Leaving Birdland

Father John Misty's True Comedy Album Cover as a Background to the Words Leaving Birdland. Which is a play on the song Leaving LA from his album

This week, I deleted all my tweets on Twitter and posted a signpost to my new Mastodon account at https://infosec.exchange/@L0G1S, might delete the whole thing next week, we’ll see.

I’ve noticed from others within the infosec.exchange instance that there are some various growing pains for some when moving from Twitter to a federated community and I wanted to speak about why that is. Moving from a centralized community to a federated instance of something requires a shift into a new mindset of how you approach online communities in general. Even if the operation of the social media is similar. It doesn’t matter if tweets and toots are very similar, the underlying model is drastically different. If someone isn’t aware of those differences with the federated model, they might be disappointed when this community doesn’t operate the same (meaning: offer the same features) as the old, centralized service. Also moving from a billion dollar app to an open source one will also differ in quality and features.

In a centralized, ad-driven social network, the user is meant to feel like a customer, but without paying. They are given access to this amazing service with all sorts of features and news and entertainment. They can store all their photos, they can plan and build an event, make a private family group, foodie forum, birthday reminders, so on and so forth. But the biggest and most important thing is that they don’t have to pay for it. Or at least feel like they paid.

The feeling of social media is one that feels like a negative cost. Many social medias feel “free”, so we are just judging and using almost entirely on convenience. Which means anything federated is going to automatically be at a disadvantage and any manual curation will feel exhausting in comparison. But you have to remember that this is natural and understand why feeds that are algorithmically driven should be questioned more.

Now obviously Surveillance Capitalism is how it is all paid for, I’ve gone through that already previously, but I want to talk about the feeling and how that feeling alters how we interact with the space. When we use Facebook or Twitter, we don’t comprehend or feel the full cost of it because it’s so disconnected from us for us to quantify in terms of dollars out of our pocket. The users are simply meant to surf and enjoy the space. No one needs to moderate, only report something when you have been slighted. No point at contributing anything to Facebook beyond that, people get paid to do that there.

I think that one of the unseen aspects of all this is how centralized ad driven social media has normalized that type of pampered usage. No one needs to feel compelled to contribute to the entire system at large, it’s all taken care of. All we need to do is check, “I Agree” on the new privacy Eula and then we can get back to browsing. It feels reminiscent to the normalized, disconnected voting culture in the United States. We come out of our cave every 2 or 4 years and go down and vote purely party line and never get more involved within our local politics and wonder why things are broken.

Maybe catering to passivity is by design, maybe if we start making contributions, it won’t be long until we have other demands.

Technologies as Forms of Order

When I was younger, I had a naive way of thinking about technology and how it intersects with our lives. I approached it as if it was like a manufactured improvement on a physical ability and never questioned the source or even the full extent or limits placed on its use. It naturally just felt like it was an only net positive in how in expanded our ability. I always thought of technology as a tool, but never thought of it used as a shackle. Or even how it could even be used by different people at the same time and be simultaneously different things for each group.

In Landon Winner’s Do Artifacts Have Politics? Winner states that some artifacts, intended as technical objects, have inherent political properties and embody forms of authority and subordination. In other words, some technologies are inherently political regardless of how we intend to use them. Digital ecosystems, like social medias, cryptocurrencies, and “metaverses” should be viewed less like tools that just exist in nature and more like forms of order that are implemented around us. These are often private ecosystems that we are unable to quantify the extent of just how deep that form of order goes.

The Lord of the Rings one ring analogy is an obvious one that I think works here. Think of Boromir, who wants to utilize the one ring against its intended purpose and against its maker, but most of the wiser members of the fellowship know that there are so many deeper complicated things at play to ensure that could never happen. What if I want to use social media site to advance a special social agenda within my community, but the owners of that social media are directly opposed to it? It may be like living in a snow globe, running around scrambling to make everything better all the while everything is just sitting on some rich guy’s shelf.

