20 years ago tomorrow, the website for the first IMC (Independent Media Centre) went live at www.indymedia.org, providing a globally accessible platform for independent media coverage of the protests against a WTO summit in the US city of Seattle. Appearing even before the creation of Wikipedia and its MediaWiki software, Indymedia.org was a pioneering example of the then-novel concept of the web as a read/write medium - where anyone could contribute using basic cut’n'paste skills - rather than just a collection of read-only pages made by geeks. Seven years before the founding of Wikileaks, the open-publishing newswire on indymedia.org was one of the earliest forerunners of “citizen journalism” platforms. It can also be seen as one of the earliest experiments in both the practices and technologies of “social media”, producing among other innovations, the technology that gave birth to Titter.

That drive to empower people to create and share was reflected in a commitment to using software that was open source (a newly coined term at the time for Free Software, or as I tend to call it free code) and this became one of the core Principles of Unity for the emerging IMC network. Indymedia.org started out running on a patchwork of webserver software known as Active, originally strapped together by a collective of hackers in Australia, for a local cluster of activist news and event announcement sites. As more IMCs started up to run open-publishing activist news sites for their city or country, this bleeding edge software was gradually replaced by a variety of CMS (Content Management Systems) written specifically for Indymedia, before these were in turn replaced by more general purpose free code CMS like Drupal.

I could into much more detail on all of this from an insiders perspective, and in some ways this would be the ideal time to finish writing up a detailed retrospective article I’ve been planning about the Indymedia network and my time as a founding volunteer for the Aotearoa IMC (which ironically seems to be down today - maybe because it’s already N30 there?). However, I’m currently busy preparing for a long international trip, home to Aotearoa to see family and friends, and then back to China via the FOSS Asia Summit in Singapore. Besides, I’m already seeing plenty of articles being published to mark the 20 year anniversary, so I think I’ll keep my powder dry, read a bunch of them, and focus my piece on any aspects of the Indymedia story that don’t get as much attention or fanfare as I think they deserve.

It has to be said that at 20, the Indymedia network is a shadow of its former self. Many of the sites that served the news gathering of local IMCs, as well as most of the servers that provided collaboration tools for global networking, are long shuttered and gathering digital dust. I haven’t been actively involved in the Aotearoa IMC I co-founded since about 2007, and although the site continued to operate (at least until very recently), I stopped publishing there altogether when the newswire became a flood of seemingly unmoderated noise, dominated by a handful of chronic spammers. But there are signs that a phoenix could rise from the ashes. Indymedia.org, which had until recently been frozen in time since 2013, now bears as promise that “Indymedia.org is being rebuilt”, along with links to a bunch of 20 year anniversary articles.

As with the CMS, so many of the technologies Indymedia activists wanted and needed during the first few years of the network have now been developed to greater maturity by open source communities.

When activists started publishing their videos on YouTube to get them to a larger audience, and to reduce the strain that streaming large media files placed on Indymedia servers, Indymedia geeks dreamed of having a decentralized, free code tool like PeerTube. One that can be used to run video-publishing sites that are independent, but federated into a larger network. Where videos can be found and viewed across the whole federation, not only on the one where it’s first published. Where sites can mirror each others’ videos to route around attempts at censorship. Where users contribute a little bit of their own bandwidth to help the servers if a video goes viral, avoiding the lose-lose scenario where every time you get a video out to a large audience you lose money, or risk having servers go down and sites go offline. Where video channels can be followed and videos commented on by users on other federated platforms like Mastodon. 

But technology was never at the core of Indymedia. The sites we ran were more than blog farms, they were always understood as  a means to a larger end. When we said “don’t hate the media, become the media”, Indymedia activists were articulating a vision of democratized media that could have a democratizing effect on a rapidly globalizing human world, one whose politics and everyday life was becoming increasingly ruled by corporations.

As the public - and especially activists - become increasingly aware of the downsides of Surveillance Capitalism, we have a unique opportunity to remind them of this vision. It’s also worth reflecting on the Achilles Heel of the Indymedia project; it’s lack of a sustainable economic base, and the resulting dependence on donations and volunteer time to keep its growing infrastructure running. For the grander vision that animated Indymedia to be realized, sharing economic solidarity strategies like forming Platform Cooperatives will be just as important as promoting the potential of decentralized technologies like PeerTube and other fediverse tools like PixelFed and Mastodon, perhaps even more important.

