Mastodon and public data

I’ve been thinking about Mastodon and the fallout from Bridgy’s plan to connect ActivityPub servers to Bluesky. For a snapshot of how this blew up, see this GitHub issue discussion, now thankfully closed after it devolved into personal attacks.

It often feels that (some) Mastodon folks care more about Mastodon as a platform than they care about the open web as a platform. I’m not sure if that’s a completely fair framing, but thinking about it this way has helped clarify my view of debates around public posts.

When I post to my blog, my posts are on the web, and so hopefully make the web a little better. I’m contributing to sort of a larger purpose, something I can refer to later myself, and maybe something others will find value in too. It’s a subtly different mindset than posting to a specific platform where I mostly expect my followers to see it.

My blog is connected via ActivityPub to Mastodon, and via cross-posting to Bluesky, Nostr, Threads, and elsewhere. But I could disconnect those platforms and it wouldn’t change much about how I post and what I write about.

That’s not to say there aren’t great reasons to prefer a smaller, more controlled audience. We have Mastodon post visibility to limit who can see posts. We have robots.txt to discourage search engines. We have settings to make posts ephemeral. As Bridgy developer Ryan Barrett said himself in an article on TechCrunch, this level of control is one thing that has made Mastodon a good online home for many people:

A lot of the people there, especially people who have been there for a while, came from more traditional centralized social networks and got mistreated and abused there, so they came looking for and tried to put together a space that was safer, smaller and more controlled. They expect consent for anything they do with their data.

I respect this view. It’s not how I approach my own blog, but I would never argue that someone shouldn’t be able to protect themselves. There should be a variety of approaches in between sharing everything online and sharing nothing.

And we do have additional solutions already. Mastodon server administrators can block other servers that are causing problems. Users can mute or block other users. These solutions apply equally to Mastodon servers and to a potential Bluesky bridge.

If there are no technical differences between blocking a rogue Mastodon server and a Bluesky bridge, what are people truly concerned about? It often appears to get back to identifying with Mastodon and its principles, and inherently distrusting other companies, fearing a return to the worst of massive, centralized platforms.

If this sounds familiar, it’s not unlike the reaction many had when Threads was rumored to support ActivityPub. I blogged about this last year, hoping more people would see it as a positive step forward:

Meta adopting ActivityPub has the potential to fast-forward the progress of the social web by years. Ever since I grew disillusioned with Twitter a decade ago and started pushing for indie microblogs, then writing a book about social networks and founding, I could only dream of a moment where a massive tech company embraced such a fundamental open API.

Smaller social networks are an important part of finding our way out of the social network mess of larger, especially ad-based platforms. Mastodon deserves enormous credit for making federation and smaller servers actually work. I can’t overstate how significant it was for Mastodon to be a mature platform that could welcome users leaving Twitter X.

Federation is just one part of the progress we can make, though. We also need to embrace the open web again, encouraging more people to have their own blog and identity online. Bridgy has been working toward these goals for years, helping people connect their blog to other social networks.

My concern with some Mastodon users (again, not everyone!) pushing back against interoperability with non-Mastodon platforms is that it moves Mastodon away from the open web, which is surely at odds with the original purpose of Mastodon and many of its features, from an open client API to federation itself. We can already see some signs of Mastodon putting up slight roadblocks to open web access. For example, permalink posts on Mastodon require JavaScript — you can’t view HTML source and get the post details, making it a little more difficult to build tools that understand Mastodon pages. At the API level, some servers also require signed ActivityPub requests, making it a little more difficult to look up user profiles.

The developer community for Mastodon is free to make any of these decisions they want. To play this out to its most extreme version, they could even disable RSS feeds, treating Mastodon servers more like protected, mini silos.

But moving away from openness will not only limit the potential of the fediverse, it risks holding back the larger social web. If there’s a knee-jerk reaction to interoperability with other platforms, Mastodon may find that its head start as the largest federated platform becomes eroded, eclipsed by Bluesky and other platforms. I would ask the folks on Mastodon who are so strongly against bridging to Bluesky if that’s the future they really want.

Manton Reece @manton