Jerome Velociter has an interesting riff on how Diaspora, Mastodon and similar decentralised and federated tools are failing their true potential (ht Frank Meeuwsen).

He says that these decentralised federated applications are trying to mimic the existing platforms too much.

They are attempts at rebuilding decentralized Facebook and Twitter

This tendency has multiple faces
I very much recognise this tendency, for this specific example, as well as in general for digital disruption / transformation.

It is recognisable in discussions around ‘fake news’ and media literacy where the underlying assumption often is to build your own ‘perfect’ news or media platform for real this time.

It is visible within Mastodon in the missing long tail, and the persisting dominance of a few large instances. The absence of a long tail means Mastodon isn’t very decentralised, let alone distributed. In short, most Mastodon users are as much in silos as they were on Facebook or Twitter, just with a less generic group of people around them. It’s just that these new silos aren’t run by corporations, but by some individual. Which is actually worse from a responsibility and liability view point.

It is also visible in how there’s a discussion in the Mastodon community on whether the EU Copyright Directive means there’s a need for upload filters for Mastodon. This worry really only makes sense if you think of Mastodon as similar to Facebook or Twitter. But in terms of full distribution and federation, it makes no sense at all, and I feel Mastodon’s lay-out tricks people into thinking it is a platform.

This type of effect I recognise from other types of technology as well. E.g. what regularly happens in local exchange trading systems (LETS), i.e. alternative currency schemes. There too I’ve witnessed them faltering because the users kept making their alternative currency the same as national fiat currencies. Precisely the thing they said they were trying to get away from, but ending up throwing away all the different possibilities of agency and control they had for the taking.

Dump mimicry as design pattern
So I fully agree with Jerome when he says distributed and federated apps will need to come into their own by using other design patterns. Not by using the design patterns of current big platforms (who will all go the way of ecademy, orkut, ryze, jaiku, myspace, hyves and a plethora of other YASNs. If you don’t know what those were: that’s precisely the point).

In the case of Mastodon one such copied design pattern that can be done away with is the public facing pages and timelines. There are other patterns that can be used for discoverability for instance. Another likely pattern to throw out is the Tweetdeck style interface itself. Both will serve to make it look less like a platform and more like conversations.

Tools need to provide agency and reach
Tools are tools because they provide agency, they let us do things that would otherwise be harder or impossible. Tools are tools because they provide reach, as extensions of our physical presence, not just across space but also across time. For a very long time I have been convinced that tools need to be smaller than us, otherwise they’re not tools of real value. Smaller (see item 7 in my agency manifesto) than us means that the tool is under the full control of the group of users using it. In that sense e.g. Facebook groups are failed tools, because someone outside those groups controls the off-switch. The original promise of social software, when they were mostly blogs and wiki’s, and before they morphed into social media, was that it made publishing, interaction between writers and readers, and iterating on each other’s work ‘smaller’ than writers. Distributed conversations as well as emergent networks and communities were the empowering result of that novel agency.

Jerome also points to something else I think is important

In my opinion the first step is to build products that have value for the individual, and let the social aspects, the network effects, sublime this value. Value at the individual level can be many things. Let me organise my thoughts, let me curate “my” web, etc.

Although I don’t fully agree with the individual versus the network distinction. To me instead of just the individual you can put small coherent groups within a single context as well: the unit of agency in networked agency. So I’d rather talk about tools that are useful as a single instance (regardless of who is using it), and even more useful across instances.

Like blogs mentioned above and mentioned by Jerome too. This blog has value for me on its own, without any readers but me. It becomes more valuable as others react, but even more so when others write in their own space as response and distributed conversations emerge, with technology making it discoverable when others write about something posted here. Like the thermometer in my garden that tells me the temperature, but has additional value in a network of thermometers mapping my city’s microclimates. Or like 3D printers which can be put to use on their own, but can be used even better when designs are shared among printer owners, and used even better when multiple printer owners work together to create more complex artefacts (such as the network of people that print bespoke hand prostheses).

It is indeed needed to spend more energy designing tools that really take distribution and federation as a starting point. That are ‘smaller’ than us, so that user groups control their own tools and have freedom to tinker. This applies to not just online social tools, but to any software tool, and to connected products and the entire maker scene just as much.

At State of the Net 2018 in Trieste Hossein Derakshan (h0d3r on Twitter) talked about journalism and its future. Some of his statements stuck with me in the past weeks so yesterday I took time to watch the video of his presentation again.

