25 September 2014

No, I am not interested in joining your proprietary social network

I don’t care whether it’s ello or sgrouples or FriendFace or app.net or whatever, I am not joining another walled-in social network owned by a single organization. I already have enough of those.

I don’t care if it has a strong privacy policy, I don’t care if it has good security, I don’t care if it has no advertising, I don’t care if it will let you remain pseudonymous, I don’t care if the people who own it are really cool. All of those things are worthless if the site is controlled by a single organization, because they can all be changed on a whim.

Remember, Facebook used to be ad-free, somewhat closed, had no data mining, and didn’t force you to sign up with your real name. Then they decided they had to make money, and their only resource was a captive user base.

Twitter used to be ad-free with no data mining, and it used to be open so anyone could write clients for it. Then they decided they had to make money, and that meant making sure clients showed ads properly, and that meant locking out your favorite Twitter client and showing you posts that nobody had retweeted.

Go back even further into the past, and LiveJournal used to be run by a small team of people who were directly engaged with their user base. Then they sold out to a company who didn’t care, who sold out to a Russian company who were in it for the money.

Make no mistake, this cycle will repeat itself with ello and all the other closed-off single-provider social networks. Servers cost significant time and money to run — I know because I run some. Unless you have an eccentric millionaire or a trust fund to pay for the hosting, as the site grows, sooner or later someone’s going to decide that it needs to pay for itself. In fact, even if you have funding from an eccentric millionaire, you’re still reliant on their whims to keep the privacy and advertising policies you like.

Venture capitalists are not philanthropists. They didn’t lend ello half a million dollars so that it could be run on donations as a not-for-profit, no matter what the founder may say about having unconstrained choices. The fact that ello aren’t upfront about their funding is very telling.

So, what’s the alternative? One word: federation.

What we need are social networks which are open, like e-mail and the web; where anyone who wants to can set up their own server (or pay someone else to do it) and join the conversation via a system they control. We need social systems which are decentralized, rather than centralized and corporate. Systems where at a minimum, there are multiple independent organizations running servers, and you can migrate if you decide you don’t like the one you’re relying on.

There’s a system which is built that way. It also has no ads, doesn’t require that you provide your “real” name or specify your gender, doesn’t aggregate your data for sale to corporations, and doesn’t run ads. It has per-post privacy settings, so you can share just with the people you trust. You can post pictures and comments, discuss things with friends in discussion threads, and do most of the other stuff you do on Facebook or Twitter.

It’s called Diaspora. You may have heard of it. It was big for a while, but then people were disappointed with the initial code, and tragically one of the lead developers committed suicide.

Diaspora isn’t as pretty as other social networks. It doesn’t have signup pages making elaborate feel-good promises. It isn’t popular with celebrities. But it works, and you can sign up for it right now, and because it’s open source it isn’t going to be ripped away from you or turned into the next privacy-destroying corporate panopticon. Want to give it a try? Tutorials are available, you can pick from dozens of service providers, and my profile’s public.

So in summary: Please don’t waste time asking me to join another walled-off “social” network. If you find a decentralized system that’s better than Diaspora, I’m all for that, but no, I’m not interested in the next Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Diaspora Screenshot
Creative Commons License Antonio Pardo via Compfight

© mathew 2017