Nostalgia is a dangerous drug and it’s always risky to wallow in it. So those of us who fondly remember the early blogosphere, and now want to draw parallels to the fediverse, should do so carefully. But we do want to learn from history.
Here’s one way to compare five generations of social software along the five dimensions named in the title of this post.
Autonomy Packet Size Friction Fanout Velocity Usenet medium high medium medium low Blogosphere high high high low low Facebook low high low medium high Twitter low low low high high Fediverse high medium high medium medium
These are squishy categories, but I think they surface key distinctions. Many of us who were active in the blogosphere of the early 2000s enjoyed a high level of autonomy. Our RSS readers were our Internet dashboards. We loaded them with a curated mix of official and individual voices. There were no limits on the size of packets exchanged in this network. You could write one short paragraph or a 10,000-word essay. Networking wasn’t frictionless because blog posts did mostly feel like essays, and because comments didn’t yet exist. To comment on my blog post you’d write your own blog post linking to it.
That friction limited the degree to which a post would fan out through the network, and the velocity of its propagation. The architecture of high friction, low fanout, and low velocity was a winning combination for a while. In that environment I felt connected but not over-connected, informed but not overloaded.
Twitter flipped things around completely. It wasn’t just the loss of autonomy as ads and algos took over. With packets capped at 120 characters, and tweets potentially seen immediately by everyone, friction went nearly to zero. The architecture of low friction created an addictive experience and enabled powerful effects. But it wasn’t conducive to healthy discourse.
The fediverse can, perhaps, strike a balance. Humans didn’t evolve to thrive in frictionless social networks with high fanout and velocity, and arguably we shouldn’t. We did evolve in networks governed by Dunbar’s number, and our online networks should respect that limit. We need less friction within communities of knowledge and practice, more friction between them. We want messages to fan out pervasively and rapidly within communities, but less so between them.
We’re at an extraordinary inflection point right now. Will the fediverse enable us to strike the right balance? I think it has the right architectural ingredients to land where I’ve (speculatively) placed it in that table. High autonomy. As little friction as necessary, but not too little. As much fanout and velocity as necessary, but not too much. Nobody knows how things will turn out, predictions are futile, behavior is emergent, but I am on the edge of my seat watching this all unfold.