Why a Twitter Founding Engineer Is Now Fully Involved in Mastodon

Blaine Cook joined Odeo, the startup of Ev Williams, in 2005. Along with fellow developer, Rabble (also known as Evan Henshaw-Plath), Cook was one of the founding engineers of Twitter in 2006. That same year, Twitter became his own company, led by its original creator Jack Dorsey. But then, in April 2008, Cook… described at the time as the “chief architect” of Twitter, he left abruptly.

What is little known is that Cook had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince his bosses at Twitter to create a decentralized version of the service. A photo taken in February 2008 shows him and another developer, Ralph Meijer, creating a map for a federated Twitter and Jaiku (a similar microblogging site), via XMPP PubSub.

Blaine Cook (left) and Ralph Meijer map a federated social networking service, in February 2008. Photo by Mark Atwood.

Well, now nearly 15 years have passed, and Cook’s vision of a decentralized Twitter seems a lot more viable. Behemoth from Twitter new nemesis, is growing rapidly; currently has 2.5 million Monthly active users. In an interview with The New Stack, I asked Cook how he feels about Mastodon’s rise.

“It feels very familiar and exciting,” he replied with a smile. She points out that Evan Prodromou and others were working on Status.net at the same time as him, in 2008, and among this heterogeneous community of social software developers there was a feeling that “it’s going to be much bigger than this”. So while he loves the fact that Mastodon has broken out in 2022, it’s still very early in the game.

“We’re back to that point where…we have Mastodon, it’s a piece of software that provides some functionality, but I think the fediverse and the possibilities it gives us are so much bigger than just Mastodon. And so what’s really exciting for me right now is, now that we’re at this more developed starting point, seeing what people build on that.”

Fediverse protocols (perhaps including Bluesky)

Cook has many years of experience creating decentralized Internet protocols (he was also a co-author of the OAuth and WebFinger protocols), so I asked him what he had learned over the years about what works and what doesn’t.

“I think the main one for me is [that having] a set of rules for sociability just doesn’t work,” he said. “There will always be differences of opinion, so the federated model gives us the ability to have different communities and different rules, different cultures online. And that’s just admitting there are humans on the circuit, really.”

A few years ago, Cook’s former boss, Jack Dorsey, declared his interest in creating a decentralized protocol for Twitter to work (better late than never). In December 2019, when he was still CEO, Dorsey tweeted that Twitter was funding a project to “develop an open and decentralized standard for social media” and that the goal was for Twitter to “eventually be a client of this standard.”

The project, called Bluesky, became an independent company, although it was dependent on financial support from Twitter (it’s unclear what the status of that funding is today). In October, Bluesky released its draft protocol, the “Authenticated Transport Protocol” (“AT Protocol”). I asked Cook what he thought of Bluesky.

“I think it’s great,” he replied, adding that “fediverse is not just a protocol.”

“I think the technical approach is good,” he said of Bluesky. “They have a lot to figure out and work on, but the team is really good and I’m excited to see where that goes.”

How Mastodon can continue to evolve

Returning to Mastodon, Cook hopes to see “different cultural norms emerge” on the servers, as different communities seek different functionality.

A good example of this is the difference in opinion in the Mastodon community regarding keyword searches. The default position of the open source software project Mastodon is to heavily restrict the search functionality, mainly to prevent trolls from taking advantage of it. But many people (myself included) would like to join a Mastodon instance that allows them to open their posts for indexing so we can search for content in that instance; It’s good for topic tracking, news tracking, etc.

Even if the Mastodon project allows different norms to evolve, there is considerable skepticism in the tech community about whether the fediverse will usurp Twitter’s role in our society. Twitter, the company, he likes to say it is the place where the “public conversation” happens. I asked Cook if he thinks the fediverso is likely to take on that role and become, over time, the default platform for public conversation.

“Yes, I think it is inevitable. We have seen a similar story before: telephone networks used to be monopolies,” she said, adding that government regulation forced them to open up. He envisions a similar situation happening with social media. “My hope is that as Mastodon grows, eventually Twitter will [will] be obliged to federate”.

Building a Better Fediversa Infrastructure

Today, Cook is working on other forms of decentralization, which could eventually help fediverse scale. He is a principal engineer at Fission, which counts Protocol Labs as one of its main investors. Protocol Labs is the creator of Filecoin and the IPFS (Interplanetary File System) protocol, two popular cryptographic projects. Fission says that he is building an “edge computing stack” on top of IPFS. I asked Cook what exactly that means.

“So we are building distributed computing tools,” he explained. “We started from the idea that with WASM (WebAssembly) we now have a secure container oriented to the capacity for code execution. So you can safely run other code that people give you, basically. And with that primitive data and content addresses, and a lot of technology that has come out of the cryptocurrency world, but that doesn’t just have application in the cryptocurrency world, we’re thinking, okay, can we build an environment of run where you can have a local first app that will run on your phone, but when it needs to run against some big and complicated data, it can run in the cloud as well, with no mods [and] You don’t have to implement a complicated Kubernetes cluster, or anything like that.”

While this work is done outside of fediverse, Cook says it could be very useful for fediverse.

“We think there’s a lot of alignment,” he said, noting that Mastodon is a Rails project and relies as much on traditional web server and database technology as Twitter.

“You’ve got your server set up, you’ve got some databases, you’ve got a lot of infrastructure,” he said. “It is relatively expensive to run a Mastodon server. In the 15 years since we built Twitter, a lot has changed. […] there are a lot of things we could do.”

He pointed out the recent scaling issues Mastodon has been having and suggested that an IPFS solution could solve that.

“We can use things like the IPFS network, host that content essentially BitTorrent-style. Therefore, no host will take care of all those requests. […] We are working on an infrastructure that could be used to help scale fediversa.”

It’s great to see the visionary work that Blaine Cook has been doing for the last 15 years starting to pay off on the internet in general. I can’t wait to see what he and his team at Fission come up with for the infrastructure side of the fediverse.

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