Distributed social networks

Read about the Fediverse where you own your data instead of Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. This post explains about the different social networks in de Fediverse and how you can get an account, no strings attached.

Centralized networks

Chances are you have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account. All three very popular free (as in free beer) social networks that have something in common. They are centralized services owned by a single commercial entity and that entity wants to make profit. In fact they want to make as much profit as possible. Unfortunately this profit comes at a loss, your loss. The social networks gathers your data this is called data mining. This data is mined to create a profile of you to serve you ads. Also they sell your data to third parties and who knows what they’ll do with it.

Okay, you probably know this but what can you do about it? First, if you don’t care about all this you can stop reading and continue posting kitty pics on Facebook. If you do care please read on because there are good alternatives.  Alternatives that aren’t centralized, aren’t commercial, don’t maximize profit, in fact they don’t make a profit at all. Is this possible? Yes, welcome to the distributed social networks.

The federated universe better known as the Fediverse. Image taken from the Fediverse.party website which reads like a who is who in the Fediverse and has detailed information about the different social networks.

Distributed networks

Now what are distributed social networks? These networks are full featured social networks that do what social networks are supposed to do, enable you to interact socially over the internet, have a chat, have a conversation, discuss, blog and share. But the services are decentralized or distributed over distinct providers. Every provider maintains a server (or multiple servers) and interacts with the other distinct servers thus creating a joined service. Hence the name federated network also know by the name Fediverse.

The lack of a single commercial entity provides huge advantages for the user of the Fediverse.

  • Since there is no single owner it can’t mine your data. This means that the data is yours and not the owner’s. You decide what you want to share e.g in your profile and who you want to share it with. This ensures a better protection of your privacy.
  • No owner can decide to close the social network. This is what happened to G+. But even if a distinct provider of the Fediverse closes his server you can take your profile and move it to another server and continue like nothing happened.
  • No government can block the Fediverse nor can an ISP boycott the Fediverse. Remember what happened to Gab where ISP’s and other parties boycotted the service. An ISP can close a server but the Fediverse consists of thousands of distinct servers all around the world.
  • If your server doesn’t meet particular needs you can hop to another taking your data with you and never leave the social network. NOTE: this is not available for the Diaspora social network.
  • No ads. Servers of a distributed network cost money but this money doesn’t come from ads shown to the user. People that maintain the servers either pay this out of their own pocket or you can support them with donations (which I highly recommend).

With all these advantages you may be wondering who are these social networks and how can I get an account. For a full overview you can go to fediverse.party where you can find detailed information about more than ten social networks. I’ll mention the biggest four here:

  • Mastodon. By far the biggest of the federated networks. It’s a free, federated alternative to Twitter with a Tweetdeck like interface. A post, called a ‘toot’ can have a maximum of 500 characters.
  • Diaspora. In size second after Mastodon with a Facebook like interface but in terms of content more an anti-Facebook social network. Diaspora is lightweight making it very fast on even old PC’s.
  • Friendica. Diaspora and Mastodon use different communication protocols and can’t interact with each other. Friendica solves that by supporting several protocols. It can therefore serve as a hub to communicate with several networks. Apart from that Friendica could be considered as a Diaspora with additional features.
  • Hubzilla. Offers the same benefits as Friendica but uses some cutting edge features not present in Friendica. Probably beneficial for power users.

Conclusions

The Fediverse is a great place for social interaction. People in general are nice and the conversation are good. Yes they don’t have billions of users but it’s the quality of the interaction that counts. Sign up to one of these network, no strings attached guaranteed and allow yourself some time to get acquainted. If you don’t like it try another one. The experience differ greatly over the different social networks. I’m sure that after a while you’ll find the right network that you will call home.

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.

MeWe worse than Facebook?

I signed-up on MeWe, the “no ads”, “no spyware”, “no BS” social network. The experience was not good at all and deleted my account after a week. This is my verdict on MeWe.

Let’s try MeWe

With the demise of G+ users were and still are looking for other options. Most of them appear to dislike Facebook otherwise they would have been on that platform a long time ago. It surprised that MeWe, a new social network was mentioned a lot on G+. I got curious and I visited the website where I was welcomed the following text “no ads”, “no spyware” and “no BS”. So now I was really interested and I decided to give it a shot and signed up. I deleted my account a week later. Is MeWe worse than Facebook?

Deleting the account had nothing to do the dull interface or the constant email messages I was getting from MeWe. I just realized that MeWe is very bad idea.  To begin with it’s a proprietary closed network which will be disastrous for any community trying to share information with a wide audience. Anything you post there is hidden from the web. Let me give you an example: in Google search try: site:plus.google.com “ubuntu 18.10” . You’ll see lots of results. Same for FaceBook or Fosstodon (a Mastodon instance). Now try this at MeWe: site:mewe.com “ubuntu 18.10”. Nothing! Imagine the whole community invisible for Google.

