Networks, Theory, and the Web

The Crowd and Social Tokens

Longtime listeners likely know about my newsletter which is called The Crowd, or Just Another Crowd if you want to be super proper about it. I started it in 2013 when my friend John Bracken said something like “Hey Sean, is there some place you keep track of all the different and interesting things you talk about on Twitter?” There wasn’t, and until then I hadn’t considered that anyone would want such a thing because I talk about a lot of weirdly different things all the time. Until then I’d assumed that the technology people who followed me only cared about the technology stuff I was talking about and was annoyed by everything else, and that the art people who followed me only cared about the art stuff that I was talking about and was annoyed by everything else, and the music people who followed me only cared about the music stuff I was talking about and was annoyed by everything else, etc. You get the idea. It hadn’t occurred to me that technology people might be interested in art stuff, and music people might want to hear about tech stuff. Or that anyone simply thought “I never know what Sean is talking about, or is going to talk about, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be interesting.” Turns out a lot of people thought that. Anyway, this newsletter became a place where I could stream of consciousness ramble about things that happened to catch my attention. No set schedule or topic or length. Over the years I’ve wrestled with that myself wondering if I should make it more focused to better market it to a wider audience and I’ve always come back to “fuck that” and realizing the value of it is that it’s a group of people who are open to lots of topics, not always ones they agree with or care about but they trust me to point them in interesting directions, or provide a point of view they hadn’t considered. I myself like things like that, and I’m glad the newsletter has found people with similar thinking.

Anyway, over the last 8 years I’ve sent more than 250 emails to that list and I think subscribers would agree no topic has been off limits. Which makes it that much more amusing when someone rage quits because I said something they disagree with, or ventured into a topic they are uncomfortable with. I like that it’s kind of become its own filter in some ways.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about social tokens, and I say that knowing half the people reading this will be nodding and the other half will be WTFing. Social Tokens are kind of currency, but social rather than financial. More about reputation, membership or standing within a community, less about money as we normally think of it. While there’s lot of ways this can be used, what I’m most interested in is a token that, by holding it, grants you access to a community or represents your support of that community. Which you could buy (boring) or earn (interesting!) by engaging in actions connected to or endorsed by or in support of said community. Friends With Benefits is a good example of some of this and a perfect example is that in order to get access to the FWB Discord server you have to own a certain amount of $FWB tokens – which you can buy, earn, or be given. Inside the discord, everyone knows if you are there you are either financially supporting the community or you’ve done something that another community member found valuable. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s interesting and we’re all still learning as we go. I’m talking to other people about what they might do with their own social token and as I have a bad (or good) habit of using myself a guinea pig I started wondering about how I might use them as well. Which of course makes me wonder what my community is? And that of course leads me to my newsletter.

So with that in mind, I’ve gone ahead an issued $CROWD tokens. Or $CROWD coins if you prefer. $CROWD is a standard ERC20 token. I’ve minted these on Matic which is Layer 2 sidechain of Ethereum. Again, that either made perfect sense to you or left you scratching your head. Both reactions are perfectly acceptable. Ethereum is one of the big two cryptocurrencies but it’s currently having scaling problems and there are a number of solutions, layers built on top if it, to address those. Matic is one of those solutions. What this tends to mean is that to use it you have to jump through a few hoops. Which is a small price to pay for getting to play with some awesome stuff. I’ll talk about how and why I did this in a moment, but first I need to address those hoops. Matic is also Proof of Stake rather than Proof of Work which means it uses considerably less energy than Layer 1 Ethereum.

***Warning: I’m about to get step by step technical. If you already know or don’t care about just skip down a bit.

If you have received or are hoping to receive some $CROWD, you’ll need to do a few things to interact with it. There are many ways to do that, this is one of them. If you don’t already have the Metamask extension installed you’ll want to install it set that up following the instructions it provides. Metamask is a browser based Ethereum wallet that will let you interact with any number of Web3 applications, as well as receive Ethereum based tokens like $ETH or $CROWD. Out of the box Metamask will default to using the Ethereum Mainnet and will allow you to switch to a few different testnets. But we want Matic Mainnet which we’ll need to add by hand. Luckily that’s fairly simple to do by following the instructions provided here. But briefly, click on the Metamask Icon in your browser, click where it says “Ethereum Mainnet” and then in the dropdown menu select the bottom option “Custom RPC” which will open up a form that you’ll fill in like so:
Network Name: Matic Mainnet
New RPC URL: https://rpc-mainnet.maticvigil.com/
Chain ID: 137
Currency Symbol: MATIC
Block Explorer URL: https://explorer.matic.network/

