What Decentralization Requires

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:

  1. Self-ownership. Each user owns his own identity in the network.
  2. Data ownership. You own your own data; you control your own data, within the bounds of controlling law.
  3. 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).
  4. Platform-agnostic posting. Posting on one platform means posting the same thing on all platforms that are part of one big decentralized network.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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."
  3. 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 Want to Pay for a Good, Functioning WordPress Microposting Plugin

Skip down to the plugin requirements section

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.

It's urgent.

Background

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

If you already have a standardized place—your blog or web space—then isn't that where you should be able to do your microposting? After all, you should own your own data; so why not there? There's no better place.

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.

Basic requirements:

  1. 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.
  2. You must agree to release the code as open source only. Upload the repo to Gitlab, please. The KSF can hold the code, or you can.
  3. The "new micropost" and the "author's micropost archive" are both on the same page. They occupy a single column, as for example Twitter and Minds do. There is a clear visual distinction between the form for creating a new micropost and the list of old microposts, beneath the form.
  4. Let the blog's admins create microposts in an easy-to-use interface:
    • For admins only, the new micropost form appears at the top of the page, always open, i.e., never collapsed (as on Twitter). No other user roles see this.
    • Micropost text should be autosaved in the background (i.e., without the user having to do anything), and not in cookies but in the database.
    • When the micropost is submitted, it immediately (without page refresh) appears beneath the new post field.
    • Micropost character limit = 280. Include a nice, standard sort of interface for showing when the user is getting close to 0 characters, including a count of number of characters left.
    • On loading or refresh, the focus/cursor goes inside the form, at the end of any present text. Enter = submit. Submit button available too, same action.
    • Small button for attaching images and video is just below the field. It calls the same WordPress "Select or Upload Media" interface, I guess (seems right).
    • After selecting media, they appear just below the new post box, in a preview.
    • Note: microposts don't have titles.
  5. The rest of the page is devoted to displaying the author's older microposts:
    • In this version, the following, older microposts are just those by the author (the author's history). In the next versions, by micropost feeds followed.
    • Published micropost content design elements should include: small thumbnail of any media, linked user ID, micropost content, timestamp.
    • Each should appear in, or surrounded by, a box.
    • Single images and video thumbnails should appear in smallish thumbnail versions, not terribly full-sized versions, always landscaped. We want this looking like Twitter, not Instagram.
    • If there are two or more images, display the first two side-by-side. If this takes time, take the time to do it right. In a visual medium like this, it is important.
    • Clicking an image displays it in its own modal.
    • A like button (design as you wish, but something with an unsurprising, standard look and feel). Increments a local counter, that's all. Either on or off for each user session. Don't bother matching votes to users (or, not yet; we might later; this button is mostly experimental, so don't take a long time on it without consulting with me).
    • Small delete button in a not-too-prominent place and color (don't want it to stick out). Available only to admins, of course.
    • Desirement: handle Open Graph data in an intelligent way (like a Twitter card). The more full-featured, the better. Probably best saved for a later iteration, but whatever you can do now, grand. Nobody likes to see just a plain link without any preview. If you can do this, and simply want me to elaborate requirements, let me know. Or if you have any design decisions to make, let me have input on them. Generally, make it unsurprising and standard.
    • Desirement, please do if possible without much extra work: include a view counter. Increment the counter whenever the micropost is (locally, of course) loaded either as part of a page or on a list of posts (see below), or if the micropost's unique URL (see below) is loaded. I doubt this could be done without a lot of extra work, so, I won't expect it.
  6. Each micropost has its own unique page and URL, probably that of the corresponding WordPress post (assuming each micropost = a WordPress post), but definitely not based on the title (as microposts must not have titles). I don't especially care about the design of the micropost-only page yet, but there should be one. A modal, probably, but a regular WordPress post would be fine as well. It doesn't matter quite yet, though it will (so if you are inspired to work more on this, let me know so I can give you requirements).
  7. Pagination: your choice, either a traditional 30-microposts-per-page pagination feature or else an infinite scroll feature. I personally prefer the traditional sort (doubles as a sort of crude archive). But you decide. In either case, the UX should be standard and work well.
  8. RSS:
    • Include a file describing how we propose to extend the RSS standard, if at all. At the very least (I'm just guessing though), as a child of the <channel> element, there should be a new blogtype element, where the two possibilities are blog and micro. Please see this. 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 .
  9. Nice-to-have, not required yet (requirements available on request):
    • Editing.
    • 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.
    • Add a sidebar (for wide screens)/hamburger menu (for narrow ones) containing monthly-sorted archive. Archive pagination = 30 per page.
    • Basic search. Results page paginated as necessary.
    • 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.

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 @admin@larrysanger.org 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.


An ActivityPub WordPress plugin

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 @admin@larrysanger.org.

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?


An idea for theological self-education

I almost wrote: "a crazy idea for theological self-education"

Let me describe what I am doing, and how I might want to go on doing it in the future. This description has two parts: (1) the method I propose to use for studying the Bible, and (2) the method I propose to use for getting an "independent" degree, if I can possibly interest some qualified theologians.

How I will study the Bible, again

Beginning one year ago (December, 2019) I started reading the Bible cover-to-cover. I did so in 100 days, still finding time to look up answers to questions with the help of study Bibles and commentaries and suchlike. When I finished, I immediately began re-reading it with a little online study group, this time following an OT-once, NT-twice, all-in-one-year plan. I am of course doing more in-depth background study. Now that this pass through is about 80% done, and I am thinking about what I will do next.

One thing that is clear to me is that I will continue to study the Bible, although I will do so more slowly and carefully next time through (beginning in March). I have toyed with various ideas for concocting a Bible commentary of some sort, and I have all but decided on one particular approach. Namely, I will be answering a limited number of questions about the text, limited particularly by the amount of time I want to spend on each chapter. Maybe I will also prepare a little paraphrase, but maybe not. Here is the result of an experiment demonstrating this idea:

As a grad student, I made myself quite adept (in the opinion of my examiners) in my ability to explain the philosophy of David Hume and Thomas Reid, simply by going through the text and answering every hard question I could think to ask about the text. So I would like to do something similar with regard to the Bible.

If I get through the Bible in three years—again, OT once, NT twice—then I can spend only so much time on each chapter. On the other hand, reading more slowly, I will have time available to do research and writing that, reading faster, I would have to spend in just reading. This still might be too aggressive: it's about two chapters per weekday. On the other hand, that includes many short chapters, and it is actually only 52 verses per day, and that is assuming I get get weekends and two full weeks off every year. Besides, when I go through the NT the second time, I will be revising and adding to what I have already written.

I have thought about studying theology more systematically, which makes some sense, because not only am I a philosopher and have strong interests in theological questions, but I am also 180 pages through writing a book summing up my versions of (mostly philosophical) arguments for the existence of God. I have been chipping away at it a page here, a page there, a few pages per week for the last nine months or so. It has come steadily. (I have a growing mailing list of theologians and theology students who have offered to give me comments...although few have done so so far. Let me know if you are into theology and want to join the list. I will send new manuscript versions as I make them.)

Beyond work on that, perhaps I will somehow incorporate theological study into my reading of the Bible, but the Bible will remain my main focus. You see, whenever I crack open a book of serious theology, I read a page or two and immediately ask myself, "Why would I read this instead of the Bible, when I have not determined how I would answer many interpretative questions about the Bible itself? I mean, why go to all this trouble of struggling with the answers to specific questions about the meaning of the text (because that really is what theology is about, in my opinion) without first fully acquainting myself with the text? Would that not be much more efficient?"

On the other hand, I can see perhaps incrementally developing answers to a limited number of theological questions by reference to, and in the context of, relevant passages in the Bible. So I might have a question about Original Sin, and I might add new bits to the answer in light first of Genesis 3, and then later in light of texts from Paul. After all, a lot of the sort of questions I am inclined to ask about the text are questions concerning apologetics and theology.

