Calls: Send in your ideas. Deadline August 1st, 2022.

Bonfire Search & Discovery

Improving search and discoverability in the Fediverse

Bonfire is a modular ecosystem for federated networks. The project creates interoperable toolkits that people can use to easily build their own apps to meet their specific needs. Users are then free to interact with multiple people and groups using these apps hosted on their own device, regardless of what federated software these other people use. Federated topics within the Bonfire ecosystem can consist of a hashtag, a category in a taxonomy, a location, etc. This enables users to find a topic they are interested in, see everything that was tagged with that (publicly or in their network), and follow it to receive any new tagged content. This will be interoperable with existing fediverse apps like Mastodon without requiring extra development on their end, and will create a decentralised graph of topics that can help relevant information flow from instance to instance.

All content on a Bonfire instance (including remote content coming in via follows or federated topics) will also be aggregated in a local search index with which the user can search their own data, information from people or groups they follow, as well as content from topics or locations they are interested in from around the fediverse. This search will happen locally on their device (which is a plus for privacy), with results appearing instantly while typing a query, and being able to filter the results (e.g., by object or activity type, hashtags, topics, or language). Every line of Bonfireā€™s code is available to be used or forked, in a collection of libraries that can be assembled and re-assembled to create all kinds of full-featured apps. One example is Bonfire's mutual aid extension where users can post and search for requests and offers across different instances according to topic and/or geographical location.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

A lot of the people we talk to, the media we watch and the services we search for are found in or through using social media. For users these platforms offer easy and usually free services to send public and private messages, stay updated on relevant news and promote your business or product.

But the services these social media offer do actually come at a personal and societal cost. The platforms are not neutral exchange platforms like the rest of the internet. They do not just deal with all messages they receive in the same way. Part of the corporate social network model is to give some messages preferential treatment over others, i.e. there is a noticeable bias towards those that pay. People only have so much attention they can spare every day, and the companies decide what you cannot skip based on what they get paid. This would be equivalent to you always seeing the newsletter from Coca Cola at the top of your email client, but only half of the emails from your father or local charity because they are automatically put in a folder out of sight. This "pay to play" creates a knockout race for attention fueled by commerce, not by arguments, emotions, ethics or societal considerations.

This exposure is worsened by the fact that the platforms monetize your data and behaviour. Social media companies create fine-grained personal profiles, that even include attributed political, relational and other deeply personal matters. By clustering people, profiles becomes more crisp and valuable. But they tend to push people step by step to more extreme options. You liked marijuana. You like drugs. Maybe you like cocaine? You visited a site with conspiracy theories. Well, here is another one which is even more incredible. When these profiles are made available to advertisers at a premium price, psychometrics such as used by Cambridge Analytica (and others), these allow to influence subsets of the population in both subtle and crude ways.

These selfish business practices continuously raise fundamental societal questions: how do we feel about social media being used by foreign state actors to influence democratic elections through very personalized (and misguided) political campaigns? And how do we contain the algorithmic pressure towards global extremes, rather than brings people together as one would expect from a social network?

Another problematic issue to address is monoculture. Social networks do not allow to cross the boundary of their service in an easy way, leading to social lock in and a "winner takes all" scenario. This limits choice, but also exposes users to legal dangers. Confidential discussions through "private" messages for instance turn out to be not so private, such as the case where a United States got the social network Twitter to hand over the personal communication from European human rights activists and a member of the Icelandic parliament over a severe human rights violation by the USA military. The European Court of Human Rights would certainly not have allowed this, but it happened outside of our jurisdiction - even if all the actors never left Europe.

The federated universe, abbreviated to fediverse, wants to offer social media users a more transparent, ethical and decentralized environment to talk, find and connect. This is done through a plethora of completely independent servers hosted by organisations and individuals around the world. Each has their own policy, each has their own community and reputation. But they can all interoperate. If you don't like any of the existing options, or want to do something different or innovative, you download some open source software and start your own. If you feel some server is toxic, or misbehaves, it just takes one click to stop listening to what is being said. And there is no need to share data with anyone, if you want to. Every node can essentially be a complete social network in itself.

The fediverse is not confined to what a single company wants to do - in every way. That means a broader offering in terms of design, usability and user experience, in terms of technology, ethics and culture. Essentially every server is a full-fledged social network in itself, able to talk to other social networks when it wants. People can use the fediverse for traditional social networking, but they can also integrate it with other services such as online video sharing, all without the fear of having their data being monetized or their activity profiled. Switching from closed social networks to the fediverse contributes to privacy and trust, by enabling users to understand and control who sees their data. The fediverse as a network of social networks, is also more resilient than a single network could ever be.

For people to join the fediverse and share their thoughts, pictures, opinions and personal tastes, there is a need for a wide range of applications and services that make it easy and intuitive to connect. Bonfire can help make it easier for fans of the fediverse to build their own app for their own specific needs. This can help grow the very active community of fediverse developers to include fans of the technology who might not have a programming background, but are passionate about privacy-friendly, self-hosted networking that puts the people first.

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This project was funded through the NGI0 Discovery Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825322.

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