ActivityPub, the secret weapon of the Fediverse

If you’re new to the Fediverse you should know about ActivityPub and why it gives the Fediverse an edge over other social networks.

The Fediverse is the name for a number of interconnected (federated) social networks running on free and open software on hundreds or even thousands of servers all over the globe. These servers and networks are owned and maintained by a community of people and, contrary to networks like Facebook or Twitter, are not owned by a single corporation or organisation. Therefore all data and control of that data is distributed over individuals and (mostly) small organisations. That all users of these servers are able to socially interact with each other is because of the protocol behind most of the Fediverse, ActivityPub.

The Fediverse logo
Fediverse logo, 5 nodes in pentagon shape with all diagonals, multicoloured Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Created by Eukombos

Now the boring stuff (which is actually very exciting). ActivityPub is a social networking protocol that enables the user (that’s you) to create, update and delete content over the network. In other words when you type a message, like a video or share a photo, the protocol ensures that these messages are exchanged properly. But that’s not what makes ActivityPub special. Other social networking protocols do the same thing, right? However ActivityPub is both open source software and it’s decentralized. This means that any developer can use the protocol to create an application for social media be it a micro-blog, a photo sharing app or a video sharing platform. Others (in fact anyone) can download the application, install it on a server and join an existing network (federate). Now this server becomes publicly available and you as a user can create an account and automatically join the Fediverse. Popular applications are Mastodon (microblogging), Pleroma (microblogging), PeerTube (video-streaming) and Pixelfed (image sharing)

Silos in Acatlán, Hidalgo, Mexico. (Photo by Diego Delso, License CC BY-SA, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

ActivityPub prevents that a social media platform becomes a silo (see photo) that can’t communicate with other platforms. Not only can a Mastodon user communicate with users on different servers on Mastodon, perhaps more importantly this user can also communicate e.g with a Friendica (macroblogging) user or a Pleroma user. These are totally different networks that all support ActivityPub. But this is even taken a step further where that same Mastodon user can follow his favourite PeerTube channel or someone that shares great photos on Pixelfed. This is like you were able to follow someone with your Twitter account on YouTube or Instagram. This also means that this Mastodon user can comment or like the PeerTube video from his/her Mastodon user interface. This is the true power of ActivityPub!

I already mentioned a few but there are dozens of applications that support ActivityPub. All have their different purposes and one has more ActivityPub integration than the other. One that I would like to highlight is Funkwhale. Funkwhale is a music streaming application. Like all applications mentioned above anyone can create a Funkwhale server and federate with other Funkwhale servers. The user is able to stream music from a different server, but also create favourites, make a playlist etc. Currently Funkwhale isn’t integrated with the rest of the Fediverse. Now recently the Funkwhale head developer, Eliot Berriot, started integration and made it possible to share music on Mastodon (perhaps also in Pleroma and Friendica but I haven’t tried that). This all works seamlessly thanks to ActivityPub.

The Funkwhale example demonstrates the power of ActivityPub. Applications with different purposes can work hand in hand. It avoids that Mastodon, which is by far the largest party in the Fediverse, becomes de-facto a silo. The Fediverse is supposed to be diverse and Funkwhale and other apps are enforcing that. In January 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the ActivityPub standard as a Recommendation. This is an important step for the acceptance of ActivityPub by developers and leads to more applications supporting ActivityPub therefore creating even greater diversity in the Fediverse.

With the support of W3C the future of ActivityPub and the Fediverse looks bright. Chances are that more networks will start supporting ActivityPub and will join the Fediverse. And that both developers and (wannabe) admins adopt ActivityPub either for their app or their own server. I’m convinced that this is the only viable way out of the mess created of Big Tech companies like Facebook or Google.

Further listening about the Federation and ActivityPub:

YouTube or PeerTube, which will it be.

YouTube has a monopoly on video and this is bad news. Read what’s so bad about it and why PeerTube is a good alternative.

What’s wrong with YouTube

If you want to watch a video chances are you’ll end up on YT. Sure there are alternatives such as Vimeo or Dailymotion but they are tiny compared to YT. Therefore YT has a near-monopoly As you know monopolies are bad. YT can do whatever they want and users will have to accept it no matter what. Frequently I’ve seen YouTubers ranting in on their YT channel about YT because of some wrongdoing from YT but they have no where else to go (or at least that’s what they think).

