A Quick Refresher on The Fediverse Meta, Blocklists, and Everything Up to Now
The last few months of my time on the Fediverse have largely been defined by one long series of events that all relate to one another directly. A lot of the posts about this are either deleted or scattered across multiple instances, so I wanted to make a single post running down my version of events thus far and catching folks up who are out of the loop or just want to hear it from my side.
A fair warning: I intend to editorialize a fair amount in this post. I'm not trying to misinform, but I'm also not trying to be perfectly neutral, and given my involvement in things, that's not possible anyway. In reading this, you'll get equal doses of a factual timeline of events and my opinions on the people and projects involved.
Blocklists: A Long and Troubled History
Blocklists have been a thing since long before Mastodon and the Fediverse, and so has my commentary about them.
While I fully understand and appreciate the desire of folks to stay safe online and avoid bad actors, for well over a decade now I've strongly urged caution when using blocklists for a few simple reasons:
They put someone who isn't you in charge of who you can and can't see online, and that's a lot of trust to put in someone who maintains a list that, let's face it, you aren't going to pore through item-by-item or even notice if it changes.
An ideal blocklist would be built by people with exactly the same values as you, with exactly the same threshold for good and bad behavior, the same willingness to forgive past misdeeds, etc. In other words, the perfect blocklist for you is really the one you already maintain yourself.
Blocklists far too often diverge from their stated goals and catch people who they shouldn't in their dragnets. This can result from honest mistakes, from too-aggressive “guilt by association” grouping, or in the worst of cases, from list maintainers who use the list as a tool to silence people with whom they personally disagree.
If you're a decent person and you're caught up in these blocklists, it can be a psychologically devastating prospect. You can find yourself isolated from a community you strongly support, cut out of networking opportunities, and presumed guilty simply by virtue of your presence on the list. Often, appealing your spot on a blocklist is not well-documented or transparent and can be an exercise in frustration in itself.
Mind you, none of these concerns have anything to do with having “issues with consent” or boundaries, but rather are meant to caution users of these lists that they are an imperfect solution to a complex social problem and should be met with scrutiny.
I say all of that only to say that I've been having this exact conversation for many, many years now. My concerns here aren't new and aren't specific to the Fediverse or any of its blocklists.
TheBadSpace and the FSEP
A few months back, I saw a post about the Federation Safety Enhancement Project, a proposal by Nivenly to add safety features to the out-of-the-box user experience of Mastodon.
One of the things that struck me was how, in this initial implementation, the whole user interface (UI) for blocklists seemed to be built around a single project, something called “TheBadSpace”. I was unfamiliar with this project entirely, but I saw how the FSEP's proposed UI centered around the list, effectively treating it as a one-click option to keep the “worst of the worst” instances away from your own. It even had the “biohazard” symbol representing TheBadSpace, as if the list contained toxic and dangerous servers that you'd do best to stay away from.
Naturally, this prompted some scrutiny from folks. If this one list was going to be basically the authoritative blocklist in a proposed “safer” Mastodon, we'd do well to look into what's actually on that list, right?
So, folks dug deeper, and what one user found and published on a Neocities site called “TheGoodSpace” was particularly alarming: multiple sites on the list were on there for no stated reason whatsoever (the default catch-all being “poor moderation, hate speech”) and several of the instances listed were huge communities of LGBTQ+ people. One such instance, tech.lgbt, was especially strange, as it was a very popular queer instance that was also generally quite well-moderated.
A lot of folks spoke up in very short order about this, and I was one of them. It was at this point that I actually learned what TheBadSpace was: a project by a man who goes by “Are0h” (or just “Ro”) online with this stated purpose:
The Bad Space project was born from a need to effectively identify instances that house bad actors and are poorly moderated, which puts marginalized communities at risk.
This sounds fine, right? Surely it was all a simple misunderstanding and it'll be cleared up in no time at all by Ro, and we'll get on with our lives.
Ro, the man pulling the strings of TheBadSpace is, himself, a very outspoken and polarizing figure. Not only does he run TheBadSpace alongside other projects, but he actively fundraises to support his efforts to create what he considers a “safer” Fediverse, making a relative shitload of cash in the process. This profit motive, plus his extreme willingness to put his critics on blast using his sizable social following, has led him to be called everything from a 4chan psyop to a far-right sockpuppet.