Once you add that network you’ll probably see “Matic Mainnet” where it used to say “Ethereum Mainnet” which is good, however you’ll want to remember to switch back to “Ethereum Mainnet” later when you are done playing around on Matic. But while you are on Matic, you’ll need to do one more thing to see the $CROWD that you may or may not have already received. Click on the Metamask icon once again and scroll down under the “Assets” tab at the very bottom you’ll see an option to “Add Token” – click that. Again you’ll be presented with a form, though you only need to fill out the first field, the rest will then auto-populate:
Token Contract Address: 0x4744fE720055cC2f794b48993F1BA57F07F962E8

Click next and then add/save that and you are golden. Your Metamask now knows to look on the Matic Network for a token called $CROWD. If you have some already, you’ll see it listed under your assets. If you don’t and you want some, now is a good time to remember that I named this token after my newsletter.

Hey Sean! How the crap did you make your own social token?
I used a service called Coinvise. It was limited, but fast and easy and free. If you have an account there you can follow me. This is not the only way to do it of course. You could also write your own contract using this wizard provided by Open Zeppelin. That option is feature packed and super customizable and after many many many hours of fucking with it I couldn’t get it to validate. I’m sure someone much smarter than me would have no problem. That’s also free. There are other paid services that will do it for you that have different options at different price points, but obviously I considered all of these options and decided Coinvise was the way to go. For me. For my purposed. YMMV.

Hey Sean! Why the crap did you make your own social token?
For fun? Look, I’ll be honest – I rarely have any idea why I’m doing things, but often figure that out along the way. I think this moment, right now, on the web is more exciting and has more potential than anything I’ve seen since the late 90’s. I feel like we have a chance to correct a lot of the mistakes that were made during Web 2.0 and I think social tokens will play a roll in that. What roll exactly remains to be seen. If you own some $CROWD right now that’s basically bragging rights and not much else, it means you know me and I gave you some. In the near future it might give you access to special channels on my Discord server. The NFT Marketplace OpenSea now supports Matic, so in theory I could sell some NFT’s there and only accept $CROWD as payment. There could be special websites that you can only get into if you are holding $CROWD. Before too long it could mean someone else gave you some for some other reason. The potential uses are limitless and I’m just starting to explore and experiment with it. If you’ve made it this far, that’s probably why you are here too. I think this is going to be fun, and thanks for being part of The Crowd.

For NFTs, Twitter Is The Marketplace

Last month NiftyTable published stats showing that more than half of the traffic going to the major NFT sites was coming from Twitter. At face value, that means more than half of the traffic across several sites for essentially an entire industry coming from one site… that’s insanity! But we need to consider a few things to put that into context. Traffic stats mean people are very regularly clicking links on one site and being taken to another. Not just once, but all the time. This would primarily be driven by discovery, new people finding new artists they are interested in learning more about. Now there are unquestionably lots of Discord servers filled with NFT discussions, but those are largely contained groups who follow each other on the NFT platforms as well, so there’s not a lot of discovery going on beyond the first introductions. (Some of you will note that discoverability is the number one thing I’ve been saying NFT platforms need to work on.) Facebook as well has some chatter, but again it’s not really a place people are discovering new work so much as seeing work from people they are already following or connected to.

Conversely, sites (or apps) like Clubhouse, Instagram and Twitter are more outwardly focused – that is, unless you have a private account, one of the features of these platforms is that they potentially act as a megaphone and can show you off to a much larger audience than you might have on your own. One might think that Instagram, being a primarily visual platform might be the most useful here when it comes to new artist discovery. Similarly the sheer number of Clubhouse rooms dedicated to giving new artists space to talk about or “shill” (I hate that term) their own work would suggest that a lot of discovery is happening there. That said, Instagram and Clubhouse are similar in that they don’t allow linking to other sites. You simply can’t post a clickable link. This means even if you do post (or talk about) a link someone needs to either retype it or copy and paste it into another browser tab, in which case traffic statistics would not know the origin of the that click. So I suspect it’s highly likely that traffic being driven by both Instagram and Clubhouse is being significantly underreported. To what extent it’s impossible to say, but the assumption that no real traffic is coming from those sites is probably incorrect.

