Mastodon is a new, federated alternative to Twitter that has attracted some notable members of the Bitcoin community. While far from perfect, the federated, ad-free structure of Mastodon is attractive to those who are also interested in peer-to-peer digital cash systems like Bitcoin.
As it turns out, the Bitcoin blockchain may also be useful for solving one of the key issues with Mastodon’s architecture, which is based around federated “instances.”
What are the Differences Between Mastodon and Twitter?
The best way to explain what Mastodon is and how it works may be to compare it to Twitter. The user interface is quite similar to Twitter’s Tweetdeck offering, but there are some key differences when it comes to features.
Firstly, toots (the Mastodon equivalent to tweets), can be up to 500 characters long, and timelines are completely chronological (as Twitter’s timelines used to be). Users can also change who can see each toot before they send it out, and perhaps most notably, there are no advertisements or user-tracking scripts on the platform by default.
In terms of architecture, Mastodon works on a federated model. A Mastodon instance is a server where users can sign up and post their messages. The user’s account name will include the instance provider’s domain at the end in a manner similar to an email address. Users on a particular instance can see the toots from users on all other connected instances (and vice versa).
Some Problems with Mastodon
Of course, Mastodon’s federated model is not perfect.
As some have pointed out, one of the issues with the platform right now is that users need to be somewhat trustful of their instance administrator. These admins have the ability to delete content and accounts on the local server, and it’s also possible that the entire federation of instances will eventually centralize around a few key servers that make the system look more similar to how Twitter works today.
One of the key issues when it comes to trusting an instance administrator has to do with the potential of that individual or entity acting in a way that makes users want to migrate to another instance. While it’s possible to backup one’s own user data and import it into a new instance, all of one’s followers will need to be notified about the move too – they won’t follow the new account by default. This adds some friction to the idea that an instance administrator cannot wield any power over their users.
How the Blockchain Can Help
The specific scenario where a user wants to move to another instance without losing all of their followers is where Bitcoin’s blockchain may be helpful.
Keybase and Onename are identity services that allow users to map all of their online accounts to a single identity. All of this data is hashed into the Bitcoin blockchain to prevent tampering from anyone but the real-world owner of the digital identity.
When Bob follows Alice on Mastodon, it would be possible to follow a Alice’s Keybase or Onename account rather than her current Mastodon address. This means that Bob would be following whatever account Alice’s Keybase or Onename account is mapped to rather than a specific, static Mastodon address.
With this setup, Bob would automatically follow Alice’s new Mastodon address if she decided to switch to a new Mastodon instance for whatever reason (as long as she updates her Onename or Keybase account).
By mapping Mastodon addresses to blockchain-based identity systems, a bit more power can be removed from instance administrators. Integration with Keybase or Onename may also remove some of the confusion users have had with Mastodon addresses in the first place.
Of course, it’s still unclear how necessary the use of a blockchain will turn out to be in these sorts of digital identity systems. It’s possible that a trusted third party, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, could provide this sort of service for free on a centralized server. There’s also early Bitcoin developer Martti Malmi’s Identifi, which stores public data on the IPFS network.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons.