A first attempt at using WordPress for microblogging
Here is the brand spanking new Larry Sanger Microblog, which lives at a domain I had sitting around doing nothing: StartThis.org. As you’ll see, it looks a little like a social media feed. I simply downloaded a theme, then spent the day fixing it up so it looked more or less right like a microblog. I limit myself to 280 characters. That helps.
You can comment in response, if you like. Try to keep your responses to 280 characters!
I am soon going to start working with a developer on a proper WordPress plugin for microposting. But this will probably take several weeks (so he says). Therefore, in the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and just use WordPress like a social media site.
I am hosting the microblog on my own NAS, which means the microposts are being served right out of my office. Talk about owning your own data! And an especially cool thing, I guess, is that it works fine, it was not hard to install and configure (on Synology, anyway), and—if you can believe it—it’s not slow!
Decentralization. It’s not just a hip happnin’ buzzword. And it’s not just for blockchain. It has been important, and it always has been—I was using it back in 2005 to describe the early Wikipedia—because it uses technology to guarantee, or at least safeguard, freedom. It removes control of public conversations from the hands of would-be overseers of the digital plantations.
Here are the principles that “decentralization” encodes:
Self-ownership. Each user owns his own identity in the network.
Data ownership. You own your own data; you control your own data, within the bounds of controlling law.
Platform-independent following. You control your friend/follower list independently of all platforms. Hence, once a friend follows you on one platform, he should follow you forever everywhere until he unfollows you or you block him (or there is a lawful government order compelling a change).
Platform-agnostic posting. Posting on one platform means posting the same thing on all platforms that are part of one big decentralized network.
Decentralized moderation. Content moderation, which is ultimately an absolute requirement, cannot be performed by a single, central, controlling body or system, providing identical outcomes. So it, too, must be decentralized.
Single conversation. Therefore, there is one giant integrated conversation, but parts of are not shown to people who don’t want to see it (or in places it’s literally illegal). Of course, it is still legal for people to run closed, walled gardens; but they’re not for general broadcast.
Anti-monopoly. Therefore, also, no corporation has anything like a monopoly over the means of social media broadcasting, as at present.
There are several requirements that, I believe, are absolutely required of the alternative social media platforms to satisfy these principles:
User exportability. Platforms should permit users to export a complete and unadulterated copy of their user data from the platform and host it elsewhere. Moreover, public user data that is edited by the user in one place must be brought current with all other copies made elsewhere as well, in a timely fashion.
Data exportability. The user’s data must be easily exportable in a common, easily machine-readable format, according to a widely-used standard. This is an absolute minimum. Not many actually support this yet. This isn’t enough, though, because you need to be able to export your followers, too, and to do that:
Interoperability. The social media platform must be made as interoperable as possible (at the user’s option). So I should be able to subscribe and follow someone who is posting on his own blog, or Mastodon, or Gab, or Parler. I should be able to post and read from any of these networks, and the data should appear in a timely fashion in all the rest.
Data inalienability. If the user’s data is not actually served from outside of a platform—which should be possible—then it is treated by the platform as if it were. The platform is merely holding the data on behalf of the user, as a service. The platform must not treat the data as “theirs.” This is still a rather vague requirement, but it has specific consequences. One of them would be that the platform is absolutely not permitted to delete or edit a post from your data, although they can of course opt not to post it on the platform. Twitter and Facebook violate this principle when they fail to retain copies of posts that they delete.
Those are things I feel confident of, as a bare minimum. There are other things that really also need to be part of it, I suspect:
Moderation. Individual users, or whole platforms (if users should wish to use them), should be able to select their own moderators. Moderation data, or metadata—such as that a certain user should be blocked, or that a certain post should be hidden or flagged in some way—should be shared in a way similar to how the user data and content itself is served (so, across the network in a decentralized way), and independently of the user’s canonical copy of the data.
Text representation. The user’s public data must be syndicated in a lo-tech text-based (more human-friendly) format such as JSON or XML, even if they have an API (maybe I don’t want to be forced to use their API, maybe because it’s too restrictive). The purpose of this is to enable the user to more easily exert control over the source or original version of his own tweets. This text stream, if it still exists and the author’s control can be proven, becomes the user’s personal assertion or attestation as to how the state of his personal feed should be represented; this human-friendly data representation of the content becomes the controlling, “canonical” version of the data. No other representation, in no other data medium (blockchain, IPFS, bittorrent, or otherwise), is to be regarded legally or operationally as “the canonical version.”
Permanence (or uncensorability). By network policy, the user’s public data must also be able to be made available forever (so a particular platform couldn’t delete it on behalf of everyone else, even if they wanted to) via bittorrent or IPFS or the like. Maybe the blockchain is OK, but frankly due to the financial complexities involved in blockchain, I don’t trust blockchains as bittorrent-type “decentralized public cloud” storage.
Something like that. This is not a complete set of “decentralization requirements.” It is merely an attempt to articulate some of the basic requirements, including many that current attempts at decentralization have failed to deliver on.
If you put all such things together, then you’ve operationalized the vague principles of decentralization for social media. The more that existing social media platforms actually implement these features, the more social media will actually be decentralized.
