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 Identi.ca 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, Status.net.
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: Status.net and Friendi.ca 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.