Facebook Domination vs. Self-Determination

#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/07/18/platform-independence.html

We’re months removed from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the public outrage of #DeleteFacebook, and new information continues to surface about Facebook’s sloppy handling of data and hunger for surveillance. Last month, we learned about an Orwellian patent that might allow Facebook to track you via mobile microphone. Though some have cast doubt on the reports, mobile spyware like the now-infamous Alphonso do track mobile devices via sound emitted by TVs.

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#2

The format of Mastodon is a lot closer to Twitter and Instagram than Facebook specifically, but I think that’s a detail of decoration.

While I love Mastadon and the “fediverse” it’s more than just a “detail of decoration.” Mastadon is a fantastic replacement for Twitter and perhaps Instagram, but Diaspora or something like it is a better federated and open-source replacement for Facebook in terms of replicating functionality.

As long as the social-networking service is FOSS, federated, allows for anonymity and granular identities, uses strong crypto, and rests on the core principle that the user owns his own data I’m good with it.

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#3

I’ve wanted this kind of FOSS social-networking service for years. It could be a huge improvement over FB and Twitter, and lead to much better freedom and privacy.

But now, with fake news and massive online propaganda, my faith is somewhat tested: in theory, a benign dictator could protect us much better than if anyone anywhere can create their own social network. At least the evil is now out in the open. On the other hand, FB and Twitter are largely failing as benevolent dictators.

Still: don’t FOSS social-networking tools make it much easier for toxic and destructive subcommunities to spread propaganda and organize? This is something I never would have considered a legitimate concern before November 2016.

#4

And, also, how does it protect against or worsen harassment of women and marginalized groups?

#5

That’s one of the risks with any FOSS tool. If FOSS didn’t exist, though, there would always be some greedhead corporation like FB willing to let in toxic communities. We saw this with Gab being used by a lot of alt-right types who were kicked off Twitter. Right-wing scumbags have been using FOSS BBS’s for decades now.

I don’t know the details, but I believe one of the common features of federated platforms is the option to block a user (or perhaps entire instances) your instance doesn’t like from pushing messages over. So if you suddenly find female members of your gamedev Mastadon instance being harassed from the mra Mastadon instance you might be able to block it.

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#6

*diaspora is great, but IMO the lack of compatibility with the ActivityPub standard is a huge barrier. That said, the project has some of the best people behind it in the FOSS world.

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#7

I’m glad November 2016 was a wake-up call, but I have to be honest about this - it’s a real surprise to me that the last U.S. presidential election has become a monumental moment in this regard. There have always been toxic online communities, and it’s a feature of an interconnected world.

As a former admin of a large, federated social network (Foojbook, a large and now-defunct Friendica community), the pitfalls were well-known to me years ago. What federated, interoperable communities allow to happen is moderation by the community and the admins. Moderation and rule-making happens on a smaller, more “local” scale, and allows for users to migrate their profiles and data to a new community if they don’t like the rules and members of their current one.

Let me rephrase your question, circa early 1990s, to try to put it in perspective:

“Doesn’t The Internet make it much easier for toxic and destructive subcommunities to spread propaganda and organize?”

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#8

Can they integrate the standard? Do they want to, or are they pushing their own standard? I’m just getting started with studying federated FOSS social networking so I don’t yet have the lay of the land.

In terms of user adoption, I think the only way they’ll take off is if sites like BoingBoing (indie, high-traffic, attracting people with geeky and political special interests) start setting up their own instances and participating in development to make them easier to use for the end-user.

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#9

One of the major selling points of federated, decentralized communities that interop with each other is that rules can be made in one community that don’t apply to all communities, while still allowing for socialization across the wider network of communities. One instance can make rules for moderation and users that don’t apply to others, and users can pack up their bags and move if they don’t like it (even form their own community). Mastodon has been praised in press for this although, to be fair, it’s a very old feature of FOSS social networks.

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#10

Get started with Mastodon, and you can get into the weeds later. The situation with interop is quite complex, and I don’t mean to say that *diaspora has no compatibility, because it does… just not part of the new ActivityPub standard. Time will tell what becomes de facto or de jure standard, and there’s already a very long history of FOSS social networking that predates Facebook and Twitter.