YouTube collects our data and sells it. You may think that YT is free but it’s not. Users pay by providing YT with data about their behaviour on YT. This data is turned into profiles about the users and sold to third parties. These third parties can then target you for their ads.

YouTube advertisements are getting increasingly annoying. Alphabet, the holding company, wants to make YT as profitable as possible to satisfy the shareholders. This can either by offering paid premium services or (targeted) ads. Lately I noticed a sharp increase in ads and I’m confident that this will only increase further in the future.

YouTube algorithm wants to keep me on YouTube. Why? So that they sell more ads. The secret of YT is the algorithm that recommends new videos. These recommendations are based on my profile, increasing the chances that I lazily click on another video and another one. This often leaves me with a feeling of pointlessly watching videos while I should have done more productive things.

YouTube algorithm encourages controversy. Controversial videos ensures ensure views and interaction such as likes, dislikes and comments. This in turn means again the opportunity to show more ads which means more income for YT.

What are the alternatives

Vimeo is the only sizeable competitor of YT. It’s business model differs because it doesn’t show ads, instead users can pay for more premium services. Vimeo does track the users however in order to show you ads elsewhere on the web. Also with the users consent Vimeo will sell your data to third parties. Lastly Vimeo is neither open source nor is it a distributed service.

Luckily more ethical alternatives are emerging. PeerTube is one of these alternatives. PeerTube is free and open source software and it’s a decentralized video platform that uses peer to peer technology. Instead of one single organisation that controls all the PeerTube servers, all servers are controlled by different owners. Nevertheless PeerTube operates as one where videos on one server can be searched for and watched on another, thus creating a network of interconnected nodes.

Everyone can install PeerTube on a server (instance) and join the network (this is called federation). Already hundreds of instances exist. Every owner or administrator of an instance can determine which other instances it follows.

Everyone can watch videos on PeerTube but if you want to comment or like or upload your own content you must join PeerTube. To join PeerTube it’s important to understand that there is no centralized portal to login. Instead you’ll choose an instance that you want to join, you login and enter the PeerTube network from that server. This means that choosing the right instance is important. Each server provides useful information about itself but an overall list can be found here.

PeerTube has another great feature. The PeerTube instances do not only federate with other PeerTube instances, they also federate with a larger network that’s called the Fediverse. Mastodon, a social network, is one of these members of the Fediverse and it has a huge number of users. Videos can easily be shared on Mastodon and Mastodon users can comment on videos with their Mastodon account.

Having read this it’s probably not a surprise to you that I’m currently transferring my content from YouTube to PeerTube and remaster the old videos in the process. I also intend to create original content and share it solely on PeerTube. It’s a drop in the ocean and no one at YouTube will loose any sleep over it but that doesn’t matter. PeerTube is still young (2015) and the developer Framasoft is working hard to improve PeerTube. Already some free and open source companies such as Krita, OpenStreetMap and KDE have a channel on PeerTube.

I do hope that people, that love their privacy and want to control their content, will follow me and start uploading great content to PeerTube for this is the only way to get out of the YouTube stranglehold. To get you started I’ve made a list of some useful links. See you on PeerTube.

Giving OpenShot another try

After iMovie completely let me down I gave OpenShot another try and it didn’t disappoint.

I’ve been using iMovie for ages to create videos, both to document my family life and for my YouTube channel. Over the years I’ve create dozens of movies with iMovie and I kind of liked the simplicity of the program. I only wished it was free and open source software instead of proprietary.

The last couple of years I tried several free and open source alternatives notably OpenShot and Shotcut (both GPL v3 license). I was willing to jump to one of them but they were both rather unstable on my OSX system. OpenShot was the worst and crashed every few minutes making it impossible to work with. So in the end I kept using iMovie.

Recently I updated OSX to Sierra (10.12) and when I opened iMovie I noticed that everything worked except that I couldn’t render anymore. This is a disaster. All my carefully crafted movies are locked in iMovie and I’m unable to get them out of it. I really wanted to kick someone at Apple for this.

Since I couldn’t find a solution (apparently a widespread problem as I read on the web) I had no other alternative than to install OpenShot again (version 2.4.4). I didn’t have high hopes but to my surprise it was stable. I worked several days with it and it didn’t crashed once.

