21 May 2018

Facebook alternatives

A while back I posted about how online communication has changed, based on the experience of looking back at old e-mail and how we used to write.

I proposed the idea of going back to mailing lists, as the easiest alternative to the social networking sites that are busy destroying society. Nobody seemed interested, but I’m not ready to submit to Facebook yet. I decided to go out and look for a viable alternative.

Goals

We need to return to a space where your personal thoughts aren’t going to be used to target propaganda or sell you pharmaceuticals, or downloaded and sold to the highest bidder.

We also need to get away from the “Skinner box” model of optimizing for engagement, if for no other reason than that it aids the flow of misinformation. My ideal model of web site engagement is that people log on, read a few personal updates from their friends, then log off and do something else.

I still think it ought to be possible to get back some of the feel of social networking in the 1990s, when LiveJournal was the state of the art and people wrote personal posts rather than just posting endless links to news articles.

While I’ve kept posting on my personal web site, it’s also true that the lack of any access control has stopped me from posting numerous things.

So those are the goals I set myself: find a non-addictive trustable alternative to Facebook, for non-public personal writing rather than links.

Requirements

Here are the requirements I assembled based on my goals.

1. The system must be free software.

I wasn’t averse to paying, but I wanted something free in the Free Software Foundation sense, so that anyone who wanted to could run their own copy and expand the community.

2. The system must be open and federated.

There’s no point spending time and effort to get out of Facebook’s walled garden if you just walk into someone else’s walled garden. Any site set up with Facebook’s business model will eventually end up being as abusive as Facebook. Even with a different business model, if you are dependent upon a single provider, you can end up getting screwed over. (I quite liked Imzy, until it shut down and everything got deleted.)

I also thought there was no chance of getting everyone to use the same system, so I wanted a system which would interoperate with as many other systems as possible. You know, like how you can e-mail your friends even if they don’t want to use the same e-mail service as you.

So at a minimum I wanted web feeds in and out, message exchange with other servers, and open APIs.

3. The system must have access control.

I wanted to be able to write about personal things and post them for just friends to read, so I wanted a system with access control.

4. The system must be simple and basically like Facebook.

People told me Diaspora was too different, too hard to understand. I didn’t think it was, but they insisted, so I concluded that anything I found difficult to understand was definitely going to be too hard for other people to understand. I went looking for something that was as similar to Facebook as possible: a list of friends, a page with your updates, a page with your friends’ updates.

5. The system must be mobile-ready.

Lots of people use their phones as their primary interface to social networking, so I wanted the web interface to work well on a phone. A native mobile app would be even better, of course.

6. The system should have content expiration.

One of the ideas I think is due for revival is content expiration. That is, the ability to post something with the expectation that it will go away after a certain period, and not become part of some massive permanent database the way Facebook and Twitter posts do. The popularity of Snapchat and similar apps tells me that I’m not the only one with this thought.

Obviously it’s impossible to guarantee that nobody keeps copies of old posts, but I wanted the software I picked to at least let me set it up to delete some or all of my posts after a certain period of time.

The winner

I tried a lot of software. I signed up for accounts on lots of systems, I did interoperability testing, I installed software at home to try out. I’m pretty confident I examined every viable Facebook alternative out there.

I believe the best option, as of May 2018, is Friendica.

  • It’s free software.

  • It can be configured to have most of its features turned off by default, to keep the interface as simple as possible for new users.

  • It’s open and federated, and interoperates with Diaspora and GNU Social. You can connect with your friends on other Friendica servers or on Diaspora, and post “friends only” posts which they can see and reply to. (I tested this with my Diaspora account.)

  • You can set your posts to expire by default, unless you choose to star them and make them permanent.

  • The web interface works in a mobile browser.

  • It runs on commodity web hosting, needing MariaDB and PHP and not much else.

It’s not perfect, but given the goals and requirements it’s the best option I’ve found.

Why didn’t you pick…

If you’ve got a favorite social network, you might be wondering why I didn’t pick it. Here’s why.

Walled gardens

All of the following fail criteria #1 and/or #2 — they are all walled gardens where you are at the mercy of a single provider:

  • Google+
  • Ello
  • MeWe
  • Vero
  • Gab and Voat, which are also full of Nazis
  • Reddit

The following are open source, but don’t federate, so you can run your own walled garden but users don’t have true freedom:

  • Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, DeadJournal, …
  • Minds, which is full of Bitcoin nuts and conspiracy theorists

Twitter clones

The following are federated, but work like Twitter rather than like Facebook:

  • Mastodon
  • pump.io
  • GNU Social

I’m on Mastodon, but that’s not what I was looking for as a Facebook replacement.

Peer-to-peer software

There are a couple of pieces of completely peer-to-peer social software: RetroShare, and Patchwork/Scuttlebutt.

These are tempting, because there’s no server to set up and keep running. The big problem is that there’s also no way to use them from a mobile device, so they fail requirement #5.

A secondary problem is that there’s no way to use them from a computer where you’re not allowed to install random pieces of software, such as the work computers a lot of people access social networks from. There are other problems, but those are the two big ones. So, no peer-to-peer for now. Long term, though, a truly decentralized system is probably the answer.

Other options I almost chose

Movim is pretty good, and open via the XMPP protocol, but it’s very Twitter-like and I found its interface confusing.

Similarly, Hubzilla has made major progress, and may be the best answer in a year or two, but right now its user interface confuses me.

Humhub looks nice, but it doesn’t really federate with anything else — it’s more of a custom walled garden construction kit.

So that’s it. I’m giving Friendica a try. For now I’ve signed up on an open server, but if enough people I know join me on the free and open social network, I’ll probably start running my own server.

© mathew 2017