Alternative social networks

V. cypherpunk! much 733+!

Corporate social network harm minimisation not getting the monkey off your back? Still need a digital social fix but want it less toxic.

I am part of various communities that claim to want to leave the surveillance factory for somewhere else. Here are some notes I am writing for these communities on alternative ways we could be organising ourselves. They have various pluses (e.g. less advertising, less centralising profiling of us, less weaponised addictiveness) and various minuses (e.g. higher barrier for entry, higher cost, less polish, nearly impossible to get critical mass of friends).

Using turnkey infrastructure

There are turnkey technical solutions designed to do this for various use cases.

  • discourse is an open-source community chat platform which you can install on your own server. It seems to be the dominant force in community-run servers at the moment. Do not be confused by the similarity of name to the commercial discord, below.
  • keybase teams are a reputedly end-to-end encrypted chats run by a fancy hipster dotcom.
  • Zulip is an open source slack-alike with first-class mathematics support.
  • Rocket.chat is another one. A quick perusal seems to indicate it is attempting to be the good bits of Slack, which seems to be the aspiration of nearly everything else here.
  • Riot is the flagship semi-secure chat system for Matrix. Looks a little like Slack.
  • Gitter is a hosted and . (open-sourcee) system. It‘s sort of like its more famous cousin Slack, apparently? Now you are responsible for your own security. Is that better?
  • Slack is a communication platform somewhat more oriented towards workplace organising than other chat programs. Can be forced to support mathematics. Its UX is unsatisfactory for ad hoc groups (signing on is hard, and it requires people to learn how to turn on notifications, and you end up with a million Slack channels of low activity) and it is hosted by a third party with dubiously competent enforcement of their jurisdiction’s wacky geopolitical tantrums.
  • discord is like a “fun” themed Slack, (i.e. chat thing hosted on a 3rd party server) which means a slightly lower barrier to entry but less professional cred. It is still presumably prone to unaccountable American politics tantrums.
  • groups is a freemium mail group services with, for each group, “a calendar, chat, polls, a database section, a photos section, a files section, and a wiki.” Also integrates “Feeds, Facebook Pages, Slack, Google Drive, Github, Trello, Email.” NB Facebook pages need to be public to integrate.
  • mobilize has particular emphasis on community management for non-profits
  • wire pro is the groupware version of the wire chat client.
  • Wickr Pro is similar, a group chat that could be shoehorned into being social.

Or, dunno if it really fits here, but look at this attempt to provide the some of the features of the social network in terms of telling you not to forget birthdays, Monica the open-source personal CRM.

If you just want something efficient for your purposes but don’t care about the NSA reading it any of those will work, and they offer varying degrees of guarantees about not data mining you.

Keybase, Wire, Wickr and (partially) Riot claim to be host-proof, so in principle it should be hard for adversaries to spy upon.

Mike Hoye divulges Mozilla’s evaluation of some options.

Host your own social network

Run your own social system! On (possibly) your computer or (probably) someone else’s cloud!

Various of the turnkey options above also allow you to self-host, plus there are extra ones.

  • Zulip
  • discourse is open-source community chat platform which you can install on your own server. It seems to be the dominant force in community-run servers at the moment.
  • Riot (🏗 check this really is is self-hostable.)
  • Gitter is open-source although it has onerous dependencies and it not plausible for civilians to run.
  • rocket chat is an open-source, optionally-self-hosted team chat server. A quick perusal seems to indicate it, too, is attempting to be the good bits of Slack.

Of the above ones, only Riot is AFAICT host-proof encrypted; unless you control access to your own hosting, this host-proof thing is nice to have.

Plus also the following that AFAIK don’t have their own turnkey hosted options.

  • Federated social media projects like Mastodon and Peertube, are an interesting half-way point between central systems and fully distributed systems. You and a community barnraise a server together for your local social network, and it talks to other servers for you to create a global mesh of local social networks.
  • mattermost. 🏗
  • Wolkenkit boards is a collaborative note taker.

These fun DIY systems are good simple starting points. They are presumably sharing less information with the Facebook marketing and profiling machine. YMMV.

Fediverse

Fediverse: Twitter run by volunteers.

This is kinda fun, but not something I’m passionate about as it’s still fragile, unencrypted and thus subject to censorship and surveillance etc. But also it’s cute and friendly and evokes early-internet nostalgia, which is sweet.

Mastodon

A.k.a. cozy twitter. This is what I thought social media would be like in the 90s, for better and for worse. 🏗

Peertube

PeerTube is a federated video sharing system, with a structure much like Mastodon and using the same federation protocols. Written in Typescript, if you are curious.

Others

Idk. Diaspora, I guess.