What I like about OpenShot is that it’s, like iMovie, very easy to use. The interface looks modern and unlike some other video-editing programs I could easily find my way around. The word intuitive springs to mind. This may give the impression that OpenShot is a very basic video-editor. OpenShot certainly can’t compete with the feature-rich major video-editors in the market but I was surprised that all basic features are included and there is more under the hood. To name just a few, the interface can easily be changed to my liking, the handling of titles is great and OpenShot enables the user to create animation which is handy.

It also offers a lot of control over the export of a video with every format, codec and quality setting available. This is probably because the video backend of OpenShot is linked to FFmpeg, IMHO the best video-converter around. (I wrote about FFmpeg earlier)

The coming weeks I will do further tests and will decide if this is my new go to video-editor. A bonus is that OpenShot is available for Linux, Windows and OSX so I can also use it on my Linux desktop.

UPDATE : 12 December 2019. After having done some projects I’ve noticed an issue with OpenShot. OpenShot tends to be very resource hungry in both memory and cpu load. This creates problems in more complex projects where the program becomes very slow. This forces me to restart OpenShot and continue. Also on my humble 2011 iMac it’s impossible to get smooth video and sound in the preview window.

Maintaining the Raspberry Pi Squeezebox server (aka Logitech Media Server)

This article describes how to maintain a Squeezebox server (or Logitech Media Server). All software used for this project is free and open source.

I wrote earlier about the Logitech Media Server (LMS), open source software that I’ve used to turn a Raspberry Pi into a music server for my Squeezebox devices. I’m using my Raspberry Pi based Logitech Media Server a couple of months and I’ve grown very fond of it. What started as an experiment now has become a device I’m starting to rely on. I guess that eventually I have to replace the USB-HDD that I connected to the Raspberry Pi with a better one. In the meantime however I do need to maintain the LMS. In this blogpost I’ll explain how I add and remove music files from the LMS and create a simple backup of your music files. Finally I provide a tip to debug problems with the Logitech Media Server. All software that I used for this project is free and open source.

Adding, changing and deleting music files

When I buy a new CD I want to add it to my LMS. All the ripping is done on my Thinkpad T40 laptop using Asunder, a low resource ripper for Linux. In the beginning I unmounted the USB hard disk from the LMS, removed it and connected it to the laptop and copied the albums. For new albums this proved to be be a clumsy method and I quickly found myself looking for an alternative.

I decided to use FTP to transfer files over the network to the Raspberry Pi. FTP is a network protocol to transfer files between a client and a server. The software that I’m using is either FileZilla or gFTP. They have basically the same functionality but gFTP is not available for Windows while FileZilla is available for GNU/Linux, OSX and Windows. Working with both is easy enough the only problem that I had was to set the ownership for the USB hard disk on the Raspberry Pi. Only root was able to write to the disk. The reason is a bit technical and maybe confusing but I had used the Windows FAT filesystem for the USB hard disk and when I mounted it on my Linux laptop (Puppy Linux distro), ownership of all files was changed by Puppy Linux to root. At this point it was impossible to change ownership and permissions with chmod and chown from the media server. To solve this problem I had to unmount and mount the USB hard disk using the following general command:

mount device mount-point -o uid=foo -o gid=foo

or in my specific case

mount /dev/sda1 ~/media/usb-drive -o uid=pi -o gid=pi

This command sets the ownership of all files on the USB hard disk to pi instead of root enabling me to use FileZilla and gFTP to copy files from a remote PC to the Raspberry Pi.

Adding Podcasts to the server

Podcasts can be easily added to the Logitech Media Server and there is no need to subscribe to a service. First the Podcasts app must be added to myApps on the Squeezebox player or players. Next to add podcasts to the list a plugin needs to be installed. To do this open the web interface in your browser and type:

<your_Raspberry_Pi_ip_address:9000> (in my case 192.168.178.69:9000)

Choose Settings at the bottom right of the web browser and then choose the Plugins tab. Now enable the Podcasts (v2.0) plugin and reboot the Raspberry Pi for the changes to take effect. The Podcasts plugin is now active and can be entered through a new tab in the Settings menu. In this tab new feeds can be entered that will immediatly be available on the Squeezebox players. To find a certain feed look for the rss feed of your favorite podcast and copy the link into ‘add a new feed’ in the podcast tab of the Settings menu mentioned above (e.g. http://feed.thisamericanlife.org/talpodcast for This American Life).