We are deeply upset at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. Blocking President Trump from these giant corporate networks was just the last straw. Most of us already loathed these corporations for their violations of our basic digital rights (laid out here: Declaration of Digital Independence), but this?
This crosses the line.
For many of us, banning Trump (and many of his defenders) means we refuse to participate on their networks anymore. We’re running for the exits. We have to replace them now.
There’s a problem with the alternatives. The problem of course, is that there are a lot of them, and more arriving all the time. You might think, “Sure, and one will eventually win out. So let’s just move out and may the best platform win.” This is a mistake. Look, think about what gave the Facebooks of the world their power. It was precisely the fact that people went to the biggest platform…because that’s where the biggest group of friends, or the biggest audience, or whatever, would be. They seemed OK because they talked a lot about how they stood for free speech. They didn’t mean it. And here we are.
Genuinely decentralized networks can’t by censored. Here’s how the Internet used to work until 2005-ish: you wanted to connect to a network like email, or the WWW (Web sites), Usenet, or FTP, or whatever. So, first, you downloaded a client, a piece of software that connects you to that network. The client speaks to the network through a special technical protocols. Nobody is in charge of the whole network. There is an organization that defines the protocol, sure, but they don’t rule the network. The network has no leader, no center.
The Internet still works that way in parts. We still use browsers to connect to the web; we can still use email clients to connect to email. But today, instead of a client using technical protocols to connect people together for microposting, everyone uses Twitter. Instead of a client running social media protocols, people use Facebook. And so forth. Websites that run their own proprietary networks are “platforms.” And you can be shut out of these platforms. This gives Twitter and Facebook massive power. They run what always should have been a neutral network. Absolutely nobody deserves that much power!
Questions and answers
So why replace censorious platforms with…new platforms? Why not replace them with good old-fashioned neutral, decentralized networks? There should be a microposting network, and a video network, and an image network, and a social media (Facebook-style) network. I would also add: an encyclopedia network.
“Decentralization”…I’ve heard of that. This is just blockchain, right? Not necessarily. That’s what the blockchain crowd wants you to think, but blockchains are just one kind of decentralization. The problem with blockchains is that they mostly incorporate coins, which means whether content gets into them can usually be determined, in one way or another, by who owns some coins. That means that “whales,” or people with a lot of coins, can control the network. That’s not decentralized. That centralizes power in the hands of a few individuals. The whole idea of decentralization is to eliminate any control of the network.
What’s wrong with just using Parler and Rumble, again? If you’re still asking that, then you missed the point earlier. This is important: we should never trust proprietary platforms again. If Parler and Rumble become the new Twitter and YouTube, it doesn’t matter what they say about how open they are, or how committed they are to freedom of speech. You simply have to trust them. That is what got us into this mess in the first place, back in 2005. Let’s not repeat the mistake.
So…what do we do? Here’s the deal. A lot of people are now working on this problem. Massive amounts of money are going to be thrown at it. I’ve spoken to at least three billionaires in the last 24 hours about this stuff, and they’re all motivated to open their pocketbooks. And that’s all in addition to the existing networks, some of which are growing very fast. So if you ask, “What should we do?” my response is: “You mean, in addition to all these other things, that other people are doing?”
What do you want to do? Quite a few people have been asking me this, and generally, I point them to things I’ve written before, such as this, this, and this. Those document lay out some of the requirements and principles behind a properly decentralized social media network, one that preserves freedom in the way the rest of the Internet does (well—I fear we’ll soon be seeing just how well it stands up to concerted attack).
Naturally, most people with money look at censorship on the march as a big money-making opportunity. I look at it as an existential threat to my country and a brutal attack on my principles. I have never been involved in Internet projects for money alone; I always just wanted to do the right thing in the right way, money be damned.
Wait, so what is “the wrong thing” that people are doing? There are several things:
Blockchain: Some startups aren’t even seriously trying to be a good decentralized, free speech social network. A lot of blockchain “social media” projects are sold as “decentralized” (because they’re on a blockchain! That makes them decentralized, man!), but they aren’t really decentralized, because a few people are in control of the chain, there’s one client (a website and/or app), and basically it works like a regular website…built on a blockchain. Who cares? Minds.com is probably the closest we have to a fairly successful and growing site that is committed to free speech and open source, which does use blockchain; but I don’t think it’s quite fully decentralized yet.
Conservative social media: Some startups are devoted to free speech, but not decentralization. This is true of Parler and Rumble. They’re OK. But they’re platforms. They can and probably will eventually be compromised. We want to solve the problem, not just kick the can down the road. See “What’s wrong with just using Parler and Rumble, again?” above.
Federated networks: Some projects are pretty good at decentralization, but they are hard to use, or aren’t so keen on free speech. This is true of the Fediverse, meaning the projects built using the ActivityPub protocol, such as Mastodon, and also true of Diaspora. When Gab switched to ActivityPub, Mastodon and many others blocked them. This goes to show you that what we really need is not a federated network, but a genuine P2P network, so I can connect to the network to my own little client (which might be a website only I use, or a client app). There is also a big problem on some of these sorts of projects with child pornography and Nazis (or people impersonating them, which I personally think is just as likely). The latter has actually been Gab’s big problem.
