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

Update 2018-08-28: I just rechecked this post and realized I listed SocialHome as an OStatus network. In fact, SocialHome uses the Diaspora protocol, making it part of “the federation” (which also includes Hubzilla, Friendica, and GangGo), not the “fediverse”, and I’ve corrected the post to reflect this.. The developers intend to add ActivityPub support for SocialHome though, which will make it compatible with the fediverse apps as they also add support. Many of us are hoping all the apps will have their AP support rolled out by the end of 2018.

Also, I claimed in the piece that ActivityPub will eventually allow federation with MediaGoblin and NextCloud. Seems that NextCloud were only considering AP for closed federation among NextCloud servers, and nobody seems sure if MediaGoblin will go ahead with ActivityPub support now that PeerTube exists.

—-

Here’s a some thoughts I posted in response to a piece on Medium by @digits entitled ‘Join the anti-capitalist social network‘. For the record, Medium is a proprietary walled garden, which I don’t support, and I’m working on a piece looking at how we might establish federated blogging networks, which implement some of the more helpful aspects of Medium’s UX (User eXperience).

—————————————–

Great article @digits. A few points. First, not only do Mastodons federate with other Mastodons, they also federate with instances of any other software that supports the OStatus protocol (a protocol is a technical agreement about how to different things work together), creating a meta-network informally known as the fediverse. This already includes a number of other social network apps like GNU Social, Hubzilla, and Pleroma. But Mastodon has just added support for a new social protocol called ActivityPub, which will eventually allow federation with multimedia hosting sites running MediaGoblin, video streaming sites running PeerTube, file-hosting sites running NextCloud, and more.

Social network migration is a great idea, and you’re absolutely right that it’s essential to allows users to own their data (their “social graph” in geek jargon), so they can keep instance operators honest, and when necessary, survive their downfall. But from my reading of the relevant GitHub Issues (eg #177, #201, and #454), this is still a work in progress in Mastodon. Hubzilla has totally solved it with the Nomadic Identity aspect of their Zot protocol, but as far as I can tell, they are the only software that supports this.

Rather than anti-capitalist, it is more accurate to call Mastodon a nonmarket social network.

Is it though? I know this all depends on what you think a market is. But it’s arguable that what the decentralization of Mastodon allows is a true free market (what left libertarians like Kevin Carson and Gary Chartier call a “freed market”), and this is even more true of the fediverse as a meta-network. Closed, centralized platforms like FarceBook, the birdsite, and Goggle, are like feudal estates, where users harvest data (thoughts, converations, photos, videos) for their own use, but must pay tithes to the landlord in the form of data mining. In decentralized networks like Mastadon and the fediverse, users are tenants not peasants, customers who can choose among many digital landlords, based on the kind of place they’re looking for, and how they’re willing to pay (fees, donations, volunteer time), or even build their own homestead on their own land (by self-hosting).

I would call the fediverse a non-privatized social network, where your social relationships are not reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold by capitalists. So in this sense, I think your headline got it right; it is an anti-capitalist social network. I look forward to the day when we remember FarceBook in the same scornfully nostalgic way we remember AmericaOnline, as feudal empires that both technology and its users outgrew and abandoned.

Filed April 7th, 2018 under open social networks

Mailing lists and web forums are both text media, supporting branching conversations. The only difference is the method of delivery and reply (email vs. web). As mailing list/ forum software continues to be developed, the distinction between the two is breaking down, because it makes sense to use a package that allows people to participate through either email or web interfaces, as they prefer.

Many modern mailing list server packages (like GroupServer) support forum-style subcription management, message searching, and direct replies. Many modern web forum server packages (like Discourse) allow for email delivery and replies. Loomio enables text discussions through both web and email, as well as decision-making using a variety of poll types (so more suited for teams than casual, open-ended discussions).

In response to a proposal on the Trisquel forums, I was thinking it would make sense to have a unified set of software freedom forums, on one website, with a range of topic-based forums, and help forums for specific projects (like libre distros, user applications, server packages, and so on). The question is, how would we assemble a critical mass of people who have time to admin, moderate, and participate? How would we make decisions about where to host? Which software to use? What to call it?

Then I thought, maybe if we want to get really ambitious, we could try to create a federated set of forums. Could ActivityPub, Zot, or another federation standard(s), be used to federate multiple forum packages on multiple hosts so that people can read, join, and post to a Trisquel Users forum from any one of those hosts? Could this help to solve the problems of community fragmentation (different groups silo’d on different hosts), without trying to herd everyone onto one host?