 There’s been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the last few months, about how to deal with an infamous, far right social network site. Before I say anything else, I want to make it clear that my politics have been staunchly leftist and anti-racist since my childhood. I find the politics of the site in question appalling, and I have no intention of promoting their toxic brand, even when criticizing them, so I will refer to it here as Cess.pit.

 A little background. As my three regular readers will know, I’m an excitable champion of the federated social web, the fediverse to its fedizens. Unlike users in centralized platforms like FaceBook or Titter, users of the fediverse join an “instance” - a server running web software compatible with fediverse protocols like ActivityPub - but they can follow and communicate with users on other instances, run by completely different people. A few months ago, Cess.pit moved its users to a fork of Mastodon, one of the most popular of the various software projects that use ActivityPub, potentially allowing them to recruit from and harass users on other instances.

 The admins of many instances responded to news of this by adding cess.pit to their blocklists. This isn’t unusual. The servers that host our email use blocklists all the time against mailservers that send lots of spam or virus attachments. I believe that the power to block users and instances ultimately belongs in the hands of the users of social network software, but given the current state of federated network software, I’m fine with instance blocks. So long as they’re being used by admins to prevent things like spamming, flooding, and harassment, for the benefit of their users, not to police who their users can communicate with, for ideological reasons those users may not agree with.

  I think it’s worth pointing out that treating all Cess.pit users as if they were all committed fascist organizers does have downsides. A lot of young or politically naive people wander into online spaces like Cess.pit without really understanding how deep those particular rabbit holes go, and these are the “prospects” the actual fascists hope to indoctrinate and recruit. If Cess.pit is federated with at least some instances that aren’t full of fascists and sympathizers, prospects will be much more likely to get access to other perspectives, making it more likely that they will broaden their minds, realize who they’re hanging out with, and get out. If the only people users on Cess.pit can talk to is each other, chances are that actual fascists will find indoctrination and recruitment much easier.

 The other thing that happened is that the developers of Tusky, one of the mobile apps that can be used to connect to instances of Mastodon (and other fediverse software that uses the same system for communication between apps and servers), decided to add a blocklist to their code and add Cess.pit to it. I wasn’t the only person who was sympathetic to their reasons for doing this, but concerned about the possible unintended consequences. Let’s unpack that a bit.

 Let’s say a Bad Actor wants to shut down queer leftist GroupX and stop them communicating online. They publicly smear them as “terrorists” or “spreading kiddy porn” or whatever, and start approaching hosting platforms and software developers, demanding they take action to stop GroupX using their tools.

 Let’s say they approach Mozilla about building anti-GroupX blocks into Firefox, during the time when Brendon Eich was CEO. Brendan is going to say “no”. Because even though he’s right-leaning and may well disagree strongly with the politics of GroupX (which is why he was forced out of the CEO role at Mozilla), there is a longstanding principle in internet tech that we don’t implement political blocks at the level of code and network protocols. Those are decisions to be made autonomously by users (network or “bottom up” decision-making), not centrally by engineers or system administrators (pyramid or “top-down” decision-making).

 The principle does mean, in theory, that free code developed by leftist anarchists could end up getting used in some way by fascists. But unless you empower the state to maintain a register of fascists and stop them using the net at all, it’s unavoidable that they are indirectly using all sorts of free code, developed by people from all sorts of backgrounds, who have all sorts of reasons to be horrified by the idea of fascists using their code.

 When you stop and think about it though, its obvious that the opposite is going to happen much more often. Radical leftists do not develop the majority of free code software. Every day we are directly and indirectly using all sorts of free code, developed by people from all sorts of backgrounds, who have all sorts of reasons to be horrified by the idea of us using their code. But they don’t try to stop us, for the same reason I believe Brendan Eich would have said “no” in the hypothetical example above. They understand that the whole purpose of defending software freedoms is to prevent powerful groups from using their monopoly on the money and infrastructure that funds most software development, to enforce their politics on its users.

 So what happens when developers start implementing political blocks at the code level, as Tusky did? Do the ends justify the means?

