in which legibility comes at a price

It's been a weird few weeks for decentralized social media. The collapse of Twitter at the hands of an incompetent billionaire has led to a massive wave of users on the Fediverse1, from under a million to over seven million now. And at the time of this writing Twitter hasn't even finished collapsing yet; the site is still hobbling along, albeit with gaping holes. Though by the time I've finished writing this post, who knows. A lot can happen.

a graph of new users per day overlaid with various events
            leading to Twitter's demise; each disaster causes a spike.

As you might expect, the huge influx has caused some technical problems to the Fediverse. The mega-instances like mastodon.social saw slow page load times and hours of lag between something posted and it propagating out to other servers. More reasonably-sized servers have still seen some lesser propagation lag, but the main effect of this influx has been nontechnical. New users have had a hard time finding well-run servers that are accepting new members, and there has been a lot of complaining that the system is hard to understand or navigate due to its distributed nature.

whenever twitter makes a bunch of its users angry we get a new wave of activity on the [Fediverse] and all the new mastodon users engage in the primary hobby of a new mastodon user, which is listing all of the reasons why mastodon doesn't work. it's real fun

- @rootsworks@mastodon.social

Some of this is simply a necessary difference between a single unified corporate system to a distributed network. In the 1990s we saw a similar type of confusion as people left silos like America OnLine (AOL) and CompuServ to explore the early days of the World Wide Web. It wasn't as polished, and there was no central view of the entire network. You had to do more exploring to find independent communities that ran their own sites. People who remember making this shift know now that the effort was worth it, but back then you couldn't fault people for wondering why things couldn't just be easy like it used to be.

But I believe there's more to the situation with the Fediverse today than simply the differences that arise out of technical necessity.

I recently finished reading the book Seeing Like a State by James Scott. There's a lot to unpack in this book2, but I want to talk about the way it defines the term legibility. Legibility describes the degree to which a place is understandable and navigable to an outsider.

a street near the market in Mae Sot, Thailand

My favorite example of legibility is street addresses. When I lived in Thailand I was initially very surprised to learn that even long-time residents had a very rough grasp of the names of most of the streets in the city. People navigated by landmarks instead. As a newcomer to the city it was very disorienting; I had to set aside my ideas I brought in about how to navigate and learn to read the city like a local. In the end after living there two years I knew the names of four or five of the major streets, but when someone wanted to know where my house was, I didn't give them a street address; I told them it was a block east of the bus terminal.

This attitude towards navigating looks different depending on whether you're an outsider or a resident. To a resident it's no big deal, but to someone who's new to the city it can be frustrating and bewildering. In some cases (for instance, cities that rely on tourism) there are incentives for the locals to increase legibility, but other factors can incentivize people to reduce their legibility.

Legibility is particularly interesting when it lies at the crux of a power imbalance, and the book describes many such situations. As pre-modern states in Europe consolidated their power, they looked for ways to collect taxes and conscript soldiers more effectively. Customary naming made this very difficult.

Only wealthy aristocrats tended to have fixed surnames…Imagine the dilemma of a tithe or capitation-tax collector [in England] faced with a male population, 90% of whom bore just six Christian names (John, William, Thomas, Robert, Richard, and Henry).

Seeing Like a State by James Scott

In order to consolidate their power over their citizens, states rolled out policies to increase the legibility of the population they ruled over; they started to require that everyone take a surname in order to uniquely identify them to the state in censuses and tax documents. As you can imagine, this didn't go over well; the historical record documents intense resistance, in some cases even open rebellion. The people themselves had no need for surnames; they got along fine with a given name supplemented when necessary with contextual specifiers. "John" might be "John the Baker" in some contexts and "Short John" in others and "John Underhill" to people in the next town. This system worked fine for everyone involved, except those wishing to exert their authority from the outside.3

If this sounds familiar to you, it might be because you were paying attention to social media controversies of the last decade! Prominent advertising companies like Facebook and Google attempted to roll out tremendously unpopular policies requiring users to identify themselves using their legally-documented name4. Though these policies were always accompanied by some flimsy justification about "user safety", the real goal was to make their users more legible, primarily for advertising purposes, but also to law enforcement and other authorities.

Well, it turns out just like villagers in premodern France, lots of users don't want to make themselves more legible! Even setting aside the impossibility of a company like Facebook accurately identifying the difference between a pseudonym and a legal name, there are a lot of great reasons to not want to be easy to find. Avoiding targeted advertising is just the tip of the iceberg; ask any member of a marginalized group and they'll tell you that being easy to find can have a high cost when it exposes you to targeted abuse.

Twitter features full-text search of everything posted. This is fantastic for legibility; if you're curious about a topic, you can always see who's talking about it. One of the ways this gets used on Twitter is to pick fights. Trolls find a hot topic and barge uninvited into conversations to yell at people who disagree with their position. On the Fediverse, search is opt-in instead of opt-out. Normal text doesn't get indexed, but hashtags do. If you want your post to become searchable under certain terms, a # is all it takes, but the randos won't show up unless you go out of your way to invite them.

In some ways, people today coming to the Fediverse from corporate social media remind me of how I felt when I first moved to Thailand—lost and bewildered by the lack of street signs. They've spent a lot of time on the highways of platforms that prioritize "engagement" at all cost, and it's taking a while for it to sink in that not all the Internet works that way. They've never considered that illegibility can be a defense mechanism..

Become illegible.5


[1] The Fediverse is a network of interconnected social media servers that exchange posts. Most of its usage is based on a similar model to Twitter, but there are some systems on it that focus on photos or videos. Because the most common Fediverse server is called Mastodon, many people use the word Mastodon to talk about the network, similar to how in the 1990s people said "Internet Explorer" when they meant the web.

[2] While the book is insightful, it is pretty long, and the two case studies in the middle drag on a bit. I strongly recommend reading the first three chapters and the last two chapters, but you can still get 90% of the insight by skipping the two very detailed case studies in the middle.

[3] The scary thing about this is how absolute the normalization of surnames became over time despite the intense resistance. In the end, people accepted the greater control, and even tho surnames were rare in many societies only a few hundred years ago, nowadays they are thought of by most people as "natural".

[4] These policies often misleadingly referred to the legal name as the "real name", as if legal process had some magical access to reality itself which could not be achieved using the customary naming patterns people have been using for millennia.

[5] I have to admit to stretching this a bit for a punchy closing line, but of course it's not as simple as "legibility bad"; obviously there are many cases in which you want legibility. I'm trying to convey the fact that legibility does have downsides, and if you've never even considered this, then it's impossible for you to have a productive conversation about social software in today's context.

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