The Particular Finest

Presented by aurynn shaw

On Cloud Island, Finishing Something, and Federation

On May 14, 2020, my company Eiara launched Cloud Island, a Mastodon instance hosted entirely in New Zealand.

It’s a huge achievement for me to have built something that I’d been thinking about and wanting to have for such a long time, a somewhere that’s not Twitter, with its singular drive towards advertising engagement maximisation. A somewhere that puts its customers first, rejecting the idea that we have to give up our spaces for corporate ends.

This project has been on the back burner for a while, and ended up taking a global pandemic in COVID-19 to give me the time to sit down and really think about what I wanted the infrastructure and culture of a Mastodon service to look like and how to correctly deploy it into the Catalyst Cloud.

In the end, it took 6 weeks of full-time effort to write the Terraform code to build out the infrastructure in a way I consider good”.

6 weeks.

6 weeks of learning and understanding and developing in a new environment with new constraints and new outcomes, to achieve this singular goal.

After all that, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve built.

Meaning, Value, and Mediocrity.

6 weeks was a lot longer than I thought it was going to take, and often I questioned the value of continuing, if what I was doing even had meaning or importance.

One of my followers on Twitter asked how I kept going, because they always struggled with working on something bigger than themselves and persevering through a large project. They spoke of struggling with the sense of needing to escape and give up, that they’re not good enough, and that they shouldn’t be doing the thing they’re doing.

They asked me how I kept going on Cloud Island.

They said they were tired of feeling lost and feeling these things, tired of having to struggle to maintain motivation for their projects and overcome the feeling of not being good enough.

And I had to say

I don’t always persevere. That I also feel lost. That it’s hard to keep going, and that I fight off that feeling constantly that I’m not good enough and shouldn’t be doing this, that it’s not going to be important or valuable. That it’s a waste not just of my time, but the time of everyone that I talk to about it.

That I keep asking if I’m good enough to be doing the work, if I should be participating at all.

Answers and Questions

It was a really glib answer.

We talk about how social media is seeing other peoples’ highlight reels, and saying that we don’t always persevere is continuing that trend. It’s saying that behind the curtain is a mess, that there’s nothing special about us or what we’re doing.

It’s supposed to be a reassuring take, I think, and show that what we are is completely achievable for anyone.

Does that answer reassure? Does it show that persistence can be achieved, that the voices can be silenced or managed?

Thinking back, I’m not sure I ever found reassurance in that answer. Knowing that other people were plagued with doubt and turmoil and critical voices didn’t tell me how they addressed those feelings.

I never knew how to apply I feel this too” to my own sense of inadequacy.

So when I thought about writing back with I struggle too”, it didn’t feel like enough. There were no learnings or takeaways or things to consider or avenues to explore.

It felt as empty as when I’d been told it wasn’t just me.

Persistent Participation

So even though I would give the glib answer, I didn’t reply right away.

I sat back and thought about what I was doing and why, what was keeping me going every day, what was enabling me to keep looking at the TODO list and not be completely overwhelmed and caught in decision paralysis.

How was I persisting?

On one level, it would be easy to say I was able to keep going because the tasks were always small and easy to action. I could ride the dopamine reward of completing tasks and having everything be that little bit closer to completion.

It’d be easy to say that posting a short TODO list on Twitter every day was what helped me keep going, that I was able to be a tiny bit accountable to people who were interested in what I was doing.

It’d be easy to say I was able to avoid being overwhelmed by using my experience to sense when I was getting lost in the weeds and should try a simpler approach or let something be good enough for now.

Is that persistence? Is that the answer I should be giving?

It’s easy to look at a project and say you want to do it. It’s relatively easy to sit down and write down a task list for a project. It’s harder, but still relatively easy to keep that task list tactical and ensure each item on the list has obvious steps to being completed.

But it’s brutally hard to believe in yourself, day after day, that you can complete a task. Any task, no matter how small. That you can shout down the voices internal and external that say you can’t or shouldn’t do what you’re doing.

It’s not the technical capability to do the work or plan for the work that makes doing the work possible. It is, for the first time I’ve ever seen, finding the knowledge that doing the work is emotional labour and requires significant reserves of emotional resilience to make progress.

Instead of knowing that I could do the work yet getting caught in the constant spiral of how come I wasn’t doing the work, how come I don’t care enough, how come I’m not good enough, I …

Let myself understand that answering those voices was more than half the work, maybe.

