Social media and news site talkbacks have ushered in an age where everyone feels a need to comment, discuss, and venture their opinions. A few years ago, one had to be quite upset or sure of one's authority to go to the trouble of writing "a letter to the editor", and till today, when we read a book, it's very unlikely that we will be able to enter into a discussion with the writer. Well-known authors often cherish anonymity, writing under pen-names. Many refuse all public appearances. In any case, the most we can expect is to learn about them through the intermediary of a journalist, who, we hope, will ask the same questions that we have.

Writing a blog, there are certain decisions to be made about how much interaction to encourage. One can permit comments, publish an email address, cross-post to social media etc. There are possible trade-offs with all of these.

In the latest incarnation of this blog, I decided to cross-post to one or more public timelines of the Fediverse. Blog posts may then be seen by those (I think few) people who bother to wade through public timelines. But I've stopped using social media as a platform for discussion and don't "follow" anyone personally. I read through timelines, subscribe to feeds, and watch blogs and microblogs without personal interaction with the authors. If I find something interesting I re-share it or take it into account when composing something of my own. Meaningful exchanges do not always require direct interaction. Otherwise, there would be little to gain from reading ancient classics or the writings of any dead or inaccessible author.

Our lives are quite short - perhaps too short for superfluous discussions.

Dave Winer: “You should use Facebook”

Dave Winer, the "proto-blogger" and creator of the RSS news feed system, says that he basically agrees with the criticism of Facebook by the New York Times and other news publishers, but he believes also that their bias is disingenuous, as long as they cannot suggest alternatives.

"I would love to see a world where we could use these great tools without giving up anything. We knew how to make that and it existed before FB, but they made it easier and figured out how to give it away free, and people didn't care to know about the cost...

Anyway -- I've decided this isn't my battle. I'm going to get the benefit, and not worry about the cost. Nothing I can do about it anyway. ;-)"

- Dave Winer

I give considerable weight to his opinion, as a pioneer developer of the web, as a person who doesn't necessarily need Facebook to get himself heard, and as a progressive liberal who truly understands the costs. But for me, it's something like my vegetarianism. My real reason for avoiding Facebook is that I can't quite overcome the disgust. But as with my dietary preference, it's a personal thing, and perhaps I shouldn't try to get others to follow me.

daunted by disqus logins

I'm fairly careful with passwords - I use a password manager.  But just occasionally something goes wrong or gets outdated.  That happened now with Disqus.  So I went through the attempt to make a new account, discovered I had an old one, did the password reset.  But the darn thing still didn't work, so I gave up.  How much time can you give to these things, and why should you?

Anyway, the thing I wished to comment on was the Wired article about Cloudflare. Which may be a good PR piece about how Cloudflare is working to aid encryption, but completely ignores the issue that Cloudflare in parallel is doing all it can to make life difficult for users of Tor.  As any Tor user can tell you, hitting a Cloudflare site generally sends you to a Captcha verification.  Cloudflare hates Tor and Tor users hate Cloudflare back.  If the web was working properly, Cloudflare wouldn't exist in the first place.  But then, neither would Tor, I suppose.  Meanwhile, happy to discover Opera's new VPN system.

Abandon the entire social networking model?

I'm beginning to grow weary both of the commercial social networks and their alternatives.  The web outside of them was always more expansive and interesting than that which is caught within them.  Its content is more usefully captured directly than through artificial filters.  I would be more interested to read what my friends publish unconstrained in the personal space of their own website or blog than within the artificial confines of a social media stream.  On a personal site, I decide on what content to present and how to present it.  It's my own decision and I feel more free about it.

The problems with this approach are mainly -

a) more and more people are abandoning such personal spaces and consigning their content to social media streams.

b) it is difficult to effectively capture what's interesting on the web without the recommendations and filters provided by streams.

To the latter my best response is still RSS news feeds.  A federated version of something like the old Google Reader would be better.  (Not something like Digg.)

To the former, the best response is to nurture one's own blog or site as an example, and to share to it, rather than to the streams.

Why Ello won’t be the answer

The Guardian:  "Ello is the ‘anti-facebook’, positioning itself as a network with a social conscience. It might not be the one to replace the social giant, but Facebook is getting old"

Ello or another competing service won't be the answer.  What Facebook and other social networks offer is "good enough" for what people currently want.

My prediction is that what will foil Facebook is some sort of change in the infrastructure of the internet.  If someone can make the infrastructure more decentralized, so that we are less dependent upon information silos like Facebook, and yet find better ways of tying it together, that would do it.