 In the short term, even if every fediverse app followed the Tusky example, life becomes mildly inconvenient for the Cess.pit folks, who can just start distributing their own forks of their preferred apps from their own websites. In fact, they’ve now set up their own app store. No real harm been done to their operations. But in the long term, it starts to normalize the idea that its OK to use the roles of developer, engineer, or hosting provider, to police other people’s politics.

 Imagine if all the technical folks who disagree with radical left views started doing the same things to us, that some of us have done to the users of Cess.pit. Imagine centrist liberal CEOs at Mozilla, Goggle, Apple, and Microsoft, building blocklists of radical left websites and media outlets into Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Edge. Imagine we had to develop all our own software and host all our own infrastructure, and try to convince other users to only use fringe apps and hosting platforms that don’t have built in censorship of our politics. This is incredibly threatening to the radical left - far more threatening than Cess.pit itself.

 This is why a lot of people in the ethical tech community disagreed with the Tusky dev’s decisions, even though we respected their right to make it, while the developers of other apps decided instead to respect the longstanding principle of political neutrality discussed above. This is why many of us were horrified when developers who chose not to hardcode blocks into their apps became the target of coercion by some radical leftists, like those who tried to get Fedilab removed from app stores by claiming its developers “explicitly chose to enable hatred and violence through their app”.

 These smear campaigns and false accusations are appalling in themselves, exactly the tactics of the Bad Actors I described above. But even worse, to the degree that they are successful in the short term, they risk massive damage to the prospects of the radical left in the longer term, for reasons described above. They also do massive damage to the sense of goodwill and common cause that convinces people who could earn massive salaries in the corporate tech industry, to spend their spare time - or take more precarious jobs - to write free code that benefits all human beings. Including radical leftists.

… and yes, sometimes including fascists. But for the reasons discussed above, I think the benefits of that far outweigh the costs.

Filed November 20th, 2019 under open social networks, free software, open source

I’m going to be taking the rest of the month off, and since Disintermedia remains a one-man-band, that means it will be dormant until then. When I return, I need to give some serious thought to the future of the project.

When I originally registered the domain name, I was intending to build an organization of kiwis interested in tech politics. That didn’t work out, so it’s ended up being a tech politics blog and research wiki written and curated by lonely old me. The team behind CoActivate have been fantastic hosts for more than a decade, but mucking about with my used Androids has revealed just how far behind the times the platform is falling. CoActivate projects are hard to read on a mobile device, and pretty much impossible to edit or interact with, so unless and until we can bring the platform up to date, continuing to host Disintermedia means being unavailable to the majority of potential readers.

The other major change that’s happened over the last few years is that I’ve got more and more involved in the development of the fediverse, The growing federated social media network that includes projects like Mastodon and PeerTube. The fediverse also includes a number of federated blogging tools like Plume, write.as, and WriteFreely, which allow people to follow blogs and comment on them from within their preferred social media app. A good example is We Distribute, a blog about federated networks, which uses the Pterotype plug-in for Wordpress, Without an update to the software under the hood of CoActivate, the only way I can make Disintermedia blog posts available on the fediverse is posting links using my Mastodon account, hosted by the NZOSS.

I’ve thought a lot about moving to self-hosting a blog, wiki, and other services for Disintermedia (perhaps email and Jabber too). Maybe using a self-hosting tools like YUNOhost or FreedomBone. I know it would involve some serious upskilling, and probably some headaches and unexpected outages, “best laid plans of mice and men” and all that. On the other hand, it would also give me a lot more practical knowledge about the software I research and blog about and allow me to make more informed suggestions about what software to use for the needs to different communities.

Another thing I’ve seriously considered is just closing the doors. Maybe merging the work I do with Disintermedia into a larger organisation, like the Free Software Foundation, or the Peer-to-Peer Foundation. Or even completely rethinking how I’m using all the unpaid time I put into Disintermedia and the movements I research and write about under this umbrella. If anyone has any feedback or suggestions on these possibilities, and I’d really appreciate you sharing them

Filed August 8th, 2019 under open social networks, News

It seems I have a ghost profile on FarceBook. I didn’t set this up and I don’t control it. I finally got into my old account a few days ago and realized I’d set it up using another pseudonym, so it wasn’t the one that kept coming up in web searches, with a picture of me as the profile picture. Someone must have scraped a picture of me from the web (maybe from the Disintermedia wiki?) and set this up for spam purposes. I wonder if I can prove I’m me and get it shut down?