For now, the Trisquel forum admins have solved the problem of general software freedom discussions being held in the forum intended for helping Trisquel users having problems with installing or using the distro, by setting up a new General Free Software Talk forum on their boards. All welcome, don’t feed the trolls (we have the Troll Lounge for that ;)

Filed March 17th, 2018 under open social networks, free software

I’ve been collecting information on free code chat software for a while now as part of research for the Core Us project. If anyone is keen to join an organised testing team and have a regular online chat session, using different chat systems, please get in touch. Today I’ve been looking into which chat systems might be the best options for integration with a Loomio, a web-based deliberation and decision-making platform.

My evaluations

 Etherpad: Text chat only. Collapsed until clicked. Once clicked, appears as a smallish GoogleChat-alike box in the bottom right of the screen. Can be expanded into a sidebar, or collapsed back down.

 Meet.jit.si: Demo of Jitsi Meet/ Videobridge. No login required on the demo site, just create a “room” (eg meet.jit.si/loomio), and anyone who enters the URL for that room automatically joins the chat. I recently used it for a one-to-one, voice-only chat. Other than a tiny bit of lag, which was only mildly disruptive, the experience was good. Supports text chat, (collapsible sidebar), voice, video, screen-sharing, text editing using an integrated Etherpad. A livestreaming output allows a 2-way chat among a small group over people to be streamed to a larger, listen-only audience (akin to Hangouts on Air), and presumably recorded for later viewing.

 MetaMaps: chat is in the form of a sidebar, collapsed until a button on the side of the screen is clicked, collapse back with a second click. Each map has its own chat ‘room’, and text comments made on a map persist in the chat box for that map between sessions. Supports voice and video, not yet tested. A bit harder to evaluate without setting it up on your own server, because they’re currently in invite-only beta.

Mumble / Murmur: Mumble clients are available for all major platforms, but the default interface is basically like IRC plus voice (no video), and may be confusing for people who aren’t used to IRC. Each Murmur server can host many rooms (rooms within rooms). If you are in the same ‘room’ as another user, you can hear each other, and it easily supports large numbers of users in the same room. Mic can be always-on, but I strongly suggest using push-to-talk, which reduces background noise, feedback, and bandwidth use. Plus, the user’s avatar visibly changes when they push-to-talk, giving some sense of who is waiting to speak.

Palava.tv: A WebRTC stack like Jitsi Meet, but only supporting the bare bones text/ voice/ video chat. The interface is much less polished than Jitsi. Would be interesting to compare the call quality between the same two people, on the same equipment and network connections. Palava also seems to be a patchwork of code in a bunch of different languages, whereas Jitsi (and Etherpad) are pure Javascript, and might be easier to integrate with a RoR application.

 Riot.im: A text chat server with multiple ‘rooms’. Basically a prettier, federated, web-based version of an IRC/ Mumble type interface,  but using the Matrix protocol. Also supports file sharing. Has annoying no-reply email notifications turned on by default, but you can unsub from the bottom of each email, and the notification control in the Settings is pretty fine-grained. Overall pretty similar to RockChat (but without the WebRTC voice/ video extensions), and I imagine pretty similar to MatterMost, as they are all basically free code Slack-a-likes.

 

Process of elimination

Trying to re-engineer a system expressly designed to be P2P chat seems like a fools errand, especially when those P2P tools are the various parts of Tox, an outgrowth of 4Chan with a tumultuous history, and somewhat consistent development progress. Ring is a more promising P2P chat project that recently joined the GNU Project, but it’s still in beta, and voice/ video conference calls are still bleeding edge. It doesn’t seem like there is protocol support for XMPP (plus MUC and Jingle), which may be a smoother way to handle conference calls (although maybe less secure), but adding that would be a huge engineering challenge.

Re-using code that’s designed for the web is probably simplest approach. Of the Slack-a-likes, Riot is probably the most interesting because it can federate with Matrix protocols, but as a consequence, it’s probably also the most bleeding edge. Besides which, federation is fairly low down the priority list for integration with a group-based app like Loomio (or Crabgrass, also RoR), which doesn’t currently support any kind of server federation. The ideal candidate would be a module that’s intended for adding chat features to a web application, written in languages that work in nicely with RoR.