If I may level with you here, I don't think Ro's any of those things. But I do think he's an asshole. He's an asshole for comparing a server full of thousands of decent LGBTQ+ people to KiwiFarms, he's an asshole for calling a similarly decent furry server a bunch of alt-righters spreading supremacist ideology, he's an asshole for saying death threats are okay as long as the other person made you mad on the Internet, and he's an asshole for constantly, without fail or exception, attributing any criticism of his words or his projects to racism. I'll get into all those specifics later, but I want to be clear upfront that I call him an asshole because of the terrible things he's said and done, not because he purports to stand up to injustice.
I sincerely believe him when he says he's experienced some outright heinous racism from around the Fediverse. I also believe that he's committed, in principle, to making the Fediverse a place where marginalized groups can feel safer posting freely and being themselves. I do not, however, believe that the blocklist he maintains achieves this end, nor do I believe that his own rhetoric is in any way good or right or appropriate.
From the beginning, Ro deflected this wave of criticism of TheBadSpace as coming solely from “bigots” who had no better intentions than to keep the Fediverse “white” and to bully marginalized folks off of it. He said that anyone who had sincere concerns should just take them up with him personally, but when anyone engaged him in conversation, he typically just hurled angry insults at them and told them to fuck off, so very few people saw that as a productive way forward.
Not only is he famously abrasive toward anyone who brought up any concerns or criticisms of his projects, but he's all too willing to rally his followers to act against any person or instance who he feels has crossed him. He makes heavy use of the “#fediblock” hashtag, often recommending defederation from entire instances over the behavior of one or two people there (you'll notice this as a trend).
One might say that this is a worrisome tendency for the maintainer of a blocklist to have, but he would quickly counter that by saying that his personal block recommendations don't make it onto his list automatically.
All the same, however, they still always seem to make it onto the list, and that's because of another group I should mention...
The Ideological Cult of “Canceldon”
Any time Ro speaks out about a group or instance, even if he doesn't personally slap them onto TheBadSpace himself, they seem to wind up on there anyway, and that's because the list of “trusted sources” that fuel that blocklist are all people who are fiercely loyal to Ro, his projects, his beliefs and his goals.
When I say “fiercely”, I don't mean they just strongly agree. I mean that they adhere strictly to a certain set of ideological tenets, they will strongly defend one another with whatever rhetorical tricks are necessary as though they can do no wrong, and they will use any influence available to them anywhere on the Fediverse to silence anyone who expresses any sort of dissenting voice about them.
Some have taken issue with me calling that an ideological “cult”, but I really don't know a better word for it, so that's the word I'm sticking with from here on out.
Perhaps the most influential of this inner circle is WelshPixie, a particularly insufferable 40-something demifem living in South Africa. It isn't the depth or significance of her opinions that has earned her this influence, however, but rather her position since early 2021 as the Curator of mastodon.art, a hugely popular instance due in no small part to their notable domain name.
In her role as Curator, WelshPixie (“WP”) has taken a heavy stance on instance moderation. The DotArt instance limits or suspends well over a thousand other instances, and while she'll tell you it's comparatively a small percentage of the Fediverse, it's still among the most heavily moderated servers out there.
Of course, just like Ro, WP will tell you it's all in the interests of protecting marginalized communities. However, also just like Ro, WP's moderation actions seem more to reflect her personal tastes in people and servers, with her often holding the actions of one or two posters against huge instances of thousands of people, severing tens of thousands of connections in the process.
Bless Your Heart, Tech.lgbt
Remember how tech.lgbt was one of the instances that was flagged as “poor moderation, hate speech” on TheBadSpace after folks looked into the list?
Well, one of their moderators spoke up about it. They saw the posts that were already floating around about TBS and spoke up, recommending that nobody use the blocklist. Their post was not the first, nor was it the most popular, among many posts speaking up about the issue.
Nevertheless, this mod's post drew Ro's full attention and anger. He pinned the entire wave of criticism on this moderator, accusing them of not only being a racist themselves, but of stoking a racist campaign of harassment against him and his site.