But it’s not just technical luck either. No matter how that gets refactored there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of traffic is coming from Twitter, and there’s a reason for that. Clubhouse is fleeting – if you aren’t in the room you miss it. Instagram is more portfolio-ish, comment threads are silo’d and sharing work that you find and like is difficult. Instagram is also afraid of female nipples, among others things, which results in a lot of self censorship and a lot of posts being taken down for violating “community guidelines.” While not all art has nipples, some art does and if a platform is restricting what some artists can do other artists are going to be cautious about using it, even unintentionally. Twitter is non of those things. Sure it’s ephemeral to a degree, but you can easily search and find older posts and connecting different people and disparate conversations is a snap. And showing off artwork, your own or others, is really easy. And it’s also now, in that when there’s a hot topic of the moment, whatever that moment is, everyone knows they can go to Twitter and talk to people about it.

And it’s not insignificant that none of the NFT platforms really have a way to connect with people. Sure you can follow artists you like, sure they will shuffle you along to their Discord servers, and sure some are promising that they have a social component in the works, but right now onsite, there’s nothing social happening. So people go to Twitter, because that’s where all the social is happening.

I was one of the first 140 people to join Twitter in 2006 and a quick look at my archives shows that as much as I’ve loved it, I’ve been critical of the platform for a very long time now. I’ve come close to leaving several times. But I’m still there and I still use it because as annoying as it is for somethings, it’s incredibly valuable for others. Being able to engage with a community is one of those valuable things. As you can imagine after being on a site for 15 years, people ask me all the time if they should be on Twitter. These days, and for quite some time now, I most often tell them no. In general with social media I think it’s better to not do something than to do it poorly, and to do Twitter correctly you need to invest time in it. This is something most people are not willing to do. They want to create an account, post something once or twice a month and then suddenly have thousands of millions of followers. That’s simply not how it works. You have to be engaged, invested, and understand the social norms of the place. So I’ve told people that if they’ve already been on Twitter and have a community there then they should use that, but if they don’t not to bother trying to start at this point.

However.

I think my position on that has evolved in the recent weeks. It’s becoming more and more clear that the vast majority of the discovery, commentary, meta-commentary, community engagement and (barf)networking is happening on Twitter. Not just randomly, this is where people are asking for recommendations, where introductions are being made, where friendships are forming and where connections are being made. Which, oddly, is what Twitter used to be really good at before it got distracted by trying to be “where breaking news happens” or whatever crap marketing line they were using was. Now, my earlier position still holds true – if you aren’t willing or able to commit several hours a week at the very least to interacting with people on Twitter, that is not just posting, but actually engaging, then I still don’t think you should use the site. But if you have an account already which you just aren’t using, or you are willing to put in the work to build up a new one, there’s really no better place right now for interacting with other artists, collectors, and various people of similar interests. It’s not make or break, but it’s noteworthy enough and a shift in what I’ve been vocal about so I thought it should be mentioned. Hope that’s helpful.

And of course if you are on Twitter feel free to follow me, and if you are interested in NFTs of my photography you can check them out here.

Some Thoughts on NFT Platforms & Marketplaces

Some may have gotten the idea from a previous post that I’m anti-platform. That couldn’t be further from the truth, I think platforms play an important role in this ecosystem in the same way that galleries play an important role in the traditional art world. But actively playing that role is important, and platforms that do nothing except take a portion of an artists sales are as worthless as galleries that do the same. So I wanted to spend a little time detailing a bit more what I want to see from platforms, and where they can add value as opposed to just taking it.

First and foremost let me direct you to a detailed comparison chart a few friends and I made between the top 30 or so platforms that are live right now, that can be found at NFTART.LOL. At the bottom of that page are links to several more comparisons that other people have put together some of which include platforms I didn’t. I also didn’t include at least 20 platforms that haven’t launched yet, or another 30 or so that I was promised are “in the works.” My point is that there are a lot, A LOT, of platforms and people making platform plays. In most cases each one is a little different, in one or two cases people couldn’t tell me why their idea was any different. And in most of these cases the platform plans to take a % of the sale (often between 2% and 30%), so understanding what the platforms are and aren’t doing is important before you decide to cut them in to your sales.

Now, if there was only one or two platforms and they were doing something no one else could do that would be enough, but that’s clearly not the case. And as you see from dumplingpets.com and fake.sale there’s no need to even have a platform – those aren’t white labeled solutions, they are writing the contracts themselves which I’ll talk more about later – but lets talk about where the value add with platforms is.

