NB: This is the first in a series of posts where I will share my notes on my readings of the minutes of the Social Web Working Group. Future posts to come.
As readers of the blog know by now, Goal 2 of the blog is to document my writing of my next book, which I’m tentatively titling Move Slowly and Build Bridges: Mastodon and the Struggle for Ethical Alternative Social Media.
To that end, I have been studying the workings of the Social Web Working Group (SocialWG), a W3C standards group which ran from 2014 through 2017 and ultimately produced, among other things, ActivityPub, the protocol that underpins much of the fediverse.
I figure I cannot tell any stories about Mastodon without understanding the production of ActivityPub. Looking through the SocialWG meetings, it’s quite clear that Mastodon and ActivityPub’s histories are deeply intertwined. Mastodon adopted ActivityPub it prior to AP being a Candidate Recommendation (the penultimate stage in the W3C recommendation process). Mastodon is also a key reason why the Social Web Working Group got a 6 month extension for their work in 2017 – see this meeting. They even set up a Mastodon instance (w3c.social) to show W3C members that software.
This post will discuss the early period of the SocialWG (circa 2014 through 2015). I’ll follow up later with more posts and notes.
Importantly, I need to offer a couple caveats.
First, I didn’t participate in the group. Instead, I’m basing much of this off the meeting minutes, as well as blog posts by SocialWG members, and to a lesser extent on informal discussions and formal interviews with some of the members. It’s possible – likely, even – that I will get details wrong, not simply because I wasn’t there, but also because this poor English major was not trained in computer science. The notes here are things that caught my eye. If you have corrections or critiques of my interpretation, please do share in the comments! And, as I talk to more people, I might change my interpretations, as well.
Second, my focus is predominantly going to be on ActivityPub. However, the SocialWG produced quite a few other standards. That said, in focusing on the group’s history, I should cover a lot of ground, even with my emphasis on ActivityPub.
Third, the meeting minutes are not verbatim transcripts (which makes sense – meeting minutes almost never are). They were taken by volunteers from among the SocialWG, who were trying to transcribe phone conversations while an IRC chat was going. So, any quotes I include here should not be taken as verbatim statements. In addition, given the sheer number of times I read statements such as “who’s speaking now?” and “I can hear weird noises” – these were largely telephone conferences, after all – I would take any attributions here with a major grain of salt, as well. Take, for example, the following exchange from this meeting:
harry: so a cheapo understanding of heirarchy
… am confused when I read the spec
scribe: was that harry or dret ?
sorry if I set the wrong one
Notice in this example statements are attributed to harry when they were actually said by dret. So, I will tend to cite statements and ideas with minimal attribution unless I am 99% certain the statement can be attributed to the person.
Let’s dive in!Read more...
I don’t often do “Year in Review” posts, but… this past year has been something else. I’ve started a new job in a new country, I published another book, and my area of research (alternative social media) got a lot of media attention. In addition, I’ve formulated a new book project – and in doing so, I almost regret the name of this blog! But don’t worry: the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream is still alive, even if it is a bit more self-reflexive about what FOSS means.
I’ll do this post in roughly chronological order. Buckle up: it’s a long post.Read more...
This Christmas season, we all received a gift: Ro is blogging about Playvicious.social. He currently has four posts with more on the way:
I came across Ro’s work while Playvicious was running sometime in 2018, and I made a note of it – and then forgot. I got distracted by a major project: my co-authored book on disinformation, Social Engineering. I put off my Mastodon/fediverse studies in order to understand social media and propaganda, especially in relation to US presidential elections.
While I don’t regret diving into disinformation, I do regret not witnessing Playvicious’s run. It was an early, if not the first, Black-run instance on the fediverse. It was a source of joy for a lot of people. As Ro puts it, the idea of “play vicious” is
The energetic, unfiltered, sometimes uncomfortable, but the relentlessly progressive pursuit of understanding ourselves through creativity. It defined us as a group of thinking and feeling people who wanted to burn away all unnecessary details and get to the essence of why we loved what we loved and exist in that space for however long we could.
But that energy attracted some hate. As Ro will no doubt relate, Playvicious.social faced harassment and racism. Ro shut it down after watching as his moderators were traumatized.
I missed its run online. And I really regret that.
But Ro (and others – I think more folks are starting to talk about PV) is giving all of us a great gift: an inside view of this most important Mastodon instance.
The story Ro is telling is intensely personal. It’s also deeply important for the big questions of the fediverse, such as content moderation, how instances should relate to one another, and how societal injustices are replicated again and again online.
As Mastodon grows, a big stain has been not only the end of Playvicious.social, but also the experience of Black Mastodon members more generally. When people left Twitter after Musk’s takeover, it included the community known as Black Twitter. But Black Twitter ran into casual racism on the fediverse, and currently people are struggling to create #BlackMastodon. (I recommend following that hashtag and boosting posts).
Fortunately, while PV.social is gone, Ro is not done. He’s building new software to this day, he hosts a microblog (a Misskey instance), and he’s contributing moderation tools to the fediverse – even in spite of all he and his colleagues went through.
