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Social Networks Communications Open Source Privacy

Revisiting Open Source Social Networking Alternatives 88

reifman writes Upstart social networking startup Ello burst on the scene in September with promises of a utopian, post-Facebook platform that respected user's privacy. I was surprised to see so many public figures and media entities jump on board — mainly because of what Ello isn't. It isn't an open source, decentralized social networking technology. It's just another privately held, VC-funded silo. Remember Diaspora? In 2010, it raised $200,641 on Kickstarter to take on Facebook with "an open source personal web server to share all your stuff online." Two years later, they essentially gave up, leaving their code to the open source community to carry forward. In part one of "Revisiting Open Source Social Networking Alternatives," I revisit/review six open source social networking alternatives in search of a path forward beyond Facebook.
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Revisiting Open Source Social Networking Alternatives

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  • Your personal information is now essentially open source, thanks to facebook.

    • How can Facebook get personal information that you don't voluntarily share with it?

      • Re:If it helps: (Score:4, Insightful)

        by faedle ( 114018 ) on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @02:36PM (#48460173) Homepage Journal

        At least in the US a lot of "personal information" can be obtained from public sources. And with Facebook's tendrils into other sites (with things like beacons and such) they can probably get a surprising amount of information from sources you wouldn't expect.

        Install Ghostery sometimes and see how many websites you log in to every day have beacons that go to a Facebook-affiliated site.

      • Your dumb friends tagging you in everything.
        • by rthille ( 8526 )

          What friends? I'm a programmer, damn it!

        • Yes everything from things actually involving you to things they just want to draw your attention to, that's why that data is so worthless and you get so many poor attempts at auto-tagging and so many irrelevant advertisements.
      • by j127 ( 3658485 )

        How can Facebook get personal information that you don't voluntarily share with it?

        Offline data collection:

        Tracking your browsing:

        Getting tentacles in your OS:

        Running analytics software and servers for other websites and apps:

        Etc.

    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
      open source? You'd better re-read your TOS. It belongs to Facebook now, most certainly not open source.
  • by discord5 ( 798235 ) on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @02:27PM (#48460071)

    I was surprised to see so many public figures and media entities jump on board — mainly because of what Ello isn't. It isn't an open source, decentralized social networking technology

    Public figures and media entities don't give a flying fuck what it is or isn't. It's a matter of "can we monetize?" and "holy shit, look at that untapped audience". Things like "open source" and "decentralized" are the things only we nerds care about, and even in that group we find ourselves often in the minority.

    If you want to build that social network utopia and get it to see some actual usage, you'll need to have a clear advantage and be able to get everyone and their grandma to move away from facebook, twitter and whatnot. For a media entity "decentralized social network" means "unreliable demographics" and "open source" sadly still means "not easy to monetize". Aside from that, you also need a certain momentum to build up, and have features that someone else doesn't have. Google+ is a perfect example of not being able to convince the greater public that you've got a better offer.

    Personally, I can think of hundreds of more interesting hobby projects than hacking together an open source decentralized social network. But if you find it interesting, please do contribute code/documentation/fleshed out ideas to the community. Happy hacking!

    • by rudy_wayne ( 414635 ) on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @02:47PM (#48460281)

      I was surprised to see so many public figures and media entities jump on board — mainly because of what Ello isn't. It isn't an open source, decentralized social networking technology

      Public figures and media entities don't give a flying fuck what it is or isn't. It's a matter of "can we monetize?" and "holy shit, look at that untapped audience". Things like "open source" and "decentralized" are the things only we nerds care about, and even in that group we find ourselves often in the minority.

      There' s nothing wrong with open source, but making something open source doesn't automatically make it better or more desirable. If you want to create a legitimate competitor to Facebook, Google or just about any other tech company, it's going to take a serious amount of hardware and infrastructure, and that ain't free..

      Since it's unlikely that you can pull a couple of billion dollars out of your ass, your only options are (a) Charge people for access. We already know how well that (won't) work. Or, (2) Advertising. Which puts you right back into the whole privacy problem. Companies like Facebook and Google don't abuse your privacy because they are evil, they do it because it's the only way to make the money that keeps them in business.

      There's a reason why companies like Facebook, Google and Ebay have no significant competition .Anyone who says they are going to create a competitor to one of the popular tech companies AND striclty respect your privacy is either a liar or completely delusional with no idea how business actually works.

      • If you want to create a legitimate competitor to Facebook, Google or just about any other tech company, it's going to take a serious amount of hardware and infrastructure, and that ain't free..

