Vivaldi and Mozilla, two of the world’s browser makers, will host their own Mastodon servers. Why should others, including Apple, Google, and perhaps your own company follow suit?
At its simplest, it’s about controlling the brand message.
Toward trusted social networks
The nature of the ActivityPub protocol that drives Mastodon is that an individual company can set up a server (an “instance”) and federate with the rest of the network to provide a social networking service.
But not every company wants to become a social network. It may not want the cost and consequences of content moderation or have the resources to pay server costs.
While most existing instances are public, so anyone can register to begin using the service, they don’t need to be. A company can choose to only host accounts that belong to its own employees, or even just a subset of those.
For example, a company might decide to host a limited instance that contains consumer-focused messages from its CEO, marketing chief and key executives. It might also need to convince others in the network to support the service. But as long as that instance is federated and supported by other elements of the network, those social messages will be available across every supporting service.
I’d be able to follow the company from whatever ActivityPub-driven service I use.
Why Apple should build its own instance
Looking at Apple, it seems possible the company could, at a small cost, create an identity for CEO Tim Cook, Marketing Vice President Greg Joswiak, and the handful of other execs permitted to speak publicly. What they say would then be visible across what’s called the “Fediverse” and Apple customers and colleagues could follow them from where they are.
That’s just like Twitter, but with added flex.
It also gives Apple a little power. Apple, as the owner of that instance, could choose to defederate from parts of the network that host questionable content, such as hate speech. That’s important to Apple and to any business that wants to show they do not, and will not, support such speech.
This helps protect the brand identity, while still creating a valuable consumer-focused space for conversation. Do you really think brands invest millions of dollars in building up their social media presence simply to see its value trashed by decisions taken outside of their control?
Of course, they don’t.
The challenge of content moderation
The advantage of running this as a private, limited network is that a company does not need to get too deeply invested in content moderation.
I don’t think Apple would want to host a public server precisely because it has always avoided content moderation outside of the App Store — and even those decisions can be cast as controversial.
Of course, those companies that are prepared to make investments in content moderation can offer customers the chance to join them there while also shouldering some of the costs of this kind of decentralized network — a customer-focused decision that would probably deliver more bang per buck than the ads budget on soc-med.
Though larger brands could simply donate and contribute to the coding effort and maintain their own more limited presence.
What problems does this solve?
Think of it this way: at some point, social media evolved. It was no longer a place for aggrieved customers to call out brands, but instead became a point of contact most companies exploited within their overall omnichannel B2B and B2C strategies.
But as social media became more important, as branding became as important in social media as it is elsewhere, and pattern/behaviour monitoring and manipulation were weaponized to topple governments and the rule of law, things changes.
Part of this change has been increasing use of privacy-destructive technologies such as trackers to monetize the habits of the user base. We’ve already seen the extent to which this has been abused by some bad actors.
These kinds of technologies should be far less possible in the fediverse, as long as it remains de-centralized.
But anyone in business knows you must go where the people are.
That’s why today almost every government agency, business, faculty, or mom-and-pop store maintain some form of social media presence. These services have become vital to business performance and customer-focused communication, but because they are privately held, users have little say in how these systems work and how they are defined.
What’s recently been happening at Twitter shows the dangers of this — companies that have built a presence there find themselves powerless to challenge changes their brand values do not support.
These differences will drive a move toward conscious uncoupling.
Some entities have already begun the journey. The European Commission, for example, now hosts its own instance, @[email protected].
It’s not alone; there are and will be others who choose to do so.
This drive for change is being recognized.
Announcing plans to begin testing its own publicly accessible instance, Mozilla wrote:
“Now is the time, as we’re living through the consequences of 20 years of centralized, corporate-controlled social media, with a small oligopoly of large tech firms tightening their grip on the public square. In private hands our choice is limited, toxicity is rewarded, rage is called engagement, public trust is corroded, and basic human decency is often an afterthought. Getting from the internet we have to the internet we want will be a heavy lift, requiring significant investment in scalable, human-centred solutions for user and community safety, product experience, and sustainability. These are all big challenges, and there’s a lot we need to learn on the road ahead.”
One thing we have learned on the journey so far is that there is tremendous value in social media, and a growing recognition of how it can be abused.
Release the value, abandon the compromise
That’s why Mozilla and Vivaldi are ahead of the curve in what they’ve chosen to do.
It’s also why Apple, Google, Microsoft would do well to consider how to enhance the support they provide inherently private, decentralized networks. That could be through financial support to help promote open-source development of the protocols that drive it, of course.
All the same, doing so through the medium of their own self-hosted instances would empower them to defederate from services that offer content they cannot condone, enabling them to lead with their own brand values, rather than becoming subservient to seemingly arbitrary external choice.
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