Discoverability. If you are an artist putting things out into the world, chances are you want people to see them and if you don’t have an audience already then posting things on a platform can help. This is the default benefit across all the platforms right now, though obviously it’s better with some than others. OpenSea for example has a massive user base, but also a fairly dysfunctional search and classification system so the chances of someone who wasn’t already looking for your art stumbling across it on OpenSea is fairly slim. Other sites like MakersPlace and Foundation don’t have a search per se, but instead have many different ways they sort and classify both artists and artworks so a collector looking for something similar to what you are doing has a better chance of finding you. Again, this varies from site to site, so be sure to spend time on the site you plan to list on. It’s helpful to go to a site without a plan, and just click around and see what you find and where it leads you – if you end up seeing work you like, that’s a good sign. If you end up scrolling through lots of work that isn’t really you thing, that’s probably the experience others are having too.

Promotion. While discoverability is largely passive, this more likely requires the conscious involvement of someone at the platform. This would be anything the platform is actively doing to promote the art or artist. Obviously it would be unrealistic for any platform to do everything for everyone, so this is largely a tiered situation where more is going to be done for one person and less for someone else. Those “more” situations are probably happening thanks to a prior agreement or arrangement. On the low end this could be retweeting announcement posts to the platform’s main twitter account. It could be something like pushing the art up to a “featured” position on the website for some period of time, or including it in a weekly emails or announcements. On the higher end, some platforms are taking an even bigger step and cultivating relationships with collectors who they are then introducing to artists via group video calls or even 1 on 1 chats. This gets into the kind of thing that artists would often hope galleries would do for them, and it demonstrates a desire to actually help out the artist (because even if the artist sells something elsewhere, if the collector they have a relationship with is interested they will likely follow), where as platforms who intentionally try to stay in between artists and collectors are probably more looking out for themselves. It should go without saying that in the long run looking out for artists is a much better plan, it should – but there are no shortage of short sighted plays being attempted in this ballpark.

Advice. This gets overlooked a lot, even by platforms themselves who often try to shuffle artists off to discord servers or clubhouse rooms hoping for “the community” to manage it which isn’t bad but also isn’t great. As people who are dealing with this market every single day, the platforms have an incredible amount of information that can be useful for artists planning next steps. And while best practices and things to avoid can be universal, thinking of artists in a one size fits all manor is also a mistake. The platforms that have people who can spend time with individual artists talking about their work, their goals, and their future plans are incredibly valuable and I personally think this is an area were most should spent a little more money on bringing in a few more people to really help develop those relationships. And relating to the previous point, developing a trusted relationship with an artist is a much better approach to retention than playing gatekeeper with collectors.

Community. I hope I didn’t give the impression in that last point that community isn’t worthwhile – far from it! Especially for early career artists, finding a supportive community can be life changing. This is one of the things I’ve been most excited about in lurking around the NFT space over the last few months, the community support, generosity and encouragement is unparalleled. And the platforms that are working to help foster that get big ups. Compare OpenSea to Foundation for example – Foundation has recurring “happy hour” clubhouse rooms where anyone can come and just hang out, the staff is super responsive to emails and messages on social media, while OpenSea just directs everyone to their Discord server which is nearing 45k members, many of who are begging for help or asking questions and there’s rarely a useful reply from anyone at OpenSea, and the team is unresponsive to emails and social media inquiries. (Granted this is just my observation and experience – I have accounts on both sites and I think there are pros and cons to what each is doing, but on this community issue it’s very clearly something Foundation has prioritized and seems to be something OpenSea has ignored.) Big picture – if you care about people who are using your site and work to find ways to help them work together with each other, that’s a good direction to aim for.

Support. Since I mentioned it, this is big. If you as an artist have a problem with something on the site, is there a way for you to get it addressed? A problem could be a technical issue, it could a conflict with another user or a case of infringement. It could be a mixup with a payment or a question about how something is being promoted or future plans. If there is a contact available to you that is responsive that is very good, if there’s just some help docs or a “community forum” that’s not so good. If I have a problem on a site and I can’t get anyone to help me, I have to seriously ask myself what value they are offering me to justify the money I’m giving them from my sales.

And that’s the crux of it really – when we are talking about justifying a % of sales these things are important. These are a very clear value add and if done correctly can provide a lot of benefit to artists using those platforms. Conversely, for the platforms that are not prioritizing these things I would suggest they should reconsider their model and perhaps move to a flat monthly subscription fee or something. I’d rather pay $5 or $10 a month and get no services than give a % of every sale I make in exchange for no services. But that’s just me.

To circle back to the issue I brought up earlier, there is no need for platforms. They are not required. But depending on what you are trying to do, they can be very useful and working together with the right platform can be mutually beneficial. But knowing what the “right” platform for you is requires thinking about what you are trying to do, and identifying which issues are important to you and then finding the platform that aligns with those needs. I write posts like this with the genuine hope that it inspires platforms to be better, to reflect on what they are doing (or not doing) and take steps to improve the weak spots. And if not, at least it gives artists better questions to ask. Platforms being better is good for everyone, so I hope this helps push things in that direction.

