In late July, I will be attending the Open 2018 conference in London, thanks to the encouragement of one of the organizers, who participates in the Open App Ecosystem (OAE) group on Loomio. If you’re going to be there, let me know, and I’ll do my best to make sure you know about any open space sessions that might interest you. Hopefully we’ll have open space time for folks interested in the OAE and the Collaborative Technology Alliance reboot to get together, as well as a session for those who orbit the Peer-to-Peer Foundation and the Commons Transition project.

I’ll be in London for a week or so before the conference, so if you’re not going to be at the conference, but you are based somewhere around the greater London area, feel free to get in touch. I love to meet up with a diverse range of people when I travel, and geek out about the potential for the net and digital technology to better serve human and environmental needs.

I’ve got a lot of blog posts in the pipeline, but this will probably be my last post until after the conference, and maybe even until I get back to the studio. I will do my best to post some live updates from the conference using my new fediverse account (thanks to the NZ Open Source Society), and possibly some kind of Etherpad or CryptPad for live note-taking.

Filed July 4th, 2018 under Uncategorized

Two years ago, Nadia Eghbal published a blog piece about how she hates the term “open source”, and not for the usual reasons; the way it misses the point of software freedom, emphasizing corporations’ freedoms to use the work of the free code community without reciprocity, instead of peoples’ freedoms to modify and share the software they use. Instead, her argument is that “open source”, as defined by the Open Source Initiative, is too specific and exclusive, and proposes that we start using a vaguer and more inclusive term like “public software”.

In that piece, she pulled a quote from another blog post by Mike Perham of Sidekiq, stripping it from the context of what Mike is arguing, and giving the initial impression that he is saying something totally different (and arguably incorrect). Upon reading Mike’s piece, where says …

“Open Source != Free Software”

… he clearly does not mean that open source software is not Free Software, as defined by the Free Software Definition (“libre” or “free-as-in-speech”). What he is saying is that open source software does not have to be free-of-charge (“gratis” or “free-as-in-beer”). Being gratis is not a requirement for being Free Software either:

“we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If a license does not permit users to make copies and sell them, it is a nonfree license.”

The two different meanings the word “free” has in English have always caused confusion, and this was probably the main reason the phrase “open source” took off in the Anglophone world (speakers of French and Spanish always know which meaning of “free” they’re using because they have words like libre and gratis). But the software freedom movement has always been concerned with finding ways to pay people to work on free code software. A recent example is the talk by Denver of JMP at LibrePlanet 2018 about Free Software business models.

The open source movement, on the other hand, was founded by people whose goal was to get people working on free code software paid for by corporations, entities that are highly allergic to concepts like “freedom”, “sharing”, and “cooperation”. The open source movement has been very successful with this, but with the consequence that most of that free code consists of back-end libraries under non-copyleft licenses (“MIT”, “BSD”, Apache 2.0 etc) which corporations then use to make proprietary apps for end users (including GitHub).

In his piece, what Mike recommends is licensing your code under a strong copyleft license (eg GNU AGPL), then selling exceptions to companies who don’t want to comply with the copyleft obligations of that license, like X-wiki Labs do with software like Cryptpad. Where this means a company is using and funding free code under a copyleft license, where they otherwise would have been using and funding proprietary software, this seems like good strategy. But this is more of an argument for using copyleft licenses than it is an argument for watering down or replacing the term “open source”.

If you’re looking for a more general term for collaborative work to create a common good, which is what people usually mean when they say “open source” outside of software (like Open Source Ecology, OpenStreetMap, WikiHouse, and WikiSpeed), I suggest “peer production”. If you need a term for people dumping their “IP” into an unstewarded commons, using something like CC Zero or the WTFPL, I think “public domain” does the job nicely. Perhaps there needs to be another term for things like Tesla offering free licenses for their electric car patents, because while this was a public-spirited offer, it is not “open source” by either common definition of the term (free code or peer production).

But I honestly don’t understand what purpose Nadia wants a term like “public software” to serve. How does it help anyone to fudge free code (open source/ Free Software/ FOSS/ FLOSS) together with “shared source” (you can see it but not use it), and “fair source” (basically shareware), and code placed in the public domain, and unlicensed code (which defaults to ARR copyright in the US and most jurisdictions), and arguably inappropriate use of CC licenses for code (to create proprietary freeware), as if these are all the same thing? Because whatever the motivations behind them, these approaches have very different consequences.