I first tried to delete my account as part of an organized Quit FaceBook Day back back in 2010. I put quite a bit of effort into researching how to do it and, as far as I knew, it was gone for good. However, I started to read rumours that even “deleted” accounts could be reactivated if you just logged into them, so I tested the theory. Sure enough, my account was back. I couldn’t see the point in going through all the deletion theatre again, so having already emptied it of all the personal information I could, I just abandoned it.

Recently, I had thought about turning it into a portal that gave some information about why I don’t and won’t use FB, with links to the federated social media services I am currently using. But since the account attached to my Disintermedia email address is under another name, it’s not really much use for that. I can’t change the display name without giving FB my cell phone number and a bunch of other personal information, which I have no intention of doing. So I’ve deleted it again and I’m hoping, given the new requirements about the “rightsto be forgotten” in the European Union’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations), that this time, it’s for good. Watch this space …

Filed June 12th, 2019 under open social networks

FarceBook have been getting a lot of heat since the mosque shootings were livestreamed on their platform. But the software freedom movement seem to be able the only people talking about the ambitious solution that’s really required; replacing FB with ethical services controlled by the people who use them, not a tech corporation and its data buyers and advertisers. There are a people saying that we need a federated replacement for FB, using free code software. But is that really a viable solution? Here’s what I think would be required to create one.

First, we’d need a large-scale, crowdsourced UX (User eXperience ) design project. This would involve current FB users explaining exactly what features they use and how they use them, and a group of designers gradually building up mockups of a replacement UX. The designers would go through a number of iterations of presenting their mockups to the users for feedback and tweaking their designs in response. The outcome of this project would be a coherent UX design for both a website and native apps for desktop and mobile platforms.

During the course of the UX design project, a list of required features/ functions would need to be compiled. Decisions would need to be made about which of these could be implemented on the client-side (as many as possible, particularly data storage) and which would need remote servers. The second part of the project would involve identifying which of the features required by the UX could be implemented using existing free code components, which ones would need new code, and how the whole service could fit together efficiently. This would be a complicated set of decisions, because although building completely from scratch would be reinventing the wheel, the alternative requires evaluating hundreds or thousands of potential dependencies for code quality, and how likely it is to be maintained effectively in the long term.

The third part of the project, once the choices about initial design and back-end component re-use/ development had been made, would be to put the whole thing together as a proof-of-concept service. At this point, people who participated in the original crowdsourced UX design project could be contacted to see if they would like to be beta testers. Again, there would need to be a number of iterations where the service and UI was tweaked in response to tester feedback.

Unless there is some way to make our FB replacement an entirely serverless system like Jami or Briar, the long-term organizational and financial durability of instances (servers running the federated server software) is a problem that needs to be solved before federated social networks are ready for mainstream use. During the prototyping phase some serious thought would need to be given to how to provision the servers the production services will rely on. Our experiences with the fediverse so far have shown that we can’t just rely on random people setting up instances, which may vanish without a trace at any time. If our FB replacement ties users to a domain name, as the ActivityPub fediverse does, there will need to reliable organizations running instances (like cooperative businesses, associations with paid membership, or well-funded charities). It would be better if it used Zot (like Hubzilla and Zap), configured in such a way that every user’s account exists on at least two instances at any given time, so if one goes down, the account is automatically copied from the surviving one to another one.

Once the alpha and beta phase of prototyping was finished, and a stable 1.0 release of both the client-side apps and server-side software was available that included tools for importing users’ data from their FB account (a tasks that I imagine FB do everything in their power to make as difficult as possible), there would need to be a massive organizational and promotional effort to get reliable instances set up, and convince groups of users to set up accounts and start using them.