But in any case, I will certainly be finishing this book about the arguments for the existence of God, and to do so I will want to review a fair bit of philosophical theology—the same sort of thing I used to teach to undergraduates in a philosophy of religion course at Ohio State, although now I would be reading at a higher level. I have actually started doing so already.

A theology degree by examination?

Since I am actually wrapping up my first draft of this book manuscript, called God Exists, I started hunting around for reviewers, theology types who were interested in discussing the issues and giving feedback. As I was thinking about this, though, it occurred to me that what I really need is some expert guidance. "Perhaps I might want to get a theology degree," I thought. And then it occurred to me that I sure do not want to go back to some modern, compromised, dysfunctional institution (which thinks it is doing absolutely fine). I mean, I don't have to. I don't need the degree; I want the learning. Still, wouldn't the degree be nice to have? In any case what I need is the help that would typically go with the degree.

So then I thought: "What about my old interest in degrees by examination?"

My latest thinking on that is: there would be nothing more inherently valuable about a degree from an institution like Harvard than a degree that were endorsed and "granted" by three Harvard faculty members. Traditional employers might respect the official degree, but what if I don't care about traditional employers?

Why not simply do the study for a particular degree in this way: you develop a portfolio (of some sort) with occasional help from experts, and then sit for a written and oral exam, and portfolio and thesis evaluation, by a panel of three more experts? Then when you say, "Oh, sure, I have an M.Div. But it is an Independent M.Div., or I.M.Div., granted by Jones, Smith, and Brown." Assuming those three are well-known, then why shouldn't this be respected as the equivalent of a traditional M.Div. that a thesis committee with those three on it would approve? Similar committees are responsible for determining all advancement in the context of big, bureaucratic educational institutions.

This might be revolutionary; but at this point, it is a revolution that I think needs to happen. We need to make the degree-granting process independent of giant, expensive, and increasingly totalitarian universities.

Of course, I might have trouble finding even one person who is willing to put his own reputation on the line by "granting" an "independent degree" to an independent scholar, or "recognizing" such. But I would be willing to serve as the student in such an experiment.

Any interested and qualified Bible scholars and theologians out there? Want to be on my committee? We would potentially show undergrads how to get such degrees outside of the traditional university system, too, which would be a great thing.

Besides, I won't be finishing anytime soon. So you'd have time to back out if you want. I won't be hurt, because I'm mostly after the knowledge as opposed to the degree.


A Good Man

Imagine—let us give him a name—Joshua. We say he is a good man. To say so in general is to say that he supports and preserves life wherever it is found. This is the essence of good action, but action springs first and foremost from feelings and motives, and therefore let us begin there. We may well imagine that Joshua’s actions toward others flow from a sense of benevolence, even love. His actions generally exhibit kindness, or helping because of fellow feeling, particularly helping those who are in need and in danger. That makes some sense, I hope. After all, those who who have plenty and are safe do not need his help.

There is something, we might say, natural or earthy about him; he is the human embodiment of the same kindness found at least occasionally throughout the animal world. Decency to others just seems to come naturally to him. You have no doubt been delighted to meet kindness in people like Joshua; it is not altogether uncommon. When circumstances permit, he uses his time, his abilities, and his wealth to help others, especially those who cannot help themselves so well—particularly, of course, his immediate dependents. He does this without calculation: it is simply obvious to him that it is the right thing to do.

As a supporter of life itself, we might well imagine Joshua to be a man married with a wife and children, all of whom he loves deeply and supports. He knows from common experience that he cannot stray outside of marriage without ultimately destroying the chances of making a happy marriage, to say nothing of contracting diseases. Moreover, he keeps himself fit, not only because he has a healthy love of his own life, but also so he can live long and provide well for his wife and children. He also avoids excessive drinking and drugs, again because he knows that this can ruin his health and his ability to live well. There are various words for this latter cluster of virtues: temperance, moderation, self-control, even purity.

