By Johannes Ernst

  • 2023-06-22

    The landlords, the serfs and the taxes: why the Reddit story sounds so familiar

    Once upon a time, there was a powerful landlord who owned much of the land. He had lots of serfs working on that land. While the landlord was an absolute monarch and profited from the work of the serfs more than he otherwise would have, both landlord and tenants were mostly happy with the arrangement.

    Reddit had lots of users, merrily posting links and having discussions. Reddit would monetize this through ads.

    Then one day, the landlord decided to raise taxes. He didn’t talk to his serfs first. He, just one day, out of the blue, announced that there would be taxes, and specifically taxes on the tools that the serfs were using to make themselves more productive.

    Reddit suddenly announced high charges for their API, making many external tools financially non-viable.

    Not only were the unexpected taxes high, they were so high that it made it effectively impossible for the serfs to continue using those tools, thereby reducing productivity and happiness of the serfs.

    This made it effectively impossible for Reddit moderators to use external moderation tools and users could no longer use 3rd-party clients.

    Guess what happened next?

    Surprising absolutely nobody, the serfs – well, some of them – revolted. Some stopped farming their fields. Some closed their markets and stores. Some planted signs all over the land with directions to other lands not controlled by this landlord, suggesting that everybody pack up and leave the lord’s land. Some ingenious serfs even started mislabeling their produce, calling it “not safe”, thereby striking directly at the revenue stream of the landlord.

    Some Reddit moderators took their subreddits private. Some directed their users over into the Fediverse to Lemmy and /kbin. And some other labeled their subreddits "not safe for work", striking directly at Reddit's advertising revenue as fewer advertisers want to be seen in that context.

    So the landlord struck back. He fired foremen and village elders, inviting less scrupulous others to take over their place. He forced stores to open again, and sent his goons to remove the “not safe” stickers.

    Reporedly some moderators were forcibly removed by Reddit, subreddits re-opened and NSFW labels forcibly removed.

    I’m writing this in political terms, because the analogy is just so incredibly striking.

    By that analogy, we all know history and what might come next. As in history, the short-term outcome is uncertain. The longer-term trends, however, are clear.

  • 2023-02-20

    Why I am co-organizing FediForum

    Kaliya Young (identitywoman), Jennifer Holmes and I are organizing a new unconference focused on the Fediverse and the future of social media:

    March 29 and 30

    Like many, I have been watching the destruction of Twitter by its new owner with utter fascination. If it was problematic in many ways before, Musk-Twitter is far worse, and there are no signs it will ever return to the state that many of us, myself included, mostly enjoyed.

    Fortunately, there are alternatives, led by Mastodon and a rapidly-growing list of Fediverse apps that all interoperate thanks to a number of open protocols such as WebFinger, ActivityPub and Activity Vocabulary. Millions of people have created accounts there in recent months, and over a million new users have become regulars.

    But there are growing pains and many open questions, such as:

    • The underlying protocol standards are currently essentially unmaintained, and real-implementations don’t exactly match how the standards were intended. How will this situation be resolved?
    • How do we create and maintain a safe space for traditionally disenfranchised people?
    • The Fediverse currently depends on much unpaid volunteer work. How long can that go well? What if another million users (or more!) join, and the novelty effect wears off?
    • Should brands be allowed in?
    • Is #Fediblock the best we can do for moderation?
    • How do we keep the character of the place if (when!) large organizations come in that bring lots of new users, and, in comparison, large budgets?
    • Who decides?

    Conversations need to be had, in a form that encourages problem solving. That’s the kind of space we are trying to create with FediForum: where people meet who want to move the Fediverse forward: on technology, on funding, on operations, on governance, and perhaps on culture.

    Because if we don’t, there’s a real chance the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build better social media passes, and I really, really don’t want that to happen. I hope you don’t either.

    So, if you love Mastodon or any other post-Twitter social media apps, and have an opinion on the future of social media, join us and help figure it out together with others who think similarly. The first event will be on-line; we hope to be able to do an in-person event later this year.

    More info:

  • 2022-07-03

    What is a DAO? A non-technical definition

    Definitions of “DAO” (short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization) usually start with technology, specifically blockchain. But I think that actually misses much of what’s exciting about DAOs, a bit like if you were to explain why your smartphone is great by talking about semiconductor circuits. Let’s try to define DAO without starting with blockchain.

    For me:

    A DAO is…

    • a distributed group
    • with a common cause of consequence
    • that governs itself,
    • does not have a single point of failure,
    • and that is digital-native.

    Let’s unpack this:

    • A group: a DAO is a form of organization. It is usually a group of people, but it could also be a group of organizations, a group of other DAOs (yes!) or any combination.