WelshPixie, working in lock-step with Ro, announced that DotArt would be defederating (severing all follow connections and preventing new ones) from tech.lgbt in a month's time on account of this vaguely defined “racism”, demanding that any mod who spoke out about TBS step down or the suspension would be inevitable.
As you'd imagine, all hell broke loose.
It turns out that the tech-enthusiast LGBTQ+ community are also substantial art patrons, and they represented a not-insignificant volume of the DotArt community's business. What's more, the specific targeting of this LGBTQ+-centric instance had all the optics of a dumpster fire, especially given that the entire instance was being punished over what were seemingly minor interpersonal disagreements.
Not only was I pissed, but a lot of folks on tech.lgbt were pissed too. They spoke up loudly to defend themselves and their community. Some saw it as a deliberate attempt to silence LGBTQ+ voices, and responded with all the anger that caused them.
This anger only justified the decision for Ro and WP, with Ro at one point saying that the server was, to him, as bad as KiwiFarms. Given KiwiFarms had famously targeted trans people, and many in the LGBTQ+ community personally knew someone whose life had been upended (or even ended) by the harassment from KF, this comparison was particularly heinous and inappropriate.
Surely the others in his circle would call him out for saying such a horrible thing and targeting LGBTQ+ people with claims that they were no better than the people who had victimized them for years, right? Surely, WP would take a step back, examine herself and her role in all this, and realize things had gone way too far...right?
Nope! Everyone involved doubled the fuck down. Despite the tech.lgbt admins banding together to write an incredibly long post explaining all their findings and trying to smooth things over, WP carried on with her defederation, and one day tens of thousands of connections suddenly and irreparably vanished into thin air on her command.
Enter Tusky...and Me Again
Like lots of folks, I was pretty pissed about how things had gone down with DotArt and tech.lgbt. I had seen the stress it put on a ton of very good people who were nothing more than “collateral damage” for this ideological battle taking place around them, and I admit that, for some time, my anger over what this represented about the Fediverse really dragged me down in the dumps mentally.
One day, weeks after all this had gone down and the dust had mostly settled, I stumbled upon a thread. It was between a poster named Ra'il and several of the core maintainers of Tusky, a popular third-party Mastodon client for Android.
In it, Ra'il had said that they were uninstalling Tusky because its community manager had spoken out against TheBadSpace. The core maintainers in the thread were pretty astounded by this news, with one saying they'd never work with someone who didn't support TBS, and another saying they'd ensure the issue was taken care of internally.
Knowing what the TBS inner circle was like and what they had just said and done about tech.lgbt, I flipped out and quickly penned a thread titled “I think I just saw someone get fired from Tusky for criticizing TheBadSpace”.
Now, I'm not afraid to admit when I've fucked up, and in this situation, I fucked up. In that thread, I rushed to conclusions. I speculated on what I couldn't see under the hood. It would only later become clear that the folks involved were all volunteers (so nobody was really “fired”), and in the wake of it all, the community manager who had made (fairly mild) critique of TBS and one of the lead maintainers who appeared in the thread had both resigned from the project. I tried to edit my post as time went on to correct the record, but we all know that corrections never spread as far as the original post, so I regret making their lives harder.
The Death Threats
However, that wasn't the end of the issue: the original poster, Ra'il, took issue with the fact that their instance had defederated from mine, so technically, me posting archives of their public posts constituted a form of “block evasion”. They said it amounted to a violation of consent and boundaries.
As an aside, this was honestly never my intention, nor did I even know that was happening. I often use Mastodon's “advanced” UI, which is bad for reading long threads, so I open those up in their own tab. That tab is rendering from the poster's instance, not my own, so it doesn't take blocks or defederation into account. It would've been willful block evasion had I found a way to look at their private posts, but I was only seeing their public ones via a non-logged-in Mastodon tab, exactly as Mastodon is designed to do.
Ra'il decided to test the waters, though, and to prove a point, they made these public posts directed at me:
Hey Silver Eagle. If you're not evading this block then you won't see this and it'll be fine.
I'll see you in real life. I know people in Austin that'll get me your info. I'm in Austin on a yearly basis. I don't know who tf you think you're talking to, but you'll pay for how you're treating me. Offline. Period.
