Exploring decentralized chat and microblogging platforms

Free Connection

© Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

© Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Article from Issue 262/2022
Author(s):

Diaspora, Friendica, and Mastodon are free and decentralized microblogging platforms that keep you in control of your data.

Social media platforms are well established as an important means of communication for corporate environments as well as for personal users. Most users are aware, however, that data sovereignty is a significant problem in the social media space: Almost all leading platforms collect and aggregate user data for advertising purposes. In addition, government organizations sometimes make use of this information. In the USA, for example, providers are legally obligated to hand over data about their customers to investigative authorities such as the FBI after receiving a National Security Letter. Many users also worry about their data becoming exposed due to an attack, and centralized services pose a higher risk for attack, as the data is concentrated on a relatively small number of servers.

The problems associated with the massive, proprietary social media platforms have caused some companies and home users to pay more attention to short message services based on open source projects. These open source solutions are free of data mining, and their decentralized nature makes them less susceptible to the security problems associated with the Internet giants. This article examines some leading open source alternatives in the social media space.

All three of the tools described in this article support ActivityPub, a free protocol for supporting cross-platform social networks [1]. If two social media platforms support the ActivityPub protocol, they can exchange messages.

Diaspora

The Diaspora project [2], which is supported by the Diaspora Foundation, is a decentralized network whose servers (pods) form a globally distributed system. Diaspora's feature set is similar to industry giants Twitter and Facebook. Users can operate with a high degree of anonymity and often do not reveal their true identities. In addition, users retain all rights to their data, which rules out personalized tracking. Tech-savvy users who want to support the project can install dedicated Diaspora pods, where their data is kept secure locally.

To create a Diaspora profile, press the Join! button top right on the project website, and register using the green button that then appears. A small selection of suggested servers will appear for you to join. If you would like to see a complete list of all pods, including various snippets of statistical data, click on the list icon bottom right, which leads to a display showing availability information, locations, and the numbers of users (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Diaspora lists all available servers on its website.

To log in to one of the servers, simply click on its URL. You can only create an account on pods that have a yes in the logins table column. After you select a server, press the Create account button in the top right-hand corner of the splash page. All you need is a valid email address, a username, and a password. You can also upload a profile photo and specify your areas of interest. The Awesome! Take me to diaspora button finally takes you to the message area (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Diaspora message window offers a convenient overview of available options.

When you get there, you will see the message stream on the right, with various instructions appearing when you first access it. In the first box, you can directly enter a message; select the recipient in the Public button below. On the left is an options bar for various settings. In the activity bar at the top, you can click to select various activities and also define your user settings with the help of a drop-down menu.

To change your user profile or adjust individual settings, click on your username in the top right-hand corner and then select Profile.

For many actions, emails will be sent to your stored address. The NSFW (not safe for work) option lets you highlight content that you do not want to appear while you are working. Accordingly, these messages do not appear in the conventional stream. This option is switched off by default, so you need to enable it manually.

Contacts lets you sort other users into groups, such as Family, Friends, Work, and Acquaintances. To organize one or more contacts in different groups, click on the desired group. Your contacts will then appear on the right-hand side of the window, arranged in a table.

Diaspora lets you to set up your own server, which is always integrated into the Diaspora network. To create a closed communication network based on Diaspora (without having to sacrifice functionality), you need to set up your own groups. Running your own pod involves some complex installation steps. The Diaspora developers provide somewhat outdated instructions for numerous Linux distributions.

Friendica

Friendica [3], which has been continuously maintained and developed since 2010, is one of the best-known free microblogging and chat services. Also decentralized, Friendica does not require a central server. You can connect with users on other Friendica servers or integrate contacts from Twitter, Diaspora, pump.io, and StatusNet into your message thread. Friendica also lets you share and distribute images. The software is modular and can be extended using plugins. On top of this, you can set up a Friendica server yourself and even make it publicly accessible.

