There is a recurring villain in the Terry Pratchett novels called The Auditors. They show up over a number of books as the adversary of Death, and make one of their most daring ploys in Thief of Time, which I also consider in the top five of the Discworld canon.
The Audtiors, who I describe in the singular because it thinks of itself as one entity, is one of the most insidious adversaries in the Discworld because it is not evil, or even mean-spirited. It simply wishes there was more order to the universe, and would prefer all life to stop because life is so disorderly.
One of the best descriptions for the existance of The Auditors begins thusly:
Nine-tenths of the universe is the knowledge of the position and direction of everything in the other tenth. Every atom has its biography, every star its file, every chemical exchange its equivalent of the inspector with a clipboard. It is unaccounted for because it is doing the accounting for the rest of it, and you cannot see the back of your own head.
Nine-tenths of the universe, in fact, is paperwork.
This phrasing has stuck with me recently in regards to critique of the internet and online communities. In many ways, the internet is its own auditor, its own bookeeper, its existance is the record of its existance. And yet, thousands upon millions of words have been written explaining more about the communities and worlds that make up the internet. Entire libraries could be filled with the printed pages of digital commentary on Twitter and Facebook and all manner of internet forum that have come before.
One of those pieces of internet critique, which I will not link to because I do not wish to drive traffic to it, rankled me, to the point where I felt a need to counter it. But to counter it properly, we need to establish some background. Carl Sagan once said “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
And so must we, but the universe we’re inventing is The Fediverse, specifically one small corner of it called The Wandering Shop. This is the story of how The Wandering Shop came to be.
Twitter is awful. This is the sentinment that so many of us, myself included, have felt in the past months and years. It’s product decisions are opaque, it’s community vascillates between cynicism and bigotry on a daily basis, and you can never shake the feeling that you’re trying to have an intimate conversation while yelling at the top of your lungs in the public square.
Enter Mastodon, a piece of Open Source software (which in this case, as in most cases of Open Source, means software anyone can edit and everyone has opinions about which they’ll happily go to the barricades for). Mastodon has it’s own fascinating and complex history, involving multiple internet generations of Open Source and Free Software activists, but it is, in essence, a piece of software that behaves much like Twitter that you can host yourself. This definition is untrue by almost every measure, but it aids wonderfully in understanding.
Two crucial facts about Mastodon are true, and possibly beautiful, making them True again: 1) You can host it yourself, meaning you have full ultimate control over the canonical copy of the data. 2) Anyone who joins your instance, your little slice of the network of servers, is subject to your rules, and your community decisions.
One of the things that Twitter got wrong, in my opinion and the opinion of other heavy Twitter users, is that it thought the only way to grow and to have a userbase committed enough to fill the gaping maw of Venture Capital was to allow free speech to be the default. It’s truly mind-boggling how, when unfettered free speech isn’t allowed in the classroom, the workplace, on public television or radio, or in most human relationships, the developers of communication tools for humans think that free speech with no rules (or poorly enforced rules, amounting to the same thing) will prompt quality conversations.
Mastodon, from the outset, made no bones of the fact that the owners of the instances could mute or block or kick off individuals who broke that instance’s community guidelines. They could even block or mute whole other servers, allowing the instance owners to set their own rules and sanctions.
This is what interested me, when I first read the post from Eugen Rochko that kicked off Mastodon for most of us. I joined immediately, and loved the growing community I found there. Mastodon replaced Twitter in my life so quickly that at times it almost felt like whiplash. My fingers would reach to open Twitter of their own accord, and when my mind returned from wherever it had been I would realize what I was doing, close Twitter, and open Mastodon.
I’m forever grateful to that muscle memory, however, because without it the Wandering Shop would not be. It was during one of those brief unconscious Twitter checks that I saw my friend Annalee suggesting the idea of a moderated Scifi/Fantasy Mastodon instance. You can still see the thread here. We got to chatting, first over Twitter, then over email, and days later The Wandering shop was born.
As you can see from that thread, a strong Code of Conduct was part of the Shop’s DNA from the beginning. Many of us, myself included, feel like The Wandering Shop is a real, shared coffee shop that happens to mainly exist in our minds, and so it makes sense to me to say that the guidelines and code of conduct are built into the very walls of the Shop.
Annalee and I wanted to build a community that was open to all, but deliberate in what was and was not acceptable behavior. To the best of my knowledge, we have yet to act on poor behavior from the Shop’s patrons (those who have registered their accounts at The Wandering Shop), but we have muted or blocked accounts and instances that we thought were making life in the Shop worse. Additionally, we’ve put effort into deliberate community building. We made a weekly calendar to encourage conversations, and we try to generally be available as part of the community.
This is, for me, the power of Mastodon, when run deliberately: You can build online communities like neighborhoods, full of people you enjoy sharing the sunset with, and still be connected to the rest of the city down the road. I can honestly say The Wandering Shop is in the top three online communities I’ve ever been a part of. Twitter and Facebook don’t even make top ten.
The article that came out today, that fired me up enough to write this piece, was describing why an instance admin was shutting down his Mastodon instance.
I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was: “I set up my instance as a place with no rules, where anyone could come and be who they wanted to be, and say what they wanted to say. I was stunned and saddened at the abuse and horrific imagery I had to encounter when dealing with this instance, and so I am shutting it down before it gets me in real trouble.”
There is a part of me, a small part, that is always reaching out to connect with other human beings. I don’t think anyone could try so hard to start online communities and not have a portion of yearning in that direction. I feel for this man, who tried and experiment and had it go so wrong.
But mostly I look at what is possible when thoughtful care and attention is taken towards creating a deliberate community, and a spark goes off behind my eyes. I think of the world we’re building at The Wandering Shop, and compare it to this person’s dismissal of the whole concept, and that spark quickly becomes the heart of a forge.
At the XOXO Festival in 2015, Eric Meyer spoke about building the kinds of online communities we want to live in. We’re trying to build a deliberate community at The Wandering Shop. I hope you’ll join us, if you feel so inclined.
You can support The Wandering Shop by donating to our Patreon.