Totally peer-to-peer networks: There is one small, hard-to-use app, Scuttlebutt, that is totally decentralized. There are others, and I’d like to know about them, but they seem to be small in adoption and in a very early stage of development (so, hard to use and not very good yet).
Can you just summarize what you want? Sure. I explained it before, but let me explain it again in another way. It isn’t that complicated:
Client: I want an easy-to-use, well-designed, fast, modern client. Not an account on a website. No. A client. Not a website on which I make an account. The client could take the form of a browser plugin, a WordPress plugin, a stand-alone website, a hosted solution (where you save your own space, like on WordPress.com), a mobile client app, or even a desktop app.
Similar UX to Twitter: The client allows me to publish to the network and view posts from the network. In other words, my experience as I use the client will be similar to my experience on Twitter: I can follow people, view my feed, like and share posts, etc.
Direct or transparent connections to people: The client basically connects me to…other people. Or to their clients. Possibly with an aggregator intermediary, which stays out of the way. There is nobody who owns the whole network or has any special financial interest in the network. I am connected to people, not accounts on a website. It’s like email: I have a bunch of family, friends, and colleagues, and I have their email addresses, and I see the stuff they send me. Similarly, an unbranded social media network would let me specify the people I follow, and it goes and grabs their posts for me (somehow; see next point) and shows them to me all in a feed. Great.
Aggregator: There are various different aggregators that prepare our feeds for us. If you’re following a thousand people, or if you have a million people following you, your client cannot by itself easily fetch, or send, all the necessary updates regularly for that many people. This is purely technical work that needs to be done as a service for you. So maybe you subscribe to a service. Maybe your university or corporation or ISP runs one. Maybe you just connect to one. It might cost a few dollars a month. It would be money well spent.
Here is the idea that inspires me, that I want to shout out to the world:
And then it is just a matter of figuring out how to syndicate it and display it in feeds of followers. Just using RSS to begin with would be absolutely fine. Then gradually add support for the other features such as sharing, upvoting, and threading, which Twitter offers, perhaps via a more strictly P2P extension of ActivityPub.
Requirements for a microblogging plugin
I’ve been in discussions with one particular investor and philanthropist, Futo.org, who wants to fund one or more OSS projects that will do 1-4 from the latter list. Basically, he’s willing to put up money for an open source client and also behind an open source aggregator service.
Something like $5,000 for the following is proposed. We’d like to hear from you first, about whether this is fair or not. Let’s talk before you start work. We want it to be very, very solid, beautifully designed, well-documented, easily maintainable, and 100% bug-free.
Let’s begin very simple, with a bare-bones microblogging plugin. And while it will be very simple, it will be 100% modern and awesome, with all the UX features users would expect.
We want to build a (to begin with) simple WordPress plugin. It would be acceptable to fork the existing “Simple Microblogging” plugin, although that needs a lot of work. Have a look at startthis.org/ to get a noti…. This would help blog readers to know which RSS feeds to represent as micropost feeds, which would require special handling.
Create RSS output on a subpage. If the human-readable micropost feed appears at mydomain.com/micro/ then the RSS for the feed should appear at mydomain.com/micro/rss . Maybe even better, because shorter: mydomain.com/m/rss .
Nice-to-have, not required yet (requirements available on request):
Editing (in place; not in a modal, unless you think that’s actually more modern…? I wouldn’t think so). If this is particularly easy, please do it.
Basic search. Results page paginated as necessary. As I think this is built into WordPress, please do this if it isn’t too much trouble.
Add a sidebar (for wide screens)/hamburger menu (for narrow ones) containing monthly-sorted archive. Archive pagination = 30 per page. Is going to be high priority soon.
Twitter importer. Input: a Twitter archive file. Output: all your old tweets, available on your blog in this format. This would make the plugin into truly a killer app and would guarantee explosive growth. Might already exist.
Page reader. Another page…or maybe the same page…which allows you to subscribe to feeds. Ultimately the posts themselves should probably have @username functionality (see ActivityPub).
User profile page, linked from the microblog home page as well as each user post. Data drawn from the WordPress blog.
General design/presentation layer requirements:
There are a lot of design-related requirements above, so have a look.
A minimalistic sort of project branding exercise. It needs a name. I don’t care what it’s called or about colors (nothing surprising or garish) or fonts (default = sans serif of course). I leave that hard part up to real designers, but we do need to do a name and branding elements. We want to convey a feeling of fun, ease-of-use, and independence.
Both light and dark themes/skins available, as on Twitter.
Generally, the main landing page will have a look and feel like Twitter. It should not be identical, for the simple reason that we don’t want to run into legal issues.
When a user is not logged in, the front page of the website should have a banner image and circular icon, as on both Twitter and Facebook.
When logged in, do not display the banner image. Basically, I see little need for a header at all when you’re logged in.
Menu items go above Archive on the right side of the sidebar.
What else, folks? Comments, please.
