Weeknote 3/2023 - Making kin in the fediverse

This week I started reading a new book called Making Kin not Population: Reconceiving Generations. The book is a collection of short feminist essays curated by Donna Haraway and Adele Clarke.

As I delved into the various perspectives on the concept of "making kin" presented by the different authors in the book, I couldn't stop thinking how this concept could drastically transform for the better how (some) communities and instances emerge, evolve, govern, care for and deal with their members and with other communities in the fediverse.

Donna Haraway argues that kin should mean more than just what unites living beings through lineage and genealogy, and that it should include population, family, and species.

Making kin is about making people, not necessarily individuals or necessarily human. Making kin is about taking care of one another (making kin and making kind) - regardless of blood ties, in forms of cross-familiarity, concern, attention, and with multiple references - it amplifies the imagination and can change the course of history.

Marilyn Strathern adds that originally, the English word "relatives" defined "logical relationships" and only later did it come to mean "family members".

I think these themes are becoming crucial to address as mainstream social networks are accelerating their convergence towards the dystopic ideology and feudalistic world they contributed to shape, while at the same time FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open-Source Software) social networks are starting to establish themselves as a viable alternative for more and more people and communities.

The emergence of new, advanced AI models that fuel bots presents a whole new set of challenges for online communities. These bots will have the ability to engage in conversations and create endless contents that are indistinguishable from those produced by humans.

It will become challenging and in some cases impossible to know whenever you'll be interacting with a human or a bot.

This poses a major problem for current moderation systems, which are already struggling to keep up with the challenges presented by the current state of social networks. The recent surge in misinformation and disinformation in social networks already shows the limits of current moderation systems, that have not evolved much since the early days of online forums - as we researched together with Doug Belshaw.

The matter of caring for one another, crafting alliances and making kin will be essential in building trustworthy and safe online communities in the near future.

While I was contemplating these issues, a passage from Ruha Benjamin essay particularly stood out to me:

"Racist structures do not simply produce, they reproduce whiteness, resuscitating the myth of white innocence that underpins the status quo. Racist systems are therefore reproductive systems."

The reproduction of racist structures has certainly found a fertile ground in today's technological infrastructure. Therefore, when thinking about the ways in which the fediverse can allow for the creation of kin, it is essential to also consider how racist structures have reproduced themselves in technological infrastructures.

From access to code, to the management and maintenance of infrastructure, to the development of a feature and its user experience, all of these aspects have inherited and in turn reproduced racist systems, to a greater or lesser degree.

As Lynn Foster often says, we have internalized many behaviors from capitalism and it is a daily work to stay vigilant and recognize them every time they manifest, as soon as possible.

Following I want to highlight some features and proposals that we're developing and pushing in bonfire so far that resonate with the concepts above.

Composition, not accumulation

This is yet another phrase by Donna Haraway, that perfectly captures the potential of the fediverse. Many have criticized the fediverse for being more centralized than it should be, with a small number of instances hosting the majority of users.

This re-centralization also leads to issues such as moderation becoming a difficult task for admins and mods. They are forced to quickly handle a large number of flags and potentially harmful content, leaving little time to address controversies in a meaningful way. This often results in them ignoring issues or by exercising their power making quick and dirty unilateral decisions.

Local and federated timelines became flooded by generic contents, diminishing the intimacy of interactions between users.

However, the true power of the fediverse lies in its composition capabilities, rather than its accumulation. Users can have multiple and transversal ways to interact with different groups, audiences, and communities - all from their small and safe instances. Features such as groups and topics are key to realizing this vision, allowing users, even from small instances or single-user instances, to access groups created by anyone in the fediverse and participate in them or start their own.

Similarly, topics allow users to follow and interact with specific subjects curated by users from one or more instances, and with the proper permissions, they can add their own content, suggest changes, or moderate it. One can think of topics as fully-federated journals, where each topic shares discussions and activities that are relevant to its scope. By subscribing to a topic (e.g., "science-fiction"), one can be assured of receiving only relevant content, curated by an editorial team that they trust.

Due to the composite nature of the fediverse, there can be hundreds of "science-fiction" topics (e.g., +science-fiction@chtulu.town, +sciencefiction@chtulu.town, +science-fiction@darkforest.club, +science-fiction@expanse.world, etc.) and as a user, you can subscribe to the ones you trust or find more appealing, based on content, editorial team, or any other criteria that you find relevant.

Developing tools and features that encourage users to think in terms of composition is crucial for enhancing the practice of "making kin and making kind", empowering a new wave of small instances to flourish and proliferate without feeling isolated or disconnected from the rest of the fediverse.

However, here is where the passage from Ruha Benjamin hits hard: setting up and maintaining an instance is not accessible to the majority of people. They can be technically difficult to set up and maintain, and most paid hosting services can be expensive and require a certain level of technical knowledge to interact with.

Recently, Mayel and I (aka the Bonfire team) partnered with Autonomic to write a grant proposal for creating an open-source cooperative hosting service. This service would allow users to set up and customize their instances directly through a web app, similar to how we commonly set up and customize a blog through wordpress. The service would be powered by a network of trusted cooperatives, and could potentially implement mutualistic solutions, such as setting aside a percentage of profits to host or provide dedicated assistance for users and communities that can't afford the costs.

Far from thinking that we can consider ourselves safe from "reproducing whiteness" - I think that "composing-with" other communities is key to think through our limits and shaded areas.

This is an open invitation to communities, activists, cooperatives to reach out and collaborate to explore new ways of creating and managing online communities in precarious times.