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Centralisation and Mastodon

The founder of Mastodon recently announced that he has started a second flagship instance. Is it a good thing to have flagship instances, or does the centralisation of Mastodon do more harm than good?

New flagship instance announcement

Many users of the Mastodon network have long said that the flagship instance, Mastodon.social, goes against the fundamental concept of a decentralised social network.

The problem with Mastodon centralisation

According to The Federation website, Mastodon currently has approximately 2.6 million users across all instances. The top 3 instances account for nearly 1.5 million of those users.

That’s nearly 60% of the entire Mastodon network! That doesn’t sound like much of a decentralised network to me.

I think Eugen did the right thing by not letting Mastodon.social grow even bigger. By creating another instance, there is still an “official” Mastodon instance that’s accepting new users. It also means that people aren’t putting all their eggs in Mastodon.social’s basket.

Why is this a problem?

Having the majority of users being spread across a handful of instances is better than everyone being on 1 instance. Right? I think so. However, having such a small amount instances housing a disproportionally large amount of the network’s total user base is a problem.

Let’s say that Mastodon’s biggest instance, Pawoo, decided to close down tomorrow. That’s over 600 thousand users who need to find a new home. Luckily Mastodon allows its users to migrate to other instances, which is great. But many instances would not be able to scale quick enough to support those kinds of numbers. Potentially causing a DDoS of our own network and bringing the entire thing crashing down.

Not only would have over half a million users without a home on the Fediverse, but instances all over the network could potentially go down with the amount of traffic they’re being hit with.

Bad times.

What can we do to help?

The short answer to this question is; use other instances to truly distribute this network of ours. This will help prevent the centralisation of mastodon.

It’s great that we have these flagship instances, as it shows new users that Mastodon is a popular network and they won’t be joining a ghost town. However, by joining other instances you’re spreading the load, thus creating a truly distributed social network.

I don’t think we have a distributed social network at the moment. Instead we have a handful of very popular instances that are surrounded by much smaller satellites.

All instances on the Mastodon network have the ability to communicate with one another, so by choosing a smaller instance, or even starting your own, you’re not missing out.

Conclusion

I applaud Eugen’s decision to create a new Mastodon instance – I think it’s just what the Fediverse needs.

If you’re thinking about joining Mastodon, don’t just join the first instance you come across. Take a look at the sign up section of the Mastodon homepage. There is a list alternative instances that you can join, all arranged by topic.

In my opinion, Mastodon is a huge improvement over sites like Twitter and Facebook. But I think there are still things we can do to make Mastodon even better.

What do you think?

This post is day 26 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. If you want to join in, visit the 100 Days website.

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Comments

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  1. @kev I know I’m late to the punch and new to the server but this is exactly why I think a change in approach is needed.For instance, a friend of mines had an idea that instead of starting a Discord for a twitch channel that they start a Masto instance. This would get people into fedi and away from the other sites. It will also have the benefit of introducing them to the concept and good company to start with.

  2. @bob @kev@fosstodon.org People tend to forget or ignore that 3-4 of the most used GNU social instances were handled by the GNU social project maintainer. I think it’s normal to try to ease the adoption of the technology, and let people choose what to do thereafter. “Refugees” from centralized services usually don’t want to learn about instances and decentralization just to begin using it. They just want to sign up and start interacting. From what I read, they often move to other instances as they mature.

  3. @kevAs a newer user, mastodon.social gets written up in articles more and it’s insinuated that it’s exclusive, so more people probably join it or did because of that.As someone who tries to get more people to try Mastodon, that the loli instance is that big puts a lot of people off.

  4. @kev Looking at my current timeline, one post is from someone on mastodon.social and all the rest are on smaller instances. So from my point of view it looks fairly decentralized. If one instance went down it wouldn’t impact my timeline all that much.

  5. @kev Good article. Being devils advocate here for a moment, I’d bet that “truly decentralized” Mastodon (or something similar) will only happen if running “your own instance” in a safe and secure manner is as easy as installing a Mastodon client app on a smartphone is, by today. We’re quite a bit from that, at the moment… 😉

  6. Let’s say that Mastodon’s biggest instance, Pawoo, decided to close down tomorrow. That’s over 600 thousand users who need to find a new home. Luckily Mastodon allows its users to migrate to other instances, which is great. But many instances would not be able to scale quick enough to support those kinds of numbers. Potentially causing a DDoS of our own network and bringing the entire thing crashing down.

    I think that in that case the whole network would be at risk, if Pawoo closes and shuts down letting time for its users to migrate, then yes the other instances would welcome its users, if it suddenly shuts down, then most of its user base would just lose interest in Mastodon, because so many posts losts, all people they follow and those who follow them, I think the Mastodon Network would lose most of those users.