Realistically, why think this will solve anything?
There is an interesting answer to this.
First of all, if we’re serious about people owning their own identity and data, we can do a lot worse than building on top of the personalized web presence they already own—either their own domain, or at least a blog or website, the data of which they own in a portable format. A lot of people have WordPress sites; for those who don’t, it is very easy to install a hosted blog that includes the ability to add plugins. Something like 35% of websites online are WordPress sites. Like 400 million websites. The “killer” feature of WordPress is its decent (if bewhiskered) server, the power of which is increased by a zillion plugins. Also, it’s free and open source. And you can easily move your data around. And lots of people know how to work with WordPress sites (whether they want to is another matter).
So here’s the deal. All those WordPress sites, every one of them, could become a social media account in which the user owns, controls, and syndicates his own data. How freaking cool is that? Speaking of syndication, that’s a feature of WordPress sites that’s a killer: RSS and Atom are built in. So you could build a social media protocol on top of those protocols. Why not? And there’s another killer relevant feature: that protocol is already massively in use, already supported by many feed and news readers, and already decentralized. All we have to do is build on top of it.
So…why not just use blogging, even as it is right now, in a new “short message, social media” sort of way? Because, of course, the medium drives how people use the tool. We need to make it more like social media:
Adding a new micropost needs to be dead simple. Even simpler than writing a new WordPress post. As simple as posting on Twitter.
Text has to be artificially limited. You can’t let them go on and on, or they’re not microblogging anymore.
The look-and-feel has to be just like “social media” (Twitter and its imitators), not like a blog.
And those are just what the above starts to work on.
Here’s the dream—because we don’t have an interesting dream, what’s the point? It goes like this.
People learn that there’s a new Twitter-like plugin for WordPress. They tell each other, “Did you know that you can just tweet from your blog…and then you own and control your own tweets? Why didn’t anybody ever think of this before?” (Never mind that they did, a long time ago, but it didn’t really catch on or develop because some people didn’t care enough about decentralization and owning your own data, while other people didn’t care enough about writing easy-to-use software for non-geeks.) So people start installing the plugin. They share the location of each other’s feeds, use feed readers, and have an experience that is actually a bit like Twitter…but one that is totally their own and totally decentralized.
At first, people just use Feedly to follow the micropost feeds of friends. But, because of the brisk adoption rate of the plugin, new features are rapidly added. The all-important “dedicated microfeed reader” feature is added, so now you can see not just your tweets, but the tweets of your friends. Someone creates a registry of all known WordPress Microblogs. So you can search through those and find old friends and new. You can also add your friends’ feeds directly. Someone else creates a chat feature, so that, while you can’t tweet in response, you can treat somebody else’s top-level thread as the first. The original poster is given the right to delete and instaban (from the tweet) anyone who is difficult. Another feature quickly added is the “quote retweet.”
Then someone decides to hook up WordPress microblogs with the Fediverse, and various blockchain networks, etc. Suddenly, this becomes the standard: when you offload your content from some other content into your microblog…that, being totally, 100% owned and controlled by you, becomes the “true home” of your social media content. And the RSS is the “true format” of your social media feed. People write exporters for Twitter…and all their tweets are added to their WordPress microblogs. There’s a mass movement to say get off Twitter now, follow me instead via WordPress!
Of course, that’s when we start “posting at” people via their Fediverse account addresses, or perhaps some contextualized shortened version thereof (the present blog happens to be located at @[email protected] in the Fediverse; you can confirm this for yourself on mastodon.social because this blog runs the ActivityPub plugin, which enables a few Fediverse sites like Mastodon to pick up my blog posts as feeds).
Many more developments come fast and furious as the world discovers the power of this concept, and starts rebuilding and connecting everything to simple RSS feeds of microposts. The new day, of a truly decentralized microposting world, has dawned.
Well, I think it’s a nice dream.
UPDATE (Feb. 2): development is underway. Since I was eager to start using word press to make a microblog, I went ahead and made one without any of the advanced functionality described above. Here it is: StartThis.org.
Matthias Pfefferle has made a WordPress plugin that converts your blog into a very, very stripped-down Fediverse server. What this means, basically, is that if you install this plugin on your WordPress blog, then your blog posts will appear as posts in ActivityPub Fediverse servers, such as (most famously) mastodon.social. You just install and activate it and then go to …wp-admin/profile.php, and you’ll find you have a handy-dandy Fediverse profile ID made for you. Mine is @[email protected]
This represents a practical step toward fixing social media, as I described, by making the Fediverse more robustly peer-to-peer (as in individual-to-individual, not just server-to-server federation), but it really doesn’t do much yet. Matthias is to be congratulated for getting this far. I hope he will make this into another whole front end for the broader Fediverse. That might be a bit much to ask, but…wouldn’t that be cool?
Christmas is coming, and that means you could be giving your non-geeky loved ones the gift of…computer security and privacy. And just think, you might be the only person grandma knows who can fix her up. What a special present! “But, give the gift of computer security?” you ask. “How?” Read on.