I’m grateful to Ro (and other PV folks) because I believe I cannot write my current book (Goal 2!) about Mastodon without talking about Playvicious.social. But it’s also not my story to tell. It’s Ro’s and other folks’ story. My job is to talk about it in the contexts that I can dig up through research and interviews.
Just a quick note: I have a new journal article, co-authored with Diana Zulli: “The Digital Covenant: Non-centralized Platform Governance on the Mastodon Social Network.” The abstract is:
The majority of scholarship on platform governance focuses on for-profit, corporate social media with highly centralized network structures. Instead, we show how non-centralized platform governance functions in the Mastodon social network. Through an analysis of survey data, Github and Discourse developer discussions, Mastodon Codes of Conduct, and participant observations, we argue Mastodon’s platform governance is an exemplar of the covenant, a key concept from federalist political theory. We contrast Mastodon’s covenantal federalism platform governance with the contractual form used by corporate social media. We also use covenantal federalist theory to explain how Mastodon’s users, administrators, and developers justify revoking or denying membership in the federation. In doing so, this study sheds new light on the innovations in platform governance that go beyond the corporate/alt-right platform dichotomy.
The paper is also available as a pre-print on H-Commons.
And I also published an op-ed in the Toronto Star this morning. The op-ed discusses the fact that Twitter is blocking links to Mastodon instances, including my own, Scholar.social. However, Twitter is not blocking links to Gab, the alt-right social network that hosts self-identified Nazis. It seems Musk is concerned about competition from well-moderated, tiny Mastodon instances, but not so much from the alt-right.
In the hours since I published the op-ed, things have gotten even more intense, with Twitter starting a policy that bans any promotion of alternative social media (and some big corporate ones, too). The glaring exception? Gab.
Elon Musk has crazy timing.
He completed his purchase of Twitter right before the annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, held in Dublin in November of this year.
Coincidence? I think not.
The Musk takeover of Twitter prompted a conversation at AOIR’s meeting in Dublin in early November: should AOIR start a Mastodon (specifically, a Hometown) instance? As someone who has been advocating for alternative social media for years, I was all about this. Internet researchers have been among the first to recognize the perils of corporate social media. But of course, AOIR members often deeply engage online, which means using those systems for their pleasures and professional opportunities.
As the old commercial says, there’s got to be a better way: a way to do social media but to do it on our terms. If the Musk takeover is the catalyst that pushes AOIR to adopt the fediverse, then as disturbing as things have gotten, at least there will be a positive outcome.
Spurred on by Aram Sinnreich, we started having informal discussions at AOIR’s 2022 meeting about starting up our own social media. What would it entail? How would we do it? The informal discussion involved some of my favorite AOIR folks: Nik John, Adrienne Massanari, Nick Couldry, Pat Aufderheide, and Esther Hammelburg (if I left anyone out, please let me know).
The conversation went well but we all knew there was a lot of work ahead. Last week, I met with the AOIR Executive Committee to continue the work. They’ve agreed to my posting about this process to this blog.
This post is meant to do two things. First, it documents how an academic association deliberates over whether and how to establish a presence on the fediverse. That ought to be useful for other organizations considering doing the same. I know there are quite a few.
Second, my hope is that by sharing AOIR’s deliberations, the rest of the fediverse can have some insight into our decision to proceed (should it come to that). Given that AOIR members engage in Internet Research, there may be trepidation about AOIR joining the fediverse – would AOIR come to the fedi to study it? To turn its users into objects of research?
Put another way, will AOIR be a good organizational citizen of the fediverse? Will it host a well-moderated instance? Will it respect fediverse cultures and norms? Please read on, fedifriends. I hope that it’s clear AOIR is going to do it right – otherwise, AOIR is not going to do it at all.Read more...
A short FOSS Finds this time, but it contains something worth watching out for.
This week I attended a web seminar run by Darius Kazemi (creator of the Hometown fork of Mastodon), Kat Lo, a community moderator, and Aaron Huslage, a computer security professional. It was about Trust and Safety on the fediverse. The event was sponsored by Darius’s employer, Meedan.
I believe the webinar (or a version of it) will be available in video form. I will watch for it and post an update here when I see a link. For now, if you’re interested in content moderation, I’d strongly recommend watching out for a video version of the webinar – especially because of the Q and A.
The webinar itself was quite a good overview of moderation on the fediverse, talking about blocking, muting and the like, so if you need to know more about that, it’s worth a watch.
But during the Q and A, I heard the most interesting stuff. Darius and others talked about a lot of emerging projects that might be worth investigating. For example, co-op moderation collectives, which would offer their moderation know-how to new fediverse instances. I don’t have specifics here, but this sounds fascinating! Also, Darius talked about forthcoming legal guides to running instances. Again, no specifics yet, but something to watch for. Or, reach out to Darius – he seems really interested in helping others with these issues.
Elon, what are you doing? I don’t know. None of us knows.
But it appears you’re tearing Twitter apart. And this is driving people to Mastodon. I will talk about Mastodon at some other point – I am, of course, writing a book about it.
Here, I want to talk about the fall of Twitter and what I think it means.
The TL;DR version is: I don’t think Twitter was all that important.Read more...