    What can we do to help?

    The short answer to this question is; use other instances to truly distribute this network of ours. This will help prevent the centralisation of mastodon.

    Kev, in that way yes you spread the risk of one instance going down and letting too many users with no home, but a small instance with 5.000 users is at a higher risk of going down than mastodon.social.
    I think there is less risk in Mastodon.social going down than in some other going down, because Eugen is behind it. Anyway as everything in life, every direction has its pros and cons.
    Conclusion
    To me the final solution is just like with email, to own your domain and host your instance or use a hosted solution, just like you said.

    starting your own, you’re not missing out.

    1. It’s a difficult balancing act – I can see both sides. On the one hand, yeah, bigger instances are less likely to disappear, but by the fact that they’re so much bigger, the network is less distributed.

      Someone else commented saying maybe a good middle-ground would be for the bigger instances to say “hey, you’ve been here for 6 months now. How about these alternative instances?” Just to give them the option if they want.

      All in all, it’s really difficult and there’s no simple answer. Like I said in the post though, it’s still way better than Twitter. 🙂

  7. @pro Go ahead, ask people on the street for their email address. Most of them will be: yahoo, gmail, microsoft, and probably some older regionally popular providers (due to phone/landline/internet contracts or similar).It’s amazing how little people (want to) decide on the internet. They just follow what’s popular and “free” for the most part and stick with it. That’s not choice, that chance.@kev @yarmo

  8. @kev I wonder if casual users just reading about Mastodon and dipping their toe in the water, select mastodon.social as their instance – precisely because it is the biggest and therefore should be the most reliable with the best uptime and running the latest version. So it becomes a vicious circle.

  9. @kev I think what scares many sysadms. like me from opening instance open for registration, is the work associated with moderation, takedown requests and such nontechnical work.I think more federation could helped by making it really easy install a “family” #mastodon server, maybe as a app on #Nextcloud or as a #docker instance. Moderating a small instance with only your friends and family seems more manageable job.
    docker
    mastodon
    nextcloud

  10. @yarmo @kev sad truth from multiple occasions that I had with people is: people seem overwhelmed by the request to chose their instance. Always being afraid of making the wrong choice. It wasn’t different for me. My first toot talked about Mastodon being the loneliest social media I’ve ever experienced. Things worked out, but facts are, telling someone got to “example.social” and sign up. Makes people a lot more likely than telling them select one of those instances.

  11. @yarmo @kev As it turns out, “decentralized” is a system property that is more intended as a freedom for technical/admin users and that regular users just acknowledge. Just like not every user of Gimp is actually writing code for it even though they could. Most people just don’t want to go through all the hassle. They just want to use the system.

  12. @kev There’s also the argument that when people are choosing an instance they are trying to find one that will most likely stay around. Something run by the founder of Mastodon has a good chance of staying around. Like email I think the more important thing is that the little instances are on a even playing field with the big instances.

  13. @kev While the decision to stop expanding mastodon.social was the right one, one could argue he should not have made the second one. I can’t help but feel he’s making the situation worse.A decision could have been made to either make a series of instances, run by different people, and promote those. Or, even better, invest more in promoting existing instances to better distribute the influx of users.(Copy pasted my lobste.rs reply)

  14. @kev I think part of the reason Mastodon.social being as large is because of most people probably don’t understand what federation means.I consider myself to be a littlbe bit technical and when I joined the fediverse 4-5 years ago I had NO IDEA whatsoever what federation in this context meant. I joined the largest instance that I could find and you can imagine my confusing when I started seeing posts from other instances.

  15. @kev great post!I agree big instances are helpful for people to get started. I started my own because I’m more technically minded, know how to manage my own servers, and was fascinated and curious about the inner workings.If we truly want to make this a better for all to use we have to think about the non-technical user. They most likely won’t spin up their own instance and instead find one to join.

  16. I’ve always found that some instances being self described topic based has often caused confusion as well.
    Have seen people create 3 or 4 accounts, a general, a food one, a Foss one, and a literature one.
    On the flip side have seen people get analysis paralysis when deciding on an instance then just hedge and go for the big one.
    On top of that, its very difficult at a glance to figure out which servers are like yours and are in for the long haul. There’s no real solution to that really other than how the instances present themselves.

    1. I agree. I think that’s one of the major pitfalls of any system like Mastodon – discoverability will always be difficult as it’s managed on a peer-to-peer basis. If we have one overarching group that managing discoverability, we lose some of the decentralised nature of the network.

      It’s a balancing act, I think.

  17. @kev The idea was to have a reasonable first step. After you found your way, you’d then move to an instance which fit your interests and community.The tools for migrating to a new instance have improved immensely. The missing link seems to be an easy way to become aware of specific communities.

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