At our birthday unconference STM18 last week, Frank gave a presentation (PDF) on running your own website and social media tools separate from the commercial silos like Facebook, Twitter etc. Collected under the name IndieWeb (i.e. the independent web), this is basically what used to be the default before we welcomed the tech companies’ silos into town. The IndieWeb never went away of course, I’ve been blogging in this exact same space for 16 years now, and ran a personal website for just under a decade before that. For broader groups to take their data and their lives out of silos it requires however easy options out, and low-threshold replacement tools.

One of the silos to replace is Twitter. There are various other tools around, like Mastodon. What they have in common is that it’s not run by a single company, but anyone can run a server, and then they federate, i.e. all work together. So that if I am on server 128, and you are on server 512 our messages still arrive in the right spot.

I’ve been looking at running a Mastodon instance, or similar, myself for a while. Because yes, there are more Mastodon servers (I have accounts on mastodon.cloud and on mastodon.nl), but I know even less about who runs them and their tech skills, attitudes or values than I know about Twitter. I’ve just exchanged a big silo for a smaller one. The obvious logical endpoint of thinking about multiple instances or servers, is that instances should be individual, or based on existing groups that have some cohesion. More or less like e-mail, which also is a good analogy to think of when trying to understand Mastodon account names.

Ideally, running a Mastodon instance would be something you do yourself, and which at most has your household members in it. Or maybe you run one for a specific social context. So how easy is it, to run Mastodon myself.

Not easy.

I could deploy it on my own VPS. But maintaining a VPS is rather a lot of work. And I would need to find out if I run the right type of operating system and other packages to be able to do it. Not something for everyone, nor for me without setting aside some proper time.

Or I could spin up a Mastodon instance at Amazon’s server parks. That seems relatively easy to do, requiring a manageable list of mouse clicks. It doesn’t really fit my criteria though, even if it looks like a relatively quick way to at least have my own instance running. It would take me out of Twitter’s software silo, but not out of Amazon’s hardware silo. Everything would still be centralised on a US server, likely right next to the ones Twitter is using. Meaning I’d have more control over my own data, but not be bringing my stuff ‘home’.

Better already is something like Masto.host, run by a volunteer named Hugo Gameiro who’s based in Portugal. It provides ease of use in terms of running your own instance, which is good, but leaves open issues of control and flexibility.

So I’d like a solution that either can run on a package with my local hosting provider or figure out how to run it on cheap hardware like Raspberry Pi which can be connected to my home router. The latter one I’d prefer, but for now I am looking to learn how easy it is to do the former.

Mastodon and other similar tools like Pleroma require various system components my hosting provider isn’t providing, nor likely to be willing to provide. Like many other hosters they do have library of scripts you can automatically install with all the right dependencies and settings. In the section ‘social media’ it doesn’t mention Mastodon or any other ‘modern’ varity, but they do list GnuSocial and its predecessor StatusNet. GnuSocial is a script that uses the same protocols like Mastodon, OStatus and ActivityPub. So it should be able to communicate with Mastodon.

I installed it and created an account for myself (and myself as administrator). Then I tried to find ways to federate with Mastodon instances. The interface is rather dreadful, and none of the admin settings seemed to hint at anything that lies beyond the GnuSocial instance itself, no mention of anything like federation.

The interface of GnuSocial

However in my profile a button labelled “+remote” popped up. And through that I can connect to other people on other instances. Such as the people I am connected to on Mastodon already. I did that, and it nicely links to their profiles. But none of their messages show up in my stream. Even if it looks I can send messages to them from my GnuSocial instance as I can do things like @someotheruser, they don’t seem to arrive. So if I am indeed sending something, there’s no-one listening at the other end.

I did connect to others externally

And I can send messages to them, although they do not seem to arrive

So that leaves a number of things for next steps to explore. Also on Mastodon in conversation with Maarten I noticed that I need to express better what I’m after. Something for another posting. To be continued.

Do You Have Any Diodes? ….. …. Is probably the most unlikely question I got ever asked out of the blue at a birthday party. However the answer turned out to be yes, I did have two diodes. I didn’t think I did, but taking a look in the one box I suspected might have some electronic components in them, proved me wrong.

