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 and on, 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, 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.

Heinz Wittenbrink at our STM18 unconference remarked how my practice of ‘networked agency‘ reminds him of Bruno Latour‘s actor-network-theory. Heinz is someone well positioned on the bridge between social media practices and online strategies and philosophy. He’s been blogging about Latour at various occasions. So I followed his advice and bought Latour’s book “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory” of 2007.

Elmine says this about the difficulty to describe her feelings about having almost 70 guests, friends, family, clients, peers, neighbours, spend two days in our home. Where the youngest was 8 weeks, the oldest 80 years. Where the shortest trip made was from right next door, and the furthest from Canada and Indonesia, and the rest from somewhere in between:

I try to find words to describe what happened the past few days, but everything I write down feels incomplete and abstract. How do you put into words how much it means to you that friends travel across the world to attend your birthday party? That you can celebrate a new year in life with friends you haven’t been able to meet for four years (or longer)? Who’s lives have changed so drastically in those years, including my own, but still pick up where you left the conversation all those years before? How can I describe how much it means to me to be able to connect all those people Ton and I collected in our lives, bring them together in the same space and for all of them to hit it off? That they all openly exchanged life stories, inspired each other, geeked out together, built robots together?

It was an experience beyond words. It was, yet again, an epic birthday party.

It also extends to the interaction we had with those who could not attend, because the invitation and response also trigger conversations about how other people are doing and what is going on in their lives.

I completely share Elmine’s sense of awe.

Last Friday we ended the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference by smashing an evil robot called Smarty. Elmine, this being her birthday party, officiated by using ‘The Unmaker’, a hammer my colleague Paul brought us. She proceeded to smash the evil robot that made angry buzzing sounds, as a representation of all the ‘wrong’ types of ‘smart’ automatisation. Smarty had been built during the afternoon workshop that Iskander Smit improvised.

As I said at the time, part of ‘smart’ is the social side of things, not just the tech side. And part of those social aspects is the frustration and rage that comes with devices and software not responding or working the way we expect them to. Elmine used the opportunity to take all that out on our evil robot Smarty with gusto.

Some people have blogged about their experiences at our birthday unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters” and bbq in honour of Elmine’s birthday.

Peter wrote about the session his son organised, and about (re)connecting to the other participants in a way that describes the richness of the interaction well: “All the friends I’ve not yet met“, in reference to a sentence uttered at the event.

Frank described his day, and how he came to give a presentation himself in “The unconference is still the best format“. Original is in Dutch, here’s a machine translation to English.

Elja wrote a great post about the ‘oh sh*t’ moment where you think no-one will be interested in your story. The original is in Dutch too, so you may want to use the machine translation.

Iskander mentions how he adapted a workshop he regularly organises to facilitate a group to make a robot with the help of the mobile FabLab, Frysklab parked in the courtyard.

Heinz wrote a great essay describing and reflecting on the event. There’s a lot to unpack in his posting, which he also ties to the history and character of my connection with Heinz.

Elmine, the host and birthday girl herself, is still reeling from all the interaction, and in awe of all the efforts people made to attend. A feeling I completely share.

I wrote a few things myself as well. Do you have any diodes? about the day, and some notes on the process in Anecdote circles lite. And the video of the closing ceremony, made by Jeroen de Boer, of course! All my postings concerning the event are tagged STM18

When more postings appear online I will add them here.

Our event meant bringing together some 45 people. They all know at least one of us two, but mostly don’t know each other. Some type of introduction is therefore useful, but you don’t want to take much time out of the day itself for it, as often intro-rounds are dreary and meaningless exercises that sap energy and of which you don’t remember much immediately after. So we’ve aimed for our events to have a first activity that is also an intro-round, but serves a bigger purpose for the event.

Previously we’ve done 1-on-1 intro conversations that also produced a hand drawn map of connections or of skills and experiences in the group, to be re-used to find the right people for subsequent sessions. We’ve done groups of 5 to 6 to create Personas, as the first step of the design process to make something yourself. This time we settled on an idea of Elmine, to do what can best be described as Anecdote Circles Lite. Anecdote circles are a process to elicit experiences and stories from a group as they reveal implicit knowledge and insights about a certain topic (PDF). You group people together and prompt them with one or more questions that ask about specific occasions that have strong feelings attached to it. Others listen and can write down what stands out for them in the anecdote shared.

The starting point of the unconference theme ‘Smart Stuff That Matters’ was our move to Amersfoort last year. It means getting to know, find your way in, and relate to a new house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. And do that in the light of what you need to fulfill your needs to be at home and feel supported in the new environment. But in a broader light you can use the same questions to take a fresh look at your own environment, and make it ‘smarter’ in being at home and feeling supported. Our opening exercise was shaped to nudge the participants along the same path.

In my opening remarks, after singing a birthday song together for Elmine, I sketched our vision for the event much as in the previous paragraph. Then I asked all participants to find 3 or 4 others that you preferrably do not know, and find a spot in the house or garden (inviting them to explore the house/garden on their own that way too, giving them permission to do so as it were). The question to prompt conversation was “Think back to the last time you moved house, and arrived in a new environment. What was most disappointing to you about your new place/live? What was pleasantly surprising to you about your new place/live?” With those questions and pen & paper everybody was off to their first conversations.


The thoughts and observations resulting from the intro-round

Judging by Peter’s description of it, it went well. It’s quoted here in full as it describes both the motivation for and the layeredness of the experience quite well. I take Peter’s words as proof the process worked as intended.

The second highlight is an event that preceded Oliver’s talk, the “icebreaker” part of the day that led things off. I have always dreaded the “everybody introduce yourself” part of meetings, especially meetings of diverse people whose lives inevitably seem much more interesting than my own; this, thankfully, was dispensed with, and instead we were prompted to gather with people we didn’t yet know and to talk about our best and worst moves in life.

What proceeded from this simple prompt was a rich discussion of what it’s like to live as an expat, how difficult it is to make friends as an adult, and the power of neighbourhood connections. Oliver and I were in a group with Heinz and Elja and Martyn, and we talked for almost an hour. I have no idea what any of the others in our group do for a living, but I know that Martyn mowed his lawn this week in preparation for a neighbourhood party, that Heinz lives in an apartment block where it’s hard to get to know his neighbours, and that Elja has lived in Hungary, the USA and Turkey, and has the most popular Dutch blog post on making friends.

During the event Elja shared her adagio that the best way to get to know people after moving to a new environment is to do something together (as opposed to just sitting down for coffee and conversation). It’s pleasantly recursive to see a statement like that as the result of a process designed to follow that adagio in the first place.

I will transscribe all the post-its and post (some of) it later.

Some images from previous activities-as-intro-rounds we used in previous editions:


Persona creation / Using the hand drawn skills cards

Drawing the Sociogram

Drawing a map of connections, dubbed sociogram, between participants