Some might say I’m making this seem way more complicated than it needs to be. After all, we’ve already created a federated replacement for Titter. But my whole point is that FB is a much more complicated system to replace and people are much more dependent on it. Titter has only two features, a public micro-blog (short text messages published on the web), and private text messages, and the fediverse as a whole has only implemented the first one. Some fediverse apps have “private” messages, but they don’t yet federate reliably across all apps and most (eg the Mastodon/ Pleroma DMs or “Direct Messages”) are private only in the sense they are not displayed publicly on those platforms. DMs sent to servers running other fediverse apps are liable to just treat them like any other public post. Only servers running Zot apps have any kind of encryption or proper controls over private messages and media.

FB consists of a wide range of features; not just posts, but an event system, encrypted realtime chat (including voice/ video), photo-sharing and galleries, web video and video livestreaming, pages, groups, and more. Many of these features have both public and private versions. While FB’s privacy protection is far from exemplary, a system being promoted as an ethical replacement would need to take this seriously. Many existing free code projects offer some of the elements needed to create a FB replacement, but none of them are anywhere near incorporating them all, and the problem of hosting remains unsolved.

In summary, I’m sceptical about trying to replace FB with a single service. I think we’re more likely to succeed by disaggregating its many features, replacing them with apps that do one thing well; chat clients, media-hosting services, events systems etc, and finding ways to bundle them together into community-hosted services that can each inter-operate with each other.

Firstly, my heartfelt condolences must go out to everyone affected by the tragic events in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) last Friday. Secondly, I’d like to express my admiration for all the young people who took part in the School Strike for Climate activities that same day. Even while we express our sadness at being in the shadow of a dark cloud, we must remember that there is so much more power in the sunshine than in the darkest cloud.

Laura O’Connell Rapira, Director of ActionStation.org.nz, sent out a wonderful email about how we can support the survivors of Friday’s tragedy, which I totally endorse, with one very important exception. Here’s my reply:

 

Kia ora Laura,

Thanks for your compassionate and helpful email at this difficult time. I have signed the petition on banning public ownership of semi-automatic weapons in Aotearoa. I note that having Police roaming the streets with guns in their cars did nothing to prevent this tragedy, while that policy has led to a number of tragedies of its own making. I hope to see ActionStation campaigning to end the policy of providing beat cops with firearms, and redirect resources into making sure our appropriately trained Armed Offenders Squads have everything they need to respond quickly and effectively when things like Friday’s tragedy happen.

Moving on to the rest of your email, I agree with most of what you say, but as I’ve expressed in previous emails, I have some serious concerns about this part:

“TAKE ACTION TO END HATE SPEECH 

For the last few months, our team has been researching the links between online hate, online misinformation and the rise in hate crimes

One thing is abundantly clear: Extreme words lead to extreme actions. We need to do all we can to stop both.

Sign this petition that we’re delivering in a couple of weeks if you want our government to crackdown on online hate and misinformation

I support an end to hate speech and misinformation online.”

I certainly share this goal, as an activist who has been involved in running internet forums since the 1990s, including about 7 years in the editorial collective of Aotearoa Indymedia. But with all due respect, I have to say I think you are going about it exactly the wrong way.

I strongly believe that venues where people can express ignorant opinions and have them firmly but respectfully challenged are - aside from being essential to a functioning democracy - also an essential safety valve that can help to prevent more tragedies like what happened on Friday. What better venue could there be for this than the internet? On the net, arguments can’t escalate to physical violence between participants, as they can in person. Online, we can all make informed decisions about whether or not to engage in the spaces where these kinds of discussions take place, and if we do, use the opinions expressed as a guide to who we might want to connect with, ignore, mute, or even block from seeing or contacting us. Online discussion platforms need to be engineered to put that power in the hands of us, the end users, not corporations or governments. For example, the open source community designing software using the SSB (Secure Scuttlebutt) protocol have a set of principles for how they are going about that.

I think the censorship strategy ActionStation is arguing for is not only ineffective in achieving our shared goal, but counterproductive to it. Why?

For a start, I don’t accept your generalization that “extreme words lead to extreme actions”. I think it’s just as arguable that extreme actions can result from an inability to blow off steam through words, or from feelings of frustration, alienation, and injustice, that can arise in people unable to openly express their honest opinions.

