Changing networking behaviour, two weeks later

In light of #deletefacebook, I spent the last two weeks trying to change my behaviour in working with social networks and online media to make less use of “large” established services and be more careful about tools and technologies I access on a daily basis, or even more frequently. It’s been (and still is) an interesting trip, with a lot of light but also quite a bunch of issues that didn’t feel so well.

How are things?

I’ve been “on the internet” ever since the mid-1990s. The first social networks I’ve actually been in used to be fotolog.com (which I gave up on at some point), Flickr (which I still make quite some use of) and StumbleUpon (which I also gave up on in the meantime). To that point, I mostly was using e-mail, some usenet, WWW and feed readers to stay in touch with other people writing blogs. And, at that point, the things provided by weblogs+RSS, Flickr and StumbleUpon exactly reflected my use cases: Reading through and writing about topics of interest to me, upload and share pictures with others, all this mostly for the purpose of starting communication on some issues and topics that seemed of particular relevance back then. In some way, my mental model was (and still is) similar to that of a mailing-list: There is an initial “comment” (message, post, web url, …) to start some discussion which is a respectful exchange of opinions in which everyone benefits. At some point I joined Facebook (in 2009) and Twitter (in late 2010), and all along with this, things began to change in some rather drastic ways:

First of all, the frequency of new posts drastically increased, while at the same time communication went down to (in worst cases) zero meaningful interactions at all. You got to get used to the fact that clicking that little blue “Like” button is the maximum intensity of involvement you can possibly get, which was quite a change compared to mailing-lists or even early Flickr days where just “starring” a picture without adding substantial comments in some fields was considered bad style. Adding to that, however: Unlike Flickr, StumbleUpon or mailing-lists (which mostly were about communication with strangers about topics you had in common), Facebook suddenly started out being a place to meet people I actually personally knew offline as well, even though people I had way less interests in common with. Both these things changed how communication to me worked on Facebook or Twitter.

In the years to follow, however, Facebook and Twitter both became more and more crowded, while at the same time the frequency and amount of weblogs and weblog posts decreased. Most of my blogroll from back then seems inactive, most of the “old” feeds in my feed reader got recently pruned because they haven’t been updated in more than five, in some cases more than ten years. People, posts, content moved to the large social networks, and so people did. A load of communities I used to be part of, several mailing-lists I’ve been regularly reading, several old-fashioned web forums moved to Facebook or Facebook Groups and communication started to happen there instead. Reasons where obvious: Yes, it was and is easier. While back then you had to deal with web browser, mail client (and a working mail account), feed reader, news reader (and practically some NNTP server that allowed posting) and maybe a couple of other, not really tightly integrated, applications, by now all you needed was a reasonably fast browser and you were ready to go. No self-hosting of any software. No hassles of wanting to, in example, respond to an article on a weblog and your feed reader redirecting you to some browser to some web page where you ended up filling some user data form and solving a captcha just to be able to post a comment. Way less problems in dealing with automated spam in weblog comment forms because the platform keeping this communication effectively ensured only actual users to be on there and interacting with each other. No issues figuring out where your neighbors blog was, again, after setting up your feed reader anew and having lost that last OPML file backup.

To cut things short, I got used to using these channels. I saw Twitter and Facebook mostly replacing all other channels including weblogging, RSS news feeds, mailing lists and all that. I liked (and still do like) a load of usability features about these platforms, while at the same time I always disliked their “walled-garden” approach: I didn’t want to have accounts on both Twitter or Facebook, in example – if you’re used to using e-mails, having an account very closely tied to a particular platform and people being completely unreachable from “the outside” seemed a rather strange design approach. Privacy and handling of personal data, maybe surprisingly, never was that much an issue to me; at some point I got used to the idea that all of these services essentially are about storing data on some computer you don’t control so there’s no reason to consider them in any way “safe” or “confidential”.

Why change things at all?