I’ve said this publicly a few times recently but there is an absolute flood of platforms right now and I don’t expect all the ones we are seeing today to still be standing in a year. Maybe not even in 6 months. Take a look at this post my friend Jonathan Mann wrote just 3 years ago where he compares the 4 major NFT platforms at the time, only one of those still exists. I think we’re going to see some platforms absorb/buy others, some pivot away to a more niche area they can focus on with less competition, and some simply collapse. Which ones remains be seen, but anyone who has seen these cycles play out time and time again can see the direction this is going. It’s going to be a fun ride, grab the popcorn and buckle up.

Anti-Social Media

No small amount of pixels have been spent talking about social media and a stroll through the Networks or Communications categories on my own blog will  expose much navel gazing. Nabil is continuing to think about these things which I found because Warren mentioned him, while adding some of his own sage advice. I’ve been doing more thinking and less acting on those thinkings recently and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the current state of things. If anything I’m more aware of nuance than I used to be, that is I’ve always been quite up front that my own perspective is just that and shouldn’t be applied to or against anyone else who certainly has their own perspective as well which is equally as valid or invalid as mine. The issue now is that I’ve got more than one use case personally and so what works for my left hand is sometimes more complicated for my right.

People still talk about a blog post I made 7 years ago about why I stopped using Facebook which I still stand behind, for myself, but I also understand how that reasoning in a different context with different people doesn’t make as much sense. I used to think it was a privilege to use social media and I’m much more aware these days that in fact it’s a privilege not to. If your car breaks down in the middle of no where and after walking for miles you find a restaurant and go inside for a drink of water do you complain because they only have bottled water from the brand you dislike and no running water, do you throw the water back at them and keep walking? Or do you drink it so that you don’t die of thirst and then try to find a better option next time? I don’t know what I’m really saying there other than that I can make a weird analogy about anything.

When I lived in Los Angeles if I wanted to see friends I had 100 different places I could go to in a few minutes to do that. If I wanted to talk to people they were all awake and online. If I wanted to see familiar people but didn’t know or care who they were, I had a list of places I could go and for sure would stumble into someone I hadn’t planned on seeing that day. Living in Tokyo is different. I don’t know as many people, the people I know are asleep when I’m awake and coordinating social anything is a struggle. How that translates into online usage is that I find myself missing people that I can only connect with on social media. I went back to using Instagram before leaving LA because I wanted to use it as a portfolio for my photography because that’s where people were looking. I’ve done that, but I’ve also connected to friends new and old and been invited to participate in projects I never would have otherwise. I have conflicting and mixed feelings about this.

I walked away from Twitter for a while at the end of last year which I think was a good hard reset, but I find myself now realizing some of the value that I’m missing from it. I have private Slack teams and mailing lists, but there’s something different about the stream you get from the same people and the stream you get from the open world of the unexpected. I don’t know how I will continue to use these things, but it’s something I’m thinking about. I need to understand the balance between consuming and publishing, for myself. What is it that I want to say, and where & who do I want to say that to? And what do I want to read? I fired up an old RSS reader today too, but I have no subscriptions. I don’t know where to even find a list of my friends feeds anymore. I don’t know who to follow, who to mute, who to ignore. By all this I mean to say that for the last 19 years or so I’ve carried lists from one place to the next, with preset groups to follow and communicate with. I don’t have any of that now, and it’s like slowly wading into an ocean that I know I’ve been in before, but so long away I forget where the drop off is, so I’m being cautious.

On Leaving Twitter

Over the past few weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m effectively done with twitter for personal use. If you know me, you know this is a big deal and I tell you it was not a decision I came to easily, nor one that I’m happy about making. I quit Facebook in 2012 because I didn’t like what the company and the site was doing but I didn’t really use much to begin with so it wasn’t that big of a deal, this however is heartbreaking, and I feel like I’m on some level admitting defeat.

As backstory for those less familiar, I joined what was then called twttr on July 14, 2006 making me one of the first 140 people to sign up for the service, which is only notable really because tweets used to be restricted to 140 characters. Twitter has been a major part of my life since then, redefining relationships and how I interact with people and reshaping communication online in ways I can’t even begin to describe. How I used twitter changed over the years [pt 1 & pt 2] and I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about how it might be used by the world at large. I got engaged over twitter (though I met my wife in person like a normal human). I’ve felt passionately about features that were added, some I loved and some I hated. At one point I changed all of my contact forms to tell people if they wanted to reach me really the best and only way was over twitter.

