Loomio
Fri 15 Jul 2016

Decentralization must go all the way down to the roots.

JD
James Dai Public Seen by 425

Hello everyone, I have some thoughts about the place a decentralized social network has in society.

We all have a sneaking suspicion about what Facebook does, hearing of stories of suppressing politically controversial statements, and would like to have more control over our data and stop being advertised to. We don't pay fees, but this only means that we are the product, sold to advertisers, like cattle given a place to stay and eat only to be slaughtered. Or milked continuously. We are annoyed at the closed-ness, that we can't communicate between the platforms of Facebook and Twitter. We are at the mercy of the design team of Facebook to create our social spaces-- our cyber equivalent of city squares.

So we build diaspora, we build technical platforms for decentralised and open social networks.

But somehow the movement seems unsatisfactory to me. It's not enough. We haven't killed Facebook. The movement doesn't go down deep enough. It wants to think of itself as apolitical, just as Facebook claims to be apolitical. But "everything is political". Facebook's corporate structure and thus its way of doing things embodies the traditional capitalist politics of exploitation; of the few at the top sucking in all the capital gains and not giving employees and users a fair share.

diaspora, too, must be political; it IS political. Right now though, that politics is unspoken, unclear, incoherent; it is weak-willed and superficial. I think it needs to be clarified so that it can become a movement which orients itself in a way that carries out the politics of decentralization all the way down. Otherwise, it will merely sit atop the huge machinery of Facebook and capitalism and centralization without making a real impact; it may even succumb to those forces or be co-opted by them, used, exploited.

The structure of Facebook contains an imperative to growth; to grow huge and take over the world at the expense of competitors. To exploit the social commons, the commons of our social relations and make money from it.

So it's huge. Meanwhile, the network of diaspora networks pales in comparison in size. It's pathetic. We are nowhere near "killing Facebook".

But how can we become huge without embodying the same principles that we are going against?

Let me note a few aspects of the issue:

One: diaspora is Free and Open. It is entirely run by volunteers. This is admirable, but it means that people cannot make a living contributing to the social commons. It means that they must make a living in some other way, which contributes to capitalist society. Imagine the most ironic situation: a programmer works for Facebook by day for his paycheck and volunteers writing for diaspora at night.

But how can programmers make a living other than by submitting to the cold logic of capital?

First note that it is quite startling for me to even ask this question; most of us are taking it for granted that we have to resign to being volunteers and not making a livelihood doing what we want to do, most of us are not able to see any other way that aligns with our ethics.

But we must ask these questions of livelihood, because they are a critical part of the movement in the first place. The movement of decentralising software is one with the movement of decentralising income flows.

I don't really have a clear cut answer myself. But I think a very important direction is to consider "open cooperatives". Open cooperatives embody the opposite principles to traditional corporations. Websites such as p2pfoundation.net and commonstransition.org actively blog and document about them, so please read up about it. (I want to explain how I see an open cooperative of programmers of decentralized social networks working, but I'll leave that for another time. It's not entirely clear to me. This is new stuff to me as well...)

Two: Going down to the roots. Facebook exploits the social commons. But this exploitation is built upon the exploitation of many other commons. A social network is built on servers which are made of precious metals, land on which to hold the servers, electricity to power the servers, bandwidth and network cables to connect the servers to people. All of these: metals and materials, land, energy, bandwidth, are commons, which have been exploited by capital, are under a capitalist/commercial system of management. The software of social media is only the topmost layer of exploitation. When we try to run the Free, Open, and wonderful diaspora software, we must find servers to run it on! But those service providers also embody a politics, an ethical orientation; they are also subject to market forces; they are also trying to survive in a competitive, exploitative environment; they are also companies, start-ups; they are also exploiting natural resources to make a profit.

So here we see the contradiction, right where the rubber meets the road. Where the software meets the server. And once we think of servers, again, we think of the commons of materials, land, energy, bandwidth.

It seems clear to me that we cannot thrive by relying on server-providers that embody the politics of exploitation. For one, just on the principle of it, for another, it is plain to see that the whole thing is not going very well. Looking at the pod uptime the options are plainly pathetic and have a feeling of despairing neglect compared to the smooth confidence of Facebook's monolithic humongousness. They have the look of socially awkward teenagers at a dinner party. Indeed, a diaspora of lonely refugees, huddling together in the cold. Poddery, for example, is flailing. It has a single maintainer and keeps switching server providers. The crowdfunding is not very enthusiastic.

