NewsBlur

I’m excited about NewsBlur. It’s an RSS/Atom reader that’s web-based, open source, and integrates with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and a handful more popular social networks.

I find the interface kind of ugly and clunky and not intuitive. I found my way around quickly enough, but I think a non-computer-geek would be at a loss, thinking, what is this thing and what am I supposed to do with it?? The three-pane design makes it look like a desktop application, which I think people would find confusing. And the fact that every time you click on anything there’s a JQuery fadeIn() – why????? Aaargh. It basically simulates a slow Internet connection.

But those are quibbles, and easily fixed. I’m excited about this thing, and looking forward to playing with it more.

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Instagram turns evil; people do care

I just wanted to throw down a quick rant on the Instagram fiasco, for the sake of emotional cleansing if nothing else. Apparently Instagram now owns all your pictures, and there’s no way to opt out. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a backlash going on.

In a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading online about this, there’s a theme of ‘Maybe now people will FINALY care about having control of their online data’. There is also a more cynical flip-side to this theme: ‘Even though Instagram’s behaviour is shocking and preposterous they will probably get away with it because most people are too apathetic to complain’.

Danah Boyd, one of my personal heroes, tweeted:

I have to admit that I’m loving the #instagram backlash. Fingers crossed that it results in users better understanding their rights.

while an article called Instagram Turns Evil, And It’s All Our Fault is doing the rounds on social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s tweet is optimistic while the Dan Lyons article is cynical, but they both have the same core idea: that people don’t care about online privacy or about how their online data is used, and that Facebook and their ilk can basically do what they want to users because no-one cares. In this view, the apathy and laziness of most ordinary people is the reason why we can’t have nice things.

I think this idea is deeply wrong, counterproductive, and dangerous.

I’m arguably unusual in that I’m a techie with a mostly non-techie friends. My friends are smart, thoughtful, politically aware people. When I talk to them about issues like online privacy, walled gardens, and open data formats, they are not apathetic. On the contrary, they are very interested, very concerned, and hungry for information. They want me to tell them which social networking sites are good on issues like privacy, and which are bad.

They’re also utterly confused about the social web. They’re smart people (smarter than me in most cases), they use Ubuntu and know the difference between open source and closed source, they’re interested in these issues and they’ve made an effort to learn about them. But when it comes to social networking websites there is a huge amount of confusion – confusion which Facebook, Twitter, and others have gone to great lengths to create.

The list of dirty tricks is familiar to people who are interested in Internet freedom issues: Facebook started off in 2006 with quite a good set-up where you could fairly easily control who saw your posts, but continually changed the rules without telling people they were doing it. Twitter built an open API, got lots of third-party developers to build apps that made Twitter more popular, then shut that API down once they were big enough that it became more profitable to operate as a walled garden. Google advertised Google+ as a “social network”, and then did an about-face and said it was a real-names-only “identity service”. People signed up for Gmail and didn’t realise that their Gmail account was going to get automatically integrated with ten other services provided by Google. Etc. etc. etc.

All of these dirty tricks are announced as being ‘improvements’, if they are announced at all. Even as a computerally knowledgeable person I found it a hard to understand and keep up with all these shenanigans. Think how much harder it must be to understand this stuff for people who lack the technical vocabulary to describe it.

So people are confused. Not because they are stupid or apathetic, but because some of the most powerful companies on the planet have spent billions to create confusion.

Just to give a few examples what the social web might look like to people without a technical background, in my experience:

– When a website does something the user didn’t want or doesn’t understand, very often what the user thinks is not “They screwed me over, those bastards!”, but “I must be doing the wrong thing” or “maybe it’s supposed to do that”.

– A lot of people vaguely know that Facebook is bad on privacy, but they aren’t clear about why.

– Lots of people know that Facebook makes money from advertising, but don’t realise that the advertising is targeted, and that they can sell your information to third parties.

– People generally don’t know about Facebook’s bait-and-switch trick with promoted posts. When I describe it the response is usually: “Are you serious? They can do that!?”

– A lot of people know about cookies, but are shocked when I tell them that when you go to a website it can read all your cookies, not just the ones originating from that site.

– The concept “federation” is a really hard one to explain. When I tell people Identi.ca is open while Twitter isn’t, their eyes glaze over and I can tell what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to them. Which is fair enough because at present Identi.ca’s federation is mostly theoretical – I mean, just how many StatusNet servers are out there that are open to members of the public? To most people Identi.ca looks like Twitter but with a crappier interface, and none of their friends are on it.

Not only do the big social media companies sow as much confusion as possible, but they keep changing the rules, throwing us off balance. People have been conditioned to feel helpless, and to think that the Internet is too complicated for them to understand.

The idea that people are not willing to pay for social networking is simply untrue, in fact lots of people would jump at the chance to pay £10 per 6 months for a free and open social network – but only if it was really free and open, and definitely not going to turn into the next Big Evil Internet Thing in a year’s time. And it would have to work. It would have to provide the social networking experience that people want to have.

There is an ugly tendency among techies to assume that everyone who isn’t a computery type is unintelligent. This is ridiculous. Of course my friends don’t understand what I mean when I say that exposing a public API isn’t as good as making the source code itself open source. Just like I don’t have a clue what my neuroscientist friend is talking about when she describes her research, and I don’t understand my friend the German Literature scholar when she talks about… whatever it is she does.

