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 ActivityPub was the final output of W3C’s Social Working Group, which has now been replaced by the SocialCG (Social Web Incubator Community Group).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

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