I read the recent report regarding the 2019 Freedombox Summit with interest.* I was glad to catch up with all that there is to celebrate with the project’s achievements.
One point of concern was the indication that resources could be used to integrate federated social media platforms into FreedomBox. For a verity of, primarily, none technical reasons the evidence accumulated over the last decade indicates that federated platforms won’t rebalance the issues that exist because of centralised, corporate controlled, platforms.
I would like to raise this as a point and make the case for using FreedomBox’s limited resources to focus on development goals that will provide higher impact and beneficial utility to a wider user base.
I have tried to set out my concerns below. Unfortunately I can’t attend the phone meeting today, but I would be grateful for your attention to my concerns below and for raising theses during the meeting today. I will plan to attend future meetings.
The following is intended to be constructive input.
Many thanks and best wishes,
The dangers of lost opportunity from using FreedomBox’s limited resources to integrate federated social media platforms
The problem – centralised, corporate controlled, social media platforms
The dangers that come with the use and reliance on centralised and corporate controlled social media platforms (CCCSMPs) have been well articulated and are well understood – not least by FreedomBox’s President, Eben Moglen. In recent years these concerns have proven irrefutably to be a threat to personal privacy and societal, political and economic integrity. At this point, in 2020, even none technically orientate people generally have some awareness of the dangers that come with CCCSMPs.
If the dangers of CCCSMPs are so well understood and well articulated why has there been no mass adoption of satisfactory alternatives?
The limited effectiveness of federated social media platforms
It is great that alternative federated social media platforms have emerged. For the most part these platforms have been adopted by small disparate privacy and technology oriented communities.
The growing evidence is that mass adoption of federated platforms is not happening. This is a big problem because, as has been well demonstrated, it is the big data sets that corporations gather that are the primary danger to individuals and society – mass migration away from CCCSMPs is vital for the health and integrity of our societal, politician and economic systems .
The growing evidence is that the federated alternatives that have emerged have not sufficiently focused on the none technical aspects of what makes a social media platform successful. These aspects are primarily sociological and psychological.
From technology activists’ points of view it makes sense to push back against corporate centralisation by developing federated tools and services. And it seems obvious that web services need to be available 24/7 so the client/server model is the obvious choice. Technology activists feel comfortable with running their own services. And it is a decentralised model – so problem solved, right? No, there are many problems with this model.
The fundamental and unresolvable problems with a federated model
The fundamental problems with federated models is that:
the power imbalance remains – the imbalanced power dynamic between server admin and user is replicated on a smaller scale, and now within a myriad of complex relationship dynamics. Many users will consciously or unconsciously decide that even though a corporate provider presents societal and long ranger personal risks, it in the near term it is in fact less risky;
lack of focus on features that drive mass adoption – for a social media platform to be successful it must be adopted easily and efficiently by real world communities i.e., those that we have meaningful relationships with. So far federated platforms have not focused on implementing features that make it it easy for viral adoption into real world communities possible to happen. Features must include mechanisms for promoting adoption to existing contacts and automatically connecting people with there existing contacts as each person adopts the platform, much like how Facebook and Twitter initially spread.
lack of immediate utility – this is both in relation to having meaningful connections and the features that the platform provides:
lack of connections - social media platforms are only compelling if immediate utility/benefit is gained for the user. For the average person a federated network will never provide enough utility because mass adoption will never happen quickly enough and thus user retention will fail creating a negative spiral of adoption, disappointment and rejection;
lack of focus on core features - a platform must have a limited but highly focused set of features at launch. These features must be tightly focused on driving user adoption, providing utility to users and promoting user retention, for example automatically connecting with existing contacts, via tokenised phone numbers, as contacts onboard, sharing photos, text messages, and listing events and promoting personal and community events, push and email notifications etc.
lack of focused on Android and iOS platforms – for many reasons social media platforms are most successful on phone platforms – number and use of devices and access to contact data – but this has been largely over looked by federated projects.
The solution is not a federated network, but a competently distributed network. The closest that currently exists seems to be the Scuttlebutt protocol and the Manyverse social media Android app built upon it .
This keeps user data in their control, on their device and makes it easy to promote adoption and drive retention.
A new project building on the conceptual improvements that the likes of Manyverse has brought about is necessary. It is no small task, but necessary if we are to preserve a healthy and robust society, political systems and fundamental human freedoms.
Developing a distributed social media project is obviously outside of the the scope of, and incompatible with, the FreedomBox project. As federated social media platforms will not ultimately solve the current issue regarding corporate control and data collection, the use of the limited resources of the FreedomBox project should avoid trying to integrate federated social media platforms that will ultimately provide only limited utility to few people, who are likely to already have the technical abilities to implement a stand alone federated social media server if they so desire.
My background and interest in this topic
This is an issues that I have been interested in for over 15 years. I fell into a web application development role in Scotland in my early twenties and discovered Free and Open Source technology. I was highly influenced by Eben Moglen’s 2010 talk, Freedom in the Cloud.  I have supported, followed, and used both the FreedomBox  and Diaspora  software projects that spun out of Moglen’s talk. I even contributed to the initial Diaspora crowdfunded!
 Eben Moglen - Freedom in the Cloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOEMv0S8AcA
 Eben Moglen: “FreedomBox Turns Ten” (Nov. 2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2U8PyukPyGE
 Diaspora (social network) - Inception: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora_(social_network)#Inception
 Scuttlebutt: https://www.scuttlebutt.nz/
 Manyverse: https://www.manyver.se/