    • This group is distributed: the group members are not all sitting around the same conference table, and may never. The members of many DAOs have not met in person, and often never will. From the get-go, DAO members may come from around the globe. A common jurisdiction cannot be assumed, and as DAO membership changes, over time it may be that most members eventually come from a very different geography than where the DAO started.

    • With a common cause: DAOs are organized around a common cause, or mission, like “save the whales” or “invest in real-estate together”. Lots of different causes are possible, covering most areas of human interest, including “doing good”, “not for profit” or “for profit”.

    • This cause is of consequence to the members, and members are invested in the group. Because of that, members will not easily abandon the group. So we are not talking about informal pop-in-and-out-groups where maybe people have a good time but don’t really care whether the group is successful, but something where success of the group is important to the members and they will work on making the group successful.

    • That governs itself: it’s not a group that is subservient to somebody or some other organization or some other ruleset. Instead, the members of the DAO together make the rules, including how to change the rules. They do not depend on anybody outside of the DAO for that (unless, of course, they decide to do that). While some DAOs might identify specific members with specific roles, a DAO is much closer to direct democracy than representative democracy (e.g. as in traditional organization where shareholders elect directors who then appoint officers who then run things).

    • That does not have a single point of failure and are generally resilient. No single point of failure should occur in terms of people who are “essential” and cannot be replaced, or tools (like specific websites). This often is described in a DAO context as “sufficient decentralization”.

    • And that is digital-native: a DAO usually starts on-line as a discussion group, and over time, as its cause, membership and governance become more defined, gradually turns into a DAO. At all stages members prefer digital tools and digital interactions over traditional tools and interactions. For example, instead of having an annual membership meeting at a certain place and time, they will meet online. Instead of filling out paper ballots, they will vote electronically, e.g. on a blockchain. (This is where having a blockchain is convenient, but there are certainly other technical ways voting could be performed.)

    Sounds … very broad? It is! For me, that’s one of the exciting things about DAOs. They come with very little up-front structure, so the members can decide what and how they want to do things. And if they change their minds, they change their minds and can do that any time, collectively, democratically!

    Of course, all this freedom means more work because a lot of defaults fall away and need to be defined. Governance can fail in new and unexpected ways because we don’t have hundreds of years of precedent in how, say, Delaware corporations work.

    As an inventor and innovator, I’m perfectly fine with that. The things I tend to invent – in technology – are also new and fail in unexpected ways. Of course, there is many situations where that would be unacceptable: when operating a nuclear power plant, for example. So DAOs definitely aren’t for everyone and everything. But where existing structure of governance are found to be lacking, here is a new canvas for you!

  • 2021-01-24

    In praise of incompetence

    Shortly after the 2016 election, I pulled out a book written by my grandfather, chronicling the history of Bachhagel, the village in southern Germany where he grew up.

    I re-read the chapters describing how the Nazis, in short order, took over life there in 1933. His eye-witness account describes in fascinating, and horrifying detail, how quickly the established order and century-old traditions were hollowed out and then overrun.

    Bachhagel at the time was a tiny place, probably less than 1000 people, out in the countryside, of no political or economic importance. I could have understood how the Nazis would concentrate on the major population and economic centers to crush the opposition, but Bachhagel certainly was as far away from that as possible.

    Nevertheless it just took a few months, after which the established order had been swept out and the thugs were fully in charge, day to day, from school to church to public events, and their entire worldview was the only thing that mattered.

    With Joe Biden in the office this week, it seems we have turned a chapter. And looking back to the 2016 election day, I realize that although the past four years were bad, people died, children got separated, and many other outrages, we have been lucky. In 2016, I had been expecting worse, and possibly much worse.

    Why didn’t it turn out as bad as I had feared? It’s not that the defenders of the republic did a particularly good job. Instead, the would-be usurpers just sucked at getting anything done, including just actually using the power in their. hands. If it had been the original Nazis, the consequences would have been so much worse.

    I vastly prefer better defenses, however, than being lucky with having an incompetent opponent. In computer security terms, Trump was a Zero Day Vulnerability of the constitutional system of the US – a successful attack vector that previously had not been known.

    Unfortunately, people still aren’t taking this attack vector as a seriously as they should, otherwise we’d have specific legal and practical fix proposals all over the news, which we don’t. Which means the vulnerability remains, and our primary defense will remain the same: hoping that the attacker is incompetent. As long as we don’t fix the system, the next attacker is going to try a similar route and they may very well be more capable. In which case we’d really be in trouble.