Examples of early moves in this direction are GNU Social, OwnCloud, Friendica, Red Matrix, and especially Twister.  Twister makes it possible to use any computer as a decentralized network hub, without needing Apache or other web server software or tying an IP address to a name server. It uses BitCoin technology.  But all these are baby steps.  We need something new, that makes decentralization really easy and user friendly, but which somehow gives big companies the opportunity to make money.  Without the money incentive, it probably won't happen.

Ello might or might not replace Facebook, but the giant social network won't last forever | Ruby J Murray | Comment is free |

Gnu Social

I had a pleasant discovery today: Gnu Social .  It had been around for a couple of years, but it turns out that last summer, Evan Prodromou, the developer of Status.Net, "donated all of his work to the Free Software Foundation, so we merged the existing project with StatusNet and another project called FreeSocial. And here we are."

The result certainly looks a lot better than it did before, and there seems to be a small web of independent networks using the Status.Net/Gnu Social framework; one of which I joined. The system works in such a way that you can join one network and subscribe to users of another. Their tweets, or whatever these are called on Gnu Social (on the Status.Net network they used to be called dents) appear in one's timeline (if however they call that).

It's a pleasant discovery because by turning these tools over to a community, and decentralizing authority, there is a greater chance that they will take root, and that the network will grow. The mode of operations now resembles, to a greater degree, the network that they are trying to create.  Evan Promodou, or Mike MacGirvin at Friendica , or the team that started Diaspora, have all done and continue to do impressive work.  But I feel a greater degree of confidence now that there's a social networking project is in the hands of the Free Software Foundation.

A couple of years ago, there was another effort to create a niche social network: ZSocial. It was a project of Znet, a quite influential American  "community of people committed to social change". They began with a great deal of ambition and created something that in many ways looked quite impressive. But today I found an interesting critique of these efforts:  "Realizing How Zsocial lacks the Participatory model" by Stephen Mahood at Cyberunions. Basically he says that the development model behind Zsocial did not seem to match the participatory democratic governance model that the group espouses. Furthermore, Michael Albert, the man behind the effort, disregarded all other existing work that was being done on federated social networks - such as Status.Net and Friendica - and, working with a couple of developers, tried to reinvent the wheel.

On top of this, Albert presented the work of ZSocial as a kind of make-or-break effort for his organization, as if the future of ZCommunications depended on it: "

ZSocial, as a source of revenue - is our last plausible avenue for preserving ZCom as is, or improving it. If ZSocial doesn't attract a substantial membership, we will have to drastically cut Z operations...

Subscription fees were set at $3 per month, and they began to recruit members. But evidently there were problems - comments in the same article speak about problems as basic as not being able to log in:

"Login has been broken since the day they launched, despite what must now amount to hundreds of bug reports only on this one issue. For a little while I was getting responses to bug reports rapidly, and they seemed to be working on the problems, but the responses stopped coming after a few days. That’s when I found the group ZSocial Innovation on their site. I urged them to make their platform free software, but they only gave vague indications that it might happen later, when the software was more stable. Well, it’s not getting more stable, so today I urged them again to make it free software, if only for practical reasons. If they’ll just let me fix their bloody login page, they can keep my monthly subscription, otherwise I’m out."

I also had correspondence with Albert at that time. I said there why I would not be paying the $3 / mo. subscription fee for a service in which I had no personal contacts and which was basically a closed-garden. Why should I bother to place content there which only fee-paying members would be able to read? If they had created a system so expensive, why had they not thought to use one of the existing open source systems that were already perfectly serviceable?

The responses I got back from Albert were arrogant or confused.

Me: I would not pay $3 / mo.

Albert: Interesting... I wonder how you know that already....

Me: [It] would have been possible to use existing free open source systems as backbone such as Diaspora, Friendica,

Albert: Tis wouldn't change our costs...arguably they would wind up greater...

Me: [It] should interact with other networks.

Albert: Not sure what you mean, but it does...remember it is just beginning...

Me: and use standard protocols in order that it is possible to join and exchange messages between networks hosted on different servers - as I understand it, that's the meaning of a decentralized distributed social network. It is also possible to interact with those services via offline clients like Gwibber. If you didn't begin to work with standard protocols from the beginning, it is unlikely that you would be able to add them later without making huge changes to your system. Of course, you might be able to interact with Facebook and Twitter, using their APIs. But I think you agree that it would be better to create an alternative to these companies.

I tried to find ZSocial today, which wasn't easy because it isn't mentioned on the front page of Znet. I couldn't even find it in Google. When eventually I found the link in an article, it led to an error page. If I'd been paying $3 per month and had gone to the trouble of placing content there, I might not be so happy about that today.