In his talk he discussed the end of news. He says that discussions about the erosion of business models in the news business, quality of news, trust in sources and ethics are all side shows to a deeper shift. A shift that is both cultural and social. News is a two century old format, representative of the globalisation of communications with the birth of the telegraph. All of a sudden events from around the globe were within your perspective, and being informed made you “a man of the world”. News also served as a source of drama in our lives. “Did you hear,…”. These days those aspects of globalisation, time and drama have shifted.
Local, hyperlocal, has become more important again at the cost of global perspectives, which Hossein sees taking place in things like buying local, but also in Facebook to keep up with the lives of those around you. Similarly identity politics reduces the interest in other events to those pertaining to your group. Drama shifted away from news to performances and other media (Trumps tweets, memes, our representation on social media platforms). News and time got disentangled. Notifications and updates come at any time from any source, and deeper digging content is no longer tied to the news cycle. Journalism like the Panama Papers takes a long time to produce, but can also be published at any time without that having an impact on its value or reception.

News and journalism have become decoupled. News has become a much less compelling format, and in the words of Derakshan is dying if not dead already. With the demise of text and reason and the rise of imagery and emtions, the mess that journalism is in, what formats can journalism take to be all it can be?

Derakshan points to James Carey who said Democracy and Journalism are the same thing, as they are both defined as public conversation. Hossein sees two formats in which journalism can continue. One is literature, long-form non-fiction. This can survive away from newspapers and magazines, both online and in the form of e.g. books. Another is cinema. There’s a rise in documentaries as a way to bring more complex stories to audiences, which also allows for conveying of drama. It’s the notion of journalism as literature that stuck with me most at State of the Net.

For a number of years I’ve said that I don’t want to pay for news, but do want to pay for (investigative) journalism, and often people would respond news and journalism are the same thing. Maybe I now finally have the vocabulary to better explain the difference I perceive.

I agree that the notion of public conversation is of prime importance. Not the screaming at each-other on forums, twitter or facebook. But the way that distributed conversations can create learning, development and action, as a democratic act. Distributed conversations, like the salons of old, as a source of momentum, of emergent collective action (2013). Similarly, I position Networked Agency as a path away from despair of being powerless in the face of change, and therefore as an alternative to falling for populist oversimplification. Networked agency in that sense is very much a democratising thing.

This page is a Hub page, providing an overview of everything about Networked Agency in this wiki-section, with links and references leading away from it.

Networked Agency building blocks

This is my take on agency, which is a networked agency. I formulated it in 2016 as a way to express what unifies all my work, basically since I started working.

In our digital, globally networked and hence more complex age, we need a qualitatively different approach to agency.

This means embracing the affordances digitisation and networks give us.
This means designing our digital tools fully aligned with the core ideas behind interconnected networks (smart at the edges and within control of its users, can work alone yet (much better) locally or preferably globally connected).
This means taking complexity as a given, where experiences, probing, and responding to things play a key role.

This makes an individual including its meaningful relations to others, in a specific and real life context the relevant unit of agency.
This is networked agency.

Networked Agency, residing at the level of an individual plus its social context, I see consisting of three parts:

  • Striking power. The ability to (collectively) act and create on your own accord. This is where low-threshold tools are important, as is knowledge of working methods and processes.
  • Resilience. The ability to shield oneself against and mitigate negative consequences of other’s behaviour propagating through the network to you. This is where being able to work locally when disconnected is important, and temporarily suspending interdependencies. Next to early warning systems, and how to help put a brake on negative patterns you identify.
  • Agility. The ability to leverage, adapt and respond to opportunities from other’s behaviour propagating through the network to you. This means sensing what is going on early, seeing what aligns with the interests and needs of the local network, how to use that for yourself, and how to feed attractive patterns with ones own contributions to help sustain them. (e.g. open source development).

Relevant blog postings:

As an example of a design aid, I created the image below:

Application

Early 2017, in collaboration with the Frisian Library Service, we used the above to design a project with a primary school group, for them to design and create ‘solutions’ to things they wanted to change in their environment. The feedback was very positive, both from the participants, my project partners and the financing Dutch Royal Library. It turned into the basic working method of the Frisian Library Service, and we’re currently trying to extend that collaboration also with other local libraries in Europe.

Keynote video

At the June 2018 State of the Net conference in Trieste I gave a keynote on networked agency. A video, alongside my slides, is available.

In the coming weeks I will be working with a Dutch school class (group 7, so 10/11 yr olds), in collaboration with the Provincial Library Friesland and their FryskLab team (a mobile FabLab).