Now, we must not imagine Joshua to be living in an idealized utopia. He lives amidst the same viciousness that can be found throughout animal- and humankind alike. He is beset by all the selfish, hostile, and strange psychology of people, in a particular culture with particular beliefs, practices, and government—some good, some bad, some downright evil. Many of his virtues are a response to less-than-perfect situations he finds himself in.

For example, Joshua lives among predators of various kinds. As a champion of life, as it were, he is gentle and caring, not unnecessarily violent. A habit of violence would make him a danger to others and himself, after all. But he is also strong and adept at fighting when necessary, meaning he is an excellent protector; although he avoids fighting whenever he can, he refuses to let violent, unjust bullies take advantage of the weak. For this, he needs courage above all, as well as the discernment to judge those who deserve his protection and those who have earned his enmity. In choosing who, how, and when to fight, he needs wisdom, or good practical judgment. He is no fool.

Let us suppose that, fortunately, he lives in a time and place of relative peace, so he need not fight constantly. Still, of course, life for Joshua is not all roses. He also has personal conflicts, not just in protecting other individuals but on his own behalf. These might be conflicts over money or property or a woman or any of a number of other things. Now, if there is one thing that repeated human experience teaches us about conflict, particularly when it is between powerful people and especially heads of state, it is that conflict can become extremely destructive, not just of relationships, but of lives—even entire states—even civilizations. Again, mere observation of daily life as well as history teaches that skill in avoiding conflict, when unnecessary or unproductive, is one of the best ways to preserve life.

Practical wisdom (or to put it negatively, not being a fool), already mentioned, is one key element in such conflict avoidance. A second is justice: a devotion to treating others fairly, without giving anyone any undue advantage or disadvantage, reward or punishment. Justice is crucial because the animal kingdom (not just human beings) have an in-built notions of fairness. Joshua is deeply sensitive to that.

A third is humility. Humility is closely allied with justice and bears special mention. This implies, ultimately, that Joshua does not particularly weigh his own life and its advantages over those of others; rather, he takes the real value of others seriously, and he weighs the value of his own life appropriately, fairly, justly, as one among many. Such humility follows, with justice, from his being, at root, a preserver and defender of life, and of all human life particularly.

Consider a person who lacks humility but instead acts out of pride. To say so is just to say that such a person consistently places his own life and happiness above all others; he will find himself acting in ways that most of us will recognize as selfish, mean, calculating, vicious, and cruel.[1] Such people are almost universally hated, at least eventually. They rarely become heroes, who sacrifice themselves in war or emergency, who rescue those in peril, who go out of their way to help the needy. Typically, it is only those who acknowledge the essential dignity and equal value of all human beings that are capable of the conflict-avoiding virtues of justice and humility, which are so universally applauded.

And that, of course, is how our Joshua is. All acknowledge him to be a humble man. This does not mean he is pliant and docile—he is no “pushover.” But, as I said, he avoids needless, foolish conflict, and he genuinely loves and helps others, precisely because he sees his life as one among many, each of which has intrinsic, precious value. And this humble self-evaluation manifests itself in an attitude of ease with and support of children, women, the poor, the elderly, the foreigner, and the bereaved. He has no reason to elevate himself above others, so naturally he does not.

Now, Joshua is not perfect. He makes mistakes. He can even act viciously, cowardly, foolishly, proudly, and selfishly at times; he is human. But he knows that others are, if anything, even less perfect than he is. It is natural, to some extent, for us to harbor resentment for past wrongs. Joshua avoids doing so, because he knows it will lead only to worse and worse conflict. He practices forgiveness, because that truly is essential to being able to interact with others in a way that really supports them. He also begs forgiveness when he knows he is wrong; he is quick to apologize and to express remorse, seeing this as again essential to smooth interaction with fallible human beings.