NB: I just published a piece in_ The Conversation _about a recent Pew Research report, “The Role of Alternative Social Media in the News and Information Environment”. I argue that the authors get “alternative social media “ wrong. I lay out some of my concerns in that Conversation piece, but I only had about 900 words to work with.
In this longer blog post, I wanted to give more context for what I’m saying, especially because the Pew report is pretty good work, with the definitional exception. Here I want to explain a bit about why Pew researchers can say “alternative social media” and only refer to exerable sites like Gab and Parler.
This post will also be the skeleton for some upcoming talks I’m going to give, one at the Association of Internet Researchers and another at Malmö University.Read more...
There’s a new paper out about Mastodon! But unfortunately, it’s a deeply problematic one.
Nobre et al’s “More of the Same? A Study of Images Shared on Mastodon’s Federated Timeline” is a paper that is now published in proceedings from International Conference on Social Informatics. (Unfortunately, it’s not open access.)
Because I’m currently researching the fediverse and blogging about that process, I thought I’d write up notes on this paper.
Why this paper? Frankly, because I’m pretty certain it violates the community norms, as well as terms of service, of many Mastodon instances. It instantly reminded me of the controversial paper from Zignani et al, “Mastodon Content Warnings: Inappropriate Contents on a Microblogging Platform”, which resulted in a scathing open letter and the retraction of a dataset from the Harvard Dataverse.
Nobre et al’s “More of the Same” is a study of image-sharing. The authors claim that it is about image-sharing on Mastodon, but really their focus is on images they culled from Mastodon.social’s federated timeline. They pulled 4M posts from 103K active users, of which 1M had images. Since they pulled posts from Mastodon.social’s federated timeline, they saw posts from 4K separate instances. The authors state that a “relevant number” of the images they found are “explicit.” They categorize the images as such after running them through Google’s Vision AI Safe Search system. They also run the images they find through Google’s image search to trace where the images came from and how they are shared on Mastodon. Ultimately, the authors don’t really make an argument, other than stating in passing that Mastodon needs better moderation, since people share explicit images.
In some ways, “More of the Same” lives up to its title: it’s more of the same poor scholarship that can be seen in Zignani et al (in fact, Nobre et al cite that controversial paper). Here are my critiques:Read more...
I’ve previously posted about Zotero “tips and tricks,” I have a brief review of the beta version of Zotero’s PDF system, and I have an overview of my workflow in Linux, but here I want to do a deep dive into how I conduct note-taking in Zotero. I imagine this can be part of a series where I talk about how Zotero notes flow into Zettlr and from there into drafting out ideas in Libreoffice Writer.Read more...
This time in FOSS Finds, we’ve got an academic paper on Scuttlebutt, an open source social networking protocol enabling an alternative social media system.
Mannell, Kate, and Eden T. Smith. 2022. “Alternative Social Media and the Complexities of a More Participatory Culture: A View From Scuttlebutt.” Social Media + Society 8 (3): 20563051221122450.
This is an open access academic article discussing Scuttlebutt, a social networking protocol that enables decentralized (and offline!) social media. The authors draw on three years of participant observation on Scuttlebutt: they use it, participate in its governance, and interview some of its users. Their main finding builds on what I’ve found in some of my work – that FOSS-based alternative social media may well offer greater participation than their corporate counterparts. After all, are you invited to discuss Facebook policy with Zuckerberg? Or weigh in on how algorithms sort what you see on Twitter? In contrast, FOSS ASM allow members to not only do social things, but also participate in governance and coding. Mannell and Smith find that Scuttlebutt takes these processes further, actively recruiting people to be in governance positions and recognizing non-coding work (like making user interface design decisions) through monetary contributions. Mannell and Smith use their insights to broaden the now-classic concept of “participatory culture” which was a very popular idea in the early aughts but was put by the wayside as the relatively open Web gave way to closed off, corporate-dominated social media.
This is a must-read for my Goal 2 project of writing a book about ethical alternative social media!
Yeah, I know I haven’t posted in a while, but hear me out: there’s a good reason.
I’m moving to Canada!
Today, I signed an offer to join York University in Toronto as the Ontario Research Chair of Digital Governance for Social Justice. If you’re reading that job title and thinking “that’s a really good fit for the Goal 2, ethical alternative social media book project!”, you’d be right. The central project I’m blogging about here on FOSS Academic is exactly what I’d be pursuing at York.
More to come, but I just wanted to break the silence a bit – in between doing all the paperwork that comes with moving, of course!
As I’ve written before, I’m working on a book about the fediverse. To do that properly, I need to have a good understanding of ActivityPub, a key underlying protocol that enables servers to talk to one another. A member of one ActivityPub-enabled server, such as Mastodon, can connect with another on a different server – even if it runs different software, such as Pixelfed. It’s quite a technical achievement and – I believe – it really needs to be part of the conversation when we discuss things like moderation, platform governance, and the political economy of the internet.
I like to study how such software develops over time, so I’ve been going through the meeting minutes of the W3C Social Web Working Group. It’s been fascinating to see how they, for example, discuss user stories and how they inform the protocol’s functionality.