    So: I raise my glass to imcompetence. Next time, may we get a similar bunch of incompetents. Or actually get our act together and make sure there won’t be a next time.

  • 2020-10-01

    Categorizing social connections

    Social networking websites categorize the people I might be related to into:

    • those I am (bi-directional) “friends” with;
    • those that I follow (but they don’t follow me back), and vice versa;
    • those that are related to my friends, but not me directly;
    • those whose stuff the social network overlords think you should know about it (that includes advertisers)
    • everybody else.

    This categorizing seems contrary to the way non-dysfunctional human relationships work. What is a better categorization? Here is my version:

    • My close family and friends. These are the people have the key to my house; they live in my house or are welcome all the time, and will help out no matter what the time of night it might be. I’ll call them Family, whether we have common genes or not.

    • Next are the people that I know well, but who I wouldn’t normally give a key to my house. I know them well because I have worked with them, I have had fun with them, I know a bit about their life history, I have some idea about their families and what they worry about. Traditionally, that would be an actual village but in times of the internet, people may live far away. It may include my neighborhood, my congregation, my political faction, or people I have done projects with. I call them my Village.

    • Beyond that is my Tribe. That’s people with whom I share a clear interest, although I may know many members of my tribe only by name, or not at all. This would include people of the same faith or Weltanschauung as I have, people in the same town, of the same profession or political persuasion with a similar value system.

    • And there is everybody else, the World.

    There may be one more tier between tribe and world, sort of on a country level. Other than by allegiance to the same government (or grudging acceptance of the same government?), I’m having some difficulties to define this tier, so I’m leaving it out of this post.

    Worth noting is that I can be member of several of those groupings. For example, I can be member of several Villages (my home town vs my college town) or Tribes (say, my politics and my passion for electronics). Or maybe the better way of looking at it would be to use this categorization only from my point of view; what is a single Village to me may not be a single Village to anybody else.

    I’m sure social science has lots of categorizations like that. Not being a social scientist, what am I missing in this home-grown version?

  • 2020-03-20

    Potential exit paths from the COVID-19 pandemic

    How we got ourselves into this pandemic was quite straightforward: too little, too late, too much incompetence, and a shocking lack of preparation.

    How we will get ourselves out of it is not so obvious. Here are the avenues I see:

    We do nothing.

    If so, the pandemic grows exponentially, infects most humans on the planet in short order, the healthcare system is so overloaded it might as well not exist, but the pandemic burns itself out quickly as well.

    • Duration: short (say 6 months)
    • Healthcare system: overwhelmed by some factors
    • Deaths: millions upon millions
    • Economy: recovers
    A medication is found relatively quickly.

    I think of it like Robutussin extra-extra strength. This (hypothetical) medication gets symptoms of the infection down to non-lethal levels, say like the common cold. Of course, I have heard nothing to indicate that such a medication could exist, but if one were found then:

    • Duration: medium
    • Healthcare system: functioning
    • Deaths: few
    • Economy: largely not impacted
    Lockdowns, until an effective vaccine is found/developed.

    If so, everybody says it’s at least 12 months out, if it can be found. Then it needs to be mass-produced and delivered. So:

    • Duration: 12-18 months
    • Healthcare system: stressed
    • Deaths: a few percent of population
    • Economy: in shambles by the time the vaccine exists
    Lockdowns, but no effective vaccine is found/developed.

    That’s of course possible. In which case, we will either stay on indefinite lockdown or, because we do need to eat and need a functioning economy, the lockdowns will stop and the situation reverts to “We do nothing” after some time.

    • Duration: 18-24 months
    • Healthcare system: stressed, then overwhelmed by some factors
    • Deaths: millions upon millions, but not immediately
    • Economy: in shambles

    And finally, perhaps there is a way to throw information technology at the problem:

    Dynamic quarantine. See separate post with details.

    The idea is to track the likely infection status, and infectiousness, of everybody on the planet, plus their movements with respect to other people and things that help transmission, and continuously update their likely status based on the infectiousness of the people and things they encountered. If this were done with enough information, and enough spatial and temporal resolution, we could with high confidence quarantine only those people who are likely infectious, and let the rest live their lives – in particular their work and consumption behavior – relatively unchanged.

    • Duration: long term
    • Healthcare system: functioning
    • Deaths: a function of a parameter in the algorithm
    • Economy: impacted, but to a degree determined by a parameter in the algorithm.

    To make this kind of thing work, there would literally be thousands of problems to solve, and there is no guarantee whatsoever those problems could be solved, but it is an intriguing thought.

    Summary: I wish we had the option of “and then a miracle occurs”.