Creating a backup of the music collection

I invested a lot of time in ripping my CD collection so it would be a shame if I lost my music files due to a hard disk crash. I therefore use a very simple backup method, largely copied from the Raspberrypi.org website to ensure that my files are safe. First make sure that there’s enough harddisk space available with df -h. Next do:

tar -cvf backup.tar.gz ~/media/usb-drive

This creates a file ‘backup.tar.gz’ that contains files in /media/usb-drive, the mounting point of my USB drive and places it in the same map. Next I use (again) Filezilla to move the backup file to my desktop computer. Alternatively the ripped files on the PC they were ripped on can serve as a backup.

Debug problems with the Logitech Media Server

I didn’t encounter much problems with the LMS but if you do take a look into the log file of the server. This can be done opening a terminal on your PC and login into the Rasperry Pi with:

ssh pi@<your_network_ip_address_of_the_server>
cat /var/log/squeezeboxserver/server.log

The sudo ssh command prompts for the password of the Raspberry Pi. Now look for anything suspicious in the log, copy it and do an internet search with your preferred search engine. Chances are someone already encountered the same problem.

Creating a Raspberry Pi Squeezebox server

Create your own Squeezebox server (or Logitech Media Server) with a Raspberry Pi and a HDD in five steps.

If you, like me, own one or more Squeezebox players you can either choose between the service mysqueezebox.com, that streams music from the internet, or set up the Squeezebox server on your own network. The Squeezebox server software (aka Logitech Media Software) being free and open source software guarantees that you’ll take control of your Squeezebox players and the music that you’re streaming.

There many hardware options for the Squeezebox server software (or Logitech Media Server) but I decided to use the Raspberry Pi 2 that I had lying around because of it’s small footprint and massive support for the Pi. Within a couple of hours I had the Logitech Squeezebox Server up an running with my music playing.

Below I’ll show how to set up the Logitech Squeezebox Server on a Raspberry Pi in five steps. I got some important steps from the Variax Firmation website but I tested everything successfully.

Raspberry Pi 2 with a USB-harddrive connected to my network with a (yellow) ethernet cable.
Raspberry Pi 2 with a USB-harddrive connected to my network with a (yellow) ethernet cable.

Step 1: Ripping CD’s and writing them on an HDD (choosing an audio format)

Before setting up a server rip the CD’s and write them to a HDD. For this project I used a small usb-harddrive that was also lying around. I formatted the HDD as FAT32. Next I collected all my music CD’s and ripped them. As ripping software I used the Asunder software on my Linux system but I guess that they’re good alternatives (fre:ac appears to be an free and open source alternative that is also available for OSX and Windows). As audio format I choose mp3. If I buy a larger drive I’ll probably move to flac.

Step 2: Installing Raspbian Lite

Next I installed Raspbian Lite (currently Raspbian Buster Lite) on the Raspberry Pi 2 by first downloading the image and writing the image to the micro SD card using these instructions for OSX (or these instructions for Windows and Linux).  I chose the lite version of Raspbian to make the server as lightweight as possible. I had no problems booting the Raspberry Pi and connecting it to my network using Ethernet. To avoid potential problems connect the Pi to a monitor with an HDMI cable and make sure that it boots properly.

Step 3: Mount the HDD on the Raspberry Pi

Now with Raspbian Lite installed I mounted the HDD that we prepared in step 1. For this first connect the HDD to the Raspberry Pi (in my case I connected the HDD through a USB port of the Raspberry Pi), login remotely and retrieve the name of the drive. To login remotely we need another computer (Windows, Linux or OSX). Open a terminal (or Putty in case of Windows) and type:

sudo ssh pi@Raspberry_Pi_ip_address (in my case 192.168.178.69)

The default password is raspberry. Then type:

sudo fdisk -l 

Then look for the HDD that is just connected. This was /dev/sda1 in my case (but this may differ in yours). To make the files on the HDD accessible to the Raspberry Pi we need mount the drive. But before that we need to make a mounting point (in this example at ~/media/usb-drive).

sudo mkdir /media/usb-drive 

and mount

 sudo mount /dev/sda1 /media/usb-drive

You should hear some HDD activity. Now type:

cd /media/usb-drive ls -l

and a list of your music should be visible.
To unmount the HDD do:

sudo umount ~/media/usb-drive
 The list of folders with albums that I ripped. In this stage I only ripped a few albums to test the system.
The list of folders with albums that I ripped. In this stage I only ripped a few albums to test the system (click to enlarge).