You wanna stalk Black people's accounts that have you blocked? You wanna terrorize us?
Okay. You'll know what terror is.
Boy, that escalated quickly.
I thought we were all having a (heated, but by all accounts benign) discussion about various goings-on in the Fediverse, and this person came at me with what looked by all accounts to be a credible threat on my life and safety.
Well, that sure scared the shit out of me! I posted about the threats and idly mused that it had risen to the level of needing to alert the cops about it.
Whether it was due to the absolute groundswell of reports directed at those posts or the poster's own conscience, the threats were rather quickly deleted.
All the same, the question now remained: is this where the rhetoric has gone in this discussion?
We started with talking about ways to make the Fediverse safer for marginalized groups, and now here I am (myself a disabled, neurodivergent LGBTQ+ person) staring at what looks like an IRL death threat. This has all gotten way out of hand, right?
Surely someone from this bigger TBS group would speak up, right? They supported anyone who would help in their mission of making the Fediverse safer, but creating fear in marginalized people wasn't the way to do it, and this was a bridge too far, right?
After I removed my public-facing posts out of fear and my instance instituted a strict “do not interact” policy against TBS supporters, others in the group noticed how successful the threats had been and remarked “i think we need to start going around threatening them with violence”.
WelshPixie, famous for going to any lengths to keep her instance safe for marginalized folks, not only supported the person making the threats but even downplayed the severity of them. She called the threats nothing more than “Navy Seal” copypasta and said that I was the real danger for having mentioned the idea of calling the cops in one post immediately after seeing the threats.
It's worth pointing out that, of course, I didn't call the cops. Not only did I not think they'd do anything to help, I was reasonably sure they'd fuck the whole thing up and hurt innocent folks somehow. It's what they do. All the same, I had only considered calling my local police department, not the PD at wherever-Ra'il-lives (I have no idea), so they would've only ever been in danger had they tried to make real their threats to come to my town and inflict harm on me.
But let's unpack that other thing, the thing about it having been a “Navy Seal” copypasta.
Wh...what the fuck?!
Okay, for those of you who don't know, the Navy Seal copypasta is an old meme with its roots in 4chan threads. It's notable for its wildly exaggerated claims (“I have over 300 confirmed kills”) and its ridiculous, hyperbolic threats (“I will wipe you the fuck out with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my fucking words”).
This...wasn't that. Not even a little. In fact, someone did a poll (archive) asking if the text of the post seemed familiar as a copypasta to anyone, and 97% of the folks who responded said it didn't, and it seemed like a real threat instead.
So really, WelshPixie was just doing what she always does, bending over backwards and defying every bit of logic and reality to defend the people in her ideological circle and defame the ones outside it. Her friends have to stay the “good guys” and her critics have to stay the “bad guys”, and any amount of introspection or self-reflection is tantamount to weakness and must be avoided.
In fact, just today Ro yet again wholeheartedly supported the threats. This is a person who claims to be a force of “chaotic good” in defending marginalized people, who says that a marginalized person wholly deserved a death threat for posting a screenshot of the words someone publicly posted on Mastodon. Do you trust, for even a moment, that if we all took marching orders from his posts, we'd end up with a safer Fediverse?
Where We Are Now
The whole time this was going on, I was posting from an instance called furry.engineer, because I am a furry and, well, an engineer. They have unfortunately also come under fire by WelshPixie, Ro and others, all using the same tired and ill-substantiated claims of a vague “racism” that is never fully spelled out for the audience, and is always defended with a handwaving “if we say it's racism, it's racism” self-fulfilling justification.
The reality is, just like any other instance worth being on, they absolutely don't tolerate bigotry of any sort, whether that's racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. and they would've never tolerated it from me, either. What they're accused of by DotArt and the TBS folks has no bearing in reality to what the instance is actually like.
All the same, I figure they knew how dangerous it would be to wind up in the crosshairs of this TBS cult, so they never spoke up one way or another about my posts, neither in support of them nor in opposition to them.
The only time they spoke up on my behalf was when those threats came out, to say that this was too far and they wouldn't tolerate such things.
In the midst of this, I realized that anything I posted would invariably be held against everyone on whatever server I lived on, so I packed my bags and went my own way, first to my own self-hosted instance and then to the much larger mastodon.social.
