Category Archives: Online Life

Tools for Communicating Offline and in Difficult Circumstances

Note: this post is also available on my website, where it will be updated periodically.

When things are difficult – maybe there’s been a disaster, or an invasion (this page is being written in 2022 just after Russia invaded Ukraine), or maybe you’re just backpacking off the grid – there are tools that can help you keep in touch, or move your data around. This page aims to survey some of them, roughly in order from easiest to more complex.

Simple radios

Handheld radios shouldn’t be forgotten. They are cheap, small, and easy to operate. Their range isn’t huge – maybe a couple of miles in rural areas, much less in cities – but they can be a useful place to start. They tend to have no actual encryption features (the “privacy” features really aren’t.) In the USA, options are FRS/GMRS and CB.

Syncthing

With Syncthing, you can share files among your devices or with your friends. Syncthing essentially builds a private mesh for file sharing. Devices will auto-discover each other when on the same LAN or Wifi network, and opportunistically sync.

I wrote more about offline uses of Syncthing, and its use with NNCP, in my blog post A simple, delay-tolerant, offline-capable mesh network with Syncthing (+ optional NNCP). Yes, it is a form of a Mesh Network!

Homepage: https://syncthing.net/

Briar

Briar is an instant messaging service based around Android. It’s IM with a twist: it can use a mesh of Bluetooh devices. Or, if Internet is available, Tor. It has even been extended to support the use of SD cards and USB sticks to carry your messages.

Like some others here, it can relay messages for third parties as well.

Homepage: https://briarproject.org/

Manyverse and Scuttlebutt

Manyverse is a client for Scuttlebutt, which is a sort of asynchronous, offline-friendly social network. You can use it to keep in touch with your family and friends, and it supports syncing over Bluetooth and Wifi even in the absence of Internet.

Homepages: https://www.manyver.se/ and https://scuttlebutt.nz/

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil is a self-healing, fully end-to-end Encrypted Mesh Network. It can work among local devices or on the global Internet. It has network services that can egress onto things like Tor, I2P, and the public Internet. Yggdrasil makes a perfect companion to ad-hoc wifi as it has auto peer discovery on the local network.

I talked about it in more detail in my blog post Make the Internet Yours Again With an Instant Mesh Network.

Homepage: https://yggdrasil-network.github.io/

Ad-Hoc Wifi

Few people know about the ad-hoc wifi mode. Ad-hoc wifi lets devices in range talk to each other without an access point. You just all set your devices to the same network name and password and there you go. However, there often isn’t DHCP, so IP configuration can be a bit of a challenge. Yggdrasil helps here.

NNCP

Moving now to more advanced tools, NNCP lets you assemble a network of peers that can use Asynchronous Communication over sneakernet, USB drives, radios, CD-Rs, Internet, tor, NNCP over Yggdrasil, Syncthing, Dropbox, S3, you name it . NNCP supports multi-hop file transfer and remote execution. It is fully end-to-end encrypted. Think of it as the offline version of ssh.

Homepage: https://nncp.mirrors.quux.org/

Meshtastic

Meshtastic uses long-range, low-power LoRa radios to build a long-distance, encrypted, instant messaging system that is a Mesh Network. It requires specialized hardware, about $30, but will tend to get much better range than simple radios, and with very little power.

Homepages: https://meshtastic.org/ and https://meshtastic.letstalkthis.com/

Portable Satellite Communicators

You can get portable satellite communicators that can send SMS from anywhere on earth with a clear view of the sky. The Garmin InReach mini and Zoleo are two credible options. Subscriptions range from about $10 to $40 per month depending on usage. They also have global SOS features.

Telephone Lines

If you have a phone line and a modem, UUCP can get through just about anything. It’s an older protocol that lacks modern security, but will deal with slow and noisy serial lines well. XBee SX radios also have a serial mode that can work well with UUCP.

Additional Suggestions

It is probably useful to have a Linux live USB stick with whatever software you want to use handy. Debian can be installed from the live environment, or you could use a security-focused distribution such as Tails or Qubes.