It’s also important to consider the psychological principle of “negative reinforcement”, which states that whenever any behaviour earns someone attention or reactions it is encouraged, even when that attention is negative. Positive Parenting courses integrate this principle by encouraging parents to give their children lots of attention for behaviour they like (”caught being good”), and minimal attention to behaviour they don’t like, ignoring it completely if possible. On the net, this principle is known as the “Streisand effect”, and it’s long been recognized that trying to suppress anything online only increases interest in it, multiplying the problem like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice chopping up his broom.

So not only is trying to suppress racist speech online likely to have exactly the opposite effect, it may also have a more dangerous one. As Three Arrows pointed out in his web video debunking Jordan Peterson, Nazism - like all forms of xenophobic ethno-nationalism - thrived by cultivating a sense of collective victimhood. Excluding people expressing white nationalist ideas from the normal protections of our democratic rights to speak our minds, assemble, and organize, only serves to reinforce that sense of victimhood. So it’s likely it actually helps groups planning racist violence with their recruitment, rather than hindering them.

I strongly suggest you watch the documentary ‘Taking Liberties’, which explains how the governments of the Allied countries - including New Zealand - carefully studied how the Nazis came to power, and why the majority of Germans who didn’t support the Nazis were unable to effectively resist them. As a result of this study, many of the civil rights we now consider essential to democracy were strengthened or even created after World War II, specifically to prevent a resurgence of fascism. Arguably, it is as a consequence of the erosion of civil liberties in democratic countries since 9/11 that we have seen the rise of toxic enthno-nationalism and its associated violence, not as a result of too much of the wrong kinds of speech.

I also don’t accept that the ends justify the means. Even if it was true that giving the state absolute power to stop people openly saying racist things would fix racism, that wouldn’t mean it was the right thing to do. Killing the entire human population might fix climate change and prevent the extinction of many other species, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. In this (admittedly extreme) example, the negative consequences are obvious, but in designing policy, we also need to be very mindful of the risks of unintended consequences.

There’s a parallel here with the well-meaning attempts by US legislators to suppress sex trafficking - another goal we all support - with FOSTA/SESTA. As Norman Shamas of Open Privacy explained in an interview with Final Straw Radio, not only do these laws make life harder for a lot of innocent people, they also make the jobs of the people who investigate sex traffickers harder too. When sex traffickers can’t hide their communications in plain sight among legitimate ads put up by sex workers, it doesn’t stop them communicating. It just pushes them deeper into the darknet where it takes a lot more resources to find and investigate them. Exactly the same is true for communications among white supremacists.

It’s much safer for everyone if people with racist views discuss them on mainstream platforms, where they can be monitored by both law enforcement and civil society watchdog groups like ours. This is such an important discussion that I’m going to post the text of this email on the Disintermedia blog, and submit it to TheDailyBlog.co.nz as a possible guest blog. I welcome you to engage with me by private email, or on either of those platforms.

Kia manawanui,

Danyl Strype

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, recently published a bit of manifesto for decentralizing social media. I totally agree with the sentiment, and it echoes Eben Moglen’s ‘Freedom in the Cloud‘ talk in 2011 that led to the FreedomBox project. A huge amount of the tech he describes has already been built. I recommend checking out the articles published at We Distribute, and the series of “DWeb” articles published last year on the Mozilla developer blog.

One promotional project I’ve been helping with is fediverse.party. We mainly focus on the cluster of federated social network apps that use ActivityPub, the W3C social web standard, and the most widely used standard I’m aware of for federated web apps. We also feature apps that use Diaspora’s variant of the OStatus standard (pioneered by StatusNet, now GNU social), or the Zot protocol developed for Hubzilla (also now supported by Zap).

The big challenge now is to figure out how to string it all together in a way that makes sense to the average user, and promote the best apps and services that emerge to the general public. In other words, we’re exactly where we were with email and the web in the late 1990s. This is what I’ve been trying to help with by contributing to networking projects like the Collaborate Technology Alliance and the Open App Ecosystem working group.

Hopefully, as others have suggested in the comments on Larry’s piece, we can find new economic models that are aligned with the data and network models we want to build and use, rather than have corporations and Vulture Capitalists (to quote Aral Balkan) enclose the decentralized web all over again. We can learn a lot about how to do this from the pioneering work done by economics thinkers like Elinor Ostrom, Silke Helfrich, David Bollier, and Michel Bauwens, on “commons” models, based on shared ownership and democratic management.