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#11

I’ll check it out. I remember playing with FOAF when it was still a brand new toy.

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#12

in theory, a benign dictator could protect us much better than if anyone anywhere can create their own social network. At least the evil is now out in the open. On the other hand, FB and Twitter are largely failing as benevolent dictators.

You can still have a benign dictator running the site you’re actually doing the federated social networking through! It’s just a much smaller scale.

And, also, how does it protect against or worsen harassment of women and marginalized groups?

So basically if a user on your Mastodon instance starts getting reported by your users and/or remote users (it’s pretty easy to do), you can make your own decision on them - maybe you’re a free-speech-over-all absolutist who will only silence people who are doing things that are actively illegal, maybe you’re a cranky old lady who’s had it up to here with ad-oriented social networking that cares about ad revenue far less than the chill of its users. If you’re closer to the latter than the former, you can do a few things like ‘make this person only exist for people they have a reciprocal following relationship with’ or ‘nuke their account’.

Folks on your instance might also start reporting people on another instance. Maybe you just decide that @buttface@chill.town is a problem; you can block them from the view of everyone on your instance. Or maybe you’ve got a pattern of trouble from a whole bunch of people at sealion.net, including its admins; then you can just completely hide their entire instance from your instance’s view.

This is certainly all open to gaming and manipulation; it’s an exciting new field of social engineering!

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#13

Mastodon user for over a year here! I burned my Twitter account after joining, and never signed up for Facebook. I never figured out how Facebook works, and have no experience with other social media, so most of what I know comes from comparing Mastodon to Twitter.

Aaron_Hertzmann:

Still: don’t FOSS social-networking tools make it much easier for toxic and destructive subcommunities to spread propaganda and organize?

In a way, this is an extension of “anybody can make a website”. Sure, there’ll be people putting up terrible stuff, but you’re free to ignore them, and use the tools we have to mitigate their spread into communities you control.

Aaron_Hertzmann:

And, also, how does it protect against or worsen harassment of women and marginalized groups?

That’s the million cryptocurrency question, isn’t it? Unfortunately it all comes down to how much the lead developer cares about harassment and building anti-abuse tools, and recognizing how new features and tools could be used to harass or draw unwanted attention to marginalized people. Gargron hasn’t had a perfect track record on this. https://medium.com/@cassolotl/i-left-mastodon-yesterday-4c5796b0f548 is one viewpoint that has made me question this as a paradise (it has a linked followup). Other viewpoints like this has spawned the Fork Together group - coming from the FOSS attitude of “if you don’t like it, go fork yourself” https://forktogether.space/mw/About - which focuses more on what we as a community can do going forward than finger-pointing or letting off steam.

Even though I can hold criticisms, it’s still a thing I love, and I appreciate the work that goes into it. I’ve joined some instances with moderators I trust, who will hold off on implementing a badly-designed feature that has privacy or harassment risks should one ever arise, such as the cited twitter-like trending hashtags idea.

So, want to get started with Mastodon? First, get some cloud hosting or raspberry pi… I kid! If you later find you really want to jump into technical stuff, you can do as much as you want, but I’d recommend starting at a user level. Find an instance to get started on, start making friends, possibly find a different instance that better suits your preferences, make mistakes and learn from them. I highly recommend Noelle’s (Increasingly Less) Brief Guide To Mastodon: https://github.com/joyeusenoelle/GuideToMastodon/

As the guide says, picking an instance isn’t a permanent thing. While full account migration isn’t a thing (and I’m not sure I want it to be a thing due to privacy and potential abuse reasons) you can export and import follower lists from one instance to another, and set a forwarding/redirect type feature. It’s not uncommon for people to have several accounts across several instances (myself included) - I’ve got my main one, a private venty/personal one, one for talking about D&D and other tabletop games, and I’m thinking of making another one for all my rambly World of Warcraft talk.