I could, but will not, go on at much greater length about how various essential virtues, such as I have listed, ramify into greater and greater details as special cases arise. But I do want to add one virtue which might be described as a “covering” virtue, which goes under various names: integrity, honor, decency, and righteousness. As I said before, Joshua is no fool. He reflects on his actions, is reasonably well educated, and he is familiar with the wisdom of his place and time. He reflects, to some extent at least, on the very fact that he is a being subject to moral constraints. So he does not merely happen to practice good habits or virtues as I have stated; this is no accident. Rather, he quite deliberately chooses and cultivates principles. That he lives up to a moral code is a matter of righteous pride for him—this “pride,” of course, is decidedly not opposed to the humility he also practices. The opposite of this better sort of pride is not humility but a sense of his own abject worthlessness: simply, he could not live with himself if he were to do certain horrible things, and he knows this about himself. The word dignity, in one sense, conveys the same thing.

I invite you to consider all of these life-supporting virtues together. I say that nothing could be more natural than these virtues that characterize Joshua’s life. If you confess that you are somehow unfamiliar with them, then you thereby also confess that you are immature, or perhaps incredibly idiotic, or else monstrous, inhuman, and lacking a soul.

Now, without exactly constructing a moral theory, I want you to notice that these various virtues do as it were militate in favor of life. They create and preserve life. They also enhance life; they make it better. Moreover, practiced in concert with others, these principles have the power to create splendid civilizations—which bring even higher degrees of flourishing life. Some such cluster of life-affirming virtues has been essential to the development of civilization on all the habitable continents of the Earth, wherever civilizations have taken root, some wealthier and powerful and some less. But in all of them, by whatever degree mixed with other, vicious tendencies, decent behavior has been regarded by the wise as a key element of a flourishing civilization. This is famously true of Israel, Greece, and Rome, but also of various Chinese dynasties, India, Muslim societies, and African tribes. All can be interrogated as to their moral ideals, and similar notes can be found in all of them.

I say “similar note” advisedly, and grasping this is important if you are to avoid misunderstanding me. I am certainly not saying that there have been identical moral principles throughout the world and throughout history. Clearly there have not; there have been great differences, especially on the details. For example, the precise Judeo-Christian principle of humility is hard to find among the ancient Greeks; but the Greeks did speak of a vice of hubris, overweening pride, which would inevitably be punished, and they did sometimes celebrate a virtue of modesty, or avoiding shameful behavior, and generosity or beneficence was regarded as a key virtue. But again, the Judeo-Christian notion of self-effacing humility and putting others first was foreign in ancient Greece. Still, the Greeks did have some notion of humility, and like everyone, they would have admired Joshua.

Is Joshua unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition? Or to the West? Surely not. Surely you know this sort of person. And he is admired wherever he is from, and held up as a paragon of virtue in all cultures. He is the sort of man that good people everywhere celebrate.

Am I wrong?


The Era of Centralized Social Media Is Over

For too long, we have made what has amounted to a Faustian bargain. If you post your comments, your pictures, your videos, your essays, your reviews—your content—on Big Tech's enormous centralized platforms, then Big Tech will give you free hosting, an audience if you compete well, and some content development tools. It seemed fair. At least, that is how they encourage you to think about this bargain.

But we have now awakened—only half-awakened, most of us—to the real costs of the arrangement. They are higher than we thought.

We donate much more than temporary use of our content. Since content hosting has grown more complex and your audience is built into their product, and especially since it is difficult if not impossible to move most of our content and audience to other platforms easily, we have also effectively donated control, if not ownership, over our content and our audience.

But we also donate ourselves. We donate our valuable attention. We donate our freedom and autonomy, when the corporations decide what we may or may not upload or view, and whether others may or may not view our contributions. We donate our good name, our public support, for the very medium we use. We rent out our very minds when we open ourselves to manipulation by the controllers of these platforms. By our participation, we endorse this treatment as legitimate, no matter what indefensible things these corporations do.