Filed May 30th, 2018 under Uncategorized

Update 13/10/2017: According to recent comments in the Open App Ecosystem group, the Digital Life Collective have already started using their own instance of MatterMost, a free code replacement for Slack. My apologies for the mistake.

——————–

In my recent comments in the introduction thread of the Loomio group for the Open App Ecosystem project, I referred to a concept of “cancerous growth” resulting from open membership web platforms. I’d like to discuss this in more detail, in the context of a proposal for another approach to running web hosting organisations for the common good. It’s not a new approach, in fact Indymedia used it, RiseUp.net have been using it for some time, and if I understand their intentions correctly, Social.coop and the Digital Life Collective are using it too (although I’ll continue to be skeptical of “DigiLife” until they replace their use of Slack with a self-hosted, free code chat system like Riot/ Matrix).

A little background. As discussed by a number of folks recently including Doug Rushkoff, Aral Balkan, and Dan Lyons, the “startup” resource model (I prefer this term to “business model”) depends on unsustainable growth. This is because their goal is not providing user-driven services for the long haul, but selling their audience of users to capitalists, either by getting eaten by a bigger fish (”acquisition”), or by selling shares (”IPO” or “Initial Public Offering”). Web platforms created by such startups are commonly set up as “walled gardens” or “data silos”, where users can only interact with others who have an account on the platform, setting up a situation where users end up doing unpaid promotion for the platform, so that there are more users for them to use the platform services with. Because of this, it makes sense to let anyone with an internet connection and an email address set up an account, and grow as fast as you can, exponentially if possible; cancerous growth.

This way of operating has become so normal, for so long, there is now an expectation that any new web platform should have open membership, and be able to scale up its services regardless of how many users swarm to the platform. Yet this norm of unpredictable and open-ended growth creates massive problems for any hosting group who are not a startup, seeking to build fast and cash out. When new hosting groups start out with high ethical standards and a commitment to serving their users (not advertisers or future owners), their positive reputations lead to them being flooded with more users than they can really cope with, creating cancerous growth in hosting costs and technical debt, and increasing strain on system maintainers, who are often volunteers. Because they’re emulating a resource model that has diametrically opposite goals, ethically-orientated hosts risk becoming victims of their own success. Some examples off the top of my head include Identi.ca (micro-blogging using StatusNet then pump.io), GoblinRefuge (media hosting using MediaGoblin), and more recently OpenMailBox (email hosting with RoundCube and file storage with ownCloud, now using NextCloud)

I believe we need to establish a new normal, where prospective users have to request membership, and consider paying a regular membership free (eg weekly, monthly, or yearly). A normal where it’s seen as a privilege, or a generous gesture on the part of the hosts, to allow gratis use of their web services. As mentioned above, there have been groups experimenting with private or semi-private web platforms for some time. The problem has been that this can feel like a strategy of “gated communities” on the web, with access to libre technology limited to those who have the required technical knowledge, contacts, or money for fees. For those of us who care passionately about software freedom for all computer users, this can feel exclusive and unjust. But just as we cannot solve homelessness by inviting every homeless person we meet to live in our own home, we cannot solve ‘hostlessness’ by inviting every ‘hostless’ person into the web platform we use.

Instead, we can replace cancerous growth of a small number of hosting groups, with ‘growth by replication’, creating tools that make it easier to set up more, small hosting groups (stack documentation, organisational playbooks etc). These hosting groups may serve networks of people who know each other primarily through existing online social networks. But I suspect the real future of this approach is in groups of people who know each other face-to-face. I imagine the set-up becoming so simple that every family, community, or organisation could become self-hosting, or come together to form coops to provide each other with web services on a larger scale. I’m fascinated by the idea of experimenting with a hosting platform that has no account registration available on the public web, so the only way of getting an account is to meet with an admin in person. Watch this space.

As more free code web software moves towards federation, allowing users to interact across different hosts as we always have with email, it becomes less important for users to get everyone they know to sign up for the same services. But federation also makes it easier for a given user to have all the apps they use directly tied into a single sign-on by the hosts of the platform they use. Eventually, we probably need all the gory details of apps and protocols to sit quietly behind generally understood concepts, like “phone” or “radio” or “television”, so users can choose services based on what they’re trying to get done. We don’t need to know anything about the technology behind television broadcasting to know how to turn on a “TV” to watch audio-visual programs, and change “channel” to select the programs that interest us at the time. We’ve pretty much reached that point with “email”, and I’m looking forward to “social media” being broken down into a more service specific set of generalizations.