So overally, even though I still use these channels to date, I’d dearly like to have a “better internet” which is able to fix what’s bad about services such as Facebook or Twitter while at the same time keeping what’s good to excellent about them. Logical way to go is to take a deeper look into alternative approaches and train yourself to working with different tools on a daily basis; I always preferred slow incremental changes to large steps of doing things completely different. So, personal approaches were:

  • Don’t use Facebook and Twitter on mobile devices anymore. As mobile interaction these days is my primary way of working with these channels, choosing another network as primary tool on my smartphone is a change that will quickly show what works and what doesn’t. Likewise, it will require an alternative network on which decent mobile clients are available.
  • Use more RSS again wherever possible instead of using Twitter or Facebook for news feed purposes; all along with this, try doing so in a way that doesn’t require a central services such as feedly.
  • Revive and make more use of my ownCloud nextcloud installation for hosting and synchronizing files, contacts and notes.
  • Try to use all these tools “regularly” and each and every time question if a certain use case can’t be done using these, as well.

All this happens with a strong background in technology. I do “web and software” professionally on a daily basis, have some experience in hosting third-party software on my own systems and do have a shared hosting plan mostly used for web and e-mail so far. Same way, out of curiosity and continued interest in these aspects, I dealt with open approaches to social networks such as Diaspora*, gnusocial, friendica or movim before – but never used any of these primarily as my “daily driver”. Exactly the latter thing is what, during the last two weeks, I tried to enforce, and there are some insights I had all along the way…

The good things

My current “setup” involves mastodon with tusky for social networking “needs”, tiny-tiny rss and tt-rss-android for managing RSS feeds and reading them on different devices and, as stated before, nextcloud all along with its Android app mostly for server-sided file storing. There’s bunch of things I really enjoyed, all along the way:

  • First and foremost, mastodon and tusky are a very convenient experience if you’re used to using at least any of the third-party Twitter client apps on your mobile device. Compared to other open social networks, mastodon seems the first of these platforms that truly can be considered “mobile first” in a substantial amount of scenarios and use cases. Reading, posting, posting images – all these things work flawless, fast, well-integrated with the rest of my mobile system and at least as good as with any of the “major” apps I tried and used; haven’t been using the Facebook app in ages though for several reasons.
  • Compared to ownCloud, the nextcloud environment and especially the Android app are a great improvement in virtually every way possible. Works stable and reasonably fast, allows for easy integration of davdroid for calendar and user sync, has a considerably more sane way of working with synchronization and automated up- and downloads and practically leaves nothing to be desired.
  • tt-rss works exactly like a “feedly under your control”. Not much more to be said about that: After getting it set up right in my shared-hosting environment, it just works.
  • The fediverse, the larger “virtual social network” formed several different networks, domains, instances and installations communicating with each other using a set of mostly standardized protocols, has become quite a bit larger since I’ve been here for the last time. Interoperability between different networks such as Diaspora, Friendica, Mastodon and GNUSocial seems pretty good by now, and there also are ways to find content in there that goes beyond #fediverse meta-threads.
  • In course of these two weeks, I had quite a bunch of pretty intense and good conversations with people on the #fediverse. Safe to say it was more intense and more on-topic involvement than I experienced on Twitter during the whole last year.

Some downsides

As usual, however, as long as there’s light, there’s shadows too, and all these two weeks make no exception when it comes to that. Some pain-points I discovered all along the way, more or less critical and more or less annoying:

  • Generally, even though it grew considerably bigger, the #fediverse still is mostly “empty”. Most of my network consists of non-technical people, and if I was to quit all of the predominant social networks, I’d cut myself out of > 95% of all the people I loosely interact with, in there. In some cases this might not be all too much of a problem given the communication in most of those cases isn’t all that intense anyway; yet I tend to compare this to living in a city: Most of our contacts are people we wouldn’t call “close friends” but we are in some way familiar with, because we interact with them on a daily basis, or because we have a shared past (school, university, …), because we’re in the same workplace or engaged into a shared field of interest. Moving to a different city (or completely leaving an existing social network for another one) will not cut ties with your closest friends (if so, you really should reconsider what “friendship” means to you), but it will cut you from a network of acquaintances you’re familiar and in some way enjoy communicating with. From that point of view, every “familiar” users makes a network such as mastodon or the #fediverse more attractive and interesting.
  • Much to my surprise, the #fediverse isn’t free of stupid communication, fake news and propaganda either, it just seems to come from different sources. Knowing I actually had to block a couple of people even during the very first weeks on there feels a bit strange. It seems that, even though there aren’t yet any “influencers” on the #fediverse, there surely are some strange people around, people with very strong opinions and very weak abilities to accept other points of view while involved in communications. Then again, maybe this is just how things work in bigger crowds, no matter whether online or offline.
  • Though there’s a bit more independence now, I surely have spent way more time than quite some years before on evaluating social networking tools and getting them to run. Despite being on the #fediverse, there are more or less big differences between the different networks (in support for mobile apps, post length, interoperability with each other and the like). Mastodon seems the best when it comes to support for mobile apps; Diaspora and Friendica totally fail here, GNUsocial is somewhere in between (there are some but they are way behind tusky or mastalab). GNUsocial and Friendica, then again, support for way longer posts which are transparently available on the #fediverse, yet mastodon posts are limited to 500 chars. Posting images seems to work best on mastodon with tusky. That’s why I will stay now, for a while at least. I don’t want to primarily spend time with tooling, I want to use these tools for communication.
  • The whole federation aspect definitely makes things difficult given how things are right now. It’s hard to make a sane decision on which network to go with or which instance to pick. There are plenty of them, with minor differences and more or less users, operated not by one big corporation but by some individual enthusiasts on the ‘net. If you’re technically a bit more into the details, some of these aspects might be just a bit annoying. To someone on the skills and knowledge level of an arbitrary Facebook-on-smartphone user, these aspects might effectively prevent them from using any of these networks at all.
  • If you’re used to using Twitter or Facebook for interacting with a load of different people from a load of different backgrounds on a load of different topics, you’ll again figure out the #fediverse (still) is somewhat empty as in “homogenous”. The crowd in there mostly seems to consist of crypto- and infosec-guys, FOSS supporters, liberty and civil rights enthusiasts and, somewhat to my surprise, quite a bunch of people that seem related to the LGBT movement, all along with a solid bunch of anarchists. While this generally is an environment I feel somewhat comfortable in: Compared to this, there are few to no people posting or talking about, say, certain aspects of philosophy, photography, brutalist architecture, certain subcultures of music and art, and so on… . Though most of this can effectively be compensated by using RSS more (as a load of the channels I’m following there on Twitter or Facebook in fact are web sites which also still provide news feeds), but then again it’s all about using different tools and communication, if desired and wanted, getting a bit more difficult again.
  • Facebook right now is pretty much subject to being “toasted” for abusing user information, which in turns requires a more sensible handling of this kind of data. Using a federated, decentralized approach at least prevents situations like Facebook (a whole load of data connecting loads of users with tons of interests stored in a single system hosted by a for-profit company). However it still leaves open a lot of interesting questions on how user data is handled, who has access to which kind of information both on a single instance and in the #fediverse as a whole. It doesn’t answer questions on what happens to data if, in example, a mastodon instance is stored on Amazon AWS or some other cloud. It also doesn’t completely solve questions about owning and re-using data posted there (as far as I know, Flickr so far still is the only service that explicitely support CreativeCommons licenses for content posted by users). And maybe it adds a different kind of fragility to user-related metadata: While, in Facebook, all this social graph is stored in infrastructure owned by one provider, it’s at least “locked in” in there. How does this work if the social graph is distributed a whole load of systems and, this way, much more “open” also from a system point of view?
  • Most of these approaches, today, seems a lot about geeks enjoying to play with technology. There are a lot of hints on which “instances” of which software use which protocols to talk to each other. There are a lot of good tutorials on how to get your own instance up and running. The amount of help for actual end users to get into this world and to start feeling “home” there, on the other side, is way more limited. There’s quite a learning curve to be mastered, even if you managed to sign up to some mastodon instance and installed an app to actually use it. Starting point: For a mobile-only users (as many of the Facebook or Twitter users I know actually are), how to sign up for an account without having or knowing how to use e-mail? Likewise, in many cases running a custom instance might be way less interesting than actually having a well-supported, well-maintained trusted instance one reliably can work with.

And now…?

Chances are I’ll keep using the tools I started using. I’ll also try my best getting more people to consider and use open social networks. What we, in my opinion, direly need however is a way greater focus on attracting a critical mass of users, which in turns will require any of these systems to be way easier to get started, to work with. Otherwise, we either will always see new “proprietary” social network pop up and attract users searching for “the next Facebook”, or, in worst case, we might end up with a situation in which a single vendor takes a bit of currently “open” technology and use it as a foundation for just such a walled garden, much like it happened to XMPP as a communication technology in the past. It would be good if it could be done right this time … 😉

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