand knowledge of things. (Omar was also the first person to turn me on to The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, by giving me a beat-up old paperback copy of the omnibus edition and telling me it was bad luck to buy a copy of this book brand-new from a store, that it will always give you good luck if you read a copy that a friend gave you for free. I took him at his word, read the trilogy, then myself gave it away to someone else under the same circumstances.)
We actually felt very lucky even then to live in the high-tech world we did — we were starting to see a lot of this stuff on the brand-new cable television for the first time, and of course once you did track down a weirdo magazine, you could just subscribe and have it magically delivered to your mailbox the entire rest of the year. I also had ample opportunities to go to downtown St. Louis when I was home for holidays, so I could pick up legitimately underground music at places like Streetside and Vintage Vinyl, see legitimately underground movies at the Tivoli and the Varsity. I generally kept up on the basics, and had a kind of third-level connection to it all, which would sometimes blossom into first-level moments at special events like the Archon sci-fi convention in St. Louis each summer, where I was always bound to meet some crazy person in a Skinny Puppy t-shirt sneakily smoking a joint in the closed pool room at two in the morning (and maybe even sometimes eventually making out with them). We didn't have any direct connections to anything going on, but at least we knew what was going on, which itself was legitimately worthy back then when you still had to put a lot of work into doing so.
Mastodon turns out to be pretty fascinating, it turns out, which is another big reason why all the interesting nerd mutant cyberpunks are there. Something like social media is just really object-oriented programming, which is why it's typically OOP languages used to make most social networks' interfaces; so you have an object named $FROM, for example, and the data associated with that object is and always will be the address of the person the update is from. That's it — that's all “object-oriented” means, and I should know because I paid fucking $12,000 to attend an OOP coding bootcamp in 2015 that was supposed to get me a new salaried job, and it didn't, but at least I know what object-oriented means! And so if a group of people get together and decide that everyone is going to recognize this particular object spelled in a certain way, and that acts a certain way and contains a certain type of information, then all of those places can actively swap this data back and forth. And that's exactly what ActivityPub is, a protocol officially approved by the world's most recognized authority on web standards, the W3C, where anyone can output this data using these objects and also bring in data using these objects.
So, anyone can start a server that runs the open-source Mastodon software, so far the singlemost often used ActivityPub app out there (and to be clear, there's like 30 or 40 ActivityPub apps out there). Let's say I was a creative-class dad, for example, and had a teen son named Jacob and a teen daughter named Jane, and they decided to take an old unused laptop in our basement and run the Mastodon software on it. Then we could register the domain name “pettus.social,” and each of us could have official Mastodon addresses called @email@example.com, etc. Hooked up to our always-on WiFi, we can essentially now go out and start following any other Mastodon address at any other server in the world (which in Mastodon parlance are known as “instances”), and any other address at any other server in the world can follow my address way back there at my home on this clunky old laptop that no one uses anymore. I own all my data, I set 100% of my own rules for how I want to behave, there are of course no ads, and I maintain a fine-tuned control over what both myself and my kids see and have access to. But — and this is the important part — I can still follow famous people just like I could back when I belonged to Twitter, and I can still follow weird people, and I can still follow all my friends, and I can still follow publications and news organizations.
There are tens of thousands of these kinds of servers all over the world now, more each week, and each of them are their very own community, so there are different kinds serving different purposes that run the gamut of every possibility you could mention. So there are big mainstream places that work exactly like Twitter, but then there are hobbyist communities devoted to one specific topic, or servers just for LGBTQ people, but then also instances for all the 4chan people of the world, the cryptobros, the M'Goodboys and Proud Boys and all the rest. So each community, each server, each instance, has their own community rules, and you must follow them all in order to belong to that server. Don't want to respect pronouns? You're off the LGBTQ instance, but of course you're still welcome at the 4chan instance (and probably cheered, in fact, which is why the admins of one instance can instantly ban each and every address from another instance with the flick of a single button). But no matter which one a person belongs to, they can always follow people at any other server out there, and anyone at any other server can follow them, so it's a way to let all these neo-Twitters and neo-queer communities and neo-4chans openly communicate with each other, even while forming a tighter and smaller local community where participants police each other to maintain whatever level of civility and politeness is required at that particular community. Even if that's all the way down to a community of just one family, and you're using your Mastodon accounts not just for the usual social networking but even to announce things to each other like that dinner's ready. (In fact, I bet there'd be an easy way to tweak the open-source software so that toots from other family addresses would show up in glowing red or something.)
That's some cyberpunk shit, and in fact that's why I was recently comparing it at Mastodon to the system of Hiveless Universal Laws in sci-fi underground favorite Ada Palmer's intensely beloved “Terra Ignota” series (and thanks, by the way, for all the likes over there for that thread — I'm telling you, I'm freaking killing it at Mastodon these days with the engagement), because it doesn't matter if you follow whitelaw, graylaw or blacklaw, you're all physically living next-door to each other, so there must be a way to universally communicate no matter what rules or belief system you follow when around other people of your kind. Not to mention that it makes it easy for you to set up your own mini-federation if you want; so I, for example, have separate accounts at the photo-oriented Pixelfed.social and the literary-oriented Writing.exchange, two ActivityPub servers that have been optimized for their particular form of the arts, and then I have my “main” social media account at Mastodon.cloud that most people follow, and I simply follow those photos and lit accounts and then boost each new update from those that come in, which lets all my followers at my main account see them too. But having accounts at the servers themselves lets me easily be friends with other photographers and writers at these servers, plus as a big bonus lets me browse a “local feed” of just updates from people on that server and no one else. Many of those local feeds are private just to the people who have accounts there, and of course it's always easier to convince a person to friend you if you belong to the same niche server as well; so I form mini-communities with artists and writers at the sub-sites, and they only see my photographs or literary work, although they always have a chance to come by my main account and see all my snotty memes and dark humor and all the other bullshit going on at my Mastodon.cloud account.
So FORWARD THE FEDIVEEERSE!!!, I say, and a good riddance to the bloated old terrible corrupt broken-down and terminally dysfunctional remaining decrepit Web 2.0 legacy social networks! You heard me! I'm entirely deleting them all by the time New Year's rolls around, including my accounts at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and 500px, to instead go all-in on embracing a federated future, including this very blog you're currently at, which has its own Mastodon address of @firstname.lastname@example.org, if you want to just get updates about my blog entries and absolutely nothing else I do. And I will keep pleasantly nostalgically remembering my '80s cyberpunk youth, and taking trucker pills with malt liquor in order to go see Eraserhead at midnight at the Missouri Theater, because, c'mon, what else are you going to do when you're 19 in 1986 and living in Columbia, Missouri? I look forward to seeing all of you in the fediverse soon, if you're not already there.