Filed October 11th, 2017 under Uncategorized

I strongly disagree with activist organisations using web services run by corporations. I believe it’s unethical to allow corporations to harvest and mine data about what activist causes are of interest to who, and potentially puts activists and the causes we support at risk. There is plenty of free code (”open source”) software that our organisations can use to host our own services; if you can host a website, it’s not that much more difficult to host the other web services you need. There are also various not-for-profit organisations that provide web services tailored specifically to the needs of activists.

Why does this matter? In my first few years of experimenting with using the internet to support my activism on various causes, I set up a number of email lists. Since I had no access to servers, nor knowledge of how to use them, I set up my email lists using a gratis mailing list service offered by a startup called EGroups.

Like any Silicon Valley startup, EGroups was not designed to provide long-term service to its users, but to serve as a financial speculation vehicle for venture capitalists. Within a couple of years it had merged with another startup called OneList, and then been acquired by Yahoo! After its founders and the venture capitalists who had invested in it walked away with US$432 million, Egroups was then merged with Yahoo! Clubs to create YahooGroups. Many of the email lists I had created were mangled in various ways during the transition process, but since we were the product, not the customer, Yahoo! didn’t care, and nothing got fixed.

Since then, I’ve also seen startups dangle gratis services as bait, only to start charging ongoing fees, and refusing to allow users to export their own data. I’ve learned more about how “free” services offered by internet companies are used as honeypots to track us and gather information about us, whether for marketing or even more manipulative and sinister purposes like “political marketing“. I’ve learned about “walled gardens” and the “network effect“, where people become an unwitting (and unpaid) salesperson for every web service they use, by encouraging everyone they know to use the same services, so they can connect with each other online. Noting all these issues, I have invested a lot of time and energy into finding ways for activists to either self-host our own internet services, or find ethical hosts whose priority is to serve their users, not the financial interests of a parasitic tech investor class.

So, I have watched with dismay over the last few years as more and more activist groups and other community organisations make the same mistake I did, turning to corporations like Google, and even worse startups like MailChimp, to host their mailing lists. Worse, I’ve even noticed open source communities like Gratipay using MailChimp. In my mind there is no reason for an open source community running their own servers to do this.

Email mailing lists are one of the oldest “social media” forms on the net, and there are a plethora of free code packages available for running listservers or sending out email newsletters. For example, Permaculture in NZ use CiviCRM as their membership database, allowing them to send out newsletters to their members without giving their members’ contact information to anyone outside the organisation. If you need the extra-for-experts stuff that MailChimp offers on top of the standard listserver features, there is a free code package called Mautic that offers these, which can be used as a commercial service hosted by the developers, or you can follow the example of the Open Educational Resources Foundation and roll-your-own Mautic server. 

For non-geek groups who don’t have the resources to run their own servers, there are plenty of hosting organisations that exist to serve their users, and that run on free code. I’ve been part of activist email lists using using a number of services including RiseUp.net, OnlineGroups.net, and of course, CoActivate.org. There is also forum software like Loomio and Discourse, which provide sufficient email integration that these can be used like mailing lists. Loomio host their own trial service at Loomio.org, and one place you can try Discourse is a gratis, privacy-respecting host called Disroot. As awareness continues to grow about the risks of using proprietary, corporate-run “cloud” services, tech activists have been working on creating new hosting organisations, and finding ways to make it easier for people and groups to host their own services. Watch this space.

While we’re on the subject of mass email, the “service” that seems to make MailChimp so attractive is that is uses HTML to add a bunch of trackers to the email sent through its servers. Putting aside the ethics of enabling companies to use email to track people we like, I strongly discourage people from sending HTML by email. Email is designed as a text-only medium, and works better this way. HTML email massively increases the amount of space email takes up in someone’s inbox, how much of their data allowance is used looking at it, and how much of the total resources of the internet are used by email that may not even be wanted or seen. HTML email also creates vectors for viruses and malware to spread through email, vectors which do not exist in plain text email.

If you want to show someone a page of HTML, it’s better to put that on a website, and include a link to it in a plain text email. That way people can read the email anytime, then look at the linked web pages when they are using fast, un-metered internet. This is also helpful to people still using dial-up connections, or slow rural broadband.