I posted a short note about doing this work on my home Mastodon instance, scholar.social, and people noticed! This is what I love about scholar.social – when I talk about geeking out about something, people jump in. Another fediverse member suggested I take a look at this week’s FOSS Find. And now, I’m writing up notes about it – at the request of the author of the Find. Read more after the jump.Read more...
One major goal for my Goal 2 book project is to learn from people who create things on the fediverse. They might create code and cultures by developing and running instances. Or, they might be using the fediverse to promote their photography, music, or ideas.
As an endowed research chair, I have the privilege of generous research funding. For the purposes of my book project, research includes talking to people, running my own digital infrastructure (e.g., the incredible Nextcloud), and, of course, studying texts.
The meaning of “texts” is quite open-ended. Obviously, I’m reading books and journal articles. But so, so much knowledge is being created on the Fediverse itself – including knowledge offered only to subscribers. There are artists, musicians, and writers using Patreon (or, maybe better, Liberapay) to share their work with subscribers.
Do the math, Robert.
Mash that subscribe button.Read more...
This month’s FOSS finds: I was listening to NPR (which makes sense since I drive an electric car and I am a communist) and StoryCorps came on. I usually hear it while dropping my kid off at school, and it’s always a conversation-starter between us. It has been for years. Which got me to thinking: the StoryCorps project must have a lot of archived recordings of their oral history.
Indeed, they do. They’ve been doing oral history for 20 years now.
Which got me to thinking: if StoryCorps has been around for 20 years, they must have done an interview or two about FOSS.
Indeed, they have.
So the FOSS find this time are a few citations of those interviews. I haven’t had a chance to listen to them yet, so these abstracts will be from the StoryCorps site. I will listen to them soon, because I wonder if they can supplement my Goal 2 book project research. I’m conducting interviews of my own, but the more voices, the better, yeah?
Read on to see the ones I found in a few minutes of searching. Feel free to suggest more such interviews!Read more...
With my last book wrapped up, I am now hard at work building the next book, which is the Goal 2 of this blog. (Goal 1, recall, is writing about being a FOSS academic. Goal 2 is writing a book about FOSS). My new book project will focus on what I’m calling “ethical source alternative social media” – social media that allows ordinary people to be in control, that uses moderation for social, economic, and environmental justice and not to support oppression, and that runs on FOSS.
Methodologically, this project will demand I use my expertise in software studies, science and technology studies, and critical communication studies to analyze code, protocols, and network structures. But I also want to use participant observation and interviewing. And, I want this to adhere to the highest ethical standands as well as use FOSS technologies throughout.
I want to include the voices of ethical ASM members, developers, and admins. It may be tempting to do what a lot of people seem to have done and quote fediverse posts. However, I’ve observed that many, many fediverse users do not consent to having their posts taken out of context. There are public forums I can quote – for example, the Github issues forum for Mastodon. But I think the best vehicle to hear people talk about their experience with ethical ASM is via interviewing.
In this post I will briefly describe how I will manage interviewing. I hope this resource is useful not just to other researchers, but also to anyone considering being interviewed by me who might be curious about my process.Read more...
I’ve not written much about my most recent book, Social Engineering (MIT Press, 2022) on this blog. It didn’t seem like a good topic for this FOSS-centric blog. When I did write about it, I focused on the fact that my co-author, Sean Lawson, and I were able to use FOSS (particularly Nextcloud) to write it. In the parlance of this blog, that’s a decidedly Goal 1 topic – about using FOSS tools to do academic work.
So, I’ve focused instead on my next project, the Goal 2 project of writing a book about FOSS alternative social media. My idea is to use this blog to publicly write that book. Such public writing is new to me – it’s even a bit intimidating – but seems appropriate for this topic.
But the more I’m digging into what it means to envision, make, and realize ethical, FOSS, alternative social media, the more I realize my latest book, Social Engineering, is directly relevant to the project. So, this post is a way for me to make those connections.Read more...
This week’s FOSS finds: The big news – or maybe non-news – in this space is the pathetically inept rollout of Truth Social, Donald Trump’s $1,000,000,000 social networking site built on the free-as-in-beer but also free-as-in-freedom Mastodon software base. I watched Truth go online and I have thoughts, but here I will just share some resources I’ve gathered.Read more...
As part of Goal 2 of this blog, I’m writing a book about FOSS, specifically FOSS alternative social media. Like any good academic, I need to review the literature. I want to do so a bit more publicly than I have in the past – hence this blog.
In fact, I’ve already started the process a bit: early on this blog went a bit viral thanks to my post about Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code., which was linked by Hacker News. I also wrote a review of sorts of Sam Williams’s Free as in Freedom, a biography of Stallman. I just so happened to finish reading that book when Stallman was reinstated to the FSF, which made my post a bit more polemical than review.
This time, I’m going to turn to a modern classic: Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.
About a week ago, I took to my home Mastodon instance, scholar.social, and asked whether people preferred Zettlr or Obsidian. Both are Markdown editors which also provide valuable features on top, including linking together Markdown notes and varying degrees of Zotero support.
I asked because I’m using Markdown more and more. I use it regularly to plan my weeks, I obviously use it for this blog (which is a static Jekyll site), and I started using it to jot down ideas in a journaling program called RedNoteBook. I was hoping to streamline blogging, note-taking, and other Markdown tasks in one system.