For the movement to really thrive, the revolution of decentralization must go down all the way to the roots. We must form partnerships with server-providers that embody the politics of protecting and growing the commons. The commons of materials, land, energy, the open space of wireless signals, and the commons of free speech, freedom of thought, freedom to share ideas, to relate, to exist online in social space.


I'm mostly pointing out a problem here. The solution is still unclear. There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. There may be many solutions, and many groups may form to carry out their own solutions. These groups must each have a coherent political identity, and may be different and distinct, and yet they would all be united in the vision of protecting and growing the commons. They may share common technologies under a double-sided license that protects from capitalist exploitation...

DS

Dennis Schubert Sat 16 Jul 2016

We do not have any interests in competing with Facebook, or anything else. We're here to build a distributed social network to see how one builds a distributed social network, what's there to improve, what we should do and what we shouldn't do.

We're also not here to make any profit. We build this stuff in our free time because we have fun doing so, and nobody in the core team is interested in getting paid for any diaspora* work at this moment.

Lastly, hosting diaspora* is nothing we, as a project, can care about. We provide the software and installation instructions. That's it. We honestly don't care if the server running a single diaspora* installation is running in AWS or in some non-profit green-energy datacenter. This is, again, something we (well, at least myself) are interested in working on, this would be way to much.

However, you are free to promote and support whatever you want. I cannot see any action points for us as a project and I wonder what the reason behind this posting is. Care to elaborate?

PP

Pirate Praveen Sat 16 Jul 2016

Jake's Dai, ranting is the easiest thing to do, so is blaming others. If poddery symbolises anything, it is of resilience and hope. It did not fail or is failing, it successfully overcame many challenges. If you think decentralization is a joy ride, wake up. We are involving users to maintain the service when crowd funding, it is only a strange thing if asking people to contribute money is seen as failing. We figured the limits of volunteering and that is why we are now looking to support podmins by allowing them to work full time. If you want poddery not to fail, then support http://igg.me/at/save-poddery-2 What you see in poddery is transparency and attempt to fix an identified problem (having to depend on a single volunteer podmin).

I'm a podmin at poddery and I work full time on Free Software and community run infrastructure like poddery. The problem with people just obsessed with buzzwords is, they are detatched from reality. You are not the first one to choose the easiest option of just sit back comfortably and rant.

JD

James Dai Sat 16 Jul 2016

Dennis and Praveen: Thank you both for your comments.

Praveen: I admit that I am ranting, and that I am the sort of person who is detached from reality and never seems to do anything productive and is always just criticizing things. My post is perhaps written from a place of despair and helplessness. I appreciate that you see hope and resilience where I see despair and floundering. I appreciate the transparency that lets us both look at the situation which we see differently, which lets me comfortably sit back and not have to spend tons of effort chasing down problems because they are identified.

I also think that you and Dennis' responses show an interesting difference of position. Dennis, in the core team, says he doesn't care how the software is hosted. While you clearly do care about it. To me, from Dennis' response, it sounds like he does view decentralization as something of a joyride-- something fun to be indulged in in free time. He doesn't care for the politics of it; the further impact; the social good of it. It is just an abstract experiment. (Dennis-- this may be an exaggeration, but this is how I see your position)

I don't mean to divide you two against each other; but it is interesting to see that different people on the group are coming from different places. And it is probably something worth clarifying and knowing about.

To me, everything is political, so while Dennis may claim he is apolitical because he doesn't care about the deeper movements, I think that by not caring he nevertheless takes up a certain position. You may or may not be comfortable working alongside him when he has this view. Is politicalness, or caring about the details of servers and resilience, the on-the-ground implementation, simply a task to be delegated to some separate group of people, while the core team doesn't have to worry about it, can simply be apolitical?

Perhaps all my questioning is useless and I should just do something productive.
But please, indulge me and let me be this ranter, this critic. I know it is probably annoying and irritating. I appreciate that you work full time and I envy that you have found a place to fix your spear, so to speak, that you can be so fully involved. I must seem like an annoying gnat who has nothing to do and is wasting his time bothering you. I indeed am living a sort of floating life without much purpose at the moment; forgive me for the resultant spewing outbursts. If you really think what I am writing has no merit, then feel free not to respond. However, telling me to get on with something productive does poke at and hurt my ego a bit ;) you may say I need that, haha...

