Why I Don't Do Federation

Posted on Feb 28, 2021

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told to set up an XMPP (aka “Jabber”) account, I’d be a very, very rich girl. I’ve even been told passive-aggressively that I don’t love FOSS enough because I refuse to get into any of the decentralized and federated IM and social media services.

Way back then (ca. 2010) I did have my fair share of fediverse service accounts: XMPP, Diaspora, Pump.io, GNU Social, to name a few. I even helped beta-test a relatively known Pump.io client written in gasp C++. I was a semi-regular attendee in events devoted to promote and discuss federated services too.

I just grew tired of all that.

I understand the problem. We live in a world in which almost all personal and work communication is done through proprietary means run by very evil companies that have sworn to rape our privacy to sell us ads. These services are centralized and tailored to corporate needs, not to the needs of the people. I know that; I think even the least tech-savvy person out there knows that too.

The solution proposed by the FOSS community is technically a great one. Let’s mimmick email and do everything in a decentralized, federated fashion, so that everyone can spin on their own servers, use whichever compatible clients they like to, or write their own, etc., etc., etc. If you’ve been long enough in the community you know the drill… Oh sweetie, I bet you do.

The reality, though, is that IRC (not a federated service) is still way more popular within the FOSS community than XMPP. The reality is that nobody truly cares about federated social media except for a very niche fraction of the population. Yeah, some more people do have a Mastodon account or even mantain a server, but they haven’t left the mainstream social media… and they keep using them. Reasons vary, of course… but you probably know the biggest one, don’t you?

People. People use social media to stay in contact with other people, not to brag about which media they use to do so.

Most of my friends are on Instagram. That’s why I use Instagram quite a lot. I know it’s Facebook, I know it’s spying on me, I know everything it entails, but I’ve got lots of non-techie friends who I stay in touch with and that’s their preferred means to do so, alongside WhatsApp. I’m sorry I’m not that of a purist: personal relationships matter a lot to me, more than technological purity.

“Tell them about the federated services!,” I’ve been told way too many times.

OK, nope. Correctly setting up XMPP, for example, is nearly impossible for me, a very tech-savvy girl who’s been using Linux for ages, knows how to code, has been part of the community for ages, etc. XMPP is so bad as a specification that even servers and clients that are 100% compliant have a hard time talking to each other as some very basic functionality is accomplished through extensions… It’s exactly the same reason why Scheme Lisp never took off despite being a better idea in theory than Common Lisp or Clojure, which put the nail in Scheme’s coffin. The only way to ensure your XMPP setup and communication will work and everyone will get messages exactly the same way is to ask everyone to use the same client and server… Wait, wasn’t the point of all of this to let people freely choose those?

Mastodon and other more social media-like platforms are easier, granted, but as soon as you choose a server that is run by a sysadmin with a holier than thou attitude (i.e. blocking federation with other nodes for no reason or no previous disclaimer, not listening to any bug reports, etc.) you’re in for a very bad ride. There’s also the huge risk that your instance is run by one (if you’re lucky, two or three) volunteers on their spare time, on their own tab, who might plug the server off anytime because they got tired of it or just don’t have any more spare money to keep it up running (Servers cost money, folks).

And we’re assuming here that everyone is setting up servers securely, in ways that don’t pose a security risk to their users. We’re also assuming that no FOSS loving sysadmin even spied on their users as well. Look, I’m not fearmongering here: servers are other people’s computers, regardless whether they run proprietary or free/open source software. And no, a VPS is not yours either: you’re renting the hardware.

I truly don’t expect most of my friends, who sometimes struggle setting up an Android phone, being autonomous users of any of these technologies. How do you even start explaining this to people who are used to almost 100% uptime services that are run by businesses with a long-term business plan? As much as we all might hate Facebook, Inc. or Google, there they are and don’t seem to go anywhere anytime soon.

No, they’re not dumb. They just aren’t interested in technology as some of us are and that’s completely valid. Regular people want simple features they know how to use. This was true even in the old days of MS-DOS. People chose Norton Commander instead of dealing with files using COMMAND.COM for a reason. People flocked towards MS Windows 3.x for a couple of reasons. People also want some guarantee that the service they’re investing time into learning how to use won’t implode in the short term; people want supported, trustworthy services. Supported, trustworthy services attract people. People gather and hang around places where they meet the people they know (in a vague sense); that’s Sociology 101.

That’s also the reason why the FOSS and tech-savvy community might play around with these technologies, but IRC will always be the preferred way to do “social.” IRC is an established service, it’s easy to set up both as a client and a server admin, it’s easy to script, and, most importantly, it does its f*cking job right. Yeah, sure, some niche group may take advantage of some of these platforms; that’s great! But just be real, don’t expect lots and lots of people joining into them.

On the other hand, do you? I’m sometimes baffled about some things I’ve read from the fingers of some of the hardcore federation fans out there. Yeah, they want to stick it to GAFA and free the people, but they feel pride that their social media is pure from “worthless” content… Hello?? In a world where Mastodon or Pixiefeed were the dominant social media, I can tell you right now people would post the same stuff some of the purists think of as “low brow.” No, some of us love being superficial, talk about the latest stupid viral thing that happened, etc., as well.

“But tell them it’s like email!”

I hate that argument. It shows how misinformed some people are. I remember the first years of publicly available email services. Do you know who provided email to your regular users? ISPs. Can you think of a less privacy-inclined type of business than ISPs in the late 90s, early 2000s? We’re talking the old .com-bubble days, baby. ISPs hated Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail when they became popular, especially among us teens who couldn’t afford an ISP email address. 1 These new free web-based email services were a serious threat against the ISPs revenue and data collection schemes.

The thing is that people adopted email because access to it was super easy and did its job. The selling point was never that it was federated or decentralized, which it is, but that it was a new way to send letters to your colleagues, friends, or family in an “instantaneous” way! Well, as instantaneous as modems allowed back then, but you get the gist of it. People were told how to use it in fancy setup guides, software wizards, etc. The notion that you could send an email to someone who had a different email provider than you was simply… hidden… “Just type in the email address!” No mention of servers talking to each other… Because there was no need to: the technology was appealing in its own.

So yeah, the very niche XMPP chat room you like might seem very populated to you, your small Mastodon network might seem like people are “seeing the light,” but hey, reality check: nope, they’re not. And forgive my analogy, but they feel way too often as places in which you read people jacking off to the greatness of these services: talking points usually circle around the small world of federated services or why the rest of the planet is “wrong.” That’s tiring and boring… almost cult-like, isn’t it?

Call me shallow, but I prefer looking at Nikki Murciano’s latest fashion photoshoot or my favorite salsa dancers on Instagram, while my friends DM me about their break up or need some help with makeup or just wanted to wave “Hi!”

  1. At least in Chile, where I grew up, only the first ISP address was free of charge. It was usually used as a “family address,” i.e. as a digital analog of your regular postal address. ↩︎