Social network engine I’d like to see

crowdMost existing social networks are built upon the model of a timeline.  But if we come to a network to find out what our friends are up to, what we probably would like to see is what Y has been doing or saying lately.  While it is true that it is possible to pull up the profile and posts of Y, this is not very practical. Furthermore, perhaps they have been active on Pinterest but not on Facebook, and if I really want to follow them, I'm going to need to go into each of their networks, then check their profiles there. There are plug-in services for email like this, such as Rapportive. When we begin to write to someone, it will check their network activity.  But this is not an average use case.

So what I would really like to see is the following arrangement. There would be a contacts list, on the left hand side, and on the right, a series of columns, one for each social network, as well as personal sites and blogs. The engine pulls in activity feeds for each place. If a person has been active somewhere, anywhere, a green light shows up by her name, with a matching light in the column corresponding to a certain network. If I am friends with them on a given network, or if the post is public, I can hover over the green light in the column, and the post itself pops up so that I can read it without having to go into that social network. The social networks can monitize this activity by sending ads along with the posts.

My ideal network engine would do more. It would suggest new networks where I can meet my friends.  If a person is a member of a network of which I'm still not a member, or if I am not acquainted with them on that network, it will tell me. If a number of friends have joined a network of which I am still not a member, it will also suggest to me that I might consider joining that network too. Because people sometimes use different identities on different networks, there would be the possibility to add content manually, as well as personal sites, blogs etc.

The contacts list would also be a source for additional contact information such as phone numbers, email addresses, etc. and provide an indication of the preferred method of contact.

Further, the engine will present a number of different views. It will be viewable as an alphabetical contacts list, but it will also be able to sense, via my interactions, which persons I'm closest to, and then order the list according to this. There will also be a view which shows which posts are trending among my friends, or are most viral, across all networks. It will also be able to show me which recent posts by a given person are most popular, based on likes, re-tweets, comments, etc. Finally, it will show me, based on tags and topics, what my contacts have to say upon a given topic, and be able to prioritize this activity according to popularity.

This isn't a very complicated idea. But it would certainly be something of value to many of us. It would build engagement in social networks, provide the opportunity for new ones to surface, and give us a much clearer view of what our friends are doing, how they are expressing themselves, and where.

Social networks need their Outlook Express moment

What we are waiting for in social networks is not for some newer, better, more privacy-aware network to replace Facebook (whose account I recently deleted) but a successful desktop or web application that will transparently work with Facebook, Twitter, and all new and aspiring networks.

In email, we had Outlook Express, that was installed automatically in every Windows computer and, till a few years ago, was what the majority of people would use. It didn't matter what email system they were on; it mattered only that it worked with POP3 and SMTP protocols. When instant messaging came along, there was less uniformity. Sure there were programs like Trillium which could work with a number of accounts. But you would go any public computer and find ICQ, Messenger and a few others competing for attention. Social networks brought new complexity to the communications mess, with most people trying to overcome the problem by standardizing on Facebook. We can only hope that it does not gain the same stranglehold as, say Microsoft Word did for documents.

Yet despite the dominance of Facebook, there are still many other networks that people use, either because they offer a different feature set or occupy a different social niche. And it's confusing to have to traverse many networks in order to get news, photos and updates from our friends. Some people, still use email in order to tie the strands together through updates to their mail box.

What we need is an interface that goes beyond email in its ability to bring the core functionality (by which I mean posting of statuses, media, links and comments) of multiple networks into the same social stream. It should not, like Facebook, be a network that condescendingly or as an afterthought accepts statuses from other networks, but an independent, universal web or desktop application. Of course, we can't seriously expect that just one application or protocol will rule the market, but it would be helpful if the major operating systems would create some kind of default social network application like Microsoft did with Outlook Express. There might also be justification for the same application to handle email (as does the web application Threadsy) since it can be useful, when writing an email, to check out our correspondent's social stream.

The challenge, of course is to create an application that does not grow too complex. But the smartphone and tablet market is helping to bring us application designs that are friendly and accessible.

Ubuntu comes with a simple default application, Gwibber, which allows us to incorporate status streams from at least 3 networks: Facebook, Twitter and Gwibber needs to extend its functionality, and other operating systems need to jump on board and bring us a default client that can handle core functionality of our social networking needs. Meanwhile, the leading social networks could extend their APIs and work together on common protocols, just as the browser companies work together, more successfully than in the past, on web standards. Social networking is too big and is becoming too important a part of our lives to be the province of any one company.