In summary, please, please, please, don’t use MailChimp!

Filed October 4th, 2017 under Uncategorized

I’ve posted very little over the past month or so, since the end of my CCMusic project for NZ Music Month. June/ July is the middle of winter here in Aotearoa, and I like to take a bit of midwinter downtime, to observe the winter solstice (”midwinter Christmas”) and celebrate Matariki, the “Māori new year”, marked by the reappearance above the southern horizon of the constellation known in European cultures as the “Pleiades” or “Seven Sisters”, and to the Japanese as “Subaru” (from which the car company gets it’s name and logo).

But I did see the John Oliver’s video about net neutrality and figured I might as well as join all the USAmericans taking up Oliver’s invitation to tell the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the US government department that regulates broadcast media and telecommunications, to GoFCCYourself.com. Here’s the message I sent to the FCC, and I invite the NZ government and any government department involved in drawing up and enforcing regulations that affect the operation of the net and the web to take note.

The internet is and must remain an international common carrier, just like the postal system, the telegram system, and the telephone system before it. All internet-connected network operators, whether commercial or non-commercial, must be legally allowed, indeed obliged, to pass on all traffic as it arrives, without prejudice, discrimination, or tollgates. Only under these conditions is the internet is a level playing field, in which services and ideas can compete on their own merits, rather than buying influence through backroom “payola” deals with network operators.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing a new year evaluation of my various projects, and setting some priorities for the next few months. Watch this space.

Filed July 11th, 2017 under Uncategorized

640px-SoundscapeHamilton.jpg 

(SoundScape Hamilton 2011, by Nzwj - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

New Zealand Music Month (NZMM) is over for another year. I managed to promote 37 CreativeCommons-licensed kiwi music releases on the Fediverse, 38 if you count the one that ended up being posted a couple of minutes into June, and 39 if you count this year’s Turnbull Mixtape (#5: Time to get schooled). These releases covered 35 different music acts, across a diverse range of genres (no ukelele bands yet!).

To be honest, I was originally worried that I might  be scraping the barrel to get to 31 (one for each day in May). In the end, I ran out of May long before I ran out of releases to promote, mainly thanks to the Turnbull librarians and their mixtapes from the last few years. Thanks Turnbull folks!

A couple of thoughts on CC Aotearoa/ NZ engagement with kiwi musicians going forward. Firstly, it would be great to contact as many of these artists as possible about their CC use, and how they feel its worked for them (or not). Trying to interview all of them before next NZMM would be an average of about one a week, which would be a huge ask, so it might be good to aim to get a handful of interviews across a set of categories. Some of the obvious categories are;

  • always use CC
  • only used CC for one release
  • used to use CC then stopped for newer releases
  • started using CC after numerous ARR releases.

Another distinction I noticed was digital downloads offered gratis with no obvious way to pay/ donate, downloads on a ‘pay what you want’ basis, and downloads with a fixed price, just like a physical record. Some may have even used multiple styles across different web platforms (eg fixed price on BandCamp, free streaming/ download on SoundCloud). Again, it would be interesting to find out what motivated musicians’ choices here, how they feel it worked out for them, and whether they intend to experiment with a different approach in future.

Secondly, there’s definitely enough music acts using CC licenses to put on some amazing concerts for next year’s NZMM. Maybe even a CC music festival, or a touring roadshow! This would be a great chance to raise awareness of CC licensing among musicians and their audiences, and creative communities generally. Roll on NZ Music Month 2018!

Filed June 5th, 2017 under Uncategorized

You will have all seen Zuckerberg’s answer to Mein Kampf, heard about the Trump campaign’s strategic use of FarceBook to discourage their opponents from voting, and glanced at the various “e-democracy” apps funded by the same venture capitalists who brought us FarceBook, PayPal, Uber, and Palentir. You may also be aware that a number of kiwi political parties, including some who should know better (Greens and TOP), are using NationBuilder. I laid out a few of the *many* reasons why this is a bad idea in an open letter to the Greens a couple of months ago.

In the face of this, to focus on preventing the corruption of the voting process is to miss the point. Elite interests don’t need to control or corrupt the voting process, if they can control and corrupt the public discourse that informs whether or not people vote, and what they look for in the candidates and parties they vote for. The problem is that when such powerful discursive manipulation systems an be applied anywhere, from anywhere in the world, “representative democracy” (or more accurately, temporary elected dictatorship) is fundamentally impossible to secure against such attacks.