Last summer I wrote a series of postings on how I see a path to significantly increase agency for various group in various contexts, if we succeed in lowering the adoption threshold for existing technologies and techniques. Then any group can recombine those technologies and techniques to create a desired impact in their own contexts and environment.

With a little bit of funding from the Dutch Royal Library, the Provincial Library Friesland and me will work with a school class of the Dr. Algraschool and later with people in a neighborhood to put that model to the test.

In collaboration with the NHL, a university for applied sciences, we will use the results of the experiment to propose a follow-up project as part of the NHL’s lectorate on ‘agile craftsmanship’.

The first session is Wednesday, where we will start with the class to discuss the type of things they would like to change or improve around themselves, and what capabilities they feel they themselves and classmates have. In a follow-up session we will combine those ideas and their talents with the facilities of FryskLab, and then work with the children to build their own prototypes, solutions and projects.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time since I worked with primary school kids. Back in 2007 I worked with 12 primary schools to integrate digital literacies in their regular lessons, where we explored what children were already doing online, and how schools could help guide that, and build on it in their lessons. And it will definitely be a pleasure to work with the FryskLab crew (who were such a great addition to our 2014 Make Stuff That Matters birthday unconference)

Frysklab in da house!
The FryskLab mobile FabLab, parked in front of our home, 2014

This weekend the grassroots FabLab conference ‘Koppelting‘ is taking place in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Together with Dirk van Vreeswijk I’ll be doing a session this morning on how to leave Gmail and other walled gardens.

In this session I try to summarize the way I constructed my path out of Gmail in such a manner that it becomes a guide that may enable others to act for themselves. The talk explains why I wanted to leave Gmail, how I finally found a way, and what the replacement solution(s) are I now use. It ends with a ‘recipe’, based on how I found a way out of Gmail, to help you think about what keeps you in your own walled gardens, so it becomes easier to explore alternatives.

Outline and slides
Setting the scene:

  • Using gmail since July 2004
  • 250.000 conversations, across 770.000 messages. 21GB total.
  • 12 years the central hub for all my personal and work e-mail

Why I wanted to leave

  • In part: everything was on US servers
  • In part: because Google with my Gmail and all other data has a very extensive profile of me
  • But most of all: Gmail was a single point of failure. Losing access would mean losing everything concerning mail communications

How I left Gmail

  • From early 2014 started seriously considering it
  • Getting to action was hard as it is extremely easy to use what you have, to stick in your routine. Ease of use keeps you locked in
  • Finding “The Alternative” seemed impossible. Until I thought about the specific aspects that made Gmail so easy for me
    • Multiple addresses into 1 inbox
    • Cross device availability
    • Great filtering and tagging
    • A generic mail address as throw away mail
    • Spam filtering
    • Large free storage space
    • Great search
  • Two core things stood out after making the list
    1. GMail makes it easy to be lazy (piling not filing). I needed to treat myself to a better process: spend a few seconds now (delete, file, delegate), to save more time on search later
    2. What made Gmail great to me in 2004, is now widely available functionality and technology

What I have now
This is described in more detail in my earlier posting that triggered this session. For each item that made Gmail attractive to me I searched for an alternative. Recombining them into a new workflow is a viable alternative for my Gmail usage as a whole. Apart from the technology replacements, key part is up front contemplation and more continuous reflection on my working process. I’m a piler, not a filer, but adding a few seconds during e-mail triage to at least decide putting it in a pile that is not my Inbox, makes all the difference.

The slides are available in PDF on this site, and will be embedded below (currently upload is failing).

Leaving a walled garden planning aid
Although the path for me leaving Gmail took quite a bit of time, I think the journey can be abstracted into a recipe to make it easier to spot your own path out of a walled garden (Gmail, Dropbox, etc.)
The basic steps are:

  1. Pick the walled garden you want to leave
  2. List all the things that make it so convenient for you
  3. Reflect on what that list tells you, about your process and your tools
  4. Find replacements for each element, then recombine them into your new workflow
  5. Share what you found and did, so it is easier for others to follow in your footsteps

The outline and collaborative notes from the session are online on one of the etherpads of the Koppelting conference.

About Koppelting
Koppel is an old Dutch word for communal fields, Ting a Germanic word for a meeting of the free. Organized by the Amersfoort FabLab, a fully opensourced bootstrapped FabLab, Koppelting is the annual grassroots festival about peer production and free/libre alternatives for society.

Germanische-ratsversammlung_1-1250x715Germanic Ting, after the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, public domain