        But it also does not have to be yours... Look at the massive amount of data bit torrent moves around by everyone gives a little of what they have. If you make a thick app that runs all the time, you have some amazing processing power and bandwidth. And a peer 2 peer, decentralized Facebook has some serious advantages.

        • by zoefff ( 61970 )

          And put that on a mobile...

          Currently, the most interesting option for me is secushare.org [secushare.org], because it is p2p. Make sure it is available on android/apple/etc. and easy to use. And the p2p-capabilities can provide your backup as well

  • Killer features? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @02:28PM (#48460087)

    Here's the tricky thing about privacy and social networks: Facebook's privacy support is actually pretty good. Whilst people might tell you in the abstract that they want more privacy from Facebook, figuring out what they would change in concrete terms is very hard. For example, they might say "I don't want to see ads" - but given the choice, they don't want to pay for anything either. So this feedback ends up being pretty useless, equivalent to hearing "I want everything and a pony". It's not a basis for a product.

    Google learned this one the hard way with Google+. The original way Google+ tried to differentiate itself from Facebook was with circles. The idea is, Facebooks relatively singular notion of "friend" doesn't reflect the way real people work, this means it doesn't respect people's privacy and so people use the product less .... therefore by giving them better tools, they'd win a lot of users. Facebook responded that they'd tried the same thing, it turns out people don't like making lists of friends and controlling their sharing at a fine grained level, so it wouldn't work. And guess what? Facebook were right. Sure, you interview people in focus groups and they say one thing. In reality they might do something else.

    So - decentralised open source social networks. Not gonna work. People might sound enthusiastic when you pitch it to them in the abstract, but actually Facebook works fine for them, and the kind of privacy that matters to them (can people see who views their profile?! Can my parents see my drunken party pics?) is already well supported and tuned.

    Ultimately what will do off Facebook, eventually, is a change in how people use social networking that for whatever reason they cannot replicate in their main product.

    • by Mof-Tan ( 108800 )

      I think you are wrong about this. I do think people actually want something like circles from Google+. Google+ failed for other reasons, mainly the fact that everyone is on Facebook and before they get to G+ things will be very quiet there.

      You need to get past the first hurdle of getting people onto the new social media platform. Then you can improve it.

      The Facebook lists have failed because it is such a pain to use. Instead people simply don't post stuff other than very banal and general

      • Agreed. Even though Google had a few hiccups in which the Google plus interface was annoying, overall I like the site much more than Facebook. But I have nearly fifty fairly active friends and family members on Facebook. All of the friendships I made on Google plus are with people that share a common interest. And I like that, but it doesn't let me share photos of the kids with my extended family or discuss a holiday party with friends.
  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @02:29PM (#48460111)

    No platform will work until you make it easy to migrate. Just like nothing could replace Lotus 123 until it could open it's file types. Write an open source social network that can post to facebook, and see facebook posts so that the users don't have to give up their friends in order to switch and you'll have something.

    Unfortunately the only way I see this happening is via federal regulation, and I cringe at the thought of what other nonsense the feds would stick into such a law.

    • by bws111 ( 1216812 )

      Unfortunately the only way I see this happening is via federal regulation, and I cringe at the thought of what other nonsense the feds would stick into such a law.

      It is hard to imagine something more nonsensical than the idea of such regulation. What POSSIBLE reason could there be for such regulation?

      • To prevent mono-cultures and monopolies in social networks like we're seeing now. Facebook has nearly every detail of everyone in this countries lives. With subtle tweaks to their software the could easily turn elections in their favor. The federal government doesn't generally like a single company to have that kind of power.

        • by bws111 ( 1216812 )

          Facebook got their 'monopoly' by providing a service that many people like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it in no way needs to be 'prevented.'

          • Trusts always form by offering a deal that many people take voluntarily. That doesn't mean that it has to be allowed to use its monopoly position to keep the gains it has achieved.

            Trust-breaking won the war of ideas like 100 years ago, and proved to be able to do little things like "prevent Standard Oil from running the world".

            • by bws111 ( 1216812 )

              There is absolutely no parallel between Standard Oil and Facebook. Standard Oil did not get in trouble because it was the oil everybody used, it got in trouble because it formed trusts. These trusts made deals that made it impossible for anyone to compete with them. For instance, the trust not only controlled the oil supply, but also the transportation system used to deliver the oil. They also bought competing businesses just to shut them down. THAT is was antitrust laws are for, not stupid crap like 'y

    • by bigpat ( 158134 )
      I think not migrating your contact lists will be a key feature of a switch to some other platform. At some point a fresh start with just your current friends and contacts might be in order and it would be easier to start on a new platform than to try to weed them out on Facebook with the potential for hurt feelings.
    • by unrtst ( 777550 )

      I don't think a law will be needed, but IMO you are exactly right that cross compatibility will be key.