Let myself accept that trying to make even tiny steps was a vast amount of emotional work to sit down at my computer and look

just look

at the mountain of emotional effort that any step would require. To acknowledge that it’s more than some code on the screen, that there’s a weight that I must lift before I can even lay my fingers on the keyboard and start to type.

Being asked how I do it made me look at that difficulty and start to see the labour I was putting not into the project, but into myself. That I needed to move beyond knowing I could perform the tasks and into accepting the work required to perform the tasks.

It was a powerful act to acknowledge that there is more than just the work itself. It was powerful to say that it was a mountain of myself that I was climbing and that work, that the labour of maintaining my resilience was real.

I don’t know that anyone ever explained that to me. Or if they did, that I was able to understand what they were saying.

But is this the answer? Is the answer that doing the project work requires knowing about and doing the emotional work?

Does it answer why?

Why am I driven to do the work at all? What is my goal, why should this exist?

Why, Then

One of the things I’d been struggling with the whole time I’d been building up to Cloud Island was that, I was taking a free software project and charging money for people to use it. That I wasn’t adding value to the ecosystem by doing so, just … taking.

This led to so many should I even be doing this?” conversations with myself and with others. I was (and am) filled with rampant and overwhelming anxiety where I could not believe that this thing I was doing meant anything.

I struggled with the mountain of emotional work of keeping on with the project. I’d get caught on starting to rearrange the deck chairs because it wasn’t technically perfect” and there was a better way to do something.

I struggled with telling myself that the value proposition of Cloud Island was good or important or meaningful or even worth considering.

What is the should. Why should I keep going. Why should I ask people to accept my efforts and give me money to face my mountain.

How is what I am doing even valuable.

And being asked, being asked to explain how I faced the mountain made me sit back and look at Mastodon and free software and federation and what participation even means in a community like this.

And that

Asking those questions of myself, doing that emotional work

led to a powerful moment of knowledge and awareness for me,

to a moment of value and knowledge and awareness, a should that kept me staring at the mountain.

The Richer Tapestry

Mastodon is a federated social network. It lives, thrives, and grows richer because of the federation.

Without new federates it would be just another small, barely-used social network that looks a lot like Twitter.

With federation it is both a unified whole of a network where you can talk to anyone from anywhere, and a deeply local network that’s just for you and those around you, for your city or your region or your country, or your affinity group.

Without federates, it’s another centralised body providing these spaces, denying us control.

With federation and federates, we control our own destiny to a much greater degree. While we can run the software ourselves, or we choose an instance that aligns with our ethics, our politics, our expectations for a space. We gain the ability to choose our deep locality without sacrificing our data and our social connections to huge companies.

With federation, we are not limited to one instance. We can join any number of instances and find a variety of deep localities, each one respecting our right to own our social media, each one offering new affinities and connections and purpose to our participation.

Each Contribution

By building Cloud Island, even though it’s small, I built one of those deep localities. It’s a place for New Zealand, by New Zealand, in New Zealand. By existing it makes the whole network more valuable. By existing, Cloud Island gives its customers a locality of shared space, with a culture that is open to their concerns and requirements, that publishes its expected culture, that is willing to listen and hold conversations.

Having Cloud Island gives us a space that’s built for New Zealand, for our laws and history and culture and unique point of view. It’s for us, because it centres us.

I joined the federation, I became a federate, and that, just that, is so valuable. I made a space for my customers to make the whole of the fediverse that much more valuable, richer, bigger and more diverse and more splendid than it was before.

It took so much emotional work to see that value and have that realisation, that the act of federating a space is of immense value, that doing the work on making Cloud Island is of immense value.

That it’s not taking advantage of someone else’s work.

It’s making their work that much more.

The Answer

That, I think, completed my answer.

That I too struggle with the feelings of inadequacy or that I was the wrong person to do it. That I had to acknowledge that doing the technical work required so much emotional work. That it didn’t matter if other people were doing what I was doing, or could do it better, because my contribution still makes the whole bigger. My contribution still matters.

I built something. It’s small, but maybe it will grow. Maybe it won’t. Either is okay. For the time that it exists it makes the world a better and brighter place, makes the fediverse a bigger and more wonderful place than it was before.

It taught me to see the emotional work that I will always need to do, for any project that I ever undertake. That I can never again think work as just work.

That it’s okay if, sometimes, I can’t sit down and face the mountain. That it doesn’t make me any less good, just that sometimes I’m too tired to do all the work that each step takes.

I know the mountain is there, now, and I know what next time will take. I won’t be ready to face it, not every day.

And that’s okay.