Digital voting can’t fix this, and neither can keeping elections paper-based. Whatever voting system is used, the only way to reduce the damage caused when they get pwned, is to stop using voting to elect an elite of individuals to form governments and then give them absolute state power, even temporarily. To replace it with a system where the powers of the state are strongly limited, and highly distributed, and where decision-making is participatory, not representative. Deep democracy, whether using digital platforms, public meetings, or a combination of both (which is probably ideal) is now our best possible future.

Now it’s true that these systems too will also be attacked, both directly and by discursive manipulation. For as long as economic power, and ownership of the mainstream news media, is concentrated in a handful of global corporations, democracy will always be under attack. Economic organisations and media too need radical democratization, and cooperative companies and not-for-profit social enterprises are making exciting progress on developing models for doing this. But in the meantime, it’s much harder for the 1% to effectively monitor and manipulate a flood of millions or billions of distributed, ‘citizen government’ decision-making processes, than to monitor and manipulate a trickle of representative government decisions that happen one at a time, per country.

Deep democracy is not a perfect solution, there’s no such thing. But as far as I can see, it’s the only alternative to a corporate-controlled technocracy, where elections and political “news” remain as a circus to distract the people from where the real decisions are being made.

Filed May 29th, 2017 under Uncategorized

A fully free network would itself be a commons only in a very abstract sense, in the same way that the planet is a commons. In the sense that Elinor Ostrom uses the word commons (a shared resource with a shared governance structure), a free network would actually be a federation of commons, each operating at one or more network layers. To illustrate, here are some commons (existing and potential) operating at different layers, taken from a comment I posted to the Commons Transition group on Loomio.

device (hardware and software of the computers used to access networks)

  • free digital (or “open source”) hardware design projects (where the design patterns for computer hardware are released under a license allowing it to be freely used, modified, and redisitributed)
  • customer-owned and/or worker-owned hardware manufacture and distribution cooperatives
  • projects developing and distributing free code software that runs on end user devices (eg the projects that maintain the various software components used in GNU/Linux distributions)

standards (defining how computers will interact productively across networks)

connections (cables, wireless access points, and routers, allowing data to flow from computer to computer across the networks):

  • community mesh networks (P2P wireless between PCs or mobiles)
  • community access wireless networks (collectively-owned wireless tower)
  • open wireless (voluntary sharing of private wireless networks by customers with uncapped upstream internet connections)
  • customer-owned and/or worker-owned ISP cooperatives (collectively-owned cable and router infrastructure, at any scale from neighbourhood to country to world)

hosting (servers providing access to databases over the networks):

  • projects developing and distributing free code software that runs services (whether on end user computers or dedicated server hardware)
  • P2P networks (eg BitTorrent clients, trackers, and search engines, or BitCoin and other blockchains)
  • home of office servers (consumer grade PCs running free code server packages, or combinations of them eg FreedoxBox, FreedomBone, YunoHost)
  • server colocation (or “colos”, small data centres run collectively by a group of server operators who provide and maintain their own hardware, eg RiseUp.net and MayFirst/ PeopleLink have their servers in a colo)
  • customer-owned and/or worker-owned ISP cooperatives (collectively-owned datacentres leasing the use of “bare metal” servers, virtual servers, or use of shared servers)

My point in laying all this out is that we don’t need to start from scratch, and certainly not from the top down. Many projects are already underway, and can already be used, joined, supported, cross-promoted, and partnered with.

Federating into more ambitious new meta-projects adds a ’social coordination’ layer to the stack. Various organisations have attempted to work at this layer, but there are no guarantees of success at this layer either. The ground behind is littered with the corpses of ambitious pioneers like the Free Network Foundation, and the various failed attempts at an open hardware organisation. But there are also many successful social layer projects, from early pioneers like the Free Sosftware Foundation/ GNU Project and Open Source Initiative, to more recent organisations like the P2P Foundation/ Commons Transition, Open Source Hardware Association, Collaborative Technology Alliance, and Tech Co-op Network (North America).