 

Shortlist for possible Loomio integration

  • Etherpad is pure Javascript, and adapting the chat box modules of their code might be a way to add a collapsible, text-only chat box to Loomio. This might be a good experimental first step, as its likely to introduce fewer bugs than a chat box with voice and video too.
  • MetaMaps is a Ruby on Rails app, like Loomio, so it may be possible to add a similar chat sidebar to Loomio using the same modules MM chat depends on, or if necessary, by modularizing those parts of the MM code. This might be a good experiment #2.
  • Meet.jit.si ticks a lot of the right boxes. A self-hosted version of their stack could be set up alongside a Loomio server, with rooms sharing the same namespace and access permissions as Loomio groups and subgroups, and the same authentication layer. This would provide a full-featured live collaboration environment, including collaborative text drafting with the Etherpad integration, which is currently a missing feature resulting in a lot of Google Docs. It’s a complicated stack though, with a lot of moving parts, and some careful thought would have to be given to how to integrate the two interfaces smoothly.
  • Mumble: Building a web client for a system server designed to work with desktop clients can work (eg webmail and web-based IRC and XMPP clients), but this would be a major re-engineering job with no certainty of success, and using Mumble for a text only chat feature would certainly be overkill. A minimal web GUI that uses a Murmur server as a back-end for voice conference rooms, obscuring the fiddly business of connecting to a server and navigating through rooms, would make it much easier to use, and would most likely scale better than WebRTC. Underneath the GUI, Mumble rooms could be associated with Loomio groups, and rooms inside each rooms associated with subgroups. This could be a long term solution, but would take a lot of building.

Update 2018-04-24: I thought I’d deleted my account on FarceBook in 2010, but I recently discovered its still around, being run as a zombie by some spammer. So, I’ve decided to rethink my strategy around these corporate platforms. Instead of deleting my account, and potentially have someone run a fake one under my name, I’m going to strip them down to a placeholder that tells people I don’t use that platform, and directs them to the user-respecting platforms I actually use in their place.

———————————-

I recently made this valedictory post on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is joining FarceBook, Skype, and Google, on the list of corporate platforms I no longer intend to use.

I’m going to be deleting my LinkedIn account by the end of the year. I probably won’t log in again until it’s time to action that. If I don’t respond to your message here, or accept your invite to connect, it’s not about you. Happy to hear from you some other way. I just need to stop spending my time performing unpaid data entry for corporate platforms like LinkedIn, especially when the data I’ve entering for them is my own.

The truth is, I’ve always felt somewhat ambivalent about LinkedIn. If LinkedIn was transparent about the source code of all the software it runs on, and especially if it was a platform cooperative, owned by its members, or even by its technical and administrative workers, I think it could be a great community resource. But as it currently exists, it’s like FarceBook and the rest of The Stacks. It’s a proprietary platform whose prime directive is not to serve their users, but to privatize and monetize people’s need to socialize, and to manipulate users to make sure they stay keep clicking around the site for longer.

The second reason I’ve looked sideways at LinkedIn is the company they keep. In late 2016 that incorrigible rascal Tim O’Reilly put on ‘Next:Economy‘, a pep rally celebrating the “Sharing Economy“, that rash of trendy new corporate platforms using mobile apps to make huge profits from other people’s peer-to-peer trading. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weinar was on the speaking list with the exploiters running Uber, AirBnB, Lyft, and so on.

But then, lots of cool people I know are on LinkedIn. People I do want to connect with. In fact, now that that I look more carefully, there were heaps of cool people on that speaking list too, like MJ Kaplan from Loomio, ‘Life Inc.’ and ‘Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus’ author Doug Rushkoff. People who understand that the real Next Economy will be a post-corporate one or it will be a post-human one.

Then I saw the news. LinkedIn, like Skype and so many other small to medium technology companies before them, are going to get swallowed by Microsoft. If there’s one platform corporation I really don’t want to be doing unpaid data entry for, it’s a company who spent years and probably millions of dollars telling lies about GNU-Linux to protect their monopoly on desktop operating systems. As Job puts it in a hugely popular fantasy book, “This far you may come and no farther’.

So, I’m out of here. See you out there in one of the many free and open networked savannahs outside the boundaries of corporate-owned walled gardens. Enoho rā LinkedIn. Haere rā koutou katoa e hoa mā.

Filed May 6th, 2017 under open social networks, open source
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