You would think that if my inoffensive presence on furry.engineer somehow made the space unsafe for marginalized folks, that my presence on .social would do the same, right? Well, herein lies a huge hypocrisy for WelshPixie: those strong and steadfast principles of hers stop right at the front door of dotSocial. Whether you believe her explanation (that they're “hundreds of thousands of potential art buyers”, so there's just too much money in it to care) or what others have proposed (that dotSocial would never put up with her shit and would defederate from dotArt in a heartbeat, leaving her in charge of an empty empire), it's worth noting that she only seems to care and speak up so strongly when it's a smaller, more vulnerable instance she can pick on.
But back to furry.engineer. Even though they had navigated the minefield as best as they could and instituted a strict “do not interact” policy (and even briefly suspended me for reporting the threats against me, considering that an interaction), and even though I eventually picked up and left completely, that wasn't enough. WelshPixie defederated from them anyway for the cardinal sin of having ever allowed me to exist there in the first place, and for having spoken up about the wrongness of death threats.
Not once has a single person involved in TBS's inner circle, be it Ro or WelshPixie or countless others, admitted there was anything they did wrong at any point in this whole process. They have taken no accountability, done no self-reflection, and not lifted a finger as the group's rhetoric became ever more violent and aggressive.
Instead, they have doubled down on their opponents. Ro has said that he suspects furry.engineer is “an alt-right instance hiding behind queerness to spread supremacist ideology”, and WP, in her post, describes the server as racist and an unsafe place for marginalized folks, the same unfair and untrue terms used to describe tech.lgbt and, indeed, any server they dislike.
Thousands of people, some of whom are the kindest and sweetest people I've had the pleasure of knowing in my life, are losing access to one another over this, and yet nobody in this group is slamming on the brakes, urging a peaceful dialogue or restraint in moderation. It just keeps hurting more and more people, with no end in sight.
You may notice that a lot of the instances caught in the crosshairs are ones heavily populated by furries. You may be inclined to cynically say “furries aren't a protected class”, but it's been well-established for years now that furry hate is often just a thinly-veiled proxy for queerphobia and, lately, transphobia. While I won't go so far as to say that the defederations mentioned here were solely a product of queerphobia (some certainly would, and have), I will say that furries certainly make a much more “convenient”, easily-assailable target than the largely neurodivergent and queer populations that actually make up the fandom. However, it is these populations, tens of thousands of extremely decent people facing increasingly antagonistic societies, who are most heavily victimized by these heavy-handed decisions and inappropriate accusations.
So where do we go from here?
Well, that's where I think the Fediverse's tendency to create “tiny tyrants” of instances can be both a curse and a blessing. Yes, it forces many of us through this psychological wringer again and again, but it also means that any one person is only ever as important as the people they can control, either directly through their positions or indirectly through their influence.
Collectively, all we have to do is just stop letting this group speak for the Fediverse. We can't be paralyzed with the fear that in calling out these bad actors, we'll bring heartache and pain on our instance peers and the folks running our instances. If we sit silently and let things escalate more and more, we will find ourselves increasingly distant from one another and increasingly subject to the whims of anyone who hurls any horrible accusation about us out into the ether.
If we all speak up and say enough is enough, that things like threats of violence aren't okay and that the Fediverse will only thrive when we show patience, restraint and solidarity with one another, then that voice will be too loud to silence.
They can defederate every last one of our instances, sure, but that would just leave them in a tiny walled garden of their own creation, and nobody left within it would think it's worth staying there. WelshPixie has herself said she's okay if she winds up in charge of “a couple of hundred active users who exist in a little isolated bubble in some small cut-off corner of fedi”. The best thing we can do for the Fediverse is to make her wish come true.
If you're on mastodon.art, I implore you to find a new home.
If you're on one of the other good instances caught in the middle of this, I'm sorry. You have done nothing wrong, nor have the folks running your instance, and I hope you care for each other as best as you can.
If you're wondering when the right time to speak up is, then all I can say is maybe it's before the rhetoric escalates further, before things fall farther off the rails, before more human connections are severed and more misery is spread at a time when that's the very last thing we need.
Think about it.