It has been almost two years since I started seriously locking down my cyber-life. Now, if you have geek privilege, you have rare and valuable skills that enable you to keep your data safe and private and to get your voice out there without fear of censorship. But most of us doubt our ability to do this. Most of us feel trapped. If I tell them, “get your own domain and host your own email,” they say to themselves, “Yeah right, that’ll happen. I have no idea where to begin!” And this is not at all an irrational reaction. Some of them are probably right: they do not know where to begin. Depending on the job, they might make a bunch of bad choices or just mess everything up.
If you are a geek, you might be inclined to say, “Not my problem. It’s good to be a geek!” But wait. You know the technically clueless people are talking about here? Your nontechnical parent, grandparent, sibling, or friend. On the one hand, you say you care about privacy; you do OK in that quarter. On the other hand, here are people with appalling digital hygiene habits. If you really care about privacy, then should you not care about their privacy? Why not help them out?
Example: Helping my Mom Set Up a Password Manager
My elderly mother had a significant birthday recently. For a gift, I did something I really should have done for her, and maybe others in my family, a long time ago: I installed a password manager for her.
If you are a geek, you must know about password managers. In fact, you must hand in your geek card if you do not use one on the regular. But whatever. The point is that you know the way grandma handles her passwords is completely messed up. She probably uses the same password for everything, or she took the advice of the Best Buy sales jerk who told her to write in L33tspeak, or something. Seriously, my mom was doing that.
My mom had her passwords spread across many scraps of paper as well as a badly-used iCloud/Safari/Apple Keychain system, a half-done, lame security system that Apple gives to everyone that stays within their ecosystem. She did not understand how to use the Apple system properly. Its method for generating secure passwords is not obvious, all her passwords were easily accessible via her computer password, and they were stored in iCloud—and besides, frankly, I just do not trust Apple.
So here is what I did for her birthday present:
I installed Enpass (and paid for a lifetime subscription, ~$50) on her computer. I did the same on her phone and tablet.
I tried transferring her passwords automatically using Apple’s export function. Just as you might expect from one of these evil Silicon Valley corporations, Apple totally screwed the feature up; as far as I could tell, it just does not work. (I couldn’t get the “export” function to get ungreyed-out. I’m sure it was all for my mom’s security and safety…) It turned out not to matter, though, because literally most of her passwords were wrong.
So I transferred her passwords by hand, one by one, trying each one out. She only had about 40, so that was rather time consuming, but nothing like what mine would have been: I have 614 accounts according to my password manager software. Mine are nicely organized and stored, though, so no worries. For Mom, generally, I did this: I would go to a website, try logging in with the credentials stored in Mom’s Apple Keychain, and discover half the time that they did not work. Then I would use her email address to do a password reset, then generate a new, secure password with Enpass, and fill it in. (Actually, good password managers at least partially automate this process, as Enpass does.) This is gruntwork that Mom would not do. She lacks the patience or the know-how. So it’s your job, geek. Do it.
Then, of course, I needed to give Mom access to the passwords on her phone and tablet. For that, I could have used some sort of password vault cloud storage service (like Dashlane, just for example, has). But that strikes me as insecure. So I flexed my geek muscles and created a new WebDAV folder repository for Mom, in her own folder on my NAS (this is an always-on, personal server, explained here). Of course, she has to trust me, but fortunately, she does. This functionality—the ability to save passwords to my own server via a secure protocol, rather than to some corporation’s supposedly encrypted database—is one of the main reasons I went with Enpass and did not insist on the big open source password manager, Bitwarden. Last I saw, Bitwarden did not support WebDAV. I think KeePass supports WebDAV but last I checked, KeePass just did not have very good autofill functionality, which is essential. Anyway, I made sure that all her devices were properly connected to the NAS. Now she can update the password repo from whatever device she likes, and they’re all updated at the same time and kept in sync (via the NAS).
I also of course gave her several lessons on how to use the new tech, and promised her prompt tech support if she had any trouble with it going forward.
Of course, my mom could not have done anything like this on her own. You know that, I know that, and she knows that. Not only is there no shame in helping her, I got to thinking: Isn’t it my responsibility to help out my old ma with this?Of course it is. Who else would do it?It’s your job, geek!
Probably, you, too, have family members who need help locking down their passwords. They won’t do it themselves. So whose job is it? Yours.
Other Ways to Help the Folks
Of course, there are many other things you could do, for unique birthday or holiday gifts or just because you’re kind. Like what?
Help them register a domain name.
Help them set up a blog on the domain name.
Help them set up email hosting, and transfer their old email, under their own domain name (or, if not that, then at least some more secure service than Gmail).
Install Linux for them and teach them the basics. This will take longer and is riskier, perhaps. You can always start with dual-booting. Of course, you should back up stuff, and know what you’re doing, before you take risks with your family’s important stuff.
Teach them how and when to use a VPN (cafes, airports, and hotels, mainly), and help them pick one out and install it (the last bit is really easy).
Show them how to use Brave and DuckDuckGo…or your other preferred alternatives to Chrome and Google Search.
Install a NAS for them, and move all their stuff off of Dropbox or external hard drives or whatever they are using. Again, this is quite a time commitment (I haven’t done this for my family…but I’ve invited them to use my NAS if they want).
