Mastodon on the Fediverse – Current Limitations

I have recently built a new Mastodon instance to create an additional home for InfoSec professionals on the Fediverse. Being a new Mastodon admin, I was evaluating the different ways to get more content on the Federation Timeline. This post summarizes my experience, findings, thoughts, and possible feature requests.

Challenge A – The New-User-Experience

When you start a new instance the Local and Federated Timelines are empty. Also, there seems to be no effective way to find people to follow by utilizing the search function on your own instance. The currently recommended workaround is to create an account on an established instance first, so you can find people to follow and then to move these connections over to your own instance.

Challenge B – Network Effects and Information Flow

Once you have managed to find other user, whose content you find interesting, your Home and Federated timelines start to fill with content. However, since this seems to mainly show the content of the users, who you already know, it creates a social media bubble effect that leads you to believe that everyone has the same interests and world-views like you have. Media has been covering this effect a lot after the 2016 presidential election in the US, where the Facebook bubble that users created for themselves seems to have heavily influenced the election.

Challenge C – Resiliency

Through my research on the topic of Mastodon and the Fediverse, I stumbled across a very interesting study: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1909.05801.pdf In this paper the authors have analyzed a great amount of Mastodon data to research the resiliency and other aspects of federated social media platforms. They found that by blocking/eliminating a couple of key instances the available content of the Fediverse can be severely impacted. In my opinion this is something to be improved upon, so that freely provided / non-censored content can resist a targeted attack of larger players (e.g. government sponsored entities) in the cyber realm.

Existing Solution A – Bot based Following of interesting Mastodon Users

In the past some Instance admins seem to have utilized bots to follow user of specific instances that they found to be well-maintained and interesting.

Existing Solution B – ActivityPub Relays

Since a couple of Mastodon versions the admin can configure her instance to become a member of ActivityPub relays. And while this seems to solve the problem, it creates some challenges due to the its bi-directional nature: Once you connect your instance to the relay you are basically at the mercy of the relay admin and your instance will 'blow-up', if the relay gets a new member with large amount of content.

Proposed Solution C – Mastodon Instance2Instance Subscriptions

If we could implement a feature that allows the instance admin to subscribe to other instances' content, one could easily create larger communities based on multiple smaller communities. And if that subscription has a one-directional and a bi-directional option, it even becomes possible for larger instances to promote content of smaller instances without forcing the smaller instance to eat all the content of the larger instance. With a feature like this it becomes much easier to create resiliency for content of specific instances. It also allows an instance community to curate their Federation feed in a meaningful way. (The admin could run polls with his users to decide which other instances to subscribe to as an example.)

If you find this idea interesting and want to chat about it, please go to the Mastodon Discourse here: https://discourse.joinmastodon.org/t/mastodon-on-the-fediverse-current-limitations/2350/2

If you'd like to talk to me directly, you can find me here: https://ioc.exchange/@seb