At this point, my post has been seen by all the folks it mentions, and naturally they're pretty upset to be reading it. I want to just address a few things commonly brought up in relation to it:
It's All About Race?
I really don't talk about the race of the involved folks in this post. Some have suggested that this omission (or, indeed, that my entire criticism of TBS or DotArt) is solely motivated by race, or that I'm nothing more than an angry racist myself.
To be abundantly, crystal fucking clear: none of what I'm saying, in any way at all, has anything to do with the race of the folks involved.
I am aware and mindful of my own privilege as a white person in society. I am aware of the continuing scourge of racial injustice that plagues society, and I am in no way whatsoever okay with it or attempting to perpetuate it through my actions.
Yes, some of the folks involved in this post are people of color, but I sincerely do not believe that calling out the behaviors and words of individual people constitutes an act of racism on my part.
My criticism of blocklists as a concept dates back over a decade, and at no point when initially looking into TheBadSpace did I know it was maintained by a person of color. It simply did not factor into my criticism then, nor does it now.
Not to mention, the person I consider to be perhaps the most influential person involved in this story, and with whom I have perhaps the greatest issue (DotArt's curator WelshPixie) is white.
Given that huge swaths of people from the defederated servers have also been called everything from racist to outright white supremacists, I'm inclined to sincerely believe in this case that this label is entirely disingenuous and is intended to provoke an emotional response rather than one based in fact. I believe the folks involved are aware of its effectiveness as an accusation in progressive circles, and have a long history of exploiting that fact to deflect criticism that would otherwise require some measure of accountability.
A “Hate Campaign”?
I've been accused of running a “hate campaign” against the folks mentioned in this post, and I really think that more than anything, this shows a complete lack of perspective or proportionality.
I have not, at any time, encouraged or even suggested the harassment or online abuse of the folks involved. I do not wish for any harm to come to them whatsoever. That is not the kind of person I am, full stop.
I am aware that Ro has faced both abject racism and things like DDoS attacks against his site. I strongly condemn those things. Those are the tactics of the enemy and have no place in a healthy dialogue.
Everything I have posted (including this long thing) has been an attempt on my part to express my displeasure with something I see going on in the Fediverse, something I know scares lots of folks away from using a platform I strongly believe in, and something I think we could be handling much better.
Criticism is not abuse. Being able to freely speak critically, even if that's critical of people in powerful positions, is absolutely essential to keeping a project like the Fediverse healthy.
On the Fediverse, I post to an audience of maybe a thousand leftists and progressives. These are not people I would ever expect to misinterpret my words as an incitement for harassment or abuse. If we're being honest, I suspect that you're only accusing me of using my audience as a tool for harassing people who disagree with me because that's exactly what you do with your (much larger) audiences.
I am only this passionate about this subject because I am a lifelong user and supporter of free and open-source software, and I believe strongly in the possibilities that the Fediverse offers for us as an alternative to the walled gardens of social media. That's all.
A lot of the defense of the threats I received follow along a similar line: that in posting screenshots of a public toot, I deserved whatever came my way, as the logical consequences of such an action.
I'll just say two things about this:
1) I don't think the consequences for being mildly critical of someone on the Internet should be that they're allowed to threaten violence upon you IRL in a credible way that instills fear and panic into you, and
2) I don't think the consequences for making those credible threats should be for some of the most influential people on your platform to unconditionally support you, to cheer you on, and to continue pushing the rhetoric in a more violent direction.
That's all I have to say there.
About the Nazi “Infiltration” Thing
Some folks were really upset with me for not including in this post that whole weird side story about the far-right person who “infiltrated” DotArt, claimed they were experiencing racism, successfully rallied folks to go after the GoFundMes and other personal fundraising projects of the people they called racist, then revealed their ruse in a slur-filled tirade on their personal domain name.
There, now I've talked about it. It was a thing that happened. I'm not going to link that tirade, because I'm not giving the nazi fuck who made it any extra airtime. I hope you understand.
After the time of this post's writing, Ro decided to restructure his projects under a collective not-for-profit “think-tank” called “Hueristic [sic] Instruments”.
So, this update is just to let you know that if you see that name being talked about out in the world, it's referring to the same person and blocklist as is referenced in this article.