A Quick Introduction To Federated Social Networking

Update 2018-06-10: Please see also the follow-up article I wrote.

About two years ago, I quit Facebook. I simply got tired of it, and the more time passes, the more I’m glad I did it. Still, I missed parts of the social networking experience, so I kept looking around for alternatives. I never really got very far with Google+, and Reddit was definitely not my thing. I was also more and more trying to get away from Google & Co because of the accumulation of personal data on the internet, and I really wanted more control. (I’m aware that I’ll never be completely Google-free, but I can at least reduce the amount of data I give them.)

Then I discovered the Diaspora* project, which is a federated social network. It’s not a company with central servers that you have to trust with your information and your pictures and everything. Instead, it is an interconnected network of so-called “pods” that all communicate with each other. In order to join Diaspora*, you can either join a public pod that’s open for registration, or, if you have the technical skill and resources, you can even host your own.

Diaspora is Free Software, which means anybody can look at an modify it’s source code, and it is distributed freely.

Those two things, the federated approach and the fact that it’s open source software, totally take big corporations which make gazillions with your data out of the equation. It a brilliant way to take control of our data back but still enjoy the benefits of a social network.

I was totally excited about the idea. Firstly because of the total control over my data, but also because I enjoy the technical challenge. A few weeks ago I finally got around to to get started with my own pod. I bought a Raspberry Pi, model 3 B, put Ubuntu Server (16.04) on there and got started. (Admittedly, I moved to a VPS since then for stability reasons.)

Now that I have everything set up and working, I think it’s time to write a little introduction for my friends in the hopes that I can draw some of them away from Facebook or maybe even get some of those interested, who never had a Facebook account.

Diaspora* is one of several federated networks that can communicate with each other. (Sean Tilley, who worked on the project, is much better at explaining the technical details.)

You don’t need to run your own instance; if you just want to use it, you can join any public pod / node that’s open for registration. There’s a list of open Diaspora* pods here, and here’s one for Friendica servers. I can’t say too much about any of the others, like Mastodon or GNUsocial because I’ve never used any of them, but I’ve been a fairly active Diaspora user for about a month, and there are a few things I would tell new users, especially those coming from Facebook.

The most important difference is in the way you make contacts. You can’t just sign up and do a passive search for people’s names. Facebook has a real name policy which makes this possible, but it is also a constriction, and a privacy issue. On Diaspora, people can be who they want to be, and only show as much of their real lives as they wish. In order to connect with people you know, you have to know their Diaspora ID, very much like an e-mail address — there’s no phone book equivalent for e-mail addresses either. The Diaspora ID looks like an e-mail address, too. Mine for example is “tanja@pod.lazyteddy.eu“. You can put that ID into the search field after you sign up, and then connect to that person from there. So in order to connect to people you know, you have to make contact with them outside of Diaspora first. If you have privacy concerns, that is not really such a bad thing.

In order to make new contacts, you have to actively participate. It’s important to follow the initial setup and fill your first post (a default #newhere post) with tags of the things you’re interested in. Here’s mine. You can also add people to your contact list by hovering the mouse over their user name and hit “Add contact”. You can then add them to an “aspect”, and you can create your own aspects, too, alongside the default ones. For every post you write, you can decide if it’s going to be public, or if you only want to share it with certain aspects (groups of people.) One thing you really need to understand about Diaspora: There is no need to be shy about adding people as contacts (which on D* is called “sharing with”, by the way. If someone adds you, you will that a notification that “[username] started sharing with you.”) Don’t hesitate and think, oh gosh, what will that person think if I just add them. On Diaspora, that is simply how it is done. It will also initially only mean that you can see their public posts, and they can see your public posts and those posts you shared with the aspect you put them into. Until they add you back, they have to actively call up your profile in order to see those posts, they won’t automatically show up in their stream. They can decide for themselves if they want to add you back. My policy is that if someone adds me, I usually just add them back. I can always unfollow them if they post too much stuff I don’t like.

So far, my experience with Diaspora has been absolutely positive. Overall, I notice that the tone is much better than on Facebook. It is entirely possible to have a discussion even if you don’t agree on the issue. I can’t say very much about Friendica yet, although I did set up a node just to test it.

So, if I managed to get you interested and you choose to sign up, you can reach me on Diaspora at tanja@pod.lazyteddy.eu

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