Why a Twitter Founding Engineer Is Now All-in on Mastodon
Blaine Cook joined Odeo, Ev Williams’ startup, in 2005. Along with his fellow developer, Rabble (a.k.a. Evan Henshaw-Plath), Cook was one of the founding engineers of Twitter in 2006. That same year, Twitter was spun off into its own company, led by its original creator Jack Dorsey. But then, in April 2008, Cook — described at the time as Twitter’s “lead architect” — abruptly left.
What’s 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.
Well, now it’s nearly 15 years later and Cook’s vision for a decentralized Twitter looks much more viable. Mastodon, Twitter’s new nemesis, is rapidly growing; it 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. He notes that Evan Prodromou and others were working on Status.net at the same time as he was, in 2008, and there was a sense among this ragtag community of social software developers that “it’s going to be so 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 at that point where…we’ve got Mastodon, it’s a piece of software that provides certain functionality, but I think the fediverse and the affordances that gives us is so much bigger than just Mastodon. And so the thing that I’m really excited about right now is, now that we’re at this more developed starting point, seeing what people build on top of it.”
Fediverse Protocols (Perhaps Including Bluesky)
Cook has had many years of experience building decentralized internet protocols — he was also a co-author of the OAuth and WebFinger protocols — so I asked what he’s learned over the years about what works and what doesn’t.
“I think the main one for me is [that having] one set of rules for sociality just doesn’t work,” he said. “There’s always going to be differences of opinion, and so the federated model gives us the ability to have different communities and different rules — different cultures online. And that’s just admitting that there are humans in the loop, really.”
A few years ago, Cook’s ex-boss Jack Dorsey declared his interest in creating a decentralized protocol for Twitter to run on (better late than never). In December 2019, while 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 ultimately be a client of this standard.”
The project, called Bluesky, was turned into an independent company — albeit one that was reliant on Twitter’s financial support (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 “the fediverse is not just one protocol.”
“I think the technical approach is good,” he said regarding Bluesky. “They’ve got 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
Getting back to Mastodon, Cook expects to see “the emergence of different cultural norms” across servers, as different communities look for different functionality.
A good example of this is the difference of opinions in the Mastodon community regarding keyword searches. The default position of the Mastodon open source software project is to heavily restrict search functionality, mainly in order to prevent trolls from taking advantage of it. But many people (myself included) would like to join a Mastodon instance that lets them open their posts up for indexing, so that we can search content on that instance — it’s good for topic tracking, monitoring news, etc.
Even if the Mastodon project lets different norms evolve, there’s a fair amount of skepticism in the tech community about whether the fediverse will usurp Twitter’s role in our society. Twitter, the company, likes to say it is the place where “public conversation” happens. I asked Cook if he thinks it’s likely that the fediverse can take over that role and become, in time, the default platform for public conversation.
“Yeah, I think it’s inevitable. We’ve seen a similar story before — the phone networks used to be monopolies,” he said, adding that government regulation forced them to open up. He foresees a similar situation happening with social media. “My hope is that with the growth of Mastodon, eventually Twitter [will] be mandated to federate.”
Building Better Fediverse Infrastructure
Nowadays, Cook is working on other forms of decentralization, which could eventually help the fediverse scale. He is principal engineer on Fission, which counts Protocol Labs as one of its main investors. Protocol Labs is the creator of Filecoin and the IPFS protocol (InterPlanetary File System), two popular crypto projects. Fission says it is building an “edge computing stack” on top of IPFS. I asked Cook what that means, exactly?
“So we are building distributed compute tools,” he explained. “We’re starting from the idea that with WASM — WebAssembly — we now have a secure capability-oriented container for code execution. So you can safely run other code that people give you, basically. And with that primitive, and content address data, and a whole bunch of technology that has come out of the crypto world — but doesn’t only have application in the crypto world — we’re looking at like, okay, can we build an execution environment where you can have a local-first app that will run on your phone, but when it needs to run against some big complicated data, it can also run in the cloud — with no modification [and] you don’t have to deploy some complicated Kubernetes cluster, or something like that.”
While this work is being done outside of the fediverse, Cook says it could be very helpful to the fediverse.
“We think that there’s a lot of alignment,” he said, noting that Mastodon is a Rails project and is just as reliant on traditional web server and database technology as Twitter.
“You’ve set up your server, you have some databases, you’ve got a lot of infrastructure,” he said. “It’s relatively expensive to run a Mastodon server. In the 15 years since we built Twitter, a lot has changed […] there’s a bunch of things that we could do.”
He pointed to the recent issues of scaling that Mastodon has had and suggested that an IPFS solution could solve that.
“We can use things like the IPFS network, host that content in essentially a BitTorrent-style way. So no one host will take the load of all of those requests […] We’re working on infrastructure that could be used in ways to help the fediverse scale.”
It’s great to see the visionary work that Blaine Cook has been doing for the past 15 years starting to have payoff in the wider internet. I can’t wait to see what he and his team at Fission come up with for the infrastructure side of the fediverse.