Thursday, August 10, 2023

From Fediverse to the Pluriverse of the Future - Navigating A Linked Web of Communities in Many Dimensions

[Discussion Draft]

Where should the still-formative vision of the Fediverse be headed?

The "fediverse" of Mastodon and similar systems has gained attention as a shift in social media from centrally-controlled platforms. This shift to a "federated universe" of interoperating systems can better serve the context- and norm-specific needs of discourse among individuals and and the diverse communities they participate in. 

I hope a longer-term vision for the fediverse will be a focus of discussion at the FediForum "unconference" (September 20-21, 2023). I hope to join in (or lead) a session on that -- shaping ideas for the long-range direction of how social media can better augment human discourse of all kinds, across all platforms. 

While there is obvious need to develop near-term features to make each competing tech platform and universe of platforms more compelling, there is also a need to articulate long-term objectives that many platforms can build toward. We are re-engineering human discourse for the online era -- that will be a long process -- but without dialog seeking a long-term vision, it will longer and more problematic.

I have been writing about this future of "bicycles for our minds" for many years (some in collaboration with Chris Riley). My prior blog post on "hopes for the Bluesky project" offers my most current overview of how these ideas might apply to existing and emerging social media architectures. While that post was written with a focus on Bluesky -- as currently pushing farthest in providing for the multidimensionality that will underlie a pluriverse -- those directional ideas apply equally well to the fediverse of Mastodon and other ActivityPub-connected systems. 

I look forward to discussing these (and alternative, or opposed) ideas at FediForum, to develop collective insight into how the fediverse might evolve to meet future needs.

The TL;DR of the pluriverse, as I envision it:

  • The move to federation, the fediverse, and on to the rich diversity of the pluriverse, reflects the realization that human society is far too complex, diverse, and nuanced to be served by any one centrally managed global "public square."

  • However, current steps toward decentralization will need to better support the hyperlinked multidimensionality of how individuals and communities interconnect. These communities reflect a diversity of interests, values, and norms. But individuals participate in many communities. They are rarely bound by any one community, and wish to have global views into many, as both speakers and listeners, depending on their interests, goals, and moods as they vary from time to time. Ted Nelson created hypertext because "everything is deeply intertwingled."

  • Users will inevitably need multi-homing tools that give variable "lenses" for looking into and participating in many communities. Cross-community feeds and recommenders will be essential for individuals to navigate the abundance of riches in the pluriverse. This may work at at least two levels: 1) low-level recommenders for up- or down-ranking ranking feed items based on specific objectives, and 2) higher-level UX tools for composing and steering mixes of lower level rankings into a consolidated feed, possibly weighted using sliders.

  • Bluesky seems farthest along in pointing to this multidimensionality, building out (but not yet far in implementing) tools for separating the "speech layer" from the "reach layer" as described in blog posts on Composable ModerationModeration in a Public Commons, and Algorithmic Choice. My recent post suggests directions for taking that farther.

  • Mastodon seems to also be moving in that direction, with discussion of a cross-instance groups structure, and shared moderation services that address the challenges of administering small communities.

  • The vision I suggest will take time to build, develop, and be fleshed out by users, but having these ideas in mind as we architect and build in the near-term, will be important to being able to get where we will want to go in the future.
Summarizing the vision in my prior post: 

The sections of that post are summarized here (but I hope readers will look to the fuller explanations there):
  • Hypercommunities
    Each person can "be" in many communities (/groups) at once, 
    as many layers of overlapping Venn diagrams in many dimensions -- shifting our view and level of participation as desired.

  • Ranking as the core task
    Nearly all "moderation" and recommendation boils down to ranking. Downranking can provide safety from bad content, and upranking can bubble up quality and value. Composability of ranking tools can work at both individual and community levels to blend a mix of rankings that draw on the wisdom of each community.

  • User-selectable, multilevel feed composition composed from multiple algorithms
    A truly composable, steerable feed would provide a higher level interface that lets each of us merge a user-selected mix of feeds, with user-defined relative weights. A steerable feed would allow those mixes and weights to be easily changed at will to suit our varying tasks and moods. This would restore user agency to choose and orchestrate from an open market in independent attention agent services -- providing choices of UXs, algorithms, and human mediation providers. 

