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.

Peter Rukavina picks up on my recent blogging about blogging, and my looking back on some of the things I wrote 10 to 15 years ago about it (before the whole commercial web started treating social interaction as a adverts targeting vehicle).

In his blogpost in response he talks about putting back the inter in internet, inter as the between, and as exchanges.

… all the ideas and tools and debates and challenges we hashed out 20 years ago on this front are as relevant today as they were then; indeed they are more vital now that we’ve seen what the alternatives are.

And he asks “how can we continue to evolve it“?

That indeed is an important question, and one that is being asked in multiple corners. By those who were isolated from the web for years and then shocked by what they found upon their return. But also by others, repeatedly, such as Anil Dash and Mike Loukides of O’Reilly Media, when they talk about rebuilding or retaking the web.

Part of it is getting back to seeing blogging as conversations, conversations that are distributed across your and my blogs. This is what made my early blog bloom into a full-blown professional community and network for me. That relationships emerge out of content sharing, which then become more important and more persistent than the content, was an important driver for me to keep blogging after I started. These distributed conversations we had back then and the resulting community forming were even a key building block of my friend Lilia’s PhD a decade ago.

So I’m pleased that Peter responds to my blogging with a blogpost, creating a distributed conversation again, and like him I wonder what we can do to augment it. Things we had ideas about in the 00’s but which then weren’t possible, and maybe now are. Can we make our blogs smarter, in ways that makes the connections that get woven more tangible, discoverable and followable, so that it can become an enriching and integral part of our interaction?

I’m planning to start running a Diaspora pod on one of my VPSs, with an aim to provide a communal space for some of our longtime friends getting more frustrated with FB but dreading the cost of leaving (such as rushing to some other platform to find no-one is there.) Diaspora is similar to Facebook and/or Twitter, is open source and set up in a fully distributed way.

Friend and fellow tinkerer Peter Rukavina and I plan to work together on this.

(btw I already have a Diaspora profile on Joindiaspora.com, so if you already use Diaspora you can find me there. Ultimately I will replace that profile and host my own.)

I came across this Guardian article describing how an American author and artist found his Google account deleted, including his 14 year old blog hosted with Google’s Blogger platform.

Screenshot of removed blog message

To me this incident is notable in a few ways.

  • The author concerned had his blog up for 14 years, and even used it to write and keep manuscripts, so clearly it was of key importance to him as an online asset.
  • For such a key asset, using a free service is a risk, as that doesn’t provide any certainty concerning uptime.
  • Blogger, as a free service, comes with a TOS, allowing Google to withdraw service at any moment. You don’t have a ‘right’ to this service.
  • After the account was closed, it was impossible to actually contact Google to ask about the why and how, or if it can be reinstated
  • The author concerned feels he’s being censored (which in a literal sense is impossible, as only governments can censor), although it is likely the account was closed because of a breach of the terms of service (which are notoriously unevenly enforced in every platform)
  • The author didn’t keep back-ups.

All of this once again highlights the importance of embracing the distributedness of the internet. You have to make sure that you are not just a passive and consuming part of it, but that for things that are important to you, you are also willing to make sure those things are under as much of your own control as possible. Your blog is only yours if you have control over the infrastructure it runs on. The same is true for e-mail, which in the case mentioned above was also lost: you have to make sure you have full control over at least one domain name, at which you can also receive and send e-mail (you@yourdomain.tld).

This in short means you need to make sure you have a claim to the service you actually need. Blogger offers free hosting but can take it away. If you want your blog to exist, make sure you pay for hosting, and make sure you run it on a domain you control. I used Blogger when I started blogging in November 2002 (around the same time in short, as the artist’s blog that was deleted), but once I realized I was likely to continue writing, after a few months, I moved it to a paid hosting package I could more fully control, and on a URL I acquired separately from the hosting, also under my full control. It doesn’t mean nothing can happen (my blog was hacked once), but it does mean I can recover from it.

The web was built in distributed fashion. If you use it in a centralized way, by making use of large centralized services, you expose yourself to vulnerabilities. That is true for centralized free blogging platforms, like Blogger.com or WordPress.com, and all those other services such as Facebook, Flickr and whatnot. Don’t make yourself dependant, don’t put yourself in a position that has a single point of failure.