AS

Alex Stacey Sat 16 Jul 2016

James, I think you raise some interesting points here. I love the idea of a decentralized network taking over Facebook. In fact it was searching for alternatives to FB that brought me here. I would support developing a strategy for migrating people en mass! (Not that d* is quite ready for that yet imo).

I don't fully agree on your points about contradictions. The Commons exists alongside capitalism. It doesn't fit particularly well in its framework but the two things don't have to contradict eachother. Paul Mason's "post capital" is worth a read if you haven't (though it's pretty heavy going on economic theory).

DD

Dominic Duffin Mon 18 Jul 2016

Your post raises some interesting and pertinent points. I very much agree that we need to bring decentralisation to a much wider audience, and that the dominant centralised model of social networks such as Facebook allows a worrying concentration of power over our social spaces online.

However, I disagree with the idea that decentralisation should aim to replace capitalism. I am pro-capitalist, and see decentralisation as a way of achieving the benefits of true capitalism. The basic capitalist model is not the problem, the problem is the hijacking of capitalism by dominant companies who may turn it into something akin to a version of a planned economy. Decentralisation is a way of creating a better capitalism, with ownership widely dispersed, and no single behemoth in charge. As we move into the age of Artificial Intelligence, and the potential for mass unemployment that this brings, decentralised ownership is going to be crucial to ensuring the long-term viability of the capitalist system. Working with the entire ecosystem of decentralised technologies, it will hopefully be possible to solve the income conundrum. The use of peer-to-peer technologies in a wide variety of applications, including the monetary system, could allow the fruits of the capitalist system to be widely distributed in an organic way without the need for state intervention. Decentralised communities, including Diaspora and many others, can all be a part of this process.

In terms of the ability of Diaspora to achieve Facebook style dominance, this may be unrealistic and perhaps undesirable. Having a dominant player in an industry, however benign they may seem, will normally lead to the outcome of tyranny by the dominant player, who can 'plan' how everyone is allowed to consume. I think a better aim would be to establish Diaspora as one player in a field of many decentralising players.

I do not see the ownership of so-called 'commons' such as electricity, metals or land as a problem. In a decentralised society, with ownership widely dispersed, everyone can own some of these things, and everyone can, where appropriate, use them, via concepts such as the 'sharing economy'. There will also be times when shared use is not appropriate, and only private ownership can satisfactorily provide for these times. As long as the owner of the things that Diaspora exists on top of doesn't try to control Diaspora, then there is no need to worry who that owner is. If they do, Diaspora can move away from them (server providers, for example, can be changed).

It is therefore not so much that solutions need protection from capitalist exploitation, but rather that the solutions need to move society towards better forms of capitalism.

G

goob Mon 18 Jul 2016

Diaspora is software which provides for distributed social networking. It provides possibilities for use. People can use it in whatever way they want, political or otherwise. If people want to use Diaspora's software for the political ends you suggest, that is up to them. It's not the responsibility of the software developers of a Free Software product to specify how the software should be used.

B

Bady Mon 25 Jul 2016

@jamesdai I hope I can understand what you are trying to say. Diaspora is not just a decentralized social networking platform. It's much more than that. With the foundational pillars being Decentralization, Freedom and Privacy, Diaspora is against the corporate-culture of profit over people. Diaspora represents Democracy where people are in charge. In that way, Diaspora is political (& not because it is or should be used by the politicians!).

@denschub "We build this stuff in our free time because we have fun doing so". That's nice. I mean I really appreciate all the developers for their valuable contributions. But is it just the fun that keeps you working for Diaspora? I guess not, I believe it's the philosophy behind Diaspora that keeps you working for it and not just the fun in coding. Otherwise you may be happy working for facebook as well! (Sorry, but I didn't mean any insult at all)

"We honestly don't care if the server running a single diaspora* installation is running in AWS or in some non-profit green-energy datacenter." Actually isn't it a bit ironical? As a developer you don't have to care. But when you consider Diaspora more than just a software project, you may have to. Because Diaspora stands for Privacy and Freedom, so in order to really protect that Diaspora should be hosted on a server which protects the user's Privacy and Freedom. It'll be better if the Diaspora community can join hands with other communities who promote Privacy and Freedom. I think that's the point of OP as well. i.e. to grow as a collective movement, working together for a better world. :)

G

goob Tue 26 Jul 2016

Because Diaspora stands for Privacy and Freedom, so in order to really protect that Diaspora should be hosted on a server which protects the user's Privacy and Freedom.