The diodes were needed to increase the strength of the scary noises an evil robot was emitting. This evil robot was being created just outside our front door where the enormous Frysklab truck, containing a mobile FabLab, was completely filling the courtyard. Representing everything that is wrong and evil about some of the devices that are marketed as necessary for a ‘smart home’, the evil robot then got ritually smashed into pieces by Elmine, wielding a gigantic hammer, named ‘The Unmaker’ that a colleague brought with him. That was the official closing act of our unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters“.

Around all this our 40 or so guests, friends, family members, clients, colleagues, peers, were weaving a rich tapestry of conversations and deepening connections. Something that our friend Peter put into words extremely well. Elmine and I are in awe of the effort and time all who joined us have put into coming to our home and participate in our slightly peculiar way of celebrating birthdays. Birthday parties where evil robots, a hyperloop to send messages from the courtyard to the garden, mythical German bbq-sausages, friendship, philosophy, web technology, new encounters and yes diodes, are all key ingredients to help create a heady mix of fun, inspiration, connection, and lasting memories.

Thank you all so much for making it so.

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August 31st Elmine and I host the 4th Birthday Unconference and BBQ-Party in our home in Amersfoort. The unconference is titled “Smart Stuff that Matters”.

So what is Smart, and what Matters?

A year ago we moved to Amersfoort. A different house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. The city where our daughter will grow up.

A new environment means lots of exploration. What makes a house a home? How can you smartly adapt your house to your needs? Who lives in the neighbourhood, how do you settle in it? What makes a city your city? Which existing initiatives appeal to you, and in what ways can you contribute to them?
Whether it’s a new habit, a new device in your home, your contacts and networks, or your approach: what are smart ways to act and contribute to your residence and environment so it supports you and the others in it? In the context of much wider developments and global issues, that is. Both social and technological, at home, in your neighbourhood, your city. It’s important to approach things in ways that create meaning, enable the important things, both for you and others. Smart Stuff That Matters therefore.

20180518_162141
Our house, in the middle of our street

A full day long we’ll explore ‘smart’ in all its facets.
Smart homes (and around the home), smart neighbourhoods, smart cities.
Socially, how do we learn, communicate, organise and share? How do we act, how do we contribute? How do we find the power of collaborative agency.
And also technologically, which technologies help us, which only pretend to do so, and are these technologies sufficiently ours?
We will have the Frysklab Team joining us again with their mobile FabLab, and have plenty of space to experiment with technology that way. Such as sensors, internet of things and programming. Or to build non-digital hacks for around the home.

Frysklab in da house!
Frysklab’s truck parked at our old home in Enschede during the previous unconference

Together we’ll explore what smart means to you and us.
Bring your small and big experiences and skills, but above all bring your curiosity, and let yourself be surprised with what the others bring.
Do you have ideas about what you’d like to show, discuss, present or do?
Have ideas about what you would like to hear from others about? Let us know! We’ll build the program together!

You’ll find all relevant information about the unconference on this site. You’re also welcome to join our Facebook group for the event.

This reads like a design approach for institutions, for what I call Networked Agency:

This is not the book to convince you that the world
is changing and our systems are currently under
stress. The purpose here is to begin codifying the
practises of innovators who are consciously rethinking
institutions to better meet the challenges of
today. We describe this as stewardship: the art of
getting things done amidst a complex and dynamic
context. Stewardship is a core ability for agents of
change when many minds are involved in conceiving a
course of action, and many hands in accomplishing it.

The Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) wrote this already in 2013, a certain addition to my summer reading list: Legible Practices.
The HDL was in operation from 2008-2013, and maintains their archive on-line under a Creative Commons license (BY-SA). There’s more stuff there to read through, on using projects as probes, on hiring, and how openness isn’t enough to scale.


image Helsinki Design Lab, CC-BY-SA

When I talk about Networked Agency, I talk about reducing the barrier to entry for all kinds of technology as well as working methods, that we know work well in a fully networked situation. Reducing those barriers allows others to adopt these tools more easily and find power in refound ability to act. Networked agency needs tech and methods that can be easily deployed by groups, and that work even better when federated across groups and the globe-spanning digital human network.