Filed April 30th, 2017 under Uncategorized

For a few years now, there has been a copyright statement at the top of the front page of the Disintermedia wiki. It stated that the contents of the wiki, and this blog, are under a CreativeCommons-Attribution-Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) license, but it never said which version. The latest version of the CC license suite is 4.0, which folded the jurisdictional licenses for each country into a single set of international licenses, so I’ve added that to the copyright statement. Inspired by recent research into free code software licensing, I’ve decided to add an “or later” clause, so that content from this project can be used under future versions of the CC licenses whether or not I ever get around to making a specific statement to that effect.

The only downside is that if changes are made to future versions of the CC-BY-SA licenses that I don’t agree with, I can’t stop people using Disintermedia content under that version. By giving the “or later” permission, I’m saying that I’m confident the stewardship of the CC license suite is in good hands, and long may it remain that way.

Filed April 30th, 2017 under Uncategorized

Update (20108-02-07): a lot has happened in the year and a half since I wrote this post, and I’ve learned a lot more about all the various projects I mentioned in it. Since a lot of people have linked to it, I feel obliged to do a major 2.0 update to make sure the piece is as accurate as I can make it at this time. Watch this space. In the meantime, TalkPlus.org has a good article on Mike Macgirvin’s branch of the federation family; Friendica/ DFRN, Hubzilla/ Zot, Zap, and Osada (now sadly defunct). Still looking for a good history of the Diaspora project, the other major branch of the family.

———

Back in the glass age, a guy called Evan wrote some free code in PHP to run a vaguely Twitter-ish site called Identi.ca. The software was called Laconica, and then it was called StatusNet. It was able to federate with other vaguely Twitter-ish sites running the same software using the OpenMicroBlogging standard (a mash-up of existing protocols including OAuth, OAuth Discovery, YADIS, and XMPP), which was replaced by the OStatus standard (a bouquet of existing protocols including Atom, Activity Streams, PubSubHubbub, Salmon, and the delightfully named Webfinger), both of which Evan was also pretty involved in developing. A bunch of other sites/ softwares had a go at supporting OStatus (there’s a list on its Wikipedia page), hoping that one day they could all get along.

A few years later, glass was being replaced by aluminium. Evan got bored with trying to fix a bunch of baked in architectural limitations in StatusNet (or maybe PHP itself, I’m guessing, I don’t know his reasons) and started working on a new piece of vaguely Google+-ish software called pump.io, written in Javascript. Evan announced that Identi.ca would be switching from StatusNet to pump.io, which it did in 2013. Pump.io federates using a new pump.io protocol (which still uses Activity Streams, but with JSON and a “REST inbox API“, whatever that means).

This is good news for potential interoperability, since a bunch of other sites and softwares are already using Activity Streams (including any that support OStatus), and Activity Streams is being standardized under a license from the Open Web Foundation by the Social Web Working Group (SocialWG) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). As it happens, Evan was also involved in starting the W3C SocialWG (which took over the standards work of the OpenSocial Foundation in 2014, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…).

Meanwhile,  Mikael Nordfeldth was hacking away on a fork of StatusNet called Free Social (or “Free & Social”), which debuted in late 2012 on on the FreeSocial.org website he was running for the Piratpartiet. According to OpenHub, Nordfeldth set out with a plan “to make the codebase smaller, leaner, neater and more modular”. Also in the aluminium age, as GNU Social founder Matt Lee tells it in his interview with the FSF LCL (Free Software Foundation Licensing and Compliance Lab):

“GNU social was created as a companion to my earlier project, GNU FM, which we created to build the social music platform, Libre.fm. After only a few short months, Libre.fm had over 20,000 users and I realized I didn’t want to be another social media silo like MySpace or Facebook, so I came up with this vague idea called GNU social. A few prototypes were built, and eventually we started making GNU social as a series of plugins for Evan Prodromou’s StatusNet project, with some help from Ian Denhardt, Craig Andrews and Steven DuBois.”

You could think of all this as Fediverse 0.1, the gestation that was happening as it slumbered in the world wide womb, waiting to be born.

“Later”, continues Matt, “StatusNet, GNU social and Free Social… would merge into a single project called GNU social.”

After this was announced in 2013, lots of people who had still been running StatusNet sites, and getting concerned about the lack of active development as Evan worked in pump.io, started migrating to the first release of GNU Social, and other folks started setting up new GNU Social servers. Some of them continued to or started to federate using OStatus. Users who had been missing StatusNet since Identi.ca switched to pump.io (including yours truly) started finding and joining GNU Social servers. The Fediverse 1.0 is born.