There is also another thing we receive—another important part of the Faustian bargain—that is worth dwelling on. We receive a shot at popularity. We get a chance at an audience, at "friends" and "followers," who "like" what we produce, who amplify our voices. Who doesn't want friends and followers liking and amplifying us? And so we are hooked.

Is this exchange really worth it? Really?

We have been assuming that it is. I say it is objectively speaking a terrible arrangement that benefits them and mostly harms us, or most of us. Why do we agree to it, in that case? Because "they" have control over our social lives. We will be lost without the audience, the attention! And because the threat of that loss is so terrifying that most people will put up with increasingly obnoxious treatment as "the price you gotta pay." It seems like a good example of the Stockholm syndrome.

I think the exchange is not worth it. I will not speak for you. But I can say confidently that it is not true of me. Since, last year, I declared that what I really wanted was decentralized social media, I have felt rather dirty as I used Twitter and YouTube. I admit it—I made excuses myself. "This is the only way I can get my voice out there effectively," I told myself. Of course, I knew it was not true. I could write for publication. I could use my blog. "I'd be abandoning my peeps!" But nah. Nobody needs me there very much, and if they love me that much they can always come to the blog. "I would be giving up the fight (on Twitter) for freedom and justice!" I'm not Superman, and if my voice is really needed, I can probably fight more effectively on my blog and for publication.

All of those things strike me as being excuses because I liked the attention. The real bargain, and what makes the bargain demonic (so to speak), is that it involves receiving the attention of others, which merely feeds our ego, in exchange for something much more valuable: control over us by people we despise. When you get down to it, most of us are slaves to their system in exchange for the main thing we are after: evanescent, ultimately unimportant narcissistic pleasure. Is that what you really want and need?

It took this latest outrage by YouTube, threatening to delete any video that talks about the 2020 election fraud, to make me rethink my attitude toward contributing in any way to the Silicon Valley monsters.

So I am going to stop using my Twitter and YouTube accounts. I am not entirely sure what I will do with them. As to Twitter, I might keep it operational but just use it as a way to promote this blog and nothing more. I might completely shut down my YouTube channel. I am fairly sure I will be moving all my YouTube videos to my Bitchute channel (the move has already started), but whether it will be their final destination, I am not sure. I really want to support fully decentralized networks, so that I can have total control, right here in my own web space, of everything I want to put out there. Wouldn't that be nice? Is it really too much to ask?

In any event, I am highly motivated right now to leave the Big Tech monsters behind. I am exiting their Faustian bargain. I am 100% committed to owning and controlling my own content and audience in the future. I have talked a lot about this, but it is finally time to make the last, necessary, hard changes to make it real.


How to Solve Email

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.

You still have the freedom to do this. Use it!

This is another installment in my series on how I’m locking down my cyber-life.


My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

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.

Why Neutrality?

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.

Buy it!


How to Fix Social Media in Three Easy Steps

The social media bullies—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more—constantly violate our digital rights. That is the problem. The solution is to wean us off these social media giants, somehow. You own your own data and decide what you see (or not) for yourself. You subscribe to people, period, not to people's accounts on this-or-that service. That is the dream of "decentralizing social media."

This sounds nice, but it turns out to be too vague and complicated to be helpful. So I have been thinking about this. I have been asking, "What do I want?" Here is my answer, and if it works for me, it should work for everyone.

(1) I want a plugin to let me post on social media from this WordPress blog. I want to be able to go to a sparkly new, easy-to-use page that allows me to post from here—from my completely self-owned web space—to my Twitter and Facebook feeds and also (this is actually the important part) to a new reusable feed, like this blog feed. I do not want to have to go to Twitter to get my message out. Why should I have to? I should be able to post from here. Nobody can censor me or throttle me here. And you can have this same plugin yourself. Maybe you are a nasty troll, and you get kicked off everywhere, but I happen to like you, and I want the unadulterated you. I can come look at your feed, or better yet, I can get a feed reader that does not censor you, unless I decide I want you removed from my feed (see the next point). Come on, how hard should that be?