The IndieWeb’s principles (own your own data, use tools that work well on their own, and better when federated, avoid silos as the primary place of where you post content) fit well with that notion.

Recently I said that I was coming back to a lot of my material on information strategies and metablogging from 2003-2006, but now with more urgency and a change in scope. Frank asked what I meant, and I answered

that the principles of the open web (free to use, alter, tinker, control, trust by you/your group) also apply to other techs (for instance energy production, blockchain, biohacking, open source hardware, cheap computing hardware, algorithms, IoT sensors and actuators) and methods (p2p, community building, social media usage/production, group facilitation etc.). Only then are they truly empowering, otherwise you’re just the person it is ‘done to’.

Blockchain isn’t empowering you to run your own local currency if you can only run it on de-facto centralised infrastructure, where you’re exposed to propagating negative externalities. Whether it is sudden Ethereum forks, or the majority of BTC transactions being run on opaque Chinese computing clusters. It is empowering only if it is yours to deploy for a specific use. Until you can e.g. run a block chain based LETS easily for your neighbourhood or home town on nodes that are Raspberry Pi’s attached to the LETS-members’ routers, there is no reliable agency in blockchain.

IoT is not empowering if it means Amazon is listening into all your conversations, or your fire alarm sensors run through centralised infrastructure run by a telco. It is empowering if you can easily deploy your own sensors and have them communicate to an open infrastructure for which you can run your own gateway or trust your neighbour’s gateway. And on top of which your group does their own data crunching.

Community building methods are not empowering if it is only used to purposefully draw you closer to a clothing brand or football club so they can sell your more of their stuff. Where tribalism is used to drive sales. It is empowering if you can, with your own direct environment, use those methods to strengthen local community relationships, learn how to collectively accommodate differences in opinions, needs, strengths and weaknesses, and timely reorient yourself as a group to keep momentum. Dave Winer spoke about working together at State of the Net, and 3 years ago wrote about working together in the context of the open web. To work together there are all kinds of methods, but like community building, those methods aren’t widely known or adopted.

So, what applies to the open web, IndieWeb, I see applies to any technology and method we think help increase the agency of groups in our networked world. More so as technologies and methods often need to be used in tandem. All these tools need to be ‘smaller’ than us, be ours. This is a key element of Networked Agency, next to seeing the group, you and a set of meaningful relationships, as the unit of agency.

Not just IndieWeb. More IndieTech. More IndieMethods.

How would the ‘Generations‘ model of the IndieWeb look if transposed to IndieTech and IndieMethods? What is Selfdogfooding when it comes to methods?

More on this in the coming months I think, and in the runup to ‘Smart Stuff That Matters‘ late August.

Triggered by some of the previous postings on RSS, I started thinking about what my ideal set-up for RSS reading would be. Because maybe there’s a way to create that for myself.

A description of how I approach my feeds, and what I would ideally like to be able to do, I already penned a decade ago, and it hasn’t really changed much.

The basic outline is:

  • I think of feed subscriptions as subscribing to people. I don’t follow your blog, but I follow and interact with you. I used to have a blogroll that reflected that by showing the faces of people whose writing I read. Basically the web is my social network always, In my feed reader every feed title is the name of the author, not the blog’s title.
    my blogroll in 2005, people’s faces, not site names
  • The feeds I subscribe to, I group in folders by subjective social distance, roughly following Dunbar-style group sizes. The dozen closest to me, the 50, the 150, the 500 beyond that, and above that 999 for people I don’t have a direct connection with at all. So my wife’s blog feed is in folder a12, and if I’ve just come across your blog this week and we never met, your feed will be in e999. The Keep Track folder are my own content feeds from various platforms.
    the folders in my current feedreader by social distance
  • There are three reading styles I’d like my reader to support, of which it only does one.
    • I read to see what is going on with people I know, by browsing through their writing from closer to further away, so from the a12 folder towards the e999 folder. This my reader supports, by way of allowing a folder structure for it
    • I read outside-in, looking at the general patterns in all the new postings of a day: what topics come up, what are people working on, what do they care about. This is not supported yet, other than scrolling through the whole thing. A quick overview of topics versus social distance would be useful here.
    • I read inside-out, where I have specific questions, ideas or topics on my mind and want to see if some of the people in my reader have been wrting about it recently. This is not supported yet. A good way to search my feeds would be needed.
  • I would like to be able to tag feeds. So I can contextualise the author (coder, lives in Portugal, interested in privacy by design, works independently). This allows me to look at different groups of people across the social distance related folders. E.g. “what are the people I follow in Berlin up to this week, as I will be visiting in a few days?” “What are the current concerns in the IndieWeb community?” Ten years ago I visualised that as below
    Plotting contexts

    Social distances with community and multi-faceted contexts plotted on them

  • I would like to be able to pull in tags of postings and have full content search functionality. This would support my inside-out reading. “What is being said today in my feeds about that conference I didn’t go to?” “Any postings today on privacy by design?”
  • I think I’d like visual representations of which communities are currently most active, and for topics, like heat maps. Alerts on when the level of activity for a feed or a community or subsets of people changes would be nice too.
  • From the reader follow actions, such as saving an article, creating a todo from it, bookmarking it, or sharing it in some channel. An ideal reader should support all those actions, or let me configure actions

From the whole IndieWeb exploration of late, I realized that while no feedreader does all the above, it might be possible to build something myself. TinyTiny RSS seems a good starting point. It’s an open source tool you can run as your own instance. It comes with features such as filtering and auto-tagging that might fit my needs. It can be hosted on my own domain, and it has a database I then have back-end access to, to build features it doesn’t have itself (such as visualisations and specific sharing actions). It can also produce RSS feeds. It seems with TinyTiny RSS I could do all kinds of things to the RSS feeds I pull in on my server, and push the results out again as RSS feeds themselves. Those I could load into my regular reader, or republish etc.

Now need to find a bit of time to set it up and to play with it.

When Hossein Derakshan came back on-line after a 6 year absence in 2015, he was shocked to find how the once free flowing web ended up in walled gardens and silo’s. Musing about what he presented at State of the Net earlier this month, I came across Frank Meeuwsen’s posting about the IndieWeb Summit starting today in Portland (livestream on YT). That send me off on a short trip around the IndieWeb and related topics.

I came across this 2014 video of Tantek Celik. (he, Chris Messina and Andy Smith organised the first ever BarCamp in 2005, followed by a second one in Amsterdam where I met the latter two and many other fellow bloggers/techies)

In his talk he looks back at how the web got silo’d, and talks from a pure techie perspective about much the same things Hoder wrote about in 2015 and talked about this month. He places ‘peak open web’ in 2003, just before the web 2.0 silos came along. Those first silo’s (like Flickr, delicious etc) were ‘friendly silo’s’. We knew the people who built them, and we trusted their values, assumed the open web was how it was, is and would remain.

The friendly silos got sold, other less friendly silos emerged.
The silos have three things that make them hugely attractive. One ‘dark pattern’ which is adding functionality that feeds your dopamine cravings, such as like and heart buttons. The other two are where the open web is severely lacking: The seamless integration into one user interface of both reading and writing, making it very easy to respond to others that way, or add to the river of content. And the ability to find people and walk the social graph, by jumping from a friend to their list of friends and so on. The open web never got there. We had things like Qumana that tried to combine reading and writing, but it never really took off. We had FOAF but it never became easy.

So, Tantek and others set out in 2011 to promote the open web, IndieWeb, starting from those notions. Owning your data and content, and federating to participate. In his slides he briefly touches upon many small things he did, some of which I realised I could quickly adopt or do.
So I

  • added IndieAuth to my site (using the IndieAuth WP plugin), so that I can use my own website to authenticate on other services such as my user profile at IndieWeb wiki (a bit like Facebook Connect, but then from my own server).
  • added new sharing buttons to this site that don’t track you simply by being displayed (using the GDPR compliant Sharrif plugin), which includes Diaspora and Mastodon sharing buttons
  • followed Tantek’s notion of staying in control of the URLs you share, e.g. by using your own URLs such as zylstra.eu/source/apple-evernote-wordpress to redirect to my GitHub project of that name (so should GitHub be eaten alive after Microsofts take-over, you can run your own Gitnode or migrate, while the URLs stay valid).
  • decided to go to IndieWeb Camp in Nuremburg in October, together with Frank Meeuwsen

My stroll on the IndieWeb this morning leaves me with two things:

  • I really need to more deeply explore how to build loops between various services and my site, so that for all kinds of interactions my site is the actual repository of content. This likely also means making posting much easier for myself. The remaining challenge is my need to more fluidly cater to different circles of social distance / trust, layers that aren’t public but open to friends
  • The IndieWeb concept is more or less the same as what I think any technology or method should be to create networked agency: within control of the group that deploys it, useful on its own, more useful federated, and easy enough to use so my neighbours can adopt it.

Some links I think worth reading today.

Wired is calling for an RSS revival.

RSS is the most important piece of internet plumbing for following new content from a wide range of sources. It allows you to download new updates from your favourite sites automatically and read them at your leisure. Dave Winer, forever dedicated to the open web, created it.

I used to be a very heavy RSS user. I tracked hundreds of sources on a daily basis. Not as news but as a way to stay informed about the activities and thoughts of people I was interested in. At some point, that stopped working. Popular RSS readers were discontinued, most notably Google’s RSS reader, many people migrated to the Facebook timeline, platforms like Twitter stopped providing RSS feeds to make you visit their platform, and many people stopped blogging. But with FB in the spotlight, there is some interest in refocusing on the open web, and with it on RSS.

Currently I am repopulating from scratch my RSS reading ‘antenna’, following around 100 people again.

Wired in its call for an RSS revival suggests a few RSS readers. I, as I always have, use a desktop RSS reader, which currently is ReadKit. The FB timeline presents stuff to you based on their algorithmic decisions. As mentioned I definitely would like to have smarter ways of shaping my own information diet, but then with me in control and not the one being commoditised.

So it’s good to read that RSS Reader builders are looking at precisely that.
“Machines can have a big role in helping understand the information, so algorithms can be very useful, but for that they have to be transparent and the user has to feel in control. What’s missing today with the black-box algorithms is where they look over your shoulder, and don’t trust you to be able to tell what’s right.”,says Edwin Khodabakchian cofounder and CEO of RSS reader Feedly (which currently has 14 million users). That is more or less precisely my reasoning as well.

In a case of synchronicity I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway when I was ill recently, just as Bryan Alexander scheduled it for his near future science fiction reading group. I loved reading the book, and in contrast to some other works of Doctorow the storyline kept working for me until the end.

Bryan amazingly has managed to get Doctorow to participate in a webcast as part of the Future Trends in learning series Bryan hosts. The session is planned for May 16th, and I marked my calendar for it.

In the comments Vanessa Vaile shares two worthwile links. One is an interesting recording from May last year at the New York public library in which Doctorow and Edward Snowden discuss some of the elements and underlying topics and dynamics of the Walkaway novel.

The other is a review in TOR.com, that resonates a lot with me. The reviewer writes how, in contrast with lots of other science fiction that takes one large idea or large change and extrapolates on that, Doctorow takes a number of smaller ideas and smaller changes, and then works out how those might interplay and weave new complexities, where the impact on “manufacturing, politics, the economy, wealth disparity, diversity, privilege, partying, music, sex, beer, drugs, information security, tech bubbles, law, and law enforcement” is all presented in one go.

It seems futuristic, until you realize that all of these things exist today.
….. most of it could start right now, if it’s the world we choose to create.

By not having any one idea jump too far from reality, Walkaway demonstrates how close we are, right now, to enormous promise and imminent peril.

That is precisely the effect reading Walkaway had on me, leading me to think how I could contribute to bringing some of the described effects about. And how some of those things I was/am already trying to create as part of my own work flow and information processes.

“The medium was no longer the message, it was just an asshole.
I want my attention back.

Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised.
We deserve our attention.”

Craig Mod on attention in January 2017. In his case he got his attention back by disconnecting, which for all intents and purposes isn’t a viable option. Completely disconnecting in our networked societies is just a reactionary exercise in privilege. But it does sum up my current sentiment, e.g. concerning Facebook, quite nicely.