Why we must insist on Free Network Services
Published 2022-04-30 on Anjan's Homepage
There has been renewed interest in the fediverse 1. That is websites that you can install on your own hardware, come up with your own rules, and talk to people on other websites with social media like features. Imagine being able to comment on Youtube with your Facebook account and vice versa or post to your Instagram and have it appear on everyone on Twitter - that is what the fediverse is! Beyond these technical benefits, all this software is Free software - that is it respects your freedoms to community and rights to inspect what it’s doing. Lets go over some of the other benefits of using Free software network services.
I hope my personal experience encourages you to at least post on Free network services in parallel to proprietary social media.
Shouldn’t I Go Where the Eyeballs are?
All of the important content I create on the internet goes on federated, free network services. Listing these free network services (and their proprietary “equivalents”): peertube (youtube), pleroma (twitter), and sourcehut (github). People seem to look at the number of people on a social media site and assume the one with the most users are the only ones worth having. If the site is proprietary, you have no control over the algorithm and it’s unlikely that the algorithm will prioritize your content over content that benefits the corporate interests. If people could “organically” grow on these proprietary network services, what incentive would there be to buy ads and pay them? The proprietary network services’ business model works against the incentives of organic growth.
In contrast, on Free network services, my content has seen a tremendous amount of organic growth. When Sxmo was a very young project, Drew Devault (creator of Sourcehut) made Sxmo a featured project on Sourcehut and posted in on his Mastodon (federated Twitter) account. The popularity of Sxmo is partly a consequence of how much it embraces free network services to communicate and promote itself. Administrators and users of Free network services are usually thrilled to have your content and help you in promoting it!
Moreover, the design of the Free services encourages organic growth - without payment! When joining Mastodon, you must choose an instance which controls the rules and interests the instance is targetting 2. Since Mastodon follows the fediverse structure - you can talk to people on other instances and they can talk to you. However, the “local timeline” shows people on your instance and posts on the local timeline will likely be things your instance finds interesting. So art instances have art and technology instances have cool projects people are working on. Rather than being another drop in the firehose that is the twitter timeline, the local timeline connects you to the people most likely to have the same interests as you. The consequences of these design decisions are profound. I regularly get interactions, suggestions, ideas, and contributions from a diverse group of people. Moreover, the content I get to see on Free network services is more interesting because it’s not constant culture war and brand posting 3.
Can Free Software handle the load?
People will see news stories about the massive load big tech’s network service have on the planet 4 and assume that this is the cost of storing their pictures of brunch. Indeed, Google has requested aquifer water to cool their datacenters from water famished regions of the United States 5. Most of these data center’s resources are dedicated to serve targetted advertisement. That is, a social media that has no targetted advertisements and mechanisms to prevent advertisements - ie. free software and federation, will be more eco-friendly.
Furthermore, often users will conclude the operational costs of Google and Facebook are how much it costs to run a social media company. Again, this is misleading cause most of the operational costs are spent on advertising the network, UX/UI research to manipulate people into acting against their own self interests, lobbying for exploiting the environment, and analysis of user behavior. Without the need for mass surveillance, targetting, and advertising - Social media can and is run by everyday people using Free software network services.
How is the moderation?
Moderation is difficult because one person’s rightful ban is another person’s censorship. Luckily, the federated and instance driven nature of the Fediverse allows for nuance in the “free speech” debate. Recall on the fediverse, a core feature is the ability to talk to people on other servers and even other social media platforms. Suppose a fediverse program or instance admin introduces ads or does moderation in a way you dont approve of but all your friends dont want to migrate. You dont have to choose between supporting bad moderation or losing all your friends, you can change instances and still talk to friends on your old instance. The ease of migration makes the whole network much more likely to follow the user’s wishes.
Since each instance has a moderator team and instances are usually small, I have found the moderation on the fediverse to be much better. You can talk to the people doing the moderation and often the administrator will contact you directly regarding their decisions.
The fediverse is how social media on the internet should have happened. It encourages free association with moderation managed communally - join Debian’s instances, your university’s instance, or run your own! Lets support the fediverse and ourselves by joining!
How to join
- Mastodon (twitter): https://joinmastodon.org/communities
- peertube (youtube): I recommend https://diode.zone instance
- writefreely (medium): https://writefreely.org/
- sourcehut (github): https://sourcehut.org
The culture wartm keeps people engagedtm so they can keep seeing the brand posting
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