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"Move Slowly and Build Bridges" Preview

So… it’s coming together.

My current book, Move Slowly and Build Bridges: Mastodon, the Fediverse, and the Struggle for Ethical Social Media is mostly drafted! I am drafting a conclusion, but for now, I figured I would provide an overview of the book.

This post gives a chapter-by-chapter summary of the draft. Since it’s a draft, things can still change, but as of today, I’m pretty pleased with the structure.


The introduction gives a bit of background on the fediverse and justifies a focus on Mastodon. I also discuss the history of alternative social media – activists have been trying help us move past corporate social media for a long time. I define terms used throughout the book, like “noncentralization” and “covenantal fediverse.”

Chapter 1: From Techlash to Alternative, or How to Vaporize Elon Musk

This chapter answers a key question: what pushes people to leave corporate social media? We’ll look at the recent purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk, which prompted millions of people to leave Twitter and switch to Mastodon and the broader fediverse. What does it look like to flee corporate social media for a noncentralized alternative? And, since Mastodon instances are often run by volunteers, and what does it look like to deal with a wave of new members? And what does it mean to offer an “alternative”? Drawing on interviews with many people affected by Musk, the chapter contrasts the actions of a single billionaire with communities of people helping each other.

Chapter 2: The Non-Standard Standard: When ActivityPub met Mastodon

Chapter 2 focuses on the technical achievement of noncentralization. Based on interviews, it tells the a key protocol, ActivityPub, and the queer and trans developers who created it in spite of a series of obstacles. It turns out that the ActivityPub authors were creating something desperately needed by a then-unknown project called Mastodon, which was trying to find a way to provide protections for marginalized members in an internet culture that demanded total transparency. In turn, Mastodon provided a boost to the creators of ActivityPub by using a beta version of the protocol. (I talk about an early version of this chapter in a previous blog post.)

Chapter 3: Codes of Conduct

This chapter discusses the social contract shared among many Mastodon moderators. Mastodon is a system comprised of many small servers. You could take its code and install it on your computer, but thanks to ActivityPub, your computer can talk to other Mastodon computers around the world. With all these different Mastodon servers running, how is social coordination possible? The answer is codes of conduct. Championed by trans technologist Coraline Ada Ehmke (interviewed for this project) in the mid-2010s, codes of conduct add a social layer to networking technologies. With codes of conduct, Mastodon moderators can make decisions about connecting to one another while promoting the safety of their communities. In addition, codes of conduct are not concocted by corporate lawyers, but are democratically made by the community, for the community. Thus, Mastodon and the fediverse is more than just a technical achievement – it’s a social one, as well.

Chapter 4: Rage and Joy: Playvicious, #Fediblock, the BadSpace, and the Politics of Defederation

This one builds on the previous chapter by telling the story of how Mastodon and the fediverse decide when to block, rather than connect, to another server. What happens when an entire portion of the network trolls, harasses, and misinforms the rest? The recourse Mastodon members have is to block them. But making the decision to block a server is not a straightforward one. The story can be told through the experiences of Black fediverse members, such as Ro and Marcia X. Ro is currently building The Bad Space, a mechanism to easily share blocklists across the fediverse. His work builds on that of his friend, Black feminist Marcia X, who has engaged in hashtag activism, making the now ubiquitous #fediblock hashtag. Both The Bad Space and #fediblock have been criticized as inimical to federation, but the experiences of Black Mastodon members shows us that we need to have these tools – and that we have to do the hard work of collectively making blocking decisions – if we want to have a thriving and anti-racist fediverse.

Chapter 5: Paying for It: The Fediverse’s Alternative Economies

Chapter 5 addresses a question I always get when I talk about the fediverse: who pays for it? After 20 years of corporate social media and surveillance capitalism, we have forgotten that there are other economic models for digital media. The chapter explores the non-capitalist elements of the fediverse, including the use of donations and non-profit organizations to fund servers, mutual aid between fediverse members, and how artists and musicians use the network to promote their work. Together, these folks are forging an alternative not just to corporate social media, but to capitalism itself.

Chapter 6: To Finity and Before: Degrowth, Solarpunk, and Environmentalist Experiments on the Fediverse

This chapter focuses on the ecological impact of social media. While we’re encouraged to think of corporate social media as being a slick, clean, even immaterial system, in reality data storage and processing take a tremendous toll on resources. If the fediverse is to be a true alternative, we have to rethink how social media affects the environment. This chapter introduces us to degrowth thinkers and solarpunks who are using fediverse technologies to mitigate the climate disaster.

Chapter 7: Threads

This one considers the corporate reaction to the fediverse. The fediverse is expanding, and thus it’s attracting the attention of corporate social media, which has traditionally simply bought out the competition, or had it regulated away. The latest to try is Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. In early 2023, Meta announced that their latest project, a Twitter-like system called “Threads,” would adopt ActivityPub and thus be able to federate with Mastodon and fediverse instances. This chapter focuses on the #fedipact, a campaign started by a trans woman by the name of vanta black who is leading a resistance to Meta’s effort to federate.


This is the part I’m still drafting. I’m taking the “ethical” seriously in the subtitle and thinking through ethical theories and the fediverse. In addition to being inspired by the great people I’ve met doing the research for the book, this part was also inspired by a class exercise I did with students in my recent Media Ethics class. More to come about this chapter…

Let’s Talk!

If you like what you see here, let’s talk! I’m looking to talk about this project with podcasters and journalists, not to mention students and other researchers. The biggest thing I’ve learned about the fediverse is that people can, in fact, change media for the better. It’s a struggle, but it can be done. I want to share this with others, and also I hope this work inspires more academic and journalistic engagement with the fediverse. To paraphrase Captain Picard, I think we’re only at the beginning of the adventure.

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For each of these posts, I will also post to Mastodon. If you have a fediverse account and reply to my Mastodon post, that shows up as a comment on this blog unless you change your privacy settings to followers-only or DM. Content warnings will work. You can delete your comment by deleting it through Mastodon.

Don't have a fediverse account and you want one? Ask me how! robertwgehl AT protonmail . com

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