An example Winner gives is New York urban planner Robert Moses and his purposefully low bridges in Long Island built between the 1920s and 1970s. In a 1974 biography, Moses ordered the bridges to be built unusually lower than normal. Specifically so it would prevent public buses from being able to navigate through them to predominantly white neighborhoods and limit access to Black and Latinos who more predominantly rode public transit. This is a specific technological design enforcing a particular political agenda from the very bottom. Before you even think about political intent in implementation, it’s baked in from the earliest form of the design to produce a specific social consequence as transparent as possible.

Another example is the Tomato harvester introduction in the 1960s in Central California. Along with selective breeding, The Tomato Harvester was able to pick more tomatoes than traditional workers, even though the tomato was different and less appealing in order to facilitate this transition. This led a substantial higher yield of tomatoes, but decimated the working-class community that used to pick them. By 1967 most farmers who were growing tomatoes in 1960 had been pushed out and by the late 1970s an estimated thirty-two thousand jobs in the tomato industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization. Thus, a jump into productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at a sacrifice to other rural agricultural communities. Those few who succeeded now commanded fleets of machines and acreage quadrupling their old holdings from a decade earlier.

Another example is Cyrus McCormick’s newly installed pneumatic molding machines in his Chicago reaper manufacturing plant in the 1880s. When installed they created the same casting, but at an inferior quality, but even more confusing also at a higher cost. Why on earth would the business owner pay more money for something that was worse? It doesn’t make sense until you include the context that McCormick was in the middle fighting with a growing union of workers at the time. The worse quality machines were an effective way of consolidating power to the business leadership and undermining anything the union tried to accomplish. Viewing the technology of the machine through the lens of the product it doesn’t make sense, but this is to show that sometimes the technology at its earliest intention is meant to do something outside of that paradigm and work toward the interests of one over the other.

“In cases like those of Moses’s low bridges and McCormick’s molding machines, one sees the importance of technical arrangements that precede the use of the things in question. It is obvious that technologies can be used in ways that enhance the power, authority, and privilege of some over others, for example, the use of television to sell a candidate. To our accustomed way of thinking, technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good, evil, or something in between.

But we usually do not stop to inquire whether a given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses. Robert Moses’s bridges, after all, were used to carry automobiles from one point to another; McCormick’s machines were used to make metal castings; both technologies, however, encompassed purposes far beyond their immediate use. If our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only categories having to do with tools and uses, if it does not include attention to the meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial.” - Langdon Winner, Do Artifacts have Politics?, 1980, MIT Press

Many technologies, by their self-assumed ordinary use, and eventual widespread adoption facilitate the transfer and expansion of specific power regardless of if that is the intention of the person using them. If the Thingamajig© is the newly developed device that everyone needs to buy and use daily in order to participate in the new digital economy, how does that fair to the guy selling the Thingamajig©? What if we designed our cities around using the Thingamajig©? What if all Thinamajigs© phone home all the private information about those using them?

Have we ever thought about how the algorithms are the underlying formula of how we interact with each other online within these ecosystems? What does that algorithm facilitate and who does it favor? Have we thought about what type of specific social consequences are designed into them or the impact or conditioning they have on our behavior? On Facebook, if you want to be successful, you need to post every day and also post in ways that works best for the algorithm. Those that do, get boosted. This is why most viral YouTube videos are around 15min long. If the video is too short there are chances YouTube buries it and the only way people see it is in the feed.

For some, there begins to be this strange shift where people begin to post less about what they want, and more and more about what they need in order to game the algorithm to improve their exposure. It’s as if the whole set of social rules are being rewritten by Facebook and we just are playing along because those are as fundamental as the laws in the universe. I just want a place to hang out with family and friends, but it’s like there’s now a new invisible set of social rules that other people are operating by.