More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that the biggest barriers to a free and open social web are not technical, but social. Maybe instead of hacking on Buddycloud or Diaspora, we should be hacking on people, on the way we relate to each-other. What if, instead of jeering at non-technical people for being apathetic or stupid, we reached out to them, made a serious effort to explain these issues to them in their own language, and sincerely and humbly asked them what kind of web services they actually want to use would look like?

What is the Federated Social Web, though?

I was talking to a friend about the federated social web recently, and I realized that my descriptions of it were really vague. After thinking about it, I think I’ve come up with a pretty good, concrete definition: a website or service is part of the federated social web if it’s open-source and provides an RSS or Atom feed that’s relatively easy to find.

Of course this isn’t what most people mean by it; most people for whom ‘federated social web’ means anything at all, would probably think of XMPP or pubsubbub or podservers or freedom boxes or what-have-you. Those are all technologies that might make up the federated social web in the future. But for right now, I reckon any service that doesn’t provide an RSS or Atom feed is either very immature, or else doesn’t really want to be federated.

The nice thing about this definition is that it’s easy to say what websites are part of the federated social web. WordPress, Livejournal, Dreamwidth, and Identi.ca / StatusNet are. Facebook definitely isn’t, Twitter pretends to be, a little bit, sometimes, but isn’t really. Tumblr lets you have RSS feeds which is nice, but the fact that it’s closed-source means you live in fear that those feeds may one day be taken away without warning, which is what happened with Twitter.

By this definition, Buddycloud isn’t on the federated social web yet, although they’ve done some good work in laying the groundwork. Diaspora passes the test, although the atom feeds are not exactly easy to find. Feed addresses look something like this: https://joindiaspora.com/public/my-username.atom.

Buddycloud

I’ve got my own channel on beta.buddycloud.org. I get the feeling I’m the only one on there who isn’t a Buddycloud developer. On the face of it Buddycloud doesn’t seem like anything new, it’s just a Twitter-like feed, although posts aren’t limited to 140 characters. It all feels very new and buggy – for instance, you can’t even add profile information or add your own icon picture yet, and you can’t yet connect it to any other services.

Despite all this Buddycloud is the social network I’m most excited about, because I think they’re doing a really good job on the behind-the-scenes stuff. Buddycloud isn’t a website, it isn’t even a single social network, it’s a whole bunch of different things – webservers, web clients, and things that just send data between web servers and web clients. While all that stuff makes it harder to explain what Buddycloud is, it makes it easier for people to use it in a truly federated way – you can, for example, use beta.buddycloud.org as a place to store your data, but write your own webclient, if you don’t like the default one. They seem to have federation as a core goal – even though the webclient barely works yet there is already an Atom API, which really warms the cockles of my heart because it shows that federation is being prioritised over making a pretty website.

MISSION STATUS: Promising

Mission Phase 3: Diaspora

So I signed up for a free account at http://london.diaspora.org.

The good part: the website is beautiful. Clear, un-cluttered design with lots of white-space, gorgeous typography.

But I was most interested in the ability to inter-operate with other social networking sites, and Diaspora didn’t do so well at this. The only external services you can connect to are Twitter and Facebook, which was disappointing after the long list of services I could connect to on Friendica.

Even the way Diaspora describes itself seems to imply that federation isn’t the most important thing. You’re invited to “join Diaspora” and “invite your friends”. But the goal of an open, federated web is that you don’t have to join anything, you can connect to your friends no matter which service they use.

I’ll admit I only spent a few minutes playing with the settings, so it’s possible I’m missing something. And Diaspora’s website is really, really nice. But at the moment I’m a lot more excited about Friendica.

Mission outcome: DOUBTFUL

Mission Phase 2: Friendica as a Facebook replacement

As far as I can tell there are three major options for an open replacement for Facebook: Buddycloud, Diaspora, and Friendica. I’m starting with Friendica since I already have an account, which I randomly set up a few months ago. There are a few public sites where you can sign up to use Friendica for free, and mine is at http://kakste.com.

The website design is clunky and not especially attractive, but that’s the easiest thing to fix, so it’s not very important. I spent quite a lot of time playing with the settings. Here are the results:

– You can set it up so your posts to Friendica are automatically sent to Facebook.

– You can make it so posts that would normally turn up on your Facebook main page, also show up on Friendica.

– You can set your Friendica account to be either publicly visible or visible only to friends, but I wasn’t able to do this on a post-by-post basis.

– You can also automatically sent your Friendica posts to an impressive list of external services, including WordPress, Twitter, StatusNet, Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.

Conclusion: The really great thing is that you don’t ever have to go to facebook.com again if you don’t want to, you can use Friendica instead without missing anything.

Syndicating everything to Facebook isn’t great in terms of privacy, since (I’m pretty sure) Facebook’s terms of service (short version: WE OWN EVERYTHING / WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT) apply to syndicated posts the same as normal posts. Facebook still tracks what you post about and who your friends are, and still sells that info to third parties. So this is really just a symbolic exit from Facebook. But it still feels good. It feels like this is how a massive shift from closed social networks to open ones could start.

Mission status: PROMISING