Step 4: Installing Logitech Media Center on the Raspberry Pi

First we need to install a library to play audio files. Since you want mp3 only do:

sudo apt-get install -y libsox-fmt-all

This installs SoX, a command line utility that, among other things, plays various types of audio files. If you want to add flac support you’ll probably need to do this

sudo apt-get install -y libsox-fmt-all libflac-dev

Now with the audio libraries in place the Logitech Media Software can be downloaded. We want the latest version which is 7.9.2.

sudo wget -O logitechmediaserver_all.deb $(wget -q -O - "http://www.mysqueezebox.com/update/?version=7.9.2&revision=1&geturl=1&os=deb")

Now install the server software with:

sudo dpkg -i logitechmediaserver_all.deb

With all the software installed we’re ready to go.

Step 5: Working with Logitech Media Center

To enter the web interface of the Logitech Media Center on the Pi we need a computer and a browser. In the browser url we type:

<your_Raspberry_Pi_ip_address:9000> (in my case 192.168.178.69:9000)

The Logitech Media Center is started for the first time and a script is started to set it up. Important is that the mounting point of the HDD (in my case /media/usb-drive) is entered. This way the Media Center is able to retrieve all the music files. This is done in the web interface by entering the path of the mounting point under Media Settings under Media Folders.

The Media Settings page of the web interface. Enter the path of the mounting point under Media Folders.
The Media Settings page of the web interface. Enter the path of the mounting point under Media Folders (click to enlarge).

The Logitech Media Server is now ready and every time the Raspberry Pi boots the Logitech Media Server is automatically started however the HDD is not automatically mounted so we need to change that. This is done by editing (with nano) the fstab system configuration file that can be found at /etc/fstab

sudo nano fstab

and add the following line

/dev/sda1 /media/usb-drive vfat& defaults 0

Save the file and exit nano. Reboot the Raspberry Pi. Now the installation is complete. The music can be played from the web interface (see above), with the remote controls that come with the Squeezebox devices, with a free app for Android or with iPeng for iOS. The Squeezebox Radio also has controls on the device to play the music. So, plenty of options.

Webinterface of the Logitech Media Server (click to enlarge).

Whats next

In a future blog entry I’ll explain how to maintain the Logitech Media Server e.g how to add music to the server remotely.

Create animated GIFs from MP4 with FFmpeg

Learn how to create an animated GIF that’s small enough to upload but with a decent quality.

Animated GIFs are after all these years still pretty popular. FFmpeg is a good FLOSS tool to create these animated GIFs. FFmpeg is available for Windows, Linux and OSX. A word of warning FFmpeg is a command line tool that’s very versatile but it’s not for everybody. In fact suppose this post is more for users that like to tinker a lot with their animated GIFs. Below I will explain not only how to create a animated GIF from an mpeg4 movie but I also provide instructions to improve the quality.

The basic command to create an animated GIF from a mpeg4 is:

ffmpeg -i input.mp4 output.gif

where the name of the input file is input.mp4 and output.gif is the name of the output file. Unfortunately gif images are large due to their lossless data compression. So you’ll end up with a file that’s much bigger than the original mpeg4 and probably something that exceeds the upload limit of Diaspora*, Friendica or Mastodon.

In order to reduce the size of the file we can reduce the size of the images or we can reduce the number of frames per second. To achieve this we need the following command:

ffmpeg -i input.mp4 -r 12 -s 320x180 output.gif

This command reduces the framerate to 12 per second and resizes to 320×180 pixels. For the size of the GIF make sure that the aspect ratio remains the same or the resulting GIF will be distorted.