So, I have tried both Zettlr and Obsidian – and I also tried a third system, Logseq – and have decided to adopt Zettlr. It meets my needs quite well, which are probably a bit more minimal than people might expect.
However, given what these projects are doing, I do not feel locked into my choice. In fact, I have all three installed and may hop between them.Read more...
This week’s FOSS finds: I’m starting to look back at the early days of ActivityPub, and chat apps get some coverage. So once again, don’t count on these posts as a news feed, but more a window into my thinking as I research my FOSS alternative social media book.Read more...
Just a quick note to say that I took the plunge: after many, many years of using MATE desktops, I’ve tried KDE Plasma. I really, really like it.
And I’ve also had some fun with Jellyfin – so much so it’s goodbye, Plex.Read more...
In this week’s FOSS finds, I’m thinking about the environmental impact of tech and I gathered sources on Marak’s refusal to keep giving away code. I’m including a few examples here to show my work.Read more...
I recently announced my new book project, focusing on ethical FOSS social media, and I’m trying an experiment in writing it openly. That’s Goal 2 of this blog (Goal 1 being discussions of my actually using FOSS to complete this task). To that end, I’ve decided to share items I’ve found as I do my research.
I’m calling it FOSS Finds, because alliteration.
These are typically going to be websites, blogposts, podcasts, or academic research. They may or may not be very recent. I plan on including a citation (exported, of course, from Zotero) and a brief note about each, a la an annotated bibliography, and versions of my Zotero tags. The notes won’t be exhaustive – it’s really about what I’m collecting at this stage, rather than analysis.Read more...
For about a year I’ve been teasing at Goal 2 for this blog, which is to write a book about FOSS. It’s probably not surprising to hear that I needed to narrow that focus down. FOSS is a massive phenomenon, and any given area within it deserves lengthy analysis. For example, Biella Coleman’s classic book Coding Freedom focuses heavily on the Debian distribution. One could imagine similar books about the Linux Kernel, or Canonical, or Arch, or web servers.
Given my background as a scholar, however, it makes sense that I should pursue a book-length project focusing on FOSS social media.Read more...
I’ve been struggling with having comments on this Jekyll-based static site for a while. For a bit, I used Staticman, but that died for some reason.
Then, it hit me: so many sites use Facebook comments. Why can’t I use Mastodon, the FOSS alternative social media system, to do something similar?
Fortunately, this guide provided all the code I could need to do exactly that!
So this is a test run. Feel free to comment on it using your Mastodon account. (I think other federated accounts might work, but not sure – if so, let me know in the comments!)
If you don’t have a Mastodon account, don’t worry! You can sign up for an instance and join the federated fun.
I’ve tested it a bit and have found a few things that give me pause:
- It does not respect the distinction between Unlisted and Public privacy settings. Both will show up here.
- It does respect DM – that is, DMs do not show up as comments.
It does not respect Content Warnings.This has been fixed; see Update #3.
With all that in mind, I think I may keep it (pending further testing) and include a warning in the “Comments” section.
Thanks to another Mastodoner, I found that if anyone who uses Mastodon to comment on a blog post deletes said comment, then it will also no longer appear on the blog. I think that’s a cool feature, but I’m thinking that I have be extremely clear about what happens when people comment on my blog. It’s going to be public – very public – not just in the federation, but also on my website.
However, I’m not 100% certain this is wise. I’d love to get more opinions from Mastodon users. Feel free to leave them in the comments – or, to be certain that your opinion is expressed privately, DM me (@email@example.com).
I love FOSS.
Linux Unplugged is at it again: it’s Tuxies time! I voted, and you can, too. Unlike last year, this year they’re using a self-hosted Nextcloud form – brilliant! Like last year, I’ve voted based on my experience as a FOSS Academic. My picks may not win – but they might just help you live the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream.Read more...
Earlier this year, in the wake of the attempted coup that happened right here, live, on TV, in these United States, I wrote a post praising how Mastodon handled the alt-right and Donald Trump. As I saw it, Mastodon’s swift action against the alt-right (specifically, their quick repudiation of Gab) was a very different approach than the corporate platform approach of Facebook and Twitter. Yes, the latter removed Trump. But they did so at a pretty convenient moment: after the election was over and the ad dollars were spent. Moreover, while banning Trump was a long-overdue move, it was clearly inadequate. As investigative journalism is revealing, Facebook in particular did little to quell the planning of the January 6 insurrection.
I come again to praise Mastodon. This time, for quickly addressing the problem of Trump’s new platform, Truth, which appears to be a fork (or simply CTRL+F and replace) of Mastodon’s code. That in itself is not the issue – after all, Mastodon is FOSS, and people can therefore take it and use it. The issue is that Trump is claiming to own the code.
To my mind, this is like a powerful force hitting a very stupid object. It seems obvious that Trump will have to relinquish his claims that the code is proprietary.
Then again, Trump is notorious for doing things and then daring people to lawyer up, dragging his feet by using the courts. It’s clearly what he’s hoping to do with the January 6 investigation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does the same with Mastodon and the SFC.