Any one of these would make a great Christmas present. They’re especially good for young geeks who can’t afford to buy nice presents. This skilled labor is worth more than many nice presents!
Heck, you could even show them how to buy crypto. I did that a couple years ago. Not sure I would recommend that, but…you could.
There are other things you could help others with…and yourself, for that matter…as regards locking down your cyber-life. Be a good geek! Do it!
Universal problem, circa 2000: you move around from school to school, job to job, Internet provider to Internet provider. They all give you email addresses, which of course constantly change. What a headache. If you’re over 30 or so, you remember having to tell people regularly about how your email address has changed. Annoying.
The 2010 solution was oh-so-clever: use some giant, professional email service like Yahoo!, but soon it was Gmail. For a number of years, Gmail dominated email services because, as everybody seemed to say, it just had the best design. But then, around 2011, stories started appearing that Google was spying on your email. That is still happening; they let other companies read your mail, too. Are you happy about that? Of course not.
So in 2020, we have a new set of problems—and a new (but old) solution. Yes, we expect the same email to be the available on different devices, as we did in 2000. Yes, we expect a more-or-less permanent email address and email clients that are super-easy to use, as we did in 2010. But today we also expect to be in control. We expect not to have to compromise on privacy or (shudder) on basic freedom of speech in our own private communications. It is absolutely frightening that we must now actually consider the possibility that even that basic freedom might be under threat.
In response to these worries, naturally, a lot of people have left Gmail and other Big Tech mail services. I did, and I never looked back.
The 2020 solution: buy your own domain, and pay for hosting. Owning your own, permanent domain is not as hard as you might think. You just have to pay a small annual fee for your own domain ($10-15/year) and mail hosting (could be $12/year, more typically $30/year, and up). And since your correspondents’ mail to you can be read by Big Tech if you are on Gmail (and a few others), you really owe it to them to leave.
By the way, you might say, “But I love Gmail. No other app is as good!” That might have been true in 2010. It is no longer true today. There are loads of great email apps with fast search and loads of great features.
“But…host my own email? How?” Glad you asked.
(By the way, I have no financial connection to anyone doing business on this stuff. This is my 100% uninfluenced, honest, and considered opinion.)
STEP ONE: Buy your own domain name for email. Mine is sanger.io. This can be the domain not just for you personally, but for your whole family, even your extended family.
If YourLastName.com is unavailable (try searching on something like NameCheap.com), try something other than “.com” (that is a “top level domain” or TLD). People in nonprofits might like “.org”. Geeks (maybe especially crypto geeks) might like “.io” or “.net”. There are a zillion TLDs (.xyz, .me, .news, etc.) available today. I rather like my family’s domain, sanger.io, which registered almost two years ago now. My email address is my first name @sanger.io. Pretty cool and easy for people to remember.
Another option is to add “mail”, “net”, “post” to your name. Like, I could buy sangermail.com if I wanted; it is available.
Buying a domain name is easy. You can do it through many, many different services. I would avoid GoDaddy. I use NameCheap, but there are many others that I am sure are excellent. Shop around.
STEP TWO: Choose a mail hosting provider. In other words, if you own MyLastName.com now, you need to pay a company to receive and store your email (at your new domain!) and make it available to you. I have already written about this. There is quite a bit of cheap email hosting out there to be had, and that would help you (a) have a personalized, permanent email address, and (b) escape Big Tech. But if you also want to (c) guarantee your privacy, then you need your email encrypted, and for that you will have to pay a premium, it looks like (the price is €6.25/mo/user on Protonmail, $5.99/mo/user on Hushmail, but you might find cheaper ones). I expect the cost of encrypted email hosting will come down further; prices have certainly come down since I was last shopping for this a couple years ago.
STEP THREE: Set up your new hosting, and actually make the move. You do not have to be a geek to set it up. Your hosting provider should be able to do most if not all of the set-up for you, if you have trouble. I mean, they are making money from hosting you, so they make it pretty easy. Just remember to follow instructions carefully and you will be fine. If it gets very complex and technical, just have the hosting company do it for you. If they will not, other hosts will; you can check in advance. This is how I set up my hosting and made the switch, but your experience may be different. Hosts do have different instructions, so pay attention to what they say, or you might have trouble with mail delivery. Make sure that your mail will not go into your friend’s spam folder; your mail hosting company should be experts at setting this up for you, with all the SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records and whatnot. You should not have to set it up for yourself; that piece of the puzzle really is complicated, so they will do it for you.
Exporting email from Gmail (and other email hosts) to your new service is a common sort of task, and it is not that hard. You can do it. Many hosts will help with this too, and might even have automated tools for doing it. You do not have to import your mail at all, by the way. You can just leave it all there, on Gmail, and tell people to use your new address.
Of course, you will have to go to all your accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, etc., etc.) and give them your new address. This might sound like a pain, but when I did it, I found it to be remarkably pleasurable. “Another company that will not be sending me mail at my hated old Gmail address! Instead I am telling them to use my new, permanent, personalized address!” It really gives you a feeling of being in control of your destiny.
Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare “what we all know” and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?
What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:
The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir
The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.
Two Early Articles about Wikipedia
Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.
But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?
Wikipedia’s Original Neutrality Policy
Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.
To … put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. …
When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.
Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism
There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise are tolerated).
How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know
[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. … [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.
Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge
[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.
Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age
The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.
Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?
The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.
But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.
Introducing the Encyclosphere
A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.
We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.
Declaration of Digital Independence
We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.
The Future of the Free Internet
Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.
I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. The fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.
How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course
I am thinking of offering a new, independent online course about decentralization and freedom. The focus would be social media; perhaps a future course would focus on free encyclopedias. Or maybe we would do the encyclopedia course first. A proposed reading list is below. Interested? Have ideas about what we should read for this?
This could be considered an outgrowth of last year’s work on the Declaration of Digital Independence and the social media strike. As I said in this Wired article, at some point after we do the strike, we should organize mass try-outs of a bunch of social media tools. I wanted to, but I never did this last year because doing it properly would take time, and time takes money.
A course could help pay for this, though. Maybe we could fund proper deliberations over social media tools by combining such deliberative work with a course. That seems like a good idea. My worry has been that I’d be on the hook to offer a course that not many people were interested in. But a friend just told me about a Gumroad.com feature: you can let people pre-order a product, but the user is not charged until the course begins. If enrollment gets up to a certain number, I will green-light the course, and people are charged when it starts. If there is insufficient interest, they are never charged. Perfect!
Combining deliberation about the best social media tools with a course seems like a good idea for an additional reason: I do not actually want to deliberate seriously about this important decision with people who are ignorant of the relevant issues. Indeed, I would like to seriously review all the relevant issues myself. We got into this Big Social Media mess by going in half-cocked. I propose that we should not do that as we decide what to replace Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter with.
General Course Information (tentative)
Tentative title: How and Why to Decentralize the Internet
Description: A two-to-three month upper-division-to-graduate-level course. focused on reading and discussion. You will read and closely analyze and evaluate many important source texts that go into understanding, appreciating, and making decisions about component projects of the free, decentralized Internet in general and social media in particular. There will be a dual focus on the relevant technology and on practical philosophy (or applied theory). The technical decisions before us must be made based on deep principles.
Instructor: Larry Sanger (Ph.D. philosophy from Ohio State, 2000; ex-founder, Wikipedia; serial Internet project starter-upper; Internet consultant). Maybe also guests/interviewees.
Possible course requirements: most importantly, weekly readings as well as online written, moderated discussions in a forum, blog, or mailing list (haven’t decided yet), focused on the readings; probably a weekly video session; maybe 2-3 short papers (feedback offered if desired); probably, participation in choosing and trying out various social media tools, and then later helping to launch larger try-outs of our top choices of social media tools.
Grading: n/a If you want a grade, I am willing to give you one based on written work.
Prerequisites: None checked, but you should be able to do upper-division college-level work, including (especially) coherent writing and careful reading; you must also be a “power user,” someone who is not afraid to read about sometimes difficult technology concepts
Texts: all distributed free of charge; Larry Sanger’s first book, Essays on Free Knowledge, will be given to all students.
Reading/Topic List (tentative, unfinished, additions requested)
NOTE: the following is not finalized in any way. If there are topics and readings you want included, please let me know!
Internet Governance: History and Recent Developments
Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
Standards-setting bodies: W3C, IETF, IEEE, etc.
Governance/policy bodies: ICANN, WSIS, IGF, Dept. of Commerce, etc.
Technical Background: Internet Protocols and Standards
Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
SIntroduction to the Internet’s protocols and standards
Languages in which standards are written: XML and JSON
Decentralized content standards: RSS and Atom
Older identity standards: oAuth and SAML
Self-owned(?) identity standards: DIDs
Technical Background: Content Networks
Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
Old-fashioned P2P networks
Modern torrent networks
Blockchain content networks and IPFS
II. The Theoretical Principles
Internet Freedom: Principles and Software
The very idea of Internet freedom
Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”
Larry Sanger, “The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir”
The rise of git, Github, and modern open source software
Free Culture and Self-Ownership
The GNU FDL
Selections from Creative Commons website materials
Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, selections
The “own your own data” movement
Wacks, Privacy: A Very Short Introduction maybe
Schneier, Data and Goliath selections (maybe)
Selection from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
What is digital privacy?
Why is digital privacy important?
European and Californian legislation
The NSA’s spy programs
The Chinese social credit system
Free Speech, Censorship, and Neutrality
Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2
Sanger, “Why Neutrality”
Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet selections (maybe)
Online Anonymity and Pseudonymity
Selections from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
What encryption is, what it’s for, why it’s important, whether it’s “too dangerous”
(maybe) Larry Sanger, “A Defense of Real Name Requirements”
I am an odd fish, I admit. Let me explain, as much to myself as to you, my life path and where it seems to be leading next.
