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A defense of the humble, importable blocklist

So I tried to take part in Fediforum today, but I wasn’t really able to participate. My initial idea was to get into a debate with my friend Roel Roscam Abbing, who is an incredibly deep thinker and is writing what will no doubt be a foundational dissertation about the fediverse. We were hoping to prompt a discussion about importable, instance blocklists on the fediverse.

He and I disagree their utility. He thinks they’re bad; I think they’re good. I’ll let him post his reasons why, but here I wanted to share my defense of them. What follows is a longer version of what I planned on presenting at Fediforum.

Often, when people discuss ways to improve the fediverse, they talk about technical solutions – extensions to ActivityPub, say, or new layers on the network. Instead, my take is informed by my research for my forthcoming book, where I explore the history, politics, and cultural practices of the fediverse. To defend blocklists, I draw on this history, politics, and culture.

One of the most powerful things that has emerged on the fediverse is the culture of Codes of Conduct. The fediverse would be a very different –- and worse –- place without this practice.

The practice of using codes of conduct was not a technical achievement. It has little to do with ActivityPub. Instead, it came as part of the zeitgeist –- COCs were being advocated for in tech circles in the mid-2010s, and of course Mastodon was developed right at the same time. Mastodon.social and others adopted COCs, and the pattern was set.

Today, research shows that there are many overlaps across fediverse codes of conduct, such that we see what ethical theorists might call a thin set of shared global values. A colleague and I argue elsewhere that this practice gives rise to the “covenantal fediverse,” where like-minded instances band together.

Another social innovation is the emergence of the instance as the fundamental unit of the fediverse. I know that there was a desire by the authors of ActivityPub to have a client-to-server structure, but we ended up with instances as the key site of organization. This is a happy accident. Instances admins can gain knowledge about how the network works, where the good and bad actors are, and they can protect members –- especially new members who are just joining the network. For better or worse –-and I think it’s for better –- we think at the community/instance level, with admins as leaders.

This brings me to blocklists. With the implementation of blocklist importing in Mastodon, we’re seeing a logical next step –- not just the sharing of codes of conduct, but cross-instance, inter-admin sharing of knowledge about what Ro aptly calls “the bad space” of the fediverse. This is a recognition –- and blocking –- of the swath of the internet that fails to meet the thin set of global ethical values. Contemporary blocklists are a codification of early social practices, like #fediblock and backchanneling between covenantally-linked instances.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’ve benefited from this history. When I set up AOIR.social in March, I was aided by imported blocklists. There is a great deal of knowledge on the fediverse about the patterns of “free speech absolutism” (read: racist, misogynist, transmisic, or CSAM-sharing). Free speech absolutism has a long history in free software social media. But because people have recognized the freezepeach pattern – indeed, because they’ve suffered from it – they have codifed their knowledge in blocklist form. Installing a blocklist on day one allowed AoIR.social to benefit from this painfully-gained knowledge.

There are counterarguments, of course. The danger of a blocklist is that it is tied to personalities –- many people cite the Randi Harper case. Others suggest that blocklists are too tied to centralized, corporate social media. But I think we run the risk of the genetic fallacy by assuming previous, harmful Twitter activities will necessarily be replicated on the fedi.

Countering the danger of the blocklist run by a single person, we’re seeing nascent governance structures around blocklists, including Ro’s The Bad Space collaboration with Nivenly.

And this brings me to my main point. Much the same as we’ve had an emergent set of ethical principles arise through the cultural practice of COCs, organized at the instance level, shared instance blocklists –- with governance structures that cross instances –- could result in another cultural innovation: affirmative, cross-instance governance. The blocklist becomes a vehicle for such collaboration.

It won’t be easy, by any means. In fact, it is really hard (just ask the people helping to build the lists). But so was developing codes of conduct. And so too is running an instance. It’s all social practice. It’s all hard. Building a new way of being social is hard.

But we’re gaining skills, day by day.

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