Sun 18 Dec 2022 12:10PM

Adding Relay Instances

SW Sam Whited Public Seen by 193

Hi all,

I recently posted a poll about some smaller instances that invited us to join their network of relays. I was surprised to find that the poll overwhelmingly voted negative, and while I respect that this is the community position I was also surprised that Loomio polls didn't really allow for discussion, and I think the majority of the comments left were people who didn't understand what relays were (my mistake!), or focused on a specific aspect of the community that asked us to join which I mentioned off handedly, but wasn't that important. I wanted to open up discussion on the issue and see if others felt differently or if it's just me who thinks this is an important act of solidarity on the fediverse!

First, here's what the admin page says about relays:

A federation relay is an intermediary server that exchanges large volumes of public posts between servers that subscribe and publish to it. It can help small and medium servers discover content from the fediverse, which would otherwise require local users manually following other people on remote servers.

The network in question included several small, new instances mostly aligned around love of bicycles, green transport, and cities. However, the network was not specifically targeting those topics, instead it was trying to expand its timeline to give its users a broad set of interests for them to discover and they thought the values and posters on our instance would be a good fit. Someone commented in the vote that since we'd be the biggest instance we'd be increasing their database size disproportionately, and to be clear, this is true, but they invited us and are aware, the idea is that this gives their users an easier way to discover content they like.

I also saw a few comments that said they didn't necessarily want our federated timeline swamped with bicycle content, however these instances are a lot smaller than us so the converse of the previous point is also true: from our instances perspective nothing really changes since users of this instance are likely already following users from those instances and many (if not all) of the posts are likely showing up in the federated timeline already. For now, as the biggest instance, we'd mostly just be helping populate their timeline.

Another voter in the poll mentioned that they wouldn't be comfortable joining relays unless it was clear how other members are chosen, which is absolutely fair! In this case, members are chosen only if all servers on the relay vote to add the instance, so for our vote we could start a poll or find some other process.

In general I think relaying with smaller instances is a good way to help them get started. It helps users not think that mastodon is "boring" because their instance doesn't have much content on it and it helps us in our mission to support building a kinder social network. I'm not necessarily asking us to re-consider the poll right now, just for a bit of discussion: am I right here, or totally wrong? How do we feel about joining relays in the future?


Konrad Lawson Sun 18 Dec 2022 2:27PM

I suspect relays will become increasingly important as Mastodon grows and joining relays who manage membership through a democratic process built on a set of shared principles seems wise. Added to this the benefit (suggested by their invitation) to these smaller instances, this seems beneficial to the federation. I do appreciate this thread-first discussion that allows us to hash things out.

I’d be inclined to support this. It would be nice to have a few of the relevant details here or any relevant repoll.

I wonder if some relevant links could be shared here, such as the relay network details, their joining/regulation details etc., for clarity?


Scott Jenson Sun 18 Dec 2022 2:46PM

I'm surprised by the negative sentiment towards joining a relay server. It is really nothing up good for us and the concerns misunderstand what it's doing. I'm strongly in support of this.


Chris Gollmar Sun 18 Dec 2022 3:50PM

Thanks for this clear explanation! My main takeaway is that this about creating a viable community of communities that share some commonalities. I can see why people may be concerned about too much of any specific kind of content coming in from other instances in the relay, but, as I see it, the specific content is not really the point. Presumably, as the number of instances sharing relay instances grows, the diversity of users' interests and instances' focuses will also grow.


Justin du Coeur Sun 18 Dec 2022 4:07PM

The principle makes sense to me. One of the common themes of meta-discussion around Mastodon over the past couple of months (as I've been reading into it) has been that there are some diseconomies of scale: due to the effort of moderation, Mastodon tends to work best as lots of medium-sized instances, rather than a few gigantic ones like mastodon.social. But to get a medium-sized instance, you usually have to start as a small one and work through the growing pains, and that is a little easier if the overall community provides some support.

So it seems to me that providing some relaying to small instances is a larger social good, and aligns with the general mission of social.coop -- as a cooperative of instances rather than individuals in this case, but it's a similar spirit of working together to build something worthwhile.

I suspect that there is a sweet spot of how many we should be relaying with at any given time, so as not to overwhelm our own feed with external traffic, and we should probably consider de-relaying some of them as they get big enough to stand on their own (assuming de-relaying is a thing), replacing them with newer small sites.

So my sense (as, note, a newbie here but experienced at social networks generally) is that yes -- it would be appropriate for us to relay with a few experimentally, get a sense of what it's like, and then maybe set a "relay budget" in the medium term, of a rough number of small sites to relay with at any given time, with the specific sites gradually shifting in and out as they get enough critical mass individually.


Matt Noyes Sun 18 Dec 2022 4:27PM

Maybe someone explained this already, but where would toots from a relayed instance show up? On the Home timeline? The Local timeline? Ideally, there would be another timeline just for relays.

I like the idea of helping new instances get connected and of building inter-instance communication but I want to avoid the over-population of my timelines with content I haven't chosen to follow. It sort of defeats the purpose of following, favorites, boosts, etc?


Sam Whited Mon 19 Dec 2022 11:52AM

They show up on the federated timeline along with accounts that other users on your instance follow. If you're a small instance this timeline can be rather empty, so relaying others lets people discover and follow users on those instances and is very helpful for smaller instances (we'd likely be the largest one in the relay network that reached out to us, the others are tiny instances that are interested in helping their people discover users of social.coop since our interests likely align)


Giacomo Sun 18 Dec 2022 4:39PM

Initially, even I hadn't understood what relays are, so I think that the topic deserves to be treated again in the near future


Mitra Ardron Sun 18 Dec 2022 7:52PM

I've got similar questions to Matt - I find the Local or Global timelines too big to be interesting , BUT I do find the Search really restricting and pretty useless so I'd love something that expands our access to searchable stuff.


Sam Whited Mon 19 Dec 2022 11:53AM

If I understand Mastodon search correctly it only searches hash tags, not posts in general. However, relaying would mean that more posts are searched for hash tags, making the results better.


Mitra Ardron Mon 19 Dec 2022 9:09PM

Thanks Sam, that might explain why Mastodon search is so poor.

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