In 2015 then CEO Dick admitted that Twitter was terrible at dealing with the growing abuse problem and I wrote up some suggestions begging for someone to take note and fix things on this site that I loved. I took a break from Twitter for a while after that when things didn’t seem to change and then a management shake up and reorg changed some things and I hoped for the best and found my way back using it regularly.

My usage of the service has surged and plunged. When I hit 100,000 tweets I reflected on the ephemeral nature of twitter and deleted my entire history and set up a service to automatically delete all tweets once they reached 90 days old. Since enabling that, I’ve never had more than 30 tweets live which is a reflection of how my usage has dropped off. This isn’t because I got bored and went elsewhere, it’s because the site has become such a cesspool that depresses me anytime I use it. And that seems to be the overwhelming feeling others I talk to about it are having as well.

Recently, it’s become very obvious that Twitter’s management has no interest in fixing things, and perhaps they never did. Looking back now it should have been obvious, though I’ll admit I always wanted to give the benefit of the doubt because of how much the site really does mean to me. Earlier this month I announced through my mailing list that I was going to take stock of how I was using the site and refactor. I unfollowed everyone and made a few new lists to try and keep track of what I needed to keep track of, and removed the app from the front screen of my mobile devices. I didn’t use them. I felt better staying away. I’d thought I’d slowly find my way back again, but what I found was that I didn’t want to.

In an ongoing conversation with some friends we decided it really was time to just walk away. They agreed on using a hashtag to rally people around the idea, and I supported them on that but I didn’t use the hashtag myself because for me it was more personal. I wasn’t leaving because everyone else was leaving , I was leaving because that was the only thing left to do. I’ve tried, I’ve begged, I’ve hoped and nothing helps. The site I loved is gone, maybe it’s been gone for a lot longer than I want to admit. Maybe I’ve been hanging on longer than I should. It truly hurts to do it, but it’s time. So I’m done. Personally. I’m out.

There’s talk of “twitter alternatives” and last year I wrote a bit about Mastadon which is the most promising though it’s not perfect and nothing ever will be. I don’t really know if I want to just shove something else in the twitter sized hole in my chest right now. I don’t how how I’ll do the things I’ve come to rely on twitter for. How will I find relevant news or find out what my friends are doing. I’ve entirely given up on “networking” because I found it was easier to just ping people on twitter when I needed to, so I’m really cutting off some of my ability to find people. I hope I find a better way to do that. Maybe it’s linkedin. Maybe it’s an RSS reader. Maybe it’s lots of different private slack groups. A massive chunk of my adult life has revolved around this site, so I feel a little lost without it. But I feel better without it, so I know finding a new path is the way to go.

[This is also posted on Medium if you want to share it there.]

Taking a ride on Mastodon

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

I’m trying out Mastodon, you can follow me on Mastodon.xyz  [Aug 2018 update: find me as @seanbonner on counter.social] – if you haven’t seen it yet Mastodon is the latest iteration of a very long line of wannabe Twitter replacements. Pownce and identi.ca and diaspora and app.net and ello and peach and now mastodon, oh my. That sounds like a skeptical way to start this off but as one of the first 140 people to join Twitter more than 10 years ago, who has written about the service a lot and has been disappointed with it recently to the point that I keep threatening to leave – I would love a better Twitter. Of course I would just love Twitter to be better, but if I’m honest about it they have had their chance again and again and continue to blow it, so if someone else can do it better then I’m all for that. So every time the next Twitter replacement shows up I participate in the experimentation and after a while you start seeing the same patterns repeat themselves. People keep reinventing the wheel, and keep making it square each time.

I want to be believe.

I’m just approaching it with healthy skepticism.

I’d heard a lot about Mastodon recently though admittedly it took me a while to realize people weren’t talking about the new Mastodon album, but Sarah’s Motherboard article clarified that for me. Mastodon boasts an impressive list of attributes right out of the gate, someone has obviously been listening to a lot of the complaints about Twitter.

Say no more! Selfishly I wanted to secure the username I use everywhere else on the web, and this sounded like a good start so I decided to join and check it out for myself only to find that it was closed to new sign ups.

But one of Mastodon’s features is that it’s open source and federated, so while I couldn’t sign up on the main site Mastodon.social I could sign up on Mastodon.xyz which I found on this short list of other instances and I picked it because at the time it was one of the only ones that had the word Mastodon in it which made me feel like it was somewhat more official. That list is getting longer, and here is an even more exhaustive list showing just how many instances there are already out in the world, and this is growing quickly. This is important and I’ll explain way in a moment.

