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The Search For A Better Sharing Framework 2020-05-29


It is not hard to find examples of "social media" services that suck. There's story after story of social corpogiants like Facebork and Twatter engaging in corporate stoogery that clearly isn't good for anyone's privacy or security. They obviously have no real product, and yet they are pegged at ridiculous "value" because they are a marketing platform with a big audience. Their only real value is that they can put a lot of crap in front of a lot of eyeballs. Yet people can't get away from these kinds of services. People can't stop uploading data to goofs who clearly want to use that data to make money off of you, with zero regard for what is ethical, what is appropriate, or what you think.

So what's the alternative? Well if you put your content on a web site that isn't interested in using you as a marketing tool, and link to it on your favourite social media giant, then they have less ownership over it. When you upload a photo or video or whatever directly to them, you are providing them with content and granting them rights to that content. So when you see your kid's face on the side of a bus there would be nothing you could do about it, because that's the terms you agreed to. However when you link to some other web site they can't claim any rights to the content... you didn't give the content to them. It is a subtle difference but it can allow people to maintain better control over their data. It also doesn't help when you [for example] want to post your old ham radio receiver on Facebork Marketplace. In that case you need to upload photos of it, and you need to send messages with some buyer. All of which is scooped up in the Facebork intellectual property rights crap.

I actually have a Facebork account [not bragging, just saying] and I generally don't upload anything to it. I don't use my real name, I didn't provide my phone number, I don't have any photos of me, and I generally only post links to external content. It means that features such as marketplace are off-limits for me, but it otherwise generally works. I will in fact be linking to this post on Facebork when I am done writing this. But it is a lot of effort. I made this web site from scratch with just HTML and CSS which doesn't require an IQ of more than 120, but it does require a fair bit of time and dedication to learning how site design works that most people just don't have. I made a fancy little bash script that automates much of what is needed to add a new post to my site, but there is a lot of editing an ugly text file that follows. I also need to manually transfer images and movies and then link to them in my posts. This is all crap that most people do not want to figure out. They just want to click the button and send the pic of grandma.

So... I tried setting up a few self hosted social media frameworks to see if I could find something that regular people could use to manage their own data and easily link to on their favourite social media sites. There is a thing called GNU Social that started more than a decade ago which allows anyone to host a social-media-like web site, and employs some fancy protocol work to basically connect all the web sites together. This creates a Faceborkish environment except that instead of a single corporate stooge owning all of the service, it is spread across many domains and is managed by many people or organizations. GNU Social has been forked numerous times and other frameworks have been made which use the same protocol stuff resulting in similar projects such as pleroma, mastodon, and diaspora. The trouble is that they're awful. Mastodon is a hog, Diaspora fell out of favour for some reason, Pleroma's install instructions are a total mess, and frankly not all of them work so well together, despite supposedly being generally compatible. I have an account with Disroot and they run a Hubzilla instance that I thought worked okay, but the install was awful and it didn't seem to want to connect to other people's instances. Disroot's Hubzilla looks like this:

disroot-hubzilla Disroot's Hubzilla.

It has that jackass 3-column layout you are used to, many features such as liking and sharing work in a similar way, and it is a really easy way to blast out content. Since everyone on Facebork is part of the facebork.com domain you refer to them by name. In a federated system like Hubzilla, you refer to people with what resembles an email address. It really isn't much different looking than the typical social media sites you are used to, but it is run by many groups and individuals instead of a single corporate entity.

I like the idea of a federated service like this, but they simply have to work together more easily and have to be something more people can run and manage themselves. I don't mean that everyone has to run their own instance, but the list of people who currently CAN run an instance is just not long enough. Esoteric install instructions that sometimes don't work or don't explain themselves don't help. Fatter and fatter bandwidth, disk, and memory requirements push the cost of a rented server out past what people are willing to drop in a year to keep an instance running. People also need to be able to trust their federated service provider. I don't think that means people providing access to social media-like service need to kick it up a notch, but rather that users have to quit assuming that big corporate names are trustable while small unknowns are flat out not. That is a crappy attitude and is clearly not helping.

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