References

This page originated in my Mastodon thread and incorporates some suggestions I received there.

It also formed a post on my blog.

Make the Internet Yours Again With an Instant Mesh Network

I’m going to lead with the technical punch line, and then explain it:

Yggdrasil Network is an opportunistic mesh that can be deployed privately or as part of a global-scale network. Each node gets a stable IPv6 address (or even an entire /64) that is derived from its public key and is bound to that node as long as the node wants it (of course, it can generate a new keypair anytime) and is valid wherever the node joins the mesh. All traffic is end-to-end encrypted.

Yggdrasil will automatically discover peers on a LAN via broadcast beacons, and requires zero configuration to peer in such a way. It can also run as an overlay network atop the public Internet. Public peers serve as places to join the global network, and since it’s a mesh, if one device on your LAN joins the global network, the others will automatically have visibility on it also, thanks to the mesh routing.

It neatly solves a lot of problems of portability (my ssh sessions stay live as I move networks, for instance), VPN (incoming ports aren’t required since local nodes can connect to a public peer via an outbound connection), security, and so forth.

Now on to the explanation:

The Tyranny of IP rigidity

Every device on the Internet, at one time, had its own globally-unique IP address. This number was its identifier to the world; with an IP address, you can connect to any machine anywhere. Even now, when you connect to a computer to download a webpage or send a message, under the hood, your computer is talking to the other one by IP address.

Only, now it’s hard to get one. The Internet protocol we all grew up with, version 4 (IPv4), didn’t have enough addresses for the explosive growth we’ve seen. Internet providers and IT departments had to use a trick called NAT (Network Address Translation) to give you a sort of fake IP address, so they could put hundreds or thousands of devices behind a single public one. That, plus the mobility of devices — changing IPs whenever they change locations — has meant that a fundamental rule of the old Internet is now broken:

Every participant is an equal peer. (Well, not any more.)

Nowadays, you can’t you host your own website from your phone. Or share files from your house. (Without, that is, the use of some third-party service that locks you down and acts as an intermediary.)

Back in the 90s, I worked at a university, and I, like every other employee, had a PC on my desk with an unfirewalled public IP. I installed a webserver, and poof – instant website. Nowadays, running a website from home is just about impossible. You may not have a public IP, and if you do, it likely changes from time to time. And even then, your ISP probably blocks you from running servers on it.

In short, you have to buy your way into the resources to participate on the Internet.

I wrote about these problems in more detail in my article Recovering Our Lost Free Will Online.

Enter Yggdrasil

I already gave away the punch line at the top. But what does all that mean?

  • Every device that participates gets an IP address that is fully live on the Yggdrasil network.
  • You can host a website, or a mail server, or whatever you like with your Yggdrasil IP.
  • Encryption and authentication are smaller (though not nonexistent) worries thanks to the built-in end-to-end encryption.
  • You can travel the globe, and your IP will follow you: onto a plane, from continent to continent, wherever. Yggdrasil will find you.
  • I’ve set up /etc/hosts on my laptop to use the Yggdrasil IPs for other machines on my LAN. Now I can just “ssh foo” and it will work — from home, from a coffee shop, from a 4G tether, wherever. Now, other tools like tinc can do this, obviously. And I could stop there; I could have a completely closed, private Yggdrasil network.

    Or, I can join the global Yggdrasil network. Each device, in addition to accepting peers it finds on the LAN, can also be configured to establish outbound peering connections or accept inbound ones over the Internet. Put a public peer or two in your configuration and you’ve joined the global network. Most people will probably want to do that on every device (because why not?), but you could also do that from just one device on your LAN. Again, there’s no need to explicitly build routes via it; your other machines on the LAN will discover the route’s existence and use it.

    This is one of many projects that are working to democratize and decentralize the Internet. So far, it has been quite successful, growing to over 2000 nodes. It is the direct successor to the earlier cjdns/Hyperboria and BATMAN networks, and aims to be a proof of concept and a viable tool for global expansion.

    Finally, think about how much easier development is when you don’t have to necessarily worry about TLS complexity in every single application. When you don’t have to worry about port forwarding and firewall penetration. It’s what the Internet should be.