      Personally, I'm hoping that HTML5/AJAX/etc gets to be such a big deal that all data going to/from facebook is done that way. It's then a fairly clean API others can use (even if there are legal issues with that). It could be done now with a mix of that and screen scraping, but it'd be difficult to keep up.

      If, at some point, someone created a client based application (probably browser based and in javascrip

  • So unfortunately this means there really aren't any open source alternatives.

    Unfortunately the distributed model has fundamental privacy problems. One needs complete trust in all server nodes as they can do nearly anything with a user's data after they have access. e.g. a user can revoke permission but that doesn't prevent a networked server from having cached & continuing to display it. Or potentially a rogue server which makes everything they have permission to see publicly available.

    • by faedle ( 114018 )

      Diaspora's solution is that the "personal information" is housed on a server that you trust (ie. one you run or know personally the administrator of). Nothing marked "private" is typically passed off the home node unless you specifically push it out.

      • by Luthair ( 847766 )
        I fail to see how that matters. The user you're sharing with is authenticating with their home server, thus their home server can readily impersonate them.
    • by DuckDodgers ( 541817 ) <keeper_of_the_wolf AT yahoo DOT com> on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @06:02PM (#48462487)
      Look at the problems you're trying to solve if you want a viable Facebook or Twitter alternative that's distributed and private.
      1. Any user has got to be able to get involved, the barrier to entry in terms of technical knowledge should be as low as possible.
      2. All data should be stored encrypted and moved around encrypted, so a person has to hack your personal machine (laptop, desktop, phone) to decrypt anything you have hosted on the network or that has been shared with you by a friend.
      3. Because there is no central hosting, the network should have some kind of builtin distributed backup system.

      For a while it looked like a fundamentally unsolvable problem to me, but some groups have at least an idea of an answer and are working on it. There's crypto-currency (off hand I think "maidsafe", "quark", and "ethereum", but I could be remembering wrong) that is under development that lets users farm coins based on the resources they make available to the crypto-currency network: RAM, CPU, and storage. If you contribute more of those resources to the network than you consume, you accumulate extra currency you can use to buy real things. If you contribute less, you have to buy currency to cover your operating costs. All that seems tangential to a distributed social network, but you can link the two. Host the distributed social network on the computing resources made available by that crypto-currency. Your messages and data transfers to other users are tiny micro-transactions on the crypto-currency market. Your backups are micro-transactions on the crypto-currency market, and all of the redundant backups are encrypted. The same public/private key infrastructure governing transactions can be hooked into to make sure all data is encrypted in transit. Anyone that wants to participate can install the client on a phone, laptop, or desktop and get started.

      Who knows if it will ever actually work. But as crazy as it is, it seems to have a more realistic chances of mainstream success than something like Diaspora. With Diaspora you need to trust your hosting provider or else have the technical knowhow and interest to host your own, and that absolutely won't scale large enough to make a dent in the established players.
  • by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Tuesday November 25, 2014 @02:37PM (#48460185) Homepage
    The biggest problem that I found with Diaspora was that even as somebody who already has a hosting service for my personal web site I found that I wasn't able to get Diaspora to actually working on my server. Making it easy to deploy on various web hosts is key if you want people to be about to host it. Also, it has to integrate with existing solutions. It would be great if those of us who chose to use whatever open source social networking is created could still interact with facebook, twitter, and other social networks without having to go to those other sites.

    The rest of the problem is actually pretty straight forward. Most social networking sites are nothing more than an RSS Feed of a bunch of content produced by the user. Add in the ability to attach pictures and videos to the posts and you have most of what people use social networks for. Private messages are nice too. We actually have tools that do most of what we need out of a social networking site. The difficulty is putting the pieces together into a cohesive package and getting it to play nice with the other social networks so that people can slowly move over.
    • by faedle ( 114018 )

      Funny, I found Diaspora to be easy to install.. no more difficult than any other "web 2.0" app. It does require something a little more than a simple "webhosting" account: you need to be able to configure Apache or whatever webserver to run the Passenger bits properly, and that's not something I think you can do on a $5 shared-hosting Dreamhost account (that said, it runs fine on Dreamhost VPS: I ran it that way for a while). And Diaspora does have ways of pushing to Facebook and Twitter: any more interact

    • This is essentially what I was going to post. I set up a pod on a VM, and while I finally got it working (after assistance from one of the devs via IRC), if there's going to be real acceptance of Diaspora, it needs to deploy cleanly and automatically. This is not currently the case [diasporafoundation.org].

