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Illustration Credit: Timothy R. Butler/Stable Diffusion

As X Spirals, the Fediverse Awaits

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 2:15 AM

If you’ve read my columns over the last few years, you know I’ve been far less pessimistic about Elon Musk’s Twitter (err, “X”) than many, even when he’s made inexplicable decisions. Officially supporting pornographic publishing on X, though, is a line crossed and a good time to consider the best alternative.

Unless one favors Musk’s reshaping of Twitter purely for his particular political brand, it’s been hard to say the service has improved. It crashes more, key features long-time users depended on have gone away, and while verification has finally settled into a pretty good spot (actually verifying identity and not just willingness to pay), the journey was so erratic, I doubt the final, good result has achieved the impact it could have.

Losses to functionality such as third-party app connections to Twitter were made in the name of reducing the number of bots on the service posting garbage. Any regular user of today’s X will tell you that there are more bots than ever, many barely hiding their purveyance of the putrid. The ones that aren’t aimed at appealing to our moral weaknesses try to misinform us with a deluge of pro-Kremlin content only Vladimir Putin could love.

Loving or hating Musk and his views isn’t my point. The site is objectively worse functionally than it was a few years ago.

Nonetheless, for me, both as a pastor and a writer, X has remained a uniquely superior path into the world compared to the alternatives. If my goal is for these columns or my sermons to connect with people who aren’t already regular readers of OFB (or friends), only getting a high rank on Google search results exceeds the impact of X. When X calls itself a modern town square, it isn’t exaggerating.

Go to the town square and there will be things almost anyone finds objectionable. I have never felt I had to be only surrounded by like or agreeable minds. Jesus didn’t only hang out in the synagogues and I don’t think He wanted his followers to either. My conviction with X has been, while I don’t agree with plenty of what is on it, that is because it mirrors the diversity and flaws of us as human beings.

I’ve long admired Musk’s entrepreneurship and, to the extent his operation of X aims to live by the adage “the solution for bad speech is more good speech,” (instead of censorship), I’ve been with him.

Where, though, is the tipping point from “the messy, ugly world mirrored” to “our worst inclinations amplified”? The latest moves turn from X allowing vile speech along with good speech towards actively creating means to profit most off of the absolute worst corners of the Twittersphere.

With the new policy towards X-rated content, X will likely follow a few sites from the darkest parts of the Internet in making that content its primary profit lifeline. From an amoral business perspective, perhaps that seems keen, but where does that leave a church or respectable publication like OFB in relation to X?

I’ve feared this day might come, which is why a year and a half ago, my church, OFB and I entered what is known as “the Fediverse.” I remained on X after I joined the Fediverse, but cultivating a presence on something alternative has felt freeing. It won’t arbitrarily turn intolerable at the drop of a hat.

Everyone reading this column should do the same.

While social media sites like X and Facebook are monolithic entities controlled by the whims of one corporation (or individual in X’s case), the Fediverse is like e-mail: if your e-mail provider starts doing something really vile, you can move on to another and still stay in touch with your friends, family and business associates. No one organization, site or software platform controls the Fediverse.

Mastodon is the leading Fediverse “platform,” and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Mastodon servers. These individual, decentralized mini-social network servers are referred to as “instances” and they talk to each other to form the larger whole.

Mastodon.social, run by the non-profit that developed the Mastodon system, is a “generic” instance if you want to start simply, akin to signing up for Gmail for your e-mail. Better yet, you can find one that covers your interests.

Tech-savvy folks or organizations can even host their own. When I jumped on, my ministry launched its own instance (FaithTree.social), which hosts just a few accounts, including OFB’s.

FaithTree.social is a tiny bit of the Fediverse but can see and be seen by those on other instances large and small. For example, anyone can follow our publication’s account, no matter which provider you use, just like a Yahoo e-mail user can write a Gmail user and vice versa.

Most instances are free to join, and, if you realize you picked one that is disagreeable, you can pick up and move even easier than switching e-mail addresses. Unlike the wearisome activity of updating all your contacts with a new e-mail address, your connections on the Fediverse can be transferred to your new location automatically.

The wildcard in this Fediverse equation that I’m not recommending readers join, but I think adds weight to why the Fediverse is going to be meaningful, is Threads. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, launched Threads as a “Twitter killer” last summer. So far, it has done no such thing, but it has gained more momentum than anything else vying for that spot.

Meta is rarely accused of virtue, but it did make one very fine decision: Threads is in the process of joining the Fediverse alongside Mastodon. If you are on Threads, you can already enable “Fediverse sharing” and make your account available to the other platforms (using the format @username@threads.net).

For now, that is a one-way street, but Meta has been good on its word to keep progressing towards full “federation,” so I expect the two-way street in the near future. Assuming they meet their pledge, Threads users will likewise soon be able to follow accounts such as @ofb@faithtree.social.

That’s good news because trading X for Threads is trading one evil for another, despite this one, singular good choice on Meta’s part. X’s move toward profiteering off of pornography and the like is contemptible. Threads’ parent, Meta, has shown almost the inverse fault, being overbearing and censorious. Meta also seeks to monetize us by its sophisticated and ubiquitous tracking of us. We should not help them get better at that by using even more of their services.

Threads will likely remain the big fish in the pond despite all that. But, so long as a lot of interesting accounts live on the Fediverse outside of Threads, Meta will have an incentive to maintain that two-way bridge. Those who choose to cross it, and call Mastodon home, will get the benefit of Threads popularity without living under Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Brother.

In other words, joining a Mastodon instance is a win-win: within months, you will have access to all the chatter of your favorite friends and follows that show up on Threads, without trading one abhorrent social network for another.

X’s continued lurching towards complete degradation may pass the jumping-off point for each of us at a different moment. But, taking two minutes to copy and paste the same posts over to Mastodon and helping to cultivate a better alternative benefits us all. The same could be said if you presently call a Meta platform such as Instagram, Facebook or Threads home to your posting.

Musk’s X may continue racing to the bottom. Threads might merely extend Meta’s spying on us. A decentralized third option encourages something better from both and provides something better for all of us, whatever those networks do.

Open and decentralized is what has made the Internet capable of most of the good it has done up until now. Open and decentralized social media can do the same for our future.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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