But those are Trump’s flaws. Again, I come to praise Mastodon, once again, for showing nerve and a steel spine where corporations with a great deal more revenue, lobbying power, and users didn’t do in the first place: call Trump out on his bullshit.
I used an exclamation point intentionally, because the Appointments app for Nextcloud is just that awesome.
As a professor, I keep office hours and encourage students to meet with me. And, I also need to advise graduate students at various institutions around the world. And this is not to mention meeting with other professors I’m collaborating with – again, from around the world.
In the past, setting up meetings went a bit like this:
Them: Hey, can we meet? Me: Sure! When do you want to meet? Them: I’m free Mondays and Fridays. Me: How about noon on Monday? Them: Actually, I have an appointment them. What day of the week works for you? Me: Wednesdays and Fridays. Them: Great! What about 1 on Wednesday? Me: Sure! Them: What timezone are you in? Me: Central. Them: Oh! Then 1 pm for you is 9 pm for me.
Etc, etc. Each of these being an email, of course, and usually with a delay of several hours between them.
As they used to say in the commercials, “there’s got to be a better way!”
Nextcloud Appointments is that better way.Read more...
I took a bit more time off, at least from this blog, but it’s late September and I really should be back in school. And I am. Classes just started up at LaTech, and with them my attention turns to reading and writing about FOSS.
One thing I have done in the intervening past few weeks is publish another post to The Reboot, this time focusing on the state of FOSS phones. I had the pleasure of talking to Ioana Luncheon of Fairphone, Lukasz Erecinski of PINE64, and Félim Whiteley of Late Night Linux.
I’ve also been digging into the Ethical Source movement, which is producing a new version of the Hippocratic License for software projects.
And, I’ve been steadily working on a co-authored paper on Mastodon, the federated social networking site.
So, a lot going on, and a lot more to come!
In fact, I’m getting ever closer to revealing my Goal 2: Book Project on the blog. I want to blog out my progress openly. To do that, of course, I’ll have to clarify my project!
Oh, and other stuff on the to-do list includes figuring out a new commenting system, since Staticman is no longer working.
I made a change.
I droppped Ubuntu 18.04 for Manjaro (Mate, of course). And it’s going great!
Big news on the search front! The Brave Browser is now offering a search engine. According to their announcment, Brave Search promises “independent option for search which gives them unmatched privacy” and will use an independent index, rather than rely on Google or Microsoft. I’ve already started playing with Brave Search and am curious to see how it develops.
However, any time someone offers a search engine and their corporate parent isn’t named Alphabet, there’s a pretty predictable reaction: “Good on them for trying, but you just can’t beat Google.” I’ve also heard academics say the same thing: “I can’t find anything without Google.”
Search is, of course, a very common approach to conducting research, and it’s especially important to my work on Internet cultures. One key way to study the Internet is by searching it. And it seems as though that means all my work ought to flow through Google.
I hadn’t really thought much about this situation until just recently. Along with Sean Lawson, I co-authored a book, Social Engineering: How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication. It will come out from MIT Press in a few months.
The book is the result of four years of research on hacker social engineering practices as well as early 20th century propaganda and public relations (a field that also referred to its activity as “social engineering”). After finishing this latest book, I realized I’m a living testament to the fact that yes, you can de-Google your search and still conduct research. Because that’s what I did.
I’ve not posted for a while. And that’s ok. Why? Because we all need a break. A vacation.
You. You there. You should take a break.
I did. It’s ok. The work will be there later.
While traveling with family and seeing my friends, I once again relied heavily on a device I begrudgingly have: a mobile phone, in this case a Google Android device. While I work really hard to avoid apps or limit their permissions, I just don’t like having Google anything in my pocket.
And while I have a PinePhone Braveheart edition, it’s just not ready to be my main phone.
So, in the interim, I’m doing something I should have done a while ago: trying out F-Droid, the FOSS collection of Android apps.
I was inspired in part by an interview I had with Félim Whiteley of the Late Night Linux podcast. Whiteley is a well-known de-Googler. The interview will be used as a part of the research for a forthcoming Reboot article I’m working on.
So I guess the vacation wasn’t all vacation, because I found myself mucking about with FOSS, once again. This time on my phone. But, hey, that’s the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream for you. I can’t turn it off easily.
More posts soon!
A few quick updates on the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream front.Read more...
I’ve been messin’ about with Wireguard and – after some hiccups – I have a small network of peers connected. I now have a couple laptops, a desktop, a phone, and a Raspberry Pi all networked, with the connection remaining persistent even as the mobile devices move across wi-fi networks.
Just a short post to note I have succumbed to the dark side.
This whole pandemic has increased the amount of screen time we all endure, and I’ve increasingly recognized that dark modes feel better on my eyes. I started using the Dark Reader extension in Firefox to invert colors, and I set Mate to a dark theme on all my devices. After a few weeks of this, I realized that I liked the look of FOSS Academic when it was rendered using Dark Reader.
If you see any issues with the styling, let me know in the comments. I still have to style the comments – I’ll get to it someday – but in the meantime, enjoy the dark.
UPDATE in 2022: I’ve added the ability to comment via Mastodon on this post (see below) since this post is one of the more popular ones on the blog.
