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Send in your ideas. Deadline December 1st, 2020.

 

GNU social

[GNU social]

GNU social is a free social networking platform, easily self-hostable and highly accessible, that enables both private and public decentralized communications. With NLnet NGI Zero's support, the project is undergoing a change of main focus from microblogging to groups and tags. With this, GNU social will be a space for communities where users can express their passions and explore new ones. Users will be able to immerse themselves in easily filterable content relevant to their interests, and to create and join communities. It's hard to pinpoint an existing alternative service that promotes the same level of functionality in terms of tagging, filtering and connecting with people that share common interests. Especially considering the available degree of accessibility, customization and expansion via plugins.

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.

GNU social is a federated social network built around privacy and trustworthy technology, as the GNU operating system and project are built on free software (free as in freedom, specifically to run, study, change and distribute your software as you please). GNU social is technology for communities to run and host their own social media. This project will add features to easily and flexibly create groups and tag, filter and connect so you can connect with anyone that shares your interest, all under your own control and without infringing your privacy.

Run by GNU

Logo NLnet: abstract logo of four people seen from above Logo NGI Zero: letterlogo shaped like a tag

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. Applications are still open, you can apply today.