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About 69% of adult Americans use Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s a big number, and that bigness is also the platform’s biggest problem. There are privacy worries, the spread of misinformation or just the feeling that you don’t need all these people looking at pictures of your life.
Facebook’s solution is more private groups where people can share and feel comfortable. There’s also hope in private messaging, like people using Apple’s iMessage group chats as a smaller sort of substitute for a social network. But also, what if you just built your own?
Host Molly Wood spoke with Darius Kazemi, a programmer and artist who recently wrote a guide to building your own small-scale social media network, and it got a surprising amount of attention. He built one called Friend Camp that people support through the donation platform Patreon. Wood asked him why he thought people would want to dump all these existing services to program their own social networks. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Darius Kazemi: I think some of it comes to the privacy part. People have tried to start services [saying], “We’re like Facebook, but we’re more private.” I think that’s only going to reach a small number of people. I think what people want is the ability to talk to their friends on their own terms. And that’s what I’m encouraging people to do using this new decentralized technology.
Molly Wood: What is the ideal size for a network, for talking to a small group of friends?
The idea with what I’m proposing … is creating a layered space where you have your private space with messages that don’t leave the computer that you control.Darius Kazemi
Kazemi: I would place it somewhere around 50 or 100 people on a private group node. But I’m not talking about cutting people off from the rest of the world, either. The idea with what I’m proposing and what I’m doing is creating a layered space where you have your private space with messages that don’t leave the computer that you control. But then you can also subscribe to other people outside and post to other people outside. Friend Camp, which is the server that I run for about 50 people, we have access to about 10,000 different servers, so other computers and communities out there totaling a few hundred thousand or maybe even a million accounts that we could be in contact with.
Wood: So who’s this for? Who should do this?
Kazemi: I think right now it’s people who have safety concerns and really want to control where their information goes and who gets to see it. I think it’s people who want to have a community with no targeted advertisements or algorithms that you don’t control. The thing is, I’m OK with algorithms and controlling your social media feed if you control the algorithm. But when you’re on sites like Facebook and Twitter, you don’t control it, the companies do. So the idea is for small communities that really want to have this level of control. And even if it’s not like, “I personally have control over this thing,” it’s my friend or this person who I know socially does have control. So I can go to them as opposed to having to try to get the attention of Mark Zuckerberg,
Wood: It sounds like you might be saying that maybe community doesn’t need to be a business.
Kazemi: That is exactly what I’m saying. I use the metaphor of free public libraries as a community mapping for this thing. And to talk about the money side of things, the way that I run Friend Camp is we have a Patreon. It’s just a convenient way to collect monthly dues from people who are on Friend Camp, and people pay between zero and $5 a month for their social media experience. It doesn’t cover my time as a developer. If I were doing this for a job, I would want to be paid a lot more money for it. But it’s a service that I’m giving myself as much as anyone else, and the material costs of the hosting and the domain name and all that stuff are covered by the community.
Wood: What is the goal? Do you think it’s to provide people with this alternative? Should they want it and have the skills to pull it off? Or do you hope that you will spark something bigger?
Kazemi: The goal is I would like this to be an option for all sorts of people, not just people who know someone like me, who is both technically and community savvy. I would like for this social media software to be available through, for example, WordPress, if you want a WordPress blog. There are 100 companies you could go to that you can pay X dollars a month to, and they will host your WordPress blog for you. So I would like to see the commoditization of the hosting of that thing. My next goal is to run workshops. I already have a bunch lined up. And I basically want to tour the country and the world and teach people how to do this thing. And teach them how to teach other people. So it’s really like a person-to-person knowledge dissemination.
Wood: This is what the internet used to be like, right? There used to be bulletin boards. And there used to be blogs, [which] were a version of decentralization. It was like take control of your own media or your own information flow. If the history of the universe is that it just gets subsumed into some company that comes along and makes it easier with advertising, how do you keep the library alive?
Kazemi: I agree with you. I think that any technological innovation that can be centralized will be centralized. I think the solution is to come up with features that can’t be centralized. For example, one best practice that I do for my social networks site is when I bring a new user on, I sit down with them for one to three hours, either virtually through Skype or something, or in person if they happen to be in my geographic area. And I explain to them everything that they’d want to know. I answer their questions, and I even create custom features for them, like tweaks that might make their own lives a little bit easier. And that’s the thing that simply doesn’t scale. If you get people used to and wanting that kind of nonscalable thing, then there’s no economic incentive for a big company to offer that to people because it doesn’t make money.
Wood: I think there’s this sense that if everybody’s in one big community, you have visibility. And that right now some of the competitors that have sprung up to Facebook or Twitter are small communities that seem to end up getting real toxic. How do you avoid, or can you, or do you even want to avoid creating a whole bunch of small communities that are their own echo chambers?
Kazemi: Something I like to point to, to give an example, is I’m an Iranian American. And I can’t stop people from meeting in a basement somewhere and talking about how Iranian Americans should be stripped of our citizenship due to being terrorists or something like that. I think providing these private [online] spaces allows people a space to imagine a better world. And to people who want me [or other Iranian Americans] gone, maybe a better world looks like one without me in it. And I don’t like that. But [a private online community] also gives me the space to imagine my own better world with my people. And then we can take that out into the public and test these ideas.
Related links: more insight from Molly Wood
Kazemi’s idea reminds me so much of the internet that I grew up with, which was a motley collection of bulletin boards and then-blogs that you could just put your own thing out there and no gatekeepers could control you. And you’d run your own email server so no big company could spy on you. It’s nice to think that that kind of ethos is still alive and kicking.
Also, some research from our friends at Edison Research back in March showed that people are leaving Facebook by the millions, even if they’re not leaving social media specifically. So maybe they really do want an alternative that could be like a site created by you, helpful friend with programming skills!
I’m just in the mood for a little idealism right now, folks. You understand.