Software Does Not Make A Product

Some fediverse developers approach project management from the philosophy that they are building a product in it’s own right instead of a tool. But does that approach really make sense for the fediverse?

It’s that time again, patches have been presented which improve Mastodon’s compatibility with the rest of the fediverse. However, the usual suspect has expressed disinterest in clicking the merge button. The users protest loudly about this unilateral decision, as is expected by the astute reader. Threats of hard forks are made. GitHub’s emoji reactions start to arrive, mostly negative. The usual suspect fires back saying that the patches do not fit into his personal vision, leading to more negative reactions. But why?

I believe the main issue at stake is whether or not fediverse software is the product, or if it is the instances themselves which are the product. Yes, both the software and the instance itself, are products, but the question, really, is which one is actually more impactful?

Gargron (the author of Mastodon), for whatever reason, sees Mastodon itself as the core product. This is obvious based on the marketing copy he writes to promote the Mastodon software and the 300,000+ user instance he personally administrates where he is followed by all new signups by default. It is also obvious based on the dictatorial control he exerts over the software.

But is this view aligned with reality? Mastodon has very few configurable options, but admins have made modifications to the software, which add configuration options that contradict Gargron’s personal vision. These features are frequently deployed by Mastodon admins and, to an extent, Mastodon instances compete with each other on various configuration differences: custom emoji, theming, formatting options and even the maximum length of a post. This competition, largely, has been enabled by the existence of “friendly” forks that add the missing configuration options.

My view is different. I see fediverse software as a tool that is used to build a community which optionally exists in a community of communities (the fediverse). In my view, users should be empowered to choose an instance which provides the features they want, with information about what features are available upfront. In essence, it is the instances themselves which are competing for users, not the software.

Monoculture harms competitiveness, there are thousands of Mastodon instances to choose from, but how many of them are truly memorable? How many are shipping stock Mastodon with the same old default color scheme and theme?

Outside of Mastodon, the situation is quite different. Most of us see the software we work on as a tool for facilitating community building. Accordingly, we try to do our best to give admins as many ways as possible to make their instance look and feel as they want. They are building the product that actually matters, we’re just facilitating their work. After all, they are the ones who have to spend time customizing, promoting and managing the community they build. This is why Pleroma has extensive configuration and theming options that are presented in a way that is very easy to leverage. Likewise, Friendica, Hubzilla and even GNU Social can be customized in the same way: you’re in control as the admin, not a product designer.

But Mastodon is still problematic when it comes to innovation in the fediverse at large. Despite the ability that other fediverse software give to users and admins to present their content in whatever form they want, Mastodon presently fails to render the content correctly:

Mastodon presents lists in an incorrect way.

The patches I referred to earlier correct this problem by changing how Mastodon processes posts from remote instances. They also provide a path toward improving usability in the fediverse by allowing us to work toward phasing out the use of Unicode mathematical constants as a substitute for proper formatting. The majority of fediverse microblogging software has supported this kind of formatting for a long time, many implementations predating Mastodon itself. Improved interoperability with other fediverse implementations sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it’s not aligned with the Mastodon vision, so it’s rejected.

The viewpoint that the software itself is primarily what matters is stifling fediverse development. As developers, we should be working together to improve the security and expressiveness of the underlying technology. This means that some amount of flexibility is required. Quoting RFC791:

In general, an implementation must be conservative in its sending behavior, and liberal in its receiving behavior.

There is no God of the fediverse. The fediverse exists and operates smoothly because we work together, as developers, in concert with the admin and user community at large. Accomplishing this requires compromise, not unilateral decision making.