EDIT 2019-03-13: added reference to CTA and OAE.

Filed March 11th, 2019 under open social networks

At the end of last month, Mozilla Hacks announced a new series of “DWeb” posts on decentralized software projects, which aim to redistribute the power to host and share information on the web, and on the internet in general. Obviously it’s of great interest to Disintermedia, and this blog’s 2 readers. So far, there are articles on Scuttlebutt/ SSB, WebTorrent, and Beaker Browser (see the list at the end of the DWeb announcement article). Thanks to the fedizen - a citizen of the “fediverse” of federated social networks -  who brought this to my attention, sorry I can’t remember who it was right now.

I’m back in the studio, and intending to resume normal transmission next week. This will start with a run-down of the talks and workshops I attended at Open 2018 in London.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a wave of radical community servers, many of which fed into (or grew out of), the Indymedia network. Most of those veterans have sadly vanished from the web, and RiseUp, Framasoft, Comunes (OurProject), and CoActivate, are among the few still standing. As awareness grows of tech corporations like Microsoft, Apple, Google, FarceBook, and Amazon, putting their users in a digital cage, it’s great to see a whole new wave of cooperative groups coming together to replace these Web 2.0 prison canteens with ‘digital cafes’, like CommonsCloud, Disroot, and Social.coop, which I’m starting to get involved with.

A digital cafe (or ‘Open App Ecosystem‘) is a community of users and hackers providing themselves and each other with web services like social media (social networking, open publishing, or both), and sharing the costs. Since they’re doing many of the same things, rather than reinventing the wheel by writing all their software from scratch, they use a range of free code software developed by other groups. Sometimes they donate towards the financial costs of the peer production project that develops the software they use, and in other cases they have the skills and the time to contribute back to the project.

Social.coop began as group of members who set up a cooperative to share the costs of a site running Mastodon, a federated microblog server. Social.coop users can interact not only with each other, and with users on other sites running Mastodon (”instances”), but they can also interact with users on any site connected to a larger “fediverse” of federated social apps. The software makes these interactions across the fediverse possible by using common standards for exchanging data between social sites, initially using an older standard called OStatus. More recently a new standard called ActivityPub was published by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the body that maintains the official standards for HTML, and everything else about how the web works under the hood. ActivityPub was the final output of W3C’s Social Working Group, which has now been replaced by the SocialCG (Social Web Incubator Community Group).

Social.coop depends on the work of all these other organizations in different ways, to keep their digital cafe running. But what’s the nature of the relationship between a cooperative running a digital cafe, and the groups maintaining the software they use? Does their sustainability depend more on making sure the project developing Mastodon has good governance? Or working on ensuring the reliability of their own servers, tweaking the software to serve member’s specific needs better, and perhaps adding new services, to help attract more members who can help reduce the costs per member?

You can’t have a cafe without a reliable electric and gas supply to the kitchen (the “back-end” of the server that users don’t see), and good mood lighting so people can feel relaxed but still see what they’re doing (UI or “User Interface“). But you don’t build a successful cooperative cafe by focusing on the internal politics of the energy utility, or the lamp shop. You focus on building your membership / customer base (users), and your collective capacity to provide them with good coffee, good service, and good food (UX or “User eXperience“).

If your energy supply becomes unreliable, you switch providers. If a coop-owned energy supplier emerges, great, switch to that. #ForkOffTogether could be that, and if people want to pitch that to them, go for it. But we can’t say for certain exactly which software they’re going to fork yet. Pleroma and Hubzilla are already options for ActivityPub server. Of these two existing, ready-to-use ActivityPub servers, I would say Hubzilla’s community probably has the closest overlap of values with social.coop. IMHO both their back-ends perform better than Mastodon’s Ruby-on-Rails engine, but other options continue to emerge (like Pylodon).

It’s the same with the lamp shop (UI). At present social.coop happens to be buying energy and lamps as a bundled package from Mastodon. But we’re not stuck with either, and we don’t have to get them from the same supplier at all. There are already a bunch of other lamp shops around, whose lamps can plug into the same power sockets (server-to-client API) that Mastodon uses. These include Pinafore (which I’m using these days and loving), and Halcyon, which is modeled directly on the look and feel of the birdsite, so fediverse sites who use that will have the minimum transition pain for refugees from there. Other lamp shops will emerge, and some of the existing shops whose lamps use different power sockets (eg Qvitter) might become compatible in the future. Hopefully, in a year or two, everyone will be using the same power sockets and plug standard (ActivityPub server-to-client API), so all lamps will work with all electric suppliers.