Zotero recently announced two major new features: an internal PDF reader and tab-based navigation. These are scheduled to be a part of the Zotero 6 release later this year, but when I heard about them, I installed the Zotero 5 developer version to give them a whirl.
My quick take on the new features? They are now a key part of the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream.Read more...
I guess I have strange timing.
I just got done reading Sam Williams’s 2002 book Free As In Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software. I started reading it about March 15 or so.
At the time, I thought of Stallman as largely in the background of the world of FOSS, since of course he resigned from the Free Software Foundation back in 2019. I knew that he was called out for some comments about Marvin Minsky and the Jeffrey Epstein case – comments that were, at best, tone-deaf and, at worst, apologies for the sexual predation of children. I also knew of increasing numbers of women who reported Stallman’s behavior made them uncomfortable and even unsafe.
But since I’m putting together Goal 2 – a book-length research project about FOSS – I figured that I need to engage with Stallman in some form, even if he was fading into the background.
So Williams’s book caught my eye. As I read, I came across curious moments that may have appeared differently in 2002 than they do to this reader in 2021.
My intention was to read the book and post a bit about it here, as I did with Dreaming In Code as part of my larger research project into FOSS.
But it turns out that I also finished the book in time for RM Mess 2.0. So this is changing from a book review into a post that connect Williams’s now two-decades old biography with a current event.
Content warnings: this post discusses sexual assault, child exploitation, and harassment. You might want to skip it on those grounds. Moreover, if you’re tired of discussions of Stallman, you also might want to skip this post.Read more...
There’s exciting news on the Zotero front!
Zotero just announced a preview of their new tab system, complete with a built-in PDF reader.
For anyone living the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream, this is huge news.
They plan on releasing these features to the public in Version 6, but anyone itching to try it can use the development version of Zotero. This post will discuss how to install Zotero’s beta in Ubuntu Mate 18.04, though the approach should be similar for other Linux distros.
NB: Note, I would have found this sooner or later, but credit to Sean Lawson for alerting me!Read more...
A quick note to any readers in GDPR regulated areas: I’m in the USA, and I don’t really do business in Europe. I don’t really do business anywhere, to be honest. Anyway, I also really respect privacy concerns. So, in the interest of transparency, I want to note that I use a Statcounter script to help track traffic to this blog.
My call is still out: if you have a better way to get basic traffic data for a Github.io-hosted static Jekyll blog, let me know in the comments or via Mastodon (@firstname.lastname@example.org).
Why in the year 2021 is it hard to edit PDFs in Linux?
Please don’t tell me to use Okular.
Please don’t tell me to use LaTex.
I’m barely keeping things together using Atril and pdfunite in the command line.
I popped over to It’s FOSS to see their list of top applications. When your list starts with LibreOffice Draw… I don’t know what to say. It gets worse from there, going to a bunch of commercial, proprietary solutions.
I now work for an organization that makes heavy use of PDF forms. I lament the lost hours.
Printing and scanning seems like the most efficient thing to do.
At this point, feel free to tell me to switch to Windows.
Sometimes, the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream can hurt you.
I spent the weekend installing Manjaro on a laptop. I’m starting to really like Manjaro after years of using Debian-based things like Ubuntu and Mint. I know using Manjaro doesn’t really allow me to say “I use Arch btw” but it’s really fun, nonetheless.
I used my Manjaro box to write up a post for the blog, but then I had the bright idea of trying to install a second OS on it, I borked it, and then re-installed… losing the post I wrote. Ah, well. Such is FALD life.
I have Manjaro up and running (with MATE, of course), though – I’m starting to think it could be my next working distro.
[That said, I’m writing this on an Ubuntu box.]
Bowie wanted to know: is there Linux on Mars?
According to IEEE Spectrum and PC Magazine, Linux is now on Mars. Specifically, the drone copter is running the Linux kernel on an off-the-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Perhaps this marks the beginning of the end of proprietary operating systems on the Red Planet?
Good to see the people of NASA are living the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream.
A quick note: I’m conducting a survey with a colleague of mine, Dr. Diana Zulli. We’re interested in learning from Mastodon developers, admins, and users about “freedom of expression.”
I will post the link to the survey in Mastodon, rather than here. If you use Mastodon, I hope you see it there.
I wanted to note one thing about the survey: we’re offering a small bit of compensation for people’s time (at least, the first 75 or so people – after that, the funding runs out.) Because of where we work, we are using Qualtrics for the survey, and the only real way to compensate people and protect people’s private information is by using Amazon gift cards. We realize you may not share the same values as Amazon. We talked about this problem at length and decided to go ahead with the incentives. If you have interest in doing the survey but no interes in Amazon, you can skip the final questions of the survey.
If you have questions about this survey, hit me up on Mastodon (@email@example.com) or via the email address listed here.
I posted a question to Mastodon (specifically, scholar.social):
Ok! If you had a good budget to build a cloud infrastructure to support small teams (2-5 people) collaborating on projects, with a special focus on academic writing projects, what would you recommend?
I’m thinking Linux-based cloud stuff, so I have in mind:
and…? Any recommendations?