Let me clarify this a little, because it took me a while to get it myself. Each Mastodon “instance” is a wholly separate installation of the Mastodon code.  Think of how you can install WordPress on your own server or something like that. BUT, because it’s federated, they all talk to each other to have common timelines easily allowing someone with an account on one instance to follow and talk with someone with an account on a different instance. The immediately obvious benefit here is that this is completely decentralized, so one server can go down and Mastodon stays up. The less obvious hiccup with that is because each instance is completely independent each one has it’s own rules, or lack there of–and each instance is subject to the whim of whoever decided to set it up in the first place. Some instances are moderated, some aren’t. Some instances take a strong stand against certain kinds of speech, others don’t. But because of the federation, they all come together, right? Wrong. Each instance can also decide if it wants to federate with all the other Mastodon instances or with only select instances. So you and your friend can both be on Mastodon, with accounts on different instances and you can talk to each other, but you might be able to talk to some people your friend isn’t able to. Or more concerning, any number of things may cause other instances to stop federating the instance you or your friend are on cutting you off from each other. This is a huge problem, and one we’ve seen with with other attempts at this and I’m surprised is a mistake being repeated.

You may assume, as I did, that this isn’t really a concern because as noted earlier there are lots of other instances so you should be able to just create an account on another one and be back up to speed. And indeed Mastodon offers account detail export & import to make this easy. But again, what isn’t so clear is because each instance is independent, so is each account on each instance. Meaning just because you secured your favorite username on one instance doesn’t ensure you will get it on another. I’d assumed that upon joining I could tell people “I’m @seanbonner on Mastodon just like I’m @seanbonner on Twitter.” That turns out to be incorrect. I’m actually @seanbonner@mastodon.xyz and if I want to be @seanbonner@mastodon.social or @seanbonner@mastodon.cloud or any of the other instances then I have to create separate accounts on each of those, and there is no way to sync them. This also means that some other Sean Bonner can go sign up as @seanbonner@anothermastodon.instance and judging by how much email I get from other Sean Bonner’s who apply for jobs and join dating sites and register bank accounts without knowing what their own email address is, that is going to be a huge problem at any kind of scale. This is the biggest flaw in my opinion because without the ability to claim your identity across an entire service there is huge potential for confusion and no way to embrace it as a home.

This is subjective, but 100% of the people I’ve talked in in person about Mastodon in the last few days have made a comment about how they should go lock in their username now, and when I’e explained the above they’ve lost the motivation to go check it out. They really should be using some shared ledger to have global usernames across the whole federation.

Going back to the import/export thing for a second, it’s true you can export your info to make setting up on a new instance easy–however you export only your following list, not your followers. So if you create a new account you are back to zero followers. Pointing out this problem on Mastodon is however assured to get you a lot of replies from accounts with anime avatars dismissing your concern and equating a Mastodon account with an email account. Almost like a talking point.

This is a quite flawed analogy for a social network. Your email address is not your public identity where as your social media accounts often are. And while it’s true that no one would try to lock in the same name@email.server for every email host out there, it’s also true that there haven’t been massive lawsuits and fights over email addresses the way there have been for social media account usernames. Email is inherently private and social media is inherently public. I’ve had people call me @seanbonner to my face, or introduce me to others that way, but no one has ever referred to me as my email address. I think it’s safe to say anyone making that analogy here really hasn’t thought it through.

There’s also the lag where it seems some instances don’t see posts for many hours which creates a weird reply stream, but that’s more likely attributable to the recent exponential growth and I expect will be solved.

I sound like I’m hating on Mastodon but I’m really not, I wouldn’t have bothered to write any of this if I didn’t care. I actually really like a lot of it and have high hopes for it, and I say all this because I’m concerned that these are fatal flaws that will prevent it from really taking off.  This piece on The Verge dives deep into the genesis of Mastodon and the creator’s motivations and goals. He’s very clearly trying to solve his own problem, which is where all really good ideas come from. Unless he also tries to solve some other people’s problems, I’m doubtful how much of a future Mastodon will ever have.

Of course I’d very much love to be proven wrong there. I still want Twitter circa 2008 back.

