COMMUNITY TAKES WORK (a letter to fedi)
Early in my transition, I read a photo series about older trans people, To Survive On This Shore. It offered a view into the lives of folks in their sixties and seventies and more, survivors of genocide by negligence. One piece of counsel that stood out in several portraits was how much it sucked to lack community. I don't mean community like "The LGBTQ Community" which practically amounts to a taxonomical label. Rather, I'm talking about a network of material ties: food, shelter, meds, labor, relationships, and so on. One elder talked about her cis roommate and how annoying it was that after two decades of living together she would still say fucked up shit about, "If you were a woman, you'd understand." I spent years mired in terror and escapism, meditating on what I would need to get that old without depending on people who didn't see me as legitimate, who not only didn't understand but who seemingly couldn't. I decided I would need community, but community's existence is not a given. If I wanted it, I would have to forge it myself, bond by molten bond.
The Fediverse writ large, in particular the userbase associated with Mastodon and its forks, is littered with community-minded people with big ideas and compassionate ideals. Intellectuals-cum-shitposters who believe in decentralization both as an architectural feature of software and as a general organizing principle. In my experience this kind of techno-anarchist seeks to distribute power until it can hardly be said to exist anywhere, embodied in a fondness for peerful systems like torrents, but the flipside of that position emerges as a fear of any concentration of power. This trepidation fosters a reticence toward any exercise of power (with notable exceptions reserved for fascists) which in turn hinders cohesive organizing. I find anarchists always on the front lines of mutual aid and direct action, but lacking institutions that can guard movements and their momentum from co-option. The material bonds that emerge tend to be ad-hoc rather than systemic, and are not always reliable. Affinity groups struggle to address their blindspots or falter at the first sign of internal conflict, while volunteers burn out and their efforts go underfunded.
These issues have followed us into the digital spaces we have carved out for each other. Plagued by fossbros who ostensibly share their libertarian politics, predominantly white instance admins have repeatedly failed to enforce the hard barriers necessary to prevent the psychic damage that bigots inflict on their marginalized targets. Numerous instances have fallen after calls for accountability, leaving hundreds of users at a time without a place in the network. Instances with better practices to safeguard against racialized violence have learned through bitter experience to play it hard and fast, suspending users and blocking instances that cross the line without a second thought. I cannot and do not begrudge doing whatever it takes to provide a safe experience for an instance's users. This is a structural issue owing to the blindspots of foss folks and their institutional failures to hold bigots accountable. These divides render the Fediverse at large a disjointed place distinctly lacking in practical solidarity.
Instances themselves have also struggled to form community, much to the surprise of many users. I admit I expected these small places to resemble cozy cafes, little networks destined to form a community simply because they shared a local timeline. How foolish I feel in retrospect. Microblogging isn't a community any more than shouting across a chasm is, no matter how many little jokes you share. A community takes work and most people just don't want to do it. Now, that's fine. We all contribute to our spaces in our own inscrutable ways, but it takes hard labor to produce material bonds: resources, logistics, support, and so on. The true test of community will always be crisis, and there is no shortage of it in this maddening age. Users dealing with poverty that have depended on passing the hat can lose their instance to any number of factors along with their connection to that income, while users in crises of wellness are often either banned for drastic behavior or left adrift on the other side of their instance's resources. You need more than shitposting to do more than that.
Instances can form one leg of a community, but not the whole thing. You need to grapple with the inevitability of power in a community in order to adjudicate and disperse it wisely, and most instances are just not part of an effort to do that. Most are the projects of individuals or loose affinity groups, and like all volunteer corps they face the prospect of exhaustion and burnout. At best they face the unfortunate reality of simply lacking the resources to fulfill their ambitions, either financially or in terms of labor. I don't say this as an indictment of individuals or their efforts. The issue is structural: under capitalism, we will always suffer the artificial scarcity that drives these crises and our unpreparedness to deal with them. To oppose that structure, you must develop an alternative logistical basis, whether a new regional economy or a network of committed allies. That, for better or worse, is enormous, dangerous, revolutionary work. It's not the sort of thing that happens incidentally.
I've been disappointed by the Fediverse, but I still use it and I'm not about to stop. I help maintain the Hometown fork. I admin two instances. I've met folks that have become near and dear to my heart. I've passed the hat and filled it in turn, and it has helped me and mine to survive along the margins. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised before my eyes for mutual aid. But these little islands we populate with poasts are only one aspect of the infrastructure we require to do right by each other. Constructing those pillars of material community will take a lifetime of struggle, but it seems little else in life is as worthy a pursuit. I intend to get old, comrade. I intend to grow old together, because I alone could never.