When we look closely at the resulting GIF we clearly notice some shortcomings in the animation. This is due to the default GIF encoding in FFmpeg. Because GIFs only uses 256 colors the number of colors from the mpeg4 needs to be reduced. FFmpeg by default uses a generic palette of 256 colors that covers the widest range of content. This is in general not optimal for the specific video that you want to convert. Luckily FFmpeg allows us to create a custom palette for our specific video. To create this palette type:

ffmpeg -i input.mp4 -filter_complex "[0:v] palettegen" palette.png

When we look in the folder of our mpeg file well noice that a file ‘palette.png’ has been added. This is our newly created 256 color palette for our specific video which is generated by the palettegen filter. To use the new palette with our mpeg video type:

ffmpeg -i input.mp4 -i palette.png -r 12 -s 320x180 -filter_complex "[0:v][1:v] paletteuse" prettyOutput.gif

FFmpeg needs two input files (streams) in this case test.mp4 and our newly created palette.png. The paletteuse filter takes the two streams as input specified by [0:v] and [1:v] where v stands for video and the preceding number for the number of the stream. The output file is renamed to prettyOutput.gif to differentiate it from the earlier output.gif. The resulting video should be much … prettier. If your resulting video is still too large either reduce the frame rate or resize even further (or just reduce the length of the video of course).

Further reading:
http://blog.pkh.me/p/21-high-quality-gif-with-ffmpeg.html
https://engineering.giphy.com/how-to-make-gifs-with-ffmpeg/

How to rip a DVD

How do you rip a DVD even the one with DRM. What do you need to decrypt DVD’s, create mpeg4, add metadata and play it on Kodi, OpenELEC or LibreElec. This post describes the free/libre software that does the job.

Why in this day and age of Netflix one would be interested in how to rip a DVD? More and more people are using Netflix or an other video streaming service to watch movies and TV series. What most people don’t know is that Netflix is trampling user rights. Not only does Netflix use digital rights management (DRM) they also mine huge amounts of data from the users. This data is not only used to improve the service it can also be provided to third parties like law enforcement and other businessess for promotional ‘services’ . If you don’t believe me you can read it in the privacy statement of Netflix.

Unfortunately the’re very little legal alternatives that respect the user rights. DVD’s are an option but most of current DVD’s have strong DRM in place. Luckily this DRM can be removed with relatively simple means. Without the DRM the user can watch the content the way he/she prefers.

In this post I’ll explain what you need to remove the DRM from DVD’s and copy the movie or TV series to OpenELEC or LibreELEC or any other system with Kodi e.g in your living room.

Use original DVD’s

Don’t use pirated DVD’s. Let’s stick to what is legal. DVD’s are cheap and second hand DVD’s are even cheaper. For a few dollars/euros you can buy the best movies on DVD. Most DVD’s are protected with DRM and some publishers like Disney take severe measurements to prevent the user from making a copy for their own use. This is where Handbrake comes in.

Handbrake

Handbrake can, among other thing, read DVD’s and convert the content to e.g mpeg4 files. These mpeg4 files can than be stored on the HDD of a device of your liking and played with any media player. To be able to decrypt DRM protected DVD’s (see above) also a free/libre DVD playback library libdvdcss is needed. This article explains how to install this on Windows and OSX. And this article explains how libdvdcss works.

Screenshot of Handbrake
A screenshot of Handbrake. Handbrake reads a DVD and write the content to an mpeg4 file.

MetaZ or MetaX

MetaZ is a metadata editor but the beauty is that it uses the title of the movie or the TV series to retrieve metadata from The Movie Database (TMDb) and adds this metadata to the rip file we just made with HandBrake. Unfortunately MetaZ only runs on OSX while MetaX only runs on Windows. Of course we can use VLC for GNU/Linux but the user has to add the metadata manually which is a pain in the butt.

Kodi, OpenELEC, LibreElec

Eventually you want to be able to play the video files that you ripped from the DVD’s. The’re many free/libre software  choices but perhaps the most popular is Kodi.  Kodi is mediaplayer software that runs on about every media file you’ll throw at it. It is available for GNU/Linux, Windows and OSX. OpenELEC and LibreELEC take this a step further because the’re Linux based operating systems with the sole purpose to run Kodi.

Click here if you want about my experience with OpenELEC.

I hope this information has helped you to rip your DVD’s and start watching them on the device of your own liking. If you have any questions about this topic feel free to send me an email. Now if you excuse me I have a nice classic movie to watch.

Diaspora*, an alternative social network for GooglePlus

Three weeks ago I wrote an article about the demise of G+ and I defined four criteria for an alternative social network. This blog post describes my experience with Diaspora.

Why an alternative social network

Three weeks ago I wrote an article about the demise of G+ and I defined four criteria for an alternative social network. Based on these criteria I choose three social networks, Mastodon, MeWe and Diaspora* and signed up on them and promised to write about my experience with these three.

I will not write any further about MeWe since I already deleted the account after one week and wrote a post about it. So that leaves Mastodon and Diaspora*. This blog post is about my experience with Diaspora*.

Screenshot of the Diaspora* interface. Not flashy but very functional and fast.

What is Diaspora*

The shortest way to describe Diaspora* is it being a Facebook clone however this doesn’t do justice to Diaspora*. Although the user interface of Diaspora* has similarities with Facebook the network couldn’t be more different, kind of an anti-Facebook. First of all Diaspora* is free and open source software while Facebook is proprietary and Diaspora* is distributed while Facebook is centralized. The latter means that while Facebook is owned by a single entity that controls the entire network and it’s users Diaspora* has no owner and thus can never be controlled by a single organisation or person. Instead Diaspora* consists of many servers (or pods) that have their own administrator. These servers are are all interconnected (or federated). Without going into details about how this works exactly being distributed has other notable advantages from a user point of view.

  • First of all Diaspora* doesn’t have ads  (it worth to note that some centralized social networks like G+ and MeWe also don’t have ads).
  • Diaspora* can’t be closed or sold.
  • There is no ‘built-in’ data-mining. While it can’t be excluded that some rogue administrator will use your data there is no ‘Diaspora* business model’ that would encourage this. Meaning that your privacy is better protected.

Conversations on Diaspora* are good and in-depth although it takes time to identify good contacts.

Working with Diaspora*

Being a user of G+ for several years I admit it took a little time to get used to the Diaspora* interface. Central is the ‘Stream’, a single column of posts of your contacts (followers in G+) and the hashtags (e.g #Linux) that you follow. Next is ‘My Activity’ which lists all posts that you liked, shared or commented on but also the posts that you wrote yourself. Lastly there is ‘Public activity’ that shows all public posts from the Diaspora* community. This also shows nudity or even porn but, as I noticed so far, this was always tagged with #nsfw which stands for ‘not suitable for work’. These #nsfw posts are not shown until the users clicks to open it. I think this is good solution to protect the user without censorship.

Conversations on Diaspora* are good and in-depth although it takes time to identify good contacts. After two weeks I have 29 contacts (on Januari 9 it was 50) of which half turns out to be what I consider good. Diaspora* provides the user with a good tool to ignore a contacts for instance if he or she turns out to be spammer. Diaspora* also allows for a private chat with an established contact which can be very handy.

Diaspora* doesn’t have the G+ equivalent of communities, a group of users sharing posts about a certain topic, and collections, a single users sharing posts about a single topic. These communities and collections can’t be mimicked by combined tags and aspects.

Conclusion

Diaspora* is, after Mastodon, the second biggest distributed social networks with the about 660.000 user accounts. Still a dwarf compared to FaceBook but I’m not interested in the total number of users. I’m interested in the quality of the conversation and this is good, in fact it’s very good. People are mostly knowlegdeable and helpful which guarentees meaningful chats. Just what I’m looking for.

I still prefer the G+ interface with multiple columns over the one column stream in Diaspora* because it saves a lot of scrolling however this seems like nitpicking. Overall the user interface of Diaspora* is straight forward and easy to work with.

The user has good control of the streams of information although I would have preferred the user to be able to combine tags and aspects. The reason for this is I want to be able to follow someone on certain topics instead of all his or her posts.

Yes, my family and friends are not on Diaspora* but I don’t care about that in fact it’s a plus.

Diaspora* works surprisingly good on low-end machines. This is probably due to the minimal user interface. I consider this a big plus since I have a very old Thinkpad laptop that I use regularly.

Yes, my family and friends are not on Diaspora* but I don’t care about that in fact is a plus. I’d rather see them face to face anyway.

In conclusion Diaspora* starts to grow on me. I had a slow start with it but I’m gradually beginning to experience the strength of this well established and stable social network. I found Diaspora* very easy to use a plus that is not to be underestimated. The content that’s being shared is valuable and the conversations are excellent. For me that’s what counts when it comes to social networks.

EDIT: Diaspora* users can choose between a couple of Android apps. I choose Dandelior (which is the same app from the same developer as Dandelion) and I like it. Dandelior and Dandelion for Android can be downloaded from F-Droid.

EDIT: Diaspora* uses Markdown to format text making it an excellent choice for macroblogging. Markdown appears to be more powerful than the editing features of G+. This and the single column stream are making Diaspora* an excellent choice for macroblogging.