Privacy and free speech

Now you might say that’s a good thing it provides the users privacy by not sharing anything with the web. But if you want privacy you also want control over what you share with the world and what you don’t want to share. Well MeWe doesn’t offer that. In a way this takes the user back to the old Compuserve days, an isolated gated community without any connection with the web.

But there are more problems with MeWe. Due to their free speech policy it attracts a lot of nasty people that got kicked out off Facebook. So don’t be surprised to meet a lot of trolls and extremists on MeWe, the kind of people not interested in a nice conversation.

Coordinated G+ strategy

Also I’m convinced that they have a coordinated campaign spamming G+ communities with posts to motivate people to move to MeWe. In the open source software community of G+ people that never posted a single thing suddenly started heavily promoting MeWe. I also noticed this behaviour on other G+ communities. I looked into one of the promoters and followed him to MeWe where he was discussing a strategy to attract as many G+ users as possible. For me a clear indication for a coordinated campaign. This is not forbidden of course and some might even call it good marketing but it somehow disgusted me.

Centralized network

One more problem with MeWe is that it is a centralized network. If the owners of MeWe close the network tomorrow you’ll be looking for a new network all over again just like G+.  I guess I finally learned my lesson after G+ and I don’t want to be part of a private owned central network again.

For-profit company

What’s more MeWe is a for-profit company backed by investors that want a handsome return on investment. If the current business model doesn’t deliver they will demand changes in the network and these changes will not be in the interest of the users. I already read that MeWe is tracking. More recently I read that MeWe sends emails to people from the users contact list in their smartphone. These two examples demonstrate that, contrary to their advertising, MeWe doesn’t respect your privacy.

Conclusion

As you can tell I’m far from positive about MeWe. Yes it doesn’t have ads (yet?) but it’s just another Facebook wannabee with trolls and extremists in a gated community. Also with FaceBook at least the information is searchable from outside the social network while MeWe doesn’t offer that. (it’s rumoured for months that this will change but up until 6 March 2019 this wasn’t the case). Also more recently MeWe appears not to take the privacy of their users very seriously. These are the reasons and I therefore conclude that MeWe could turn out to be a worse experience than FaceBook.

So what’s the alternative. I’ll be writing about that in a next blog post.

EDIT: last updated: 6 March 2019.

EDIT 24 Januari 2019. I hate to say told you so but an article appeared in The Times that’s not favourable for MeWe. A citation:

The social network that Sir Tim Berners-Lee hoped would be free from abuse has been found to contain gun sales, drugs and antisemitism.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sir-tim-berners-lee-s-app-mewe-is-used-by-neo-nazis-and-perverts-svflhn32

Bye bye Google

I was pretty pissed that Google decided to close G+. As an alternative I came up with a short list of three social media services: Mastodon, Diaspora and MeWe. In the coming weeks I will choose between these three services.

Google+ closing, now what?

Like many others I was pretty much pissed off that Google decided to close G+ next August in April. I had a lot of social going on at G+ in fact it was the only social media service that I really used (I have a Reddit account that I hardly use). I believe Winston Churchill said to never waste a good crisis so I took the opportunity to look around at other options. I defined some criteria that could help me choose a new social network.

  • preferably open source. G+ wasn’t open source but since I’m an open source advocate it seems appropriate to sign up for a service that itself is open source.
  • quality instead of quantity. I’m looking for meaningful conversations and not mindless sharing of kitty pictures.
  • will protect my privacy. I understand that no service can fully guarantee my privacy but I’m sick and tired of all the data mining.
  • no annoying ads. I’m not against advertisements here and there but I hate these in your face ads on Fartbook.

With these criteria in mind I came up with a short list of three social media services: Mastodon, Diaspora and MeWe. It could have been more but I had to draw the line somewhere. So I signed-up for all three. Preferably I will end up with one or, at the most, two of these. I’m already spending more time on social media than I’m comfortable with. So in the coming weeks I will choose between these three services.

EDIT: I already deleted my MeWe account. It’s a proprietary and centralized service and apparently due to their free speech policy it attracts a lot of nasty people that got kicked out off Facebook. Also I believe that they have a coordinated campaign spamming G+ communities with posts to convince people to move to MeWe.

What about Blogger, Drive and GMail

By closing G+  Google has become unreliable for me. The question is what will they close next and will this affect me? I therefore took a look at other Google services to see if I was exposed to further risks down the line. Most notably I have Blogger, Drive and Gmail so I decided to be one step ahead of Google and say goodbye to these services too. This will not happen overnight but I will do it and post the results here. And the beauty of it all I feel rather good about it.