Once you’ve had some time to get to know the place, then you can fiddle with making your own, depending on how technical you want to get. I know someone who runs an instance at home off of some raspberry pis. Quite a few people use cheap cloud hosting to build and run their own servers. There’s even dedicated Mastodon hosting that takes care of maintenance and updates so you as admin have a turn-key solution without having to ssh in and do Linuxy stuff. But as I said chances are you can find an existing community to be a part of so you don’t feel you need to do that, unless you see a niche that you think you can fill.

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#14

i can’t use this platform,the logo on the front page terrifies me. i mean, look at it.

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#15

i still think we’re doing it wrong. maybe software just isn’t there yet, but all i really want is a box i plug into the wall that’s mine.

let people find me. let me give them my number. let me decide who sees what. let companies develop software for my box. let them compete to modify, package, and present my data.

why is instagram something out there, and not something right here.

rss is the standard, and pgp, and https.

more servers, several per person maybe, not just more clients.

#16

i still think we’re doing it wrong. maybe software just isn’t there yet, but all i really want is a box i plug into the wall that’s mine.

I’m likely to agree. However, there are huge infrastructural and political barriers to this. We have great software that we can run on mini-devices and plug into a wall… but what happens when your ISP is adversarial to the service(s) you’re hosting? What’s the defense against enemy botnets? And on and on and on…

FreedomBox is a project we’re quite fond of at Yale Privacy Lab (and run our own boxes). Spinning up your own takes a little bit of know-how, a mini-device (CubieBoard, Raspberry Pi, etc.), an SD card, and an Internet connection.

There have been other projects with similar goals over the years as well, but most are no longer in active development or never became reality beyond a kickstarter or vaporware (the rise of “the cloud” killed off interest, to name one problem).

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#17

this has spawned the Fork Together group - coming from the FOSS attitude of “if you don’t like it, go fork yourself”

I used “Self-Determination” in the title of the piece for a reason :slight_smile: That said, software diversity (a thing we should cherish) can sometimes lead to “the fragmentation problem”. A lot of energy can be poured into forks that go nowhere, or are no longer necessary as the software landscape shifts… there are often skirmishes over features that seem like a really big deal at the time, but turn out to be only footnotes in retrospect.

The Fediverse has been struggling with this for a very long time now, long predating Mastodon’s reinvigorating of GNU Social (Laconi.ca/StatusNet). The wide variation between platforms has traditionally been a barrier to entry, and it can be quite unclear to new users what features are in their instance of Mastodon, how that differs from GNU Social, where and when they can communicate with Friendica, if there’s cross-posting with *diaspora, and so on.

So, personally, I’d really like to see Mastodon continue to be the Mastodon we know (with features we know and love, and some we don’t). Developers and users who are passionate about forking the project might want to look at the other Fediverse/Federation options out there, and see if the projects that already exist (some struggling for dev help) could use a boost.

“Fork Together” does look like it’s more about governance models, which is a hard problem (the activists reading this I’m sure will agree). So, if my advice is worth anything on this issue, I’d say try to keep the “forks” to small changes in instances that are tied to new governance models… rather than making big changes that could lead to long-term incompatibility with wider multiverse of Mastodon implementations.

For further reading on forks, I suggest Benjamin Mako Hill’s excellent article on the early days of Ubuntu and its relationship with Debian: https://mako.cc/writing/to_fork_or_not_to_fork.html

#18

I don’t mean to say that *diaspora has no compatibility, because it does… just not part of the new ActivityPub standard

It seems my assessment here was a bit too positive, and I put the asterisk in the wrong place for diaspora* :stuck_out_tongue: I should have referred to the handy chart here (which doesn’t show the newer ActivityPub support in Mastodon but nonetheless explains the diaspora* linkage): https://share.riseup.net/#IyNTeTPai5-NNkE-7JgbNQ

#19

Harassment is an important thing to be concerned about, but no platform can protect us from it, and it’s unrealistic to expect that one will. We have to protect ourselves - both individually and collectively - no matter the platform.

What we want are platforms which give us the most autonomy/power to solve our own problems. Centralized corporate services ask us to give them all the power and promise to take care of us in return. But they inevitably betray us, leaving us to face abuse without any power to fight it.

Federated open platforms will not take care of us, but their fundamental design preserves our autonomy in ways that leave us free to organize to protect ourselves and each other.

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closed #20

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