    Facebook’s Blocking Decisions Are Deliberate – Including Their Censorship of Mastodon

    In the aftermath of my report of Facebook censoring mentions of the open-source social network Mastodon, there was a lot of conversation about whether or not this was deliberate.

    That conversation seemed to focus on whether a human speficially added joinmastodon.org to some sort of blacklist. But that’s not even relevant.

    OF COURSE it was deliberate, because of how Facebook tunes its algorithm.

    Facebook’s algorithm is tuned for Facebook’s profit. That means it’s tuned to maximize the time people spend on the site — engagement. In other words, it is tuned to keep your attention on Facebook.

    Why do you think there is so much junk on Facebook? So much anti-vax, anti-science, conspiracy nonsense from the likes of Breitbart? It’s not because their algorithm is incapable of surfacing the good content; we already know it can because they temporarily pivoted it shortly after the last US election. They intentionally undid its efforts to make high-quality news sources more prominent — twice.

    Facebook has said that certain anti-vax disinformation posts violate its policies. It has an extremely cumbersome way to report them, but it can be done and I have. These reports are met with either silence or a response claiming the content didn’t violate their guidelines.

    So what algorithm is it that allows Breitbart to not just be seen but to thrive on the platform, lets anti-vax disinformation survive even a human review, while banning mentions of Mastodon?

    One that is working exactly as intended.

    We may think this algorithm is busted. Clearly, Facebook does not. If their goal is to maximize profit by maximizing engagement, the algorithm is working exactly as designed.

    I don’t know if joinmastodon.org was specifically blacklisted by a human. Nor is it relevant.

    Facebook’s choice to tolerate and promote the things that service its greed for engagement and money, even if they are the lowest dregs of the web, is deliberate. It is no accident that Breitbart does better than Mastodon on Facebook. After all, which of these does its algorithm detect keep people engaged on Facebook itself more?

    Facebook removes the ban

    You can see all the screenshots of the censorship in my original post. Now, Facebook has reversed course:

    We also don’t know if this reversal was human or algorithmic, but that still is beside the point.

    The point is, Facebook intentionally chooses to surface and promote those things that drive engagement, regardless of quality.

    Clearly many have wondered if tens of thousands of people have died unnecessary deaths over COVID as a result. One whistleblower says “I have blood on my hands” and President Biden said “they’re killing people” before “walking back his comments slightly”. I’m not equipped to verify those statements. But what do they think is going to happen if they prioritize engagement over quality? Rainbows and happiness?

    Facebook Is Censoring People For Mentioning Open-Source Social Network Mastodon

    Update: Facebook has reversed itself over this censorship, but I maintain that whether the censorship was algorithmic or human, it was intentional either way. Details in my new post.

    Last November, I made a brief post to Facebook about Mastodon. Mastodon is an open-source and open social network, which is decentralized and all about user control instead of corporate control. I’ve blogged about Mastodon and the dangers of Facebook before, but rarely mentioned Mastodon on Facebook itself.

    Today, I received this notice that Facebook had censored my post about Mastodon:

    Facebook censoring a post

    Wonder with me for a second what this one-off post I composed myself might have done to trip Facebook’s filter…. and it is probably obvious that what tripped the filter was the mention of an open source competitor, even though Facebook is much more enormous than Mastodon. I have been a member of Facebook for many years, and this is the one and only time anything like that has happened.

    Why they decided today to take down that post – I have no idea.

    In case you wondered about their sincerity towards stamping out misinformation — which, on the rare occasions they do something about, they “deprioritize” rather than remove as they did here — this probably answers your question. Or, are they sincere about thinking they’re such a force for good by “connecting the world’s people?” Well, only so long as the world’s people don’t say nice things about alternatives to Facebook, I guess.

    “Well,” you might be wondering, “Why not appeal, since they obviously made a mistake?” Because, of course, you can’t:

    Indeed I did tick a box that said I disagreed, but there was no place to ask why or to question their action.

    So what would cause a non-controversial post from a long-time Facebook member that has never had anything like this happen, to disappear?

