Solving the Moderator’s Trilemma with Federation

You CAN please all of the people all of the time (sorta).

Cory Doctorow
11 min readMar 4


A trilemma Venn diagram, showing three ovoids in a triangular form, which intersect at their tips, but not in the middle. The ovoids are labeled ‘Avoid angering users,’ ‘Diverse userbase,’ ‘Centralized platforms.’ In the center of the ovoids is the Mastodon mascot. The background is composed of dead Twitter birds on their backs with exes for eyes.

On Tue (Mar 7), I’m doing a remote talk for TU Wien.

On Mar 9, you can catch me in person in Austin at the UT School of Design and Creative Technologies, and remotely at U Manitoba’s Ethics of Emerging Tech Lecture.

On Mar 10, Rebecca Giblin and I kick off the SXSW reading series.

The classic trilemma goes: “Fast, cheap or good, pick any two.” The Moderator’s Trilemma goes, “Large, diverse userbase; centralized platforms; don’t anger users — pick any two.” The Moderator’s Trilemma is introduced in “Moderating the Fediverse: Content Moderation on Distributed Social Media,” a superb paper from Alan Rozenshtein of U of Minnesota Law, forthcoming in the journal Free Speech Law, available as a prepub on SSRN:

Rozenshtein proposes a solution (of sorts) to the Moderator’s Trilemma: federation. De-siloing social media, breaking it out of centralized walled gardens and recomposing it as a bunch of small servers run by a diversity of operators with a diversity of content moderation approaches. The Fediverse, in other words.

In Albert Hirschman’s classic treatise Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, stakeholders in an institution who are dissatisfied with its direction have two choices: voice (arguing for changes) or exit (going elsewhere). Rozenshtein argues that Fediverse users (especially users of Mastodon, the most popular part of the Fediverse) have more voice and more “freedom of exit”:,_Voice,_and_Loyalty

Large platforms — think Twitter, Facebook, etc — are very unresponsive to users. Most famously, Facebook polled its users on whether they wanted to be spied on. Faced with overwhelming opposition to commercial surveillance, Facebook ignored the poll result and cranked the surveillance dial up to a million:

A decade later, Musk performed the same stunt, asking users whether they wanted him to…



Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog:; Mailing list:; Mastodon: