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Re: [Social-discuss] What should GNU social be?

From: Dan Brickley
Subject: Re: [Social-discuss] What should GNU social be?
Date: Fri, 5 Mar 2010 08:32:08 +0100

On Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 3:03 AM, Ted Smith <address@hidden> wrote:
On Thu, 2010-03-04 at 20:45 -0500, Matt Lee wrote:
> On 03/04/2010 08:38 PM, Ted Smith wrote:
> > I want to be able to point to GNU Social and as a drop-in
> > replacement for non-free network services.
> I don't want anyone to create a monolithic service, where everyone uses
> one big instance. Not for this.

I'm not advocating for a monolithic or centralized system; just one that
can solve existing problems, like solves the twitter problem.

I love and what it stands for, but it doesn't "solve the twitter problem". I am on both systems, but the vast majority of my friends, colleagues and contacts are using Twitter, even if they have also set up an account. What's worse is that interop across the two is weak; I need to maintain a mental map of my friend's IDs on the two systems, because my posts flow automatically to twitter. Since @-addressing isn't automatically rewritten, sometimes the meaning of a message (eg. identica's @maxf is twitter's @therealmaxf and not @maxf). These systematic and standards aspects are more important imho to address than "building a big site X that looks like site Y except for the source code license".

I'd also stress that the real control/freedom aspect with Facebook is not that I can't get my data back out (I can); or that I can't customise the software (many interesting pieces *are* free/opensource), but that my account there is locked into running within the same instance as millions of others, and is identified by a domain name I don't control (''). Even though I can customise the sources behind, the use of a single domain means I have to run up a new instance elsewhere on my own server if I want my ability to hack the source to affect my online experience.

This is new territory for GNU and it's worth treading carefully. There are lots of different - intricately related - freedoms to value here, beyond the freedom to hack on the source code. For me with the FOAF project, I've been thinking of these four in particular lately: freedom of _expression_ (ie. never let the engineeering and product depts of some big company limit what you can say about yourself); freedom of choice (to find the best site/service that meets your needs); of association (to engage freely with folk who made different choices and use different systems); freedom of movement (to change your mind later and switch services without having to beg; and to keep lifelong control of your data and online identity, without being tied to the fate of someone's project or company).

What I would value most from GNU is an effort to make sure the supporting software libraries for standards-based social Web interop are solid, tested and up to date, and that they are integrated throughout the GNU collection of software packages and the wider software scene. Why doesn't Mailman do oauth or openid? Why even today do my attempts to use my l Wordpress's openid provision to log into my locally installed MediaWiki often fail? GNU's reputation is in worldclass free software; I'd suggest sticking close to that and focussing on asking ourselves what we can do to take this massive network of free software installations, and integrate them to improve people's social experience of the Web.

We already have 'social networks' scattered across the entire Internet/Web, and this is as it should be. The challenge isn't to move them all to one giant replacement service or network, but to patch them together, the way the Internet itself was patched together from its constituent ancestors. Take IRC for example: the popular Freenode IRC network is apparently powered by GNU software including it's ircd, ... ... now thousands of people happily use IRC daily to socialise, share and communicate. Thousands of others use GNU Mailman to do similar in email. Let's not get distracted by the impossible dream of cloning the facebook experience in a 'free' way, when we have real vibrant online communities already, thanks to GNU software. I look to the GNU Social initiative not to add just another software package to the mix, but to take a lead - by workshops, evangelism, free beers, code reviews, whatever it takes - in getting more integration and standards support across the existing suite of GNU social software. Why can't we better integrate the IRC community on Freenode with the network of mailman installations out there? Work on XMPP support in ircd to modernise the underlying standards, or integrate IRC's notion of user identity (nickserv) with that of the Web?

Or let's take Wikis. I look in my MediaWiki source tree, and what do I see?

                    GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE

Wikipedia is hurting from the delete wars between deletionists and cover-everythingists ( ie feeling the pain of being a giant site which has to meet the needs of a huge and diverse audience... meanwhile 1000s of smaller wikis running their same GPL-licensed software are hurting or closing because each is under spam attack, and we lack the federated trust systems that make it easy to understand which comments/edits come from reliable members of the Web community acting in good faith, and which come from spammers, bots and suchlike.

Consider blogs, both as another form of online social activity, and as another GNU-facilitated thing threatened by spam and fragmented by lack of integration. Download the popular blogging toolkit Wordpress for your site, and look inside the zip file at

                    GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE

Don't like Wordpress? Don't like PHP? Go grab instead and you'll find GPL software. Either has support for many standards, but offer potential for richer integration (discovery, search, notifications,...).

For me, this is the GNU Social project's core business. I picked on a handful of well known projects that are using the GNU license. Some are fully wholeheartedly GNU projects, some are social and GNU licensed but really not engaging beyond the choice of licensing. GNU Social could be the existing vast network of collaboration facilitated already by GNU free software.  I encourage folk here to figure out what's missing from that world that will improve people's experience of the existing deployed social Web. Maybe it's something as simple as integrating the RSS/Atom patch into the Mailman core distribution, or providing standards-based views into systems so that interface designers can experiment with innovative and integrative interfaces to things that were previously clunky, geeky and fragmented. Maybe there are entirely new software products to create that will help bridge these sites to create a more integrated global network. I'd suggest beginning with a survey of what's out there. It is often more appealling to start a fresh project than to help patch up old ones; but with GNU Social I think the tradeoffs are different. GNU as a project has the authority, respect and attention to make hundreds of projects sit up and take notice, and to attract the energy of thousands of brilliant-minded developers. It just needs a clear message and a simple-enough,  detailed-enough roadmap...

imho etc.,


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