  • Multi-dimensional reputation based on explicit and/or implicit signals
    Wiser use of algorithms is needed -- not to replace human wisdom, but to distill it based on human judgments and reputations as judged by other humans, all under user control. I view reputation as essential to making ranking work well, and have written frequently about “rate the raters and weight the ratings” as an extension of Google’s PageRank algorithm to develop a socially derived and reputation-weighted reputation.

  • Rebuilding our social mediation ecosystem
    Communities and mediating services can be decoupled. The speech layer may be more tightly tied to specific communities than the reach layer. Real-life communities and institutions may be re-enabled to mediate our online discourse, both for their direct membership and those who wish to follow them. The ecosystem that shaped and stabilized discourse in the real world should be reconstituted in the virtual world.

  • Classification/labelling and ranking
    Rankings can be based on many dimensions of attributes -- so rankings could take a hybrid form that includes classification or label attributes. Adding a quantifier for the strength of a classification/label (how strongly positive or negative it might be) would ultimately be essential to achieving nuance, and could also include quantification of the rater's confidence level in that value rating.

  • Broader issues of labeling and ranking -- and federation
    Our notions of truth and value -- and authority about that -- are contingent, changeable, and heavily influenced by our broader social mediation ecosystem. That has been central to the generative success of human society. Thus our social media should reflect that social contingency, and provide for a high degree of subsidiarity in how decisions are made. That is the essence of what I call freedom of impression, and how it serves to balance freedom of expression.

  • Further thoughts on the federated architecture
    I see need for algorithmic choice at multiple levels. 
    At a lower level is an open market in basic algorithms with very specific objective functions in terms of subjects, values, and vibes/moods. At a higher level is an open market in UX-level services that enable composition and orchestration of those lower level algorithmic rankings to present an consolidated view that blends multiple objective functions, and to allow steering that view dynamically as the user's moods and needs change. 

  • Enabling subsidiarity of "moderation" of the "lawful but awful"
    Federation is based on the principle of subsidiarity: that idea that most moderation/mediation decisions should be local to best reflect relevant local/community interests, values, and norms. This would apply a nuanced blend of top-down controls to limit dissemination of the truly unlawful (with trust and safety teams, tools, and services), along with mostly bottom-up tools and services to manage more contingent (context-, value-, and norm-dependent) levels of awfulness -- and goodness! -- in multiple dimensions. This should apply at the level of 1) membership communities (servers/instances plus other communities/groups) and 2) cross-community attention/mediation agent services that users choose to opt into.

  • "Vibe"--  seeking "the shmoo of social media"
    There is much talk of the "vibe" of different platforms, but "we 
    ain't seen nothin' yet." With selectable, composable feeds, users will be able to create views that tune into whatever vibe they want (and with whatever levels of moderation they want). This is the infancy of a flexible new social ecosystem, and whatever initial vibe chaos might arise will give way to a new order of vibe control. A fully functional social media pluriverse will be a virtual "shmoo" (a classic cartoon creature that tasted like whatever you wanted) -- with diverse communities, but flexible lenses into as many as desired. This provides a level of flexibility and user control of their experience that will grow in importance as the fediverse grows in scale and diversity and in the richness of interconnections desired by users with many interests and moods for diverse vibes.
Much of this flexible multidimensionality will emerge slowly, as technical, human, and social infrastructures co-evolve toward it -- a whole-of-society process that will take decades. But if we do not plan for what we can foresee, and build for extensibility to what we do not yet foresee, it will be even harder to find a path that is robust and generative.

My related works are listed on the Selected Items tab of this blog, with the following as most relevant:

Recent visions of the fediverse/pluriverse
In more depth on the vision:
Broad statements of direction and motivation:

  • The Delegation series in Tech Policy Press with co-author Chris Riley:
Where I am coming from: 

[First posted 8/10/23, revised 8/17/23. Thanks to Jaz-Michael King for very helpful comments.]


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The vision for the fediverse evolving into a "pluriverse" is fascinating. It’s crucial to consider long-term goals for a decentralized web that caters to diverse communities and individual needs. Looking forward to the discussions of zero squishmallow at FediForum.