I saw someone toot that they had a fraction of their twitter followers, but already have double the amount of good engagement on mastodon with no toxicity. I think that makes complete sense. If the engagement isn’t so hyper curated and inflamed, you probably don’t need so many followers to have healthy interaction with plenty of people. If Dunbar’s number is 150 which is the theory of maximum number of active healthy connections/relationships, you can maintain. Is anything on social media above that just the result of algorithmic remainder that instead of fostering proper interaction has led to unfettered virality concentrations of followers to a very small group of people. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that many influencers are also just a group of content creators pre-selected by the company to facilitate more and more posting such as reels and shorts.

It’s like walking billboards that are cosplaying as cool humans that want to be friends with you, and they’ve invaded your feed. I’m tired of that. I’m tired of trying to foster better online connections and others are just looking for marks or followers to sell shit to. We’ve mixed business, entertainment, and our social lives together so much it’s hard to tell any of them a part anymore. The one very redeeming quality of LinkedIn is that it has its clearly defined purpose and stays as that. Once I start having recruiters and vendors hit me up on other social medias, you can call the military that the portal to hell has been opened.

I would argue that in a healthier less profit driven community like Mastodon or even Matrix, you wouldn’t need as many online friends or followers. Just a little interaction within a more engaging community should challenge our assumptions about what type of follower or following count is best. You can follow a thousand people in twitter, but twitter will show you tweets from mostly 50 or so accounts. How do we approach social media where a private algorithm determines what everyone sees? We should be skeptical at them; we should be skeptical at concentrations of power. Hell, even Friedrich Engels pointed out that complex technical systems, such as large production factories, can serve as a means to reinforce centralized control. As the systems get more complex, “central control by knowledgeable people acting at the top of a rigid social hierarchy would seem increasingly prudent."

Mastodon has no algorithmic feed, which gives peace of mind it’s not skewed, but we should continue to question whose power it facilitates and whose interests it pushes and it being open source makes it much easier. At the same time, not having an algorithm does bring with it some drawbacks too. You initially start to get a sense just how much content was arranged in front of you rather than seeing it all pass on the highway. You definitely start to feel that “convenience”. It’s going to require a little more effort in curating accounts and feeds and hashtags to follow an equivalent list of people. One thing that will help is to also ditch the expectation that you will have the same exact feed. Let it be its own thing. If you need more content or feeds, go find them. But already, the federated feed feels pretty fast. Just imagine when there are double the amount of active people on mastodon, it might look like highway lines zipping by which means that might require some sort of collective effort to standardize hashtags or tweaks to the mastodon platform in subsequent releases.

The differences between Twitter and Mastodon (and other federated communities) is the difference between eating at a fast-food restaurant and having a BBQ at a friend’s house. Sure, you might not get the same catered level of service at a friend’s house, but if you approach it through that mindset you’ll always be disappointed because the model is fundamentally different.

If it’s a BBQ with friends, you may have to get your own plate, or bring some beer, or if you are willing and volunteer, you might even get asked to grill a couple hot dogs yourself or help clean up afterward, but I would contend that the experience is always more meaningful and special for everyone.

Sure, you can show up to the BBQ, eat some food and then take off, but it might be a little bit harder on the host in particular and others even if they don’t say anything. Within Mastodon, a lot more strain is going to be placed on individual instance managers in maintaining them. So anyone that is curious, able, and willing to host an instance, should do it. Digital Ocean droplets are extremely simple to get one up and running. If you can’t do that can you develop bots to help pipe over information not currently in the Fediverse? If you can’t do that, you could help moderate, if you can’t do that, financial contribution always works well too. Check with the person running your instance and see what they need, they will let you know.

Elon was throwing out the $8 a month price point for Twitter Blue so if it can be quantified in those terms, why not just send that to a private instance manager instead?

Logis ✌️​

Further Reading: Do Artifacts have Politics? https://faculty.cc.gatech.edu/~beki/cs4001/Winner.pdf