(2) I want to be able to view other people's posts from here, too. In other words, I want this plugin to go about and fetch posts wherever they are (well, maybe it will be more complicated than that; see (3)), bring them back here, and show them all in a feed that I can rearrange however I like. I can make posts public or private. I can arrange posts by social media service, or combine them all together. I can combine Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Mastodon, and pretty much everything. Why should I not be able to? And here is the really great part. I can subscribe to other people's feeds of the sort described under (1) above. It should be an open network, not a bunch of separate silos. I can arrange posts chronologically or according to fancy algorithms, including ones I build myself. Of course, I should also be able to reply to people from here. Again, this is an obviously useful thing. Why does it not already exist? Come on, developers, make it already. I want to start using it!

(3) Tools facilitating this need to be built. There are two main tools that will make this system feasible. The first tool is some social media content standard, like ActivityPub, but for individual posters like you and me, not whole social media servers like Mastodon.social or Gab.com, let alone giant silos Twitter. The second tool is an aggregator. Developers will need a massive, constantly growing database that slurps up all the social media content, coupled with an amazing API that and acts as a back end that serves the posts. This way my little blog does not have to go and separately fetch all the feeds individually. At scale, that would be super-slow; it would not work. If I follow 1,000 people my little server is not going to individually ping 1,000 feeds. It needs someone to constantly be doing that on behalf of all the blogs and other apps built on top of this decentralized social media network. And then of course if one aggregator censors certain people, fine; I should be able to use a different, more open aggregator.

And that, boys and girls, is how to decentralize social media!

So, developers, can I have that as a Christmas present this year? OK? Thanks.

If you like this idea, share it far and wide, and maybe some developer will see it and actually make it for all of us. Wouldn't that be great?


The Future of the Free Internet


I AM—I flatter myself—a truth-seeker. That is part of the reason I have spent so much of my life studying the standards of truth. So, when given the opportunity to start a free encyclopedia, I began to philosophize about free encyclopedias; I developed a vision. The task is fascinating since an encyclopedia is, after all, a compendium of truths.

You might well think my vision came to fruition. After all, Wikipedia now stands triumphant, seemingly, as the largest, most popular, most global encyclopedia in history. But, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, my vision appears to me in a twisted, monstrous form, which I disown. Wikipedia is of no great help to truth-seekers. I would prefer to be known as the project’s ex-founder.

Wikipedia now defends Establishment views, and the Establishment loves it for that reason. But it began as an idealistic, democratic project, one that would bring the world together to represent all of human knowledge, in all its messy, fascinating glory, on a neutral playing field. No more. It has been transformed into a thuggish defender of the epistemic prerogatives of the powerful. It began as an outgrowth of the open source software movement and its deeply decentralizing and democratic tendencies. In time, its operations became a black box, an enigma thriving on anonymity and the dark arts of dishonest social games and back-room deals. It is a mockery of an “encyclopedia anybody can edit.”

Wikipedia’s moral decline—for its decline is as much moral as epistemological—reflects that of the larger Internet. The short text and visual nature of social media is a poor replacement for the relatively long-form intellectual discussions we used to have on blogs, Usenet, and mailing lists. This is not necessarily what all users wanted, but it is what Big Tech corporate executives pushed on us with their careful experiments in gamification and user experience. It is a machine, of which so many of us are cogs, brilliantly and dangerously addictive and attention-hogging, dumbing us down, radicalizing us,1 and amplifying voices in our ideologically separate silos. This state of affairs is similar to that of Wikipedia, which promotes a single silo, that of the Establishment. It absolutely refuses to consult the opinions and needs of readers, and in so doing, radicalizes its true believers and would simplify our grasp of complex many-sided truths, if we let it.2

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. [more]

Excerpt From
Larry Sanger, Essays On Free Knowledge, Ch. 12, “The Future of the Free Internet”
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