On the project's website, after clicking on Public servers in the top right-hand corner, you will find a list of publicly accessible Friendica servers sorted by language. Choose a server, then connect to it by clicking on the given URL. The initial pages of the individual servers look almost identical. When you register, Friendica expects you to enter your name or pseudonym and an email address to match. If you already have a profile on another Friendica server, you can use it here, too. All you have to do is transfer it to the new server in the registration dialog.

After clicking the Register button, you will receive a message on the specified email account with a newly generated password. Using this password and your username, you can now log on to the server, following which you are taken to a splash page. On the left, the various settings and administrative options are grouped together, and the message stream appears in the middle. At the top you will find several buttons for notifications and access to the most important functions (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Friendica supports intuitive use.

To manage your own profile, click on your profile name in the top right-hand corner. In the context menu, use Edit profile to modify the basic settings.

Friendica offers detailed account management options that you can access by clicking on your username or avatar on the splash page. In the Account Settings dialog (Figure 4), you can define various security and privacy options or import contacts using a CSV file that you need to create separately. Use the Expiration Settings option to define how long posts remain visible before Friendica deletes them.

Figure 4: Friendica gives users a huge choice of account settings.

Friendica divides accounts into different types, which mostly differ in terms of how they handle contact requests. You can either manually accept requests for friends or followers or have them automatically sorted into categories. This does not work with accounts for discussion forums, however. You can also use several accounts simultaneously. The Settings | Manage Accounts menu lets you register your additional accounts and connect them to existing ones. If you are using a larger number of accounts in a larger organization, you will want to add administrators and authorized representatives with administrative rights.

You can access several external networks to add contacts. In Friendica, click Contacts | Add New Contacts in the main window to add a contact to your list. The name and interests search gives you an opportunity to link up with potentially like-minded people. Friendica also lets you read content from other platforms, such as Twitter, Mastodon, or Diaspora. However, to establish direct communication, you also need an account on the source server (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Contact management is unusually complex in Friendica.

In the Find people settings box, you can narrow your search for contacts based on various criteria such as similar interests. If you select the Local directory option, only the potential contacts on the source server where you are currently logged in will appear. Use the (Groups) access bar to assign your Friendica contacts to groups.

Like Diaspora, Friendica lets you install your own server. Download the source code from the project's website in the Use it | Install your own server menu. Detailed documentation is available on the Friendica website [4]. Please note that you need to meet some software requirements to set up a Friendica server. These requirements include, for example, a LAMP stack and specific versions of the PHP programming language and the Apache web server. The project page lists the individual applications in detail. Friendica does not require any specific hardware, so you can use an old computer system as a server.

Mastodon

Mastodon [5], under development by Eugen Rochko since 2016, is another decentralized microblogging platform. With around 5.1 million users on 3,786 servers right now, it is one of the better-known free services.

Registering is just as easy as with other decentralized networks: All you need is a valid email address; just enter a freely selectable profile name and choose a password. For subsequent logins, enter the specified email address and password to access a somewhat unusual, three-column interface (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Mastodon uses a three-column user interface.

On the right are numerous configuration and information tools. The message threads appear at the center, and a search function and input field for the messages (Toots) are available on the left. In the right column, you can adjust your profile in the settings dialog. To enable two-factor authentication (2FA), go to the Account dialog.

The community wizard is one of Mastodon's special features; you can use the community wizard to find meaningful groups quickly. Open the https://joinmastodon.org page in your browser. Then click on Get started; you are taken to a selection screen with various communities listed by category (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Mastodon offers a community wizard.

If you join a group, you are taken to the login and registration page for the Mastodon instance, where you can log in to the server. You will then arrive at a standard start page with the standard news stream. To follow the stream on the local instance, click on Local in the vertical option bar on the right.

It is important to note that users can log on to multiple instances simultaneously; however, profiles are not automatically transferred between individual Mastodon servers. To use a user profile you created on several instances, save it in a CSV file and then import it.

Like its competitors, Mastodon lets users host their own servers. To host a server, you can either use dedicated hardware or host Mastodon in the cloud. The Mastodon documentation provides detailed information on the various options for hosting a Mastodon instance [6].

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