White Elephant 🐘

A Web 3.0 company purchases Mastodon’s second-largest instance just before Christmas. What does that say about federated social media, anyway?

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A picture of Hakuzou, the white elephant mascot of Pawoo.

After a month of it looking like there was going to be more competition to find a Twitter alternative, it looks like Mastodon is emerging as the big favorite—after all, Elon may have briefly banned Post links from the platforms, but he didn’t mark them as malware like he did Mastodon links. (Yes, I finally signed up for a Post profile, but I only have a handful of followers there.)

And that additional attention is leading to some apparent financial investment, with the encrypted messaging company Mask Network straight-up purchasing the second-largest Mastodon instance, the Japanese network Pawoo.net, for an undisclosed sum.

“As a major Mastodon instance, Pawoo will have plenty of space to grow. The new operation team hopes to play a crucial role in driving its future growth,” a news release stated. “The team believes that on the journey to the free and open Internet, the decentralized infrastructure and applications are under development at a rapid pace. The future decentralized social networks including Pawoo will play an important role during this process to achieve a new and open internet.”

Mask, which is focused on Web 3.0 applications that offer a bridge to older Web 2.0 use cases, could prove an interesting infusion of interest into Mastodon. They are, at this time, actively focused on investing money into decentralized social networking infrastructure. And they have something that Mastodon lacks in any truly pliable way—encrypted messaging. One could see how such an investment could work out in favor of improving the technology layers of Mastodon.

Now, to be clear, Mask is not alone here in bringing some commercial influence to the fediverse. Project Mushroom, a Mastodon-adjacent project, is being sponsored by a climate change startup, and both Mozilla and Vivaldi have taken steps to support Mastodon with their products.

But at the same time, there is understandable skepticism that’s floating around, in part because it means that a company with a commercial interest can swoop in, buy networks, take ownership of the new thing, and potentially influence the entire network. (And also, the purchase sparked confusion, because Mask.net bought the entity through an organization called Social Coop, a name that is being used for an unrelated Mastodon instance that is actually being run as a cooperative, complete with governance and the whole bit.)

As Chris Trottier, an early Hootsuite employee and a commenter on fediverse issues, put it yesterday, “Like it or not, it should no longer be assumed that ‘volunteers’ are running your instances.”


How worried should we be about the mask? (Marina Zaharkina/Unsplash)

This raises the natural question: How bad is commercial influence on the fediverse? Is it something that users need to really be worried about? And if that commercial influence negatively changes the experience, are users well-positioned to fight back against it? I think the simple answer is to look at how Mastodon has dealt with past controversies of this nature. In 2018, actor and sci-fi icon Wil Wheaton was pressured off of Mastodon because members of the community found him “unsafe,” citing his use and promotion of a widely spread Twitter blocklist that negatively affected marginalized communities. (It would be interesting to see if he chose to come back at some point, though he seems to be doing just fine on Tumblr.) In 2019, Mastodon admins came together to essentially force out Gab, a right-wing social network that moved to Mastodon’s codebase.

In both of these cases, one could argue that social pressure was strong enough that it essentially neutralized the outsider coming into their community. (It should be noted that Pawoo itself has largely been isolated from the mainstream fediverse over moderation decisions and the complexities of moderating posts from a foreign-language instance.) But as Mastodon gets larger, it might be harder to do.

If, for some reason, Mastodon users decide that they don’t want to be part of Pawoo.net, the best option they have is to just leave and splinter. Mastodon makes that easy—and it makes it possible for other federated networks, Mastodon or otherwise, to limit the influence of a foreign body the network for some reason decides it does not like. It may not kill it, but it can neutralize it.

I think it will be interesting to see what this company does with its new purchase—it could be good, it could be bad. But skepticism is a fair emotion to have right now.

*Editor’s note: This piece has been updated with slightly more context on Pawoo.*

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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