In a digital cafe, the energy supply is the maintenance crew’s problem (tech working group). As long as the lights stay on, the rest of the members don’t have to care about how they’re powered. The lamp situation, on the other hand, is something the members/ customers have to put up with while they drink their coffee. Decisions about which UI options social.coop offers need to be made by the membership, within the range of options that can technically work right now. Keep in mind that members can also get takeaway coffee (using a portal like pinafore.social to connect to their current instance), so they do have lighting options beyond what the tech group can set up and maintain right now.

The most important thing, the thing that *isn’t* a distraction, ever, is the coffee, the service, and the food. If we don’t get the UX right, it doesn’t matter how health or unhealthy the workplace is down at the energy company or the lamp shop, because we won’t keep the digital doors open long enough for their long term survival to matter. I love to geek out on organizational structures too. I get it. If that’s your thing, by all means go help the #ForkOffTogether folks become a cooperative energy supplier that social.coop can buy from (if they’re reliable suppliers). I totally endorse that.

Clear as mud? I may have over-extended the cafe metaphor somewhat, and as the old saying goes, no metaphor bears close examination. Feel free to hit me up about what I mean by this or that on the fediverse.

Filed June 12th, 2018 under open social networks, free software

OpenBenches.org is an open data project that collects photos and information about memorial benches in public places.

OpenBenches photo by @sjorford (CC BY-SA) 

I learned about them today, thanks to iSpooge developer Harlan Iverson, who shared a link to OpenBenches blog piece on having their birdsite account suspended by bots and then just as mysteriously restored - minus their followers. In that piece, they felt the need to defend their use of the birdsite, saying:

“Yes, I know. We should redecentralize and put our content on Mastodon, or the BlockChain, or some other convoluted platform which has no users.”

I drafted a response to them in a GH Issue but it got long, so I’m posting it here with a TL;DR version there.

I share your sceptical view of blockchain startups whose “decentralized” software only connects with other versions of itself, but Mastodon is part of a larger network known informally as the fediverse, all inter-operating via a common standard called OStatus. The OStatus fediverse is currently made up of 6 federated apps (including GNU Social), all with multiple live instances, most of which are multi-user (although some people do self-host a single account). There’s plenty of us there to share your bench photos with.

Obviously, it’s not necessary to stop using the birdsite to start experimenting with decentralized replacements. The GNU Social server that my fediverse account is hosted on can be set up to automatically repost anything I post there to my account on the birdsite, so I can publish on both networks with the same action. There are similar bridging tools available for Mastodon, and probably for some of the other apps.

If you don’t want to set up a separate microblog app on your server at all, you can use IndieWeb protocols to enable your existing openbenches.org website to inter-operate as a first-class citizen of the social web. This can connect you with the rest of the IndieWeb right away, and eventually with the fediverse using BridgyFeb (note: this is about a year old and still experimental). W3C recently made ActivityPub an official web standard for social networking, and all the fediverse apps either have implementation rolled out (eg Mastodon), or are working on it, and the same is true for a growing list of other apps (including BridgyFeb).

It’s hard to get an accurate population census of the fediverse vs. the birdsite. Even if you could find out the total number of accounts on all fediverse instances, it’s hard to know how many of these are test accounts set up by one user to try out the UX of the different apps (I have several). You can get user numbers for the birdsite, but it’s hard to know how many of these are bots or sock puppets, rather than unique human users.

Anecdotally, I’ve never had more than about 200 followers on the birdsite, while I’m humbled to have about 600 people following my current fediverse account. So, a large total number of users on a platform doesn’t guarantee greater engagement for any given feed published there. But it does contribute to the network effect that leaves users like yourselves feeling trapped there, despite the user maltreatment you experienced. Someone once convinced you to use the birdsite because they were already there, despite not knowing anyone else who was. You could be that person or project in the fediverse for your social network.

Filed May 8th, 2018 under open social networks
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