Why I'm Back into Federation

Posted on May 28, 2021

Some time ago, I wrote a piece under the title Why I Don’t Do Federation… Yet, if you’re a smart lady, gentleman, or non-binary person, you may have noticed that I’ve set up a Mastodon account: @arivigo@fosstodon.org So… what happened?

In a nutshell, well, sort of quite many things. LOL. So nope, I didn’t hit my head or anything like that.

First of all, some months ago, I set up an XMPP account because a project I occasionally help with uses XMPP chat rooms to communicate among themselves. I first… well… disliked the idea a lot? But hey, not my project, so if I can deal with other people’s coding styles, I can deal with other people’s preferences in chat technology, right?

So, XMPP is bad as I remembered. profanity is a cool client, though. It’s XMPP which is bad… that doesn’t change from my original aforementioned post. The only sane way I find to use XMPP is to rather refrain from using multiple clients: resources and priorities get in the way of E2E encryption (which is a must, in my opinion)… It’s not impossible to set up, not even hard if you know where to look at (carbons, etc.), but it feels way too cumbersome. It just shows that encryption was an afterthought on XMPP, and still is. Not to mention that E2E encryption is an extension, so clients are free to support all, some, or none of OTR, OMEMO, and OpenPGP… OMEMO seems to have become a standard, I guess?

Subscriptions and adding contacts on XMPP is weird, as well. There are these two layers which overlap most of the time, but not always. You’re free to add anyone to your contact list, but actually getting access to them is done via requesting a subscription… which isn’t bidirectional, so they’re free to request it or not from you… and you’re free to accept it or not as well… Such a model may make sense for a social network, but for a IM protocol it does feel a bit outdated.

Then there’s Conversations, which tries to automate everything… This works as long as you’re also using Conversations… otherwise you always see yourself explaining the other party that actually it’s all the other clients which follow the way XMPP was designed. I’ve run into quite some confused people already to identify this as a problem. Be it the subs requests, the way Conversations handles attachments and presence statuses (being an Android client, online on Conversations is more akin to online on WhatsApp than on any other XMPP client… it can become confusing.)

I identify part of my old gripes with XMPP actually came from the communities I visited back in the old times, though. At least for now, I’m having some nice chats with new people I hadn’t meet before and actually enjoy going online! IRC still has my heart, though… especially because it feels everyone is on a more equal footing when it comes to client features.

Meanwhile, per chance, while on IRC chatting on these topic I was recommended this post by Alyssa Rosenzweig. It’s a post I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. I agree 100% with her. The huge problem with federation, as I also claimed on my post, is that you’re moving the problem of trust onto someone else; namely, amateur sysadmins… unless you’re willing to become a sysadmin yourself. That’s not a job for everyone. Alyssa Rosenzweig goes further and very, very intelligently claims that federation and decentralization do not equate to freedom.

There she mentions Mastodon as suffering from some issues. Truth to be said, I had totally forgotten Mastodon existed. Something hit in the back of my head, though. Those same days I had been thinking in opening a Twitter (yikes!) account to give some publicity to my articles on this blog.1 You may imagine the reasons why Twitter is a no-go… and trying out Mastodon sounded like fun? Also to test out how federation works on it and have some first-hand impressions on the concerns Alyssa Rosenzweig mentions on her analysis.

So far, I like it. There are some confusing things in the privacy settings, but I think it’s just me being a Mastodon newbie. My first impression is that the Mastodon crowd has somehow solved the annoyances of federation, abstracting them away under a way more friendly UX than older attempts like Diaspora. Of course, it’s mostly a FOSS niche social media, but I’m OK with that as long as it isn’t way too meta.

Call it a coming to terms with federated services, maybe? I think I’ll stick around some time and come back to this topic later in the year, with some more elaborated thoughts. In the meantime, let’s have some nice fun!

  1. I totally want to rant in a future blog post on how we’ve gotten into a world in which if you want to have some audience, you need social media. Also I feel like sharing on my process on why I personally felt the need to. ↩︎