This article got a bit long, there’s a tl;dr at the bottom.
This week has been an interesting time to be on the internet. MindGeek, the company behind the hugely popular PornHub and XTube networks, had their merchant accounts suspended by Mastercard and Visa over allegations made against it. The instant reaction was to delete all accounts and associated videos from any account that wasn’t a verified content partner (effectively as studio or registered amateur account).
In the kink world, this has been taken hard. Many people have had several years worth of content deleted overnight, with no option to keep a copy. This isn’t the first time this has happened to the community, back in 2018 tumblr banned all NSFW content, a move which has nearly killed the site, and services such as Instagram continue to be hostile banning #latex. Currently, Twitter appears to be one of the few big safe havens for such things, but there are concerns that it is only a matter of time before they turn as well. Even adult friendly platforms have issues, I frequently see reports from people that kink photos are banned on services such as Grindr. There are some dedicated kink social media sites such as recon and fetlife, but these still have one crucial Achilles heel, they rely on advertising and sponsorship for their main income, meaning there is somebody who could decide it is undesirable and heavily censor it.
With all this going on, you might be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t a viable long term solution. So long as there is somebody attempting to make money from it, there will be somebody else behind them pulling the strings. This might be an advertising agency, corporate sponsor, partnership system, DMCA abusers, or even payment processors as we’ve seen this week.
The best solution to this problem is to take the power away from a single actor, no one entity has the power to decide what is and isn’t acceptable for people to share. The big problem with this is the complexity that arises as a result, the more nodes you introduce, the more places there are for problems to appear. There are many approaches that can be taken, but the comparison between them is a story for another time.
To sum up federation in a simple way, it is a collection of websites all talking to each other in the same language.
I find the easiest way to think about this is to think of email, we can use different services to talk to each other without needing to have an account with that service.
I have my email address
@itsg.host, whilst you might have
@gmail.com, and emails will quite happily (well usually) go back and forth between the two.
If I one day get fed up with using
@itsg.host, I can just use a different service, and we can continue talking.
Federated social media works in much the same way, except instead of pushing an email to
recepients, it either maintains a list of subscribers to send it to, or a list of subscriptions to pull from.
For those of you old enough to remember RSS and newsgroups, it is fundamentally very similar, only it has evolved a bit to support more sophisticated two way communication.
Each federated service consists of a number of
Each instance is in itself a fully fledged service, but it is also capable of talking with other instances to send and fetch content from them.
Instances owners can choose what an instance is for, and set individual moderation rules or other restrictions, but only on their instance.
To avoid going into 70 pages of tech talk here, the end result is giving the end user choice about where they host their content.
If they don’t like an instance’s policies, they can choose a different one, or even host their own, without missing out on interacting with their friends.
The big problem with all distributed systems is how to fund their operation. Some models such as peer-to-peer have very minimal operational costs, but the complexity of them instead proves to be the bottleneck to user adoption. By contrast, federated services such as Mastodon, PeerTube, and Matrix provide a much more familiar user experience, you go to a website, login, and there everything is for you. Unfortunately, federated services require servers which cost money, and in the case of video in particular, these can get pretty significant due to the size of the content involved.
This has lead to many instances being hosted by people out of their own generosity, I for example run cloud storage, video streaming, chat, and video calling systems for friends and family, something that costs me a pretty substantial amount each month. Others choose to cover the cost of their services with adverts, which comes full circle to the really poplar instances operating at the whim of a big company.
Whilst having many smaller instances is only a good thing for federated networks, it does introduce some user complexity particularly when it comes to content discovery, you may need to search a specific server to first find somebody who doesn’t federate much outside their own server. The biggest problem with small instances though is availability, they only exist so long as the owner is able to provide it, if the money runs out users have to migrate elsewhere.
Charging a subscription to host on an instance would solve the funding issue, but it would also deter many users who think it isn’t worthwhile for them.
Pay what you think its worth
One of the best solutions I’ve come across to covering operating costs whilst also keeping the pricing accessible is to ask people to pay what they think it is worth to them to have it hosted for them. A very light user of a service might only think it is worth £1-2/month for them, whilst a heavy user might recognise that it would cost them £20-30/month plus their time to do everything themselves so be willing to contribute more. Charging a very small registration fee would also serve as an excellent barrier to entry for spammers, as the cost of mass spamming would rapidly become problematic.
This model can even be taken a step further, allow users to consume content free of charge on your services, and perhaps even post light loads such as text without any contributions. It might only be necessary to restrict the more expensive items such as video hosting to those who contribute something towards the costs, giving them a guide as to how much their activity is costing. Not only is this a sustainable source of funding ensuring longevity of service, but it is also fair on users. Again, if a user disagrees with the policy, they are still free to setup their own instance and federate with the users on the paid platform at their own cost.
A possible solution: tl;dr
I propose it might be sensible to setup a pay-what-you-think-its-worth kink friendly federation hub, with a small registration fee for spam deterrent. Initially, and in light of the weeks events, this would just be a PeerTube instance with external authentication, but this could be expanded in the future to include:
- A personal profile service
- OpenID provider for others to use for their services
- Something new as yet undiscovered
The main advantage would be a single sign on between several types of social network, giving users the power to choose where they store their data, without being penalised in how they can interact with each other. I don’t currently know how viable this is, or if there is any interest at all before I invest quite a bit of my time setting it up, so I’ve created a survey to better understand whats needed.