      Another point that doesn't get enough attention is the lack of symmetrical bandwidth on consumer ISP links. This will limit both the utility and acceptance of any distributed app/protocol (social networking or otherwise). It'

  • " It isn't an open source, decentralized social networking technology."

    I hate to break it to you, but people don't care. That's techobabble to the overwhelming majority of the audience. When it comes to social networks, people care about the following things:

    1. Are the people I want to connect with using it
    2. Does it look good
    3. Is it easy to use
    4. Privacy, sometimes

    Disapora failed because it was high on technobabble and low on the other stuff.

    • by bigpat ( 158134 )
      They don't care except for when it affects their user experience. Too many inline ads in Facebook for instance would be something that eventually people could get sick of and make them start looking around. Facebook being such a dominant and established presence and being under pressure to make money means they could certainly piss off their users with too many ads. Look at what happened to all the search engine companies before Google came along. All of a sudden a clean interface with real search resu
    • People would switch if the open source, decentralized social networking technology was also easy to use, had a good user interface, and offered all of the features of the commercial centralized social networks except for advertising.

      Getting al of that to work is difficult, but it's a worthwhile problem to solve.
  • I would like to see a few things happen:

    The "average" person is not going to setup their own Diaspora server. If Diaspora came pre-installed and setup on a Roku like device that a user simply plugged in and connected to their home network then I think it would be more viable. It has to be really really easy to setup so that Grandma can use it.

    Beyond that I would like to see someone develop an ad network that allowed individual users of Diaspora to monetize their own information. Say I really don't min
    • by Tridus ( 79566 )

      Except that I can sign up for Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/G+/Whatever with a browser, and costs me zero dollars.

      A Disapora appliance would have to cost more than zero dollars, because you're making and distributing hardware. Why would people ever buy it? What happens when it fails, or the baby spills juice on it, or it needs patching, or any number of other real world things happens to it?

      It's a complete non-starter unless it also does something game changing.

    • RE: Shared monitization of the ad rev, great idea. I'd like to see it work. The only example I know of is a gone now service called ZenZoo that did this.

      It sort of devolved into a multi level marketing thing with people trying to get other people to sign up so their share of ad rev would go up and you had log in a certain number of times a month or something.

      Anyway, would be worth look up if anyone is thinking of trying this. I'd be in on an advertising, subtle, share.

    • Now obviously they do lots of complicated analysis which is where a lot of the value added

      Yeah, but a lot of that analysis is to figure out things about you, things you already know.

      monetize their own information... I think that we need to fundamentally change the web so that Google and Facebook share their profits with us. They are after all making profits by selling your data

      The problem is Facebook and Google already have sufficient amounts of information on sufficient numbers of people that your own high

    • I think that we need to fundamentally change the web so that Google and Facebook share their profits with us. They are after all making profits by selling your data. Now obviously they do lots of complicated analysis which is where a lot of the value added is but the raw resource is your data. You should be compensated for it.

      You are being compensated just not monetarily. You get free access to search engines and social networking sites.

  • a utopian, post-Facebook platform that respected user's privacy.

    Oh, so they've got one, then.

  • (Sorry for the shameless plug)

    Personally, I created OpenAutonomy [openautonomy.com] to solve this (and other) problems in an open, federated network (here is a video I did at FSOSS 2014 talking about this space [youtube.com]). There is no centre of the network, nor is there much of a limitation in terms of what it can actually do.

    That said, most of the approaches to solving this problem focus on social networking, specifically, and there are tons of them [wikipedia.org]!

    The problem is figuring out a way to explain the vision to a non-technical audience a

  • It would be nice if someone created a not for profit charity based facebook like alternative. Use the same model to sell advertising, etc.. but send most of the proceeds to the charities the users select. Something similar to smile.amazon.com but not for profit like craigslist.org
  • I have been happily using Friendica [friendica.com] for a family network for a while. While quirky, it works, and has a bunch of stuff for interoperating with other sites including facebook and even using RSS feeds. In terms of privacy, development has moved on to redmatrix [redmatrix.me]. The problem being that going to a truly privacy-oriented framework means interoperability is out.

    But really it seems like the protocol and the software need to be separated so that different social networking software can interoperate. There is a

  • And other AGPL3 alternatives?
  • Remember Diaspora? In 2010, it raised $200,641 on Kickstarter to take on Facebook with "an open source personal web server to share all your stuff online." Two years later, they essentially gave up, leaving their code to the open source community to carry forward.

    Diaspora is still very much alive [podupti.me].

  • An alternative to "Post-Facebook" is to not use an all-encompassing social media tool/website instead of replacing it with a clone that offers better privacy.

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