Tales from the frontlines of viral photography

On Monday as I was heading home to Los Angeles I spotted a thought provoking sticker on a sign post in Shibuya and quickly sent it off to Twitter. Currently, less than 48 hours later my tweet has received over 23k retweets and 42k likes. And growing by the second. I note those stats specifically apply to my tweet only, but as it’s been reposted without attribution all over the place and gotten similar attention elsewhere so it’s likely in the hundreds of thousands collectively at this point, though I’ll never know for sure. This isn’t the first time one of my photos has ended up having it’s own life online but it’s still a very odd thing to experience and I thought some people might enjoy a little more detail and context about this how this has played out. I also have a book of some of my other Tokyo street photos that is available now, for a deeper dive into my photo work and the neighborhood surrounding where I took the above shot.

I know that my comment in the tweet plays in significantly to the reaction it received and I’ll spend more time on that later but upfront I want to acknowledge that the sticker (and the image on it) itself is the work of anonymous Japanese street artist 281_Anti nuke.  I’ve been familiar with his work for years. In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown I, along with some friends, founded an environmental monitoring non-profit called Safecast and our office is right in the middle of Shibuya, Tokyo. The neighborhood is regularly plastered with 281_’s stickers and we’ve got a few up inside our office as well. My friend, filmmaker Adrian Storey who I’ve collaborated with in the past, even made a documentary about 281_ a few years back. Shortly after I tweeted this photo 281_ also posted the image of the sticker itself which sadly hasn’t received a fraction of the attention it should.

Very quickly after I posted it people took notice and started spreading it around. I think that is a completely factual statement because, as you can tell, it has in fact been spread around. And when I say “people took notice” anyone with half a brain can deduce that by saying “people” I’m referring specifically to the people that took notice and not “all of the people on the planet.” I point that out because the by and large the number one reply I’ve gotten in response is some form of argument pushing back that this doesn’t represent the views of all the people in Japan. Again, a painfully obvious observation.

Certainly, and to 281_’s credit this is a perfectly executed and highly charged political image so one might expect it to cause a bit of a ruckus, but perhaps more than anything I’ve ever posted this one seems to have drawn a significant reaction. Beyond arguing about what I meant by “people” the next most common thing sent my way was arguments about how racists/nationalistic/immigration-unfriendly Japan is so therefore this observation is irrelevant, which is of course a red herring if ever there was one. Racist history of America, Democrats, and other countries that aren’t Japan or the US were also brought into the argument left and right. In fact if you went through this list of logical fallacies you could find perfect examples for each in my twitter mentions right now. I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was genuinely shocked how defensive people were. Not all people on the planet, or all people on twitter, but all people who were defensive. Duh.

Of course there’s also the inevitable comments from people who don’t follow me, yet felt the need to take time out of their day to tell me they don’t care what I post or that I’m wasting their time. Time they spent replying to me I guess? The logic that works in some people’s heads is baffling.

I was also attacked and held suspect pretty frequently. A quick scan of replies finds no shortage of statements calling me a faggot, which I found hilarious in it’s retro cliche nature but was surprisingly being used as a genuine insult in these cases. For simply posting this photo and my observation I’m also apparently a liberal, libtard, SJW, fascist, racist, expat, tourist, etc in the eyes of anonymous twitter accounts with single digit follower counts. I find all of this terribly amusing and fascinating, though I can also understand how someone else in my shoes might take these attacks more personally. I’m simply lucky(?) to have 20+ years of experience with trolling so I see such retorts as almost a script that gets followed again and again with only minor details swapped out each time. So maybe these trolls and shitposters are just unknowingly taking my bait. Who’s trolling who??? I’m laughing, so that’s good enough for me.

A not insignificant number of replies also accused me of making and posting the sticker myself just to manufacture the drama, and even in the face of the existence of 281_’s own gallery showing the image, these folks would then jump to the conclusion that I created 281 as well rather than accept their initial reaction was misplaced. New thing time however was quite a few people calling this fake news. But I guess we all know that in 2017 “fake news” is a term applied to anything you don’t agree with, no matter it’s basis in fact.

Another new twist this time is the number of media outlets that have reached out to me. I’d say this is a net positive as most often in the past these places would just take the extra lame “it’s on the internet so anyone can use it” approach, so outlets asking for permission is a welcomed change. I use a CC-BY license for these kinds of things as there’s really no way I can stop people from stealing it and using it for whatever purposes they want so fighting that is a losing battle from the beginning, and I’m quite happy to just have proper attribution. More than one outlet did ask me to agree to their terms which would have given them an eternal, transferable, non-exclusive license to do whatever they wanted with it for ever and I said no and pointed them to the CC-BY license.

I don’t want to sound like the reactions were all negative, I’ve definitely gotten countless replies from people agreeing with the sentiment, or complimenting the photos which is nice. But at the end of the day, I really was just responding to a question I’ve repeatedly heard with a quick image that I thought answered it pretty well.