I asked this question in all seriousness. I am lucky enough to have a small amount of research funding, I want to promote the world of software beyond Google and Microsoft, and so I’m really keen on building a FOSS Academic Laboratory in the cloud and using to for any collaborative projects I’m a part of. After all, it’s my Goal #1: to use FOSS for as much of my academic work as is possible.
The response I got to the questions was freakin’ awesome!
I thought it would be a good idea to catalog it here. I’ll start with the least-recommended things and work my way up to the most-recommended. That’s not to say this is a ranking – things mentioned only once might be really valuable. I’m really just noting what was mentioned most.
I’ll also note which ones I am considering deploying – again, this is not a commentary on the quality of any of these systems. It’s more related to my own specific use cases forged in the past decade of academic collaborations.Read more...
This post is to test Staticman comments. I’ll edit this post later to update my progress. For now, if anyone stumbles across this and wants to add a “test” comment or something helpful, feel free!
I’m basing this process of this helpful blog post from Travis Downs of Performance Matters. Thank you!Read more...
Wikipedia is 20 years old this year. Congratulations! Celebrations abound across the Internet.
As a scholar of Wikipedia and a FOSS Academic, I wanted to weigh in on the birthday and provide a short history lesson. (This is, therefore, a Goal 2 post).Read more...
In a previous post, I disparaged 2020. But hey, just wait: 2021 has already become pretty bad. As you probably have seen, pro-Trump supporters decided to invade the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
I am not a tech determinist, which means that I do not seek to explain complexity by only considering changes in technology. So I am not going to say that corporate social media – including Facebook and Twitter – caused what happened yesterday. In other words, I am not going to say that the spread of misinformation was the reason for people to blithely walk past the cops and into the Rotunda. To do so would ignore a host of other factors, such as the history of racism in the United States and the desire for politicians to aggrandize themselves.
So I’m not saying Facebook and Twitter are to blame. What I will say, however, is that one contributing factor to the events of January 6, 2021 – not the sole determining factor – is corporate social media.
And thus I come in praise of Mastodon.Read more...
A minor update: I have a new publication about alternative social media in The Reboot. The piece discusses two FOSS alternatives to Twitter: the amazing, and yet likely soon-to-be-defunct Twister, which is a P2P, distributed microblog. I also discuss my favorite project, Mastodon.
The Reboot looks really promising – it’s a magazine dedicated to Internet criticism. I’ve been known to do a bit of that.
Another little update: I installed the Hyvor comment system but then removed it. It worked, which is great, but I missed the free window and I don’t know if I have the traffic to justify using a paid plan. I may go back to it, but I want to explore other options first. Next up: StaticMan.
Finally, I am teaching my child how to use Linux and want to make a recommendation: BashCrawl! It’s a text-based game for the Bash terminal that teaches how to use bash commands. Within half an hour, my kid was showing me some cool bash techniques. Just download an archive, unzip it, and dive in.
EDIT: Credit where credit is due: I stole many of these ideas from Sean Lawson. Except they are better with FOSS.
The year 2020. Damn. Damn, damn, damn, damn.
Put it in the dumpster, man.
But the end of the worst year ever is also the end of the 2010s, so maybe now’s a good time to reflect on my past decade as a FOSS Academic. As I mentioned in the Introduction, I’ve been using FOSS tools to do my job as a university professor for over a decade. Now, I’m looking ahead to the next decade.
Here, I want to document my workflow. It’s a combination of desktop environments, workspace management, weekly planning and long-term goals. I’ve been developing it over the past decade, and I think it’s time I formally document just how I do what I do.
It’s a longish post, but then again, we’re talking about practice. That gets complex!Read more...
A minor update: I’m still learning how to use Jekyll, and one goal I had was a usable tagging system. I think I’ve achieved it! I want to study the problem more and see if I can’t automate more parts of it, but so far, so good. If you have feedback, leave it in the comments!Read more...
A recent Destination Linux podcast interviewed Neal Gompa, a Fedora contributor, and their first question was: how did you start using Linux? I won’t recap Gompa’s story – I’d recommend listening to the show – but suffice it to say it involves an old copy of Red Hat he randomly found.
I thought about Gompa’s story and the question of getting started with FOSS and started reflecting on my own FOSS journey. As an academic – and a non-computer science academic, at that – I think my story is pretty unique.
It all started with Windows Vista.Read more...
I thought it might be good to nominate things from the FOSS Academic point of view, celebrating projects that help me do my academic work. So, here are the votes I cast.Read more...
There have been a lot of books that have influenced my career: Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, John Law’s Aircraft Stories, and Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Feminist Thought. These works are a kind of well to return to, again and again, to quench intellectual thirsts: thinking historically about communication technologies, and thinking about heterogeneity in the cultures of communication technologies.
But perhaps the closest to my heart, one of the books that came along at just the right moment in my career – a bubbling spring of the well – is Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming In Code.Read more...
If you’re not using Zotero… I don’t know what to say.
If you are, you’re well on your way to living the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream.Read more...
As a university professor, I do a lot of different things, many of them having to do with technologies. I engage in research, write articles and books, put together syllabi, work with students, and collaborate with colleagues. All of these require the use of networked computers. But I don’t use Windows and I don’t use Apple.Read more...