Solid

Solid is not so much a cypherpunk infrastructure as a set of standard for how to provide decentralised social data streams to a hypothetical decentralised social internet. Backed by WWW figurehead Tim Berners-Lee. It still uses the normal internet but it decentralises … identity?

Decentralised social networks

The aboe options may not satisfy the truly paranoid.

For AFAIK all of them, apart from possibly the host-proof ones, the servers can still be subpoenaed and spied upon and presumably blocked by malevolent interests either through legal mechanisms (by the state) or by hacking you (criminals and/or the state). Or to put it another way, in every centralised social network system there is one extra machine apart from the all the particpants’ - the server, which might be held in suspet circumstances. To reduce the risks of that machine being interfered with, you could one-up everyone and use decentralised encrypted networks which try to eliminate the need for a server at all. Then, of course, you still have to secure the users’s machines, but at least they have autonomy. Long story short, with this option there are no servers because everything is run on the computers of the network participants. Here are some social media examples.

The theory of decentralised internet services in general is discussed elsewhere.1

Typically the decentralised net people see themselves as leapfrogging over the federated social networks and their solving of some of the problems of social media, and solving all the problems at once.

Scuttlebutt ecosystem

Probably the one with critical mass ATM.

André Staltz explains a social media alternative, called scuttlebutt (which, to be precise, is shorthand for a complex ecology of pieces making up the “scuttleverse”, most of which, as consumers, we can ignore.) The flagship applications here seem to be

This started as the übergeek social network for survivalists. Run it from your bugout yacht after a climate apocalypse, while malevolent totalitarian states try to censor your messages and steal your stockpiled tinned food!

Scuttlebutt is decentralized in a similar way that Bitcoin or BitTorrent are. Unlike centralized systems like PayPal or Dropbox, there is no single website or server to connect when using decentralized services. Which in turn means there is no single company with control over the network.

However, Scuttlebutt differs from Bitcoin and BitTorrent because there are no “singleton components” in the network. When accessing the BitTorrent network, for instance, you need to connect to a Distributed Hash Table [for which] you need to connect to a bootstrapping server [and] still depend on the existence of ISPs and the internet backbone. …

Secure Scuttlebutt is also different to federated social networks like Mastodon, Diaspora, GNU social, OStatus. Those technologies are not peer-to-peer, because each component is either a server or a client, but not both. Federated social networks are slightly better than centralized services like Facebook because they provide some degree of choice where your data should be hosted. However, there is still trust and dependency on third-party servers and ISPs, which makes it possible for administrators of those to abuse their power, through content policies, privacy violations or censorship.

In Scuttlebutt, the “mesh” suffices. With simply two computers, a local router, and electricity, you can exchange messages between the computers with minimal effort and no technical skills. Each account in Scuttlebutt is a diary (or “log”) of what a person has publicly and digitally said. As those people move around between different WiFi / LAN networks, their log gets copy-pasted to different computers, and so digital information spreads.

What word of mouth is for humans, Scuttlebutt is for social news feeds. It is unstoppable and spreads fast.

In practical terms, the main backend bit, which users can probably ignore, is the distributed data store scuttlebot. On top of that you run user-facing apps like patchwork (the proof-of-concept reference app), Manyverse or Planetary. There are many.

Docker image/sanity check/tutorial.

SocialX

So far it’s not real, but socialx claims to be a blockchain-ish social network with integrated payments for popular content. Closed source AFAICT. Had an ICO already.

Financing and governing your DIY social network

I don’t have much to say here, but I’m interested in knowing more.

Governance

The first example I ran into of running the organisational infrastructure of rm indy social network for an by the users: Social.coop, an Oregon-based social network. They document their toolset for barnraising a local, accountable community network including governance. Their actual network runs on the federated mastodon system. Open collective gives them transparent community organising for the governance and expenses. They use loomio for decision making. I don’t know how they keep these systems all in sync.

(tThe broader Mastodon project in turn uses patreon to fund itself.)

Is there a lower-lift version of this?

Keywords: do-ocracy Group membership norms.

Noisebridge on do-ocracy: “Do it but be excellent”

Noisebridge on do-ocracy: “Do it but be excellent”

Calendars

🏗 rant here about how no one but Facebook facilitates IRL gigs, events and meet-ups and since that is a major priority for me and many of my communities I am unlikely to actually use any of these options until I (or more realistically, someone else) can fix this problem.


  1. NB a decentralised system is not necessarily also an encrypted one, but in practice there don’t seem to be people who are only interested in decentralised networks without cryptographic guarantees, and there are certain problems that cryptography certainly helps with in a decentralised setting, such as not needing to trust all the participants not to be hacking you.