Glenn Fleishman has a lucid and helpful introduction to Mastodon in TidBITS that opens with this:
Cast your mind back to the first time you experienced joy and wonder on the Internet. Do you worry you’ll never be able to capture that sense again? If so, it’s worth wading gently into the world of Mastodon microblogging to see if it offers something fresh and delightful. It might remind you—as it does me, at least for now—of the days when you didn’t view online interactions with some level of dread.
Mastodon isn’t a service but a network of consensually affiliated, independently operated servers running the Mastodon software. It’s the best-known example of the so-called Fediverse…
Then, a few paragraphs later, he provides the best metaphor I’ve yet seen for what Mastodon is and how it works:
You can think of Mastodon as a flotilla of boats of vastly different sizes, whereas Twitter is like being on a cruise ship the size of a continent. Some Mastodon boats might be cruise liners with as many as 50,000 passengers; others are just dinghies with a single occupant! The admin of each instance—the captain of your particular boat—might make arbitrary decisions you disagree with as heartily as with any commercial operator’s tacks and turns. But you’re not stuck on your boat, with abandoning ship as the only alternative. Instead, you can hop from one boat to another without losing your place in the flotilla community. Parts of a flotilla can also splinter off and form their own disconnected groups, but no boat, however large, is in charge of the community.
Since my day job is working as a visiting scholar in the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, and Customer Commons has been imagined from its start as a potential commons for customers (or as many commons, flotilla style), I find myself wondering if each of Mastodon’s boats is a commons. Or if some of them could be, or already are. Or if Mastodon itself is one.
My first experience with Mastodon came early on, in a boat that I abandoned before it sank. But now that Mastodon is hot again, I’ve jumped with two crowds onto two boats: twit.social (here) and journa.host (here). TWiT.social’s occupants are the community of hosts, co-hosts, and participants in the TWiT network. Journa.host’s occupants are a collection of journalists. The two communities are different, though not entirely: journalists abound in both of them.
The question for me here is if any of these boats qualify as a commons. Or if Mastodon itself is one.
To qualify as a commons, a canonical list to check off is provided by Elinor Ostrom. In Governing the Commons (Cambridge, 1990), she outlined eight “design principles” for stable local common pool resource (CPR) management. I’ll make notes following each in italics:
- Clearly defining the group boundaries (and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties) and the contents of the common pool resource. Mastodon is designed to support that.
- The appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions. If we’re talking about code, yes. Maybe more. Gotta think about that.
- Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process. Depends on the instance, I suppose.
- Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators. Not sure about that one.
- A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules. Up to the person or people running each boat.
- Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access. I think these range from informal to formal, and draw from rules developed for mailing lists and other fora. But, not sure.
- Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities. At the top level, it’s othe Mastodon dev community. At the boat (instance) level, it’s the captain(s) of each.
- In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs (common pool resources) at the base level. A thought: the common pool resource is the authors of posts (aka toots) and the posts themselves.
Ostrom and others have also gone deeper and wider than that, for example by examining socio-ecological systems (SESes), defined here in 2004. I’ll leave digging into that up to scholars more schooled than I (or to a later post, after I finish schooling myself). Meanwhile, I think it’s important, given the sudden growth of Mastodon and other federated systems with flotilla-ish qualities, to examine how deep research and writing on commons apply.
This work does matter: Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for it, and it may matter more now than ever.
And help is welcome.
About the photo up top: Lacking a royalty-free visual for a flotilla of boats, I settled on the collections of people you see through bubbles in the photo above, which I shot on the grounds of Versailles. Kinda works, methinks.