The freedom Diaspora offers is the freedom for each user to choose where their data are stored by choosing a pod (including the ability to set up and host a pod themselves). Forcing servers to be hosted in certain environments would only really be a desirable thing in a centralised network, and would in any case be impossible in a Free Software project, which by definition allows people to choose freely how they use the software.

Diaspora allows people to have privacy; it doesn't force them to do so if they don't want it or don't care about it.

It would be nice if everyone in the world was groovy, but that's not the reality. Diaspora offers the possibility to be groovy to those who want it.

MD

Michael Dagn Fri 29 Jul 2016

We are at the mercy of the design team of Facebook to create our social
spaces– our cyber equivalent of city squares.

I'd love to see federated events communities
to free those events from the silos and allow people to make their public events discoverable by putting it where (on any site where the admin wants it) people look for such events near their city rather than that spammy and outdated "how big is your mailing-list" way organisers often end up resorting to doing things on sites like facebook.

wanted to get it happening for decades before I even heard of Facebook or its cultural side effects started creating more barriers.

that is what brought me to Diaspora and Friendica in the first place -

I would love to hear from anyone interested in this.

So we build diaspora, we build technical platforms for decentralised and
open social networks.

But somehow the movement seems unsatisfactory to me. It’s not enough. We
haven’t killed Facebook. The movement doesn’t go down deep enough. It
wants to think of itself as apolitical, just as Facebook claims to be
apolitical. But “everything is political”. Facebook’s corporate

whatever - if someone sees basic freedoms for users as "political" then to them its probably political.

structure and thus its way of doing things embodies the traditional
capitalist politics of exploitation; of the few at the top sucking in

facebook probably does whatever its shareholders and investors want, which most likely is "return on investment" and investors normally see that in terms of money.

thats what happens in a debt-driven model...

I don't know why so many people on there seem to expect it to do otherwise.

that doesn't mean there aren't other ways of providing services.
Decentralised communities like Diaspora where people can participate in providing the service itself are proof of that.

The structure of Facebook contains an imperative to growth; to grow huge
and take over the world at the expense of competitors. To exploit the
social commons, the commons of our social relations and make money from it.

So it’s huge. Meanwhile, the network of diaspora networks pales in
comparison in size. It’s pathetic. We are nowhere near “killing Facebook”.

I don't think we should focus too much on what facebook does or whats similar here but rather what is different and a new user might like here that they can't do where they are now.

its pretty obvious that most people on facebook aren't going to go anywhere else to do what they do on facebook now if nobody they know is already there or they see something else they want that isn't where they are now.

Publicly discoverable hints of communities or discussions that look interesting to a potential new user or the desire for something that whatever they use now doesn't do or a hint that it can do something in a better way than whats on offer in anything they already use now are more likely to attract new users.

for one person it might be the desire for more freedom

for another it might be a desire for better privacy

for another it might be a hint of there being a friendly community related to something they are interested in. (thats probably the biggest one)

for another it might be the desire for better control over their own data (eg by running the server hosting it)

for another it might be something as basic as it actually being usable on their phone!
(try using facebook on an old phone browser - on an iphone 3 I have here facebook nowdays doesn't work - you can't even log in..
and Twitter is so slow its unusable,
but Diaspora in that phone browser works pretty well and looks nice too!
- that's an advantage worth promoting! .. there might be millions of similarly old phones still in use out there)

there would be plenty more possible reasons,

but generally its a hint of something different to or better than whats offered by whatever they already use now that would be more likely to motivate them to join.

But how can we become huge without embodying the same principles that we
are going against?

Making it as easy and affordable as possible to set up a server is desirable, not only for people wanting to run servers but also so that the load created by those who don't can be spread across more servers

Lots of small servers cheap enough to be self-funded by individuals without difficulty would be more sustainable than vast majority of users being concentrated on a small number of huge servers that probably struggle to cover costs for more and more resources to cope with more and more users.

In other words decentralise even more by making it so cheap and easy to set up a server that a lot more people don't just think about it but actually do it!