My Strange Career
I wanted to be a philosopher when I was 17 in Alaska. So I started as an academic and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 2000, thinking I would become a philosophy professor. But I decided academia was not for me—as much as I did and still do love philosophy—and decided I would try to make a living from websites starting in 1998. I had learned to play Irish fiddle a few years earlier and actually made money teaching fiddle at that point for a year or so. (I still play for fun.) But around the same time, I first made money from a website called “Sanger’s Review of Y2K News Reports,” a leading and popular summary of news about the Millennium Bug.
Wikipedia. This led me to a job with Bomis, Inc., as editor-in-chief of Nupedia, in 2000. It was while in that role I started Wikipedia. The dot-com boom turned to bust in late 2000, and while Bomis did manage to get a lucrative advertising contract, the contract disappeared in 2001, which meant they had to lay off all their new hires. The site I had started for Bomis was already taking off exponentially, but it was not making them any money, so finally I was too laid off in early 2002, a little over two years after I started working on free encyclopedias. A year later I permanently cut ties with Wikipedia over disagreements over community management.
Project leader. That early experience cemented a sort of role I was to play for the next two decades. I became enamored of the idea of using the Internet to share knowledge. I was not quite an academic and not quite a programmer. I have done both, for money, but mostly what I have done is manage projects. But I am a nontraditional project manager, because my role has usually been combined with other startup-related roles, such as writer, editor, community leader, promoter, videographer, and generally whatever needs doing. Maybe a better description is “project leader,” which is a good description of what I did for Wikipedia and most other projects I have worked on, when I was not acting as an adviser or consultant.
Educational nonprofits. Though I love startups, I am in it for the potential it has to teach the world, not for the money. So I have found myself working mostly on nonprofits and innovative educational and reference projects. I have usually led projects for other people, as when Charles Boone, an elderly philanthropist—a true philanthropist—hired me to start WatchKnowLearn and Reading Bear. (Both websites are under different ownership and control at present, so I have no control over their currently aged appearance.) I have been offered good jobs, as part of credible startups, but usually have passed them by because I was working on some (smaller) project I cared more about, one that I thought might have a chance to help the world grow in knowledge.
Homeschooling. I taught my boys to read when from age 1. They were both reading chapter books by age 3. (My successful method was what led Mr. Boone to fund Reading Bear.) So I have spent a fair bit of my time in the last 13 years thinking about and teaching my two sons. This built on a long-standing interest in developmental and educational theory—background that helped significantly with educational projects I have worked on.
Online Knowledge Organizer. After I kept doing similar kinds of projects, such as the crowdsourced news summary project Infobitt, I claimed the title “Online Knowledge Organizer.” I did not set out to become one. In retrospect, it is not surprising that I should have moved into this role, considering that my Ph.D. specialization was in theory of knowledge. My philosophical interests and my career both have been driven by a fascination with systematizing knowledge. The Internet is a knowledge delivery system—or it could be if we used it that way. The combination of cheap publishing and the social aspects of Internet software have always held out the promise of educating the world. That is what has driven me toward the string of projects I have worked on.
What I’m Doing Now
Last January I launched Sanger Consulting with Sanger.io, and started accepting new clients. Let me share a few examples of what I have been doing for clients (who will remain unnamed), and then explain where I see this going.
Project planning with request for bids. I wrote a summary (but still fairly detailed) project plan with a request for bids for an app that a nonprofit wants to build, discussed them with multiple possible contractors (a few of which remarked on the useful detail of the document), and negotiated price reductions based on in-depth experience with this sort of app.
Market studies. For two different clients, I have prepared or am preparing in-depth written studies of markets: one, about the existing competition for a brand new kind of website (which we dub “social research”), and the other, for children’s educational apps. I can do this sort of analysis very quickly and accurately and in a way that applies directly to the project itself.
Feedback. Pretty much all my clients so far have gotten detailed and useful critical feedback on whatever they have built, whether they asked for it or not.
Study leading to video scripts. For one development shop with a very impressive app-building tool, I read about the tool, installed examples of it, and (using my handy programmer skills) set up a development environment for its use. With this study under my belt, I wrote two explainer video scripts for them to use, and our relationship continues.
White paper feedback. I gave detailed feedback on a white paper (both the text and the underlying business innovations represented in the text).
Advisory. I advised a young recent grad for a cut rate, read and gave feedback on relevant papers he wrote, and chatted about his project ideas.
New app project plan. I am mostly finished writing a project plan for an innovative news rating app that a startup wants to replace its current app with. This is a lot of fun. The document describes a plan for cheap quick tests of the idea, which is a good idea whenever possible.
At least one of the projects I’m helping with now will probably turn into a long-term project. But I intend to keep my hand in consulting generally, just so I have something to fall back on and so I can justify helping really interesting projects that pop up (as they seem to do quite randomly for me).
Out of all of the things above, the things I like to do most, I guess, are writing (I must like it since I do that so much for free here on this blog), giving detailed feedback on existing projects (explaining how to make them better), and developing new project plans.
I look forward to being able to spend the time developing the Encyclosphere; right now that must take a back seat to developing the consultancy. Also, eventually, I will write a proper book—not that I have not already written several book-length manuscripts. In fact, I have been working on one recently.