This part of the history happened a few years ago, so I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right, but I welcome corrections in the comments. For the next part, I’m kind of winging it on the basis of what appears to have happened more recently, so apologies for any misunderstandings and again, please feel free to set me straight.

The growing GNU Social Fediverse then sets out to try and make friends with some of the other kids in the federated social networking neighbourhood; particularly established players like Pump.io, Diaspora*, Friendica (formerly Mistpark), and Hubzilla (formerly Red Matrix), but also up and coming projects like Tent, the Matrix, and the skinny jeans wearing rebels of the IndieWeb). Some want to use their own brand spanking new protocol(s) (pump.io, Tent, and the Matrix, what is the Matrix? Still working that out). Some don’t really want to federate at all because it threatens to breaks their privacy model (Hubzilla), and others had already threatened in 2012 to take their ball and go home, to work on their reinvented decentralized authentication (the Zot protocol, which ended up being used as the federation protocol for Hubzilla). To be honest, I’m still left wondering why the hell they didn’t all just use XMPP but I’m not a developer so…

Despite all that, GNU Social does manage to make some friends, and there is talk of a grand Federation (this link lists active Diaspora*, Friendica, and Hubzilla nodes). Some success appears to be made in allowing users to communicate between some of these projects, mostly using some variant on the OStatus cluster of protocols, which seem to be the lowest common denominator. The Diaspora* protocol uses similar bunch of protocols to OStatus, but it uses them differently, including adding support for private massages. Sean Tilley of the Diaspora* crew sums up the resulting blends:

“Friendica, Diaspora, Hubzilla all talk to each other through Diaspora. Friendica can also speak OStatus. Hubzilla and Diaspora currently cannot.”

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, another cluster of free code developers are also working on communication and collaboration software. Some of them create the Valueflows project to work towards a standard for them all to interoperate, and a larger federation of projects groups form the Collaborative Technology Alliance to do the same. Working on standards is complex work, but not nearly as hard as getting everyone to agree on what standard to use.

Back in the Fediverse, a few developers get bored with trying to hack around a bunch of baked in architectural limitations in GNU Social (or maybe PHP itself, I’m guessing, I don’t know their reasons), and develop a bunch of add-ons or replacements for the GNU Social server software (formerly StatusNet, remember?), in a few different languages. Qvitter, started by Hannes in 2013, is a Javascript layer used on the Quitter sites to give a more Twitter-ish user experience. In 2016, Maiyannah Bishop forks GNU Social to start the PostActiv project, which is not GNU Social but still part of the Fediverse, and Eugen Rochko starts working on Mastodon in Ruby on Rails, which is not even a GNU Social fork but is still part of the Fediverse and uses the same GNU AGPL software license. With a cluster of different server-side packages available for those who want to set up their own node in the OStatus-powered federated network that started with StatusNet/ GNU Social, this is the point where I feel I can say the Fediverse has turned 2.0.

So to sum up, there’s been a lot of different things under a lot of different names. Some of the things still exist and some of them don’t. Some of the things are organisations, some of them are networks or sub-networks. Some of them are websites, some of them are software, standards, or protocols. Some of the things are a smaller part of bigger things, or a collection of smaller things, and some of the things can connect to some of the other things, but not all the other things. The Fediverse / Federation aims to eventually unite all the things that still exist into one glorious meta-thing.

Confused yet? I know I am. The branding is a spaghetti junction, as it too often the case with free code projects and their organic and messy (r)evolution. But thanks heaps to all the hard working people whose dedication, much of it unpaid, has brought us all the things. We’ll all figure it out as we go along. Long live the Federation (in the utopian Star Trek sense of the word, rather than the dystopian Blake’s 7 sense).

Update (2017-04-17): Thanks to Federation pioneer and Friendica/ Hubzilla developer Mike Macgirvin for sharing his thoughts in his unique and inimitable way, I’m planning a separate ‘brief history’ post covering his branch of the family. Thanks also to Sean Tilley of Diaspora* for answering politely each time I asked the same questions clarifying the status of federation efforts between Diaspora and the other apps (my tribal name is Memory Like Goldfish ;).

Update (2017-04–04): Thanks to fellow GNU Social user Claes Wallin for offering some corrections and clarifications. I’ve tried to correct this piece to reflect these. 

Update 2017-05-03: Here’s another ‘Brief History’ of the Fediverse that fills in some gaps in mine, and comes from a different political angle.

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