    Greed. Also fear.

    Maybe I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t acting like a bully.

    Edit: There are reports from several others on Mastodon of the same happening this week. I am trying to gather more information. It sounds like it may be happening on Twitter as well.

    Edit 2: And here are some other reports from both Facebook and Twitter. Definitely not just me.

    Edit 3: While trying to reply to someone on Facebook, that was trying to defend Facebook, I mentioned joinmastodon.org and got this:

    Anyone else seeing it?

    Edit 4: It is far more than just me, clearly. More reports are out there; for instance, this one and that one.

    Roundup of Unique Data/Storage Hosting Options

    Recently I have been taking another look at the services at rsync.net and it got me thinking: what would I do with a lot of storage? What might I want to run with it, if it were fairly cheap?

    • Backups are an obvious place to start. Borgbackup makes a pretty compelling option: very bandwidth-efficient thanks to block-level rolling hash dedup, encryption fully on the client side, etc. Borg can run over ssh, though does need a server-side program.
    • Nextcloud is another option. With Google Photos getting quite expensive now, if you could have a TB of storage that you control, what might you do with it? Nextcloud also includes IM, video chat, and online document editing similar to Google Docs.
    • I’ve written before about the really neat properties of Syncthing: distributed synchronization that needs no server component. It also supports untrusted nodes in the mesh, where all content is encrypted before it reaches them. Sometimes an intermediary node is useful; for instance, if nodes A and C are to sync but are rarely online at the same time, an untrusted node B that is always online can facilitate synchronization. A server with some space could help with this.
    • A relay for NNCP or UUCP.
    • More broadly, you could self-host your photo or video cllection.

    Let’s start taking a look at what’s out there. I’m going to try to focus on things that are unique for some reason: pricing, features, etc. Incidentally, good reviews are hard to find due to the proliferation of affiliate links. I have no affiliate relationships with anyone mentioned here and there are no affiliate links in this post.

    I’ll start with the highest-end community and commercial options (though both are quite competitive on price for what they are), and then move on to the cheaper options.

    Community option: SDF

    SDF is somewhat hard to define. “What is SDF?” could prompt answers like:

    • A community-run network offering free Unix shells to the public
    • A diverse community of people that connect with unique tools. A social network in the 80s sense, sort of.
    • A provider of… let me see… VPN, DSL, and even dialup access.
    • An organization that runs various Open Source social network services, including Mastodon, Pixelfed (image sharing), PeerTube (video sharing), WordPress, even Minecraft.
    • A provider of various services for a nominal charge: $3/mo gets you access to the MetaArray with 800GB of storage space which you have shell access to, and can store stuff on with Nextcloud, host public webpages, etc.
    • Thriving communities around amateur radio, musicians, Plan 9, and even – brace yourself – TOPS-20, a DEC operating system first released in 1976 and not updated since 1988.
    • There’s even a Wikipedia article about SDF.

    There’s a lot there. SDF lets you use things for yourself, of course, but you can also join a community. It’s not a commercial service backed by SLAs — it’s best-effort — but it’s been around more than 30 years and has a great track record.

    Top commercial option for backup storage: rsync.net

    rsync.net offers storage broadly over SSH: sftp, rsync, scp, borg, rclone, restic, git-annex, git, and such. You do not get a shell, but you do get to run a few noninteractive commands via ssh. You can, for instance, run git clone on the rsync server.

    The rsync special sauce is in ZFS. They run raidz3 on their arrays (and also offer dual location setups for an additional fee), offer both free and paid ZFS snapshots, etc. The service is designed to be extremely reliable, particularly for backups, and it seems to me to meet those goals.

    Basic storage is $0.025 per GB/mo, but with certain account types such as borg, can be had for $0.015 per GB/mo. The minimum size is 400GB or $10/mo. There are no bandwidth charges. This makes it quite economical even compared to, say, S3. Additional discounts start at 10TB, so 10TB with rsync.net would cost $204.80/mo or $81.92 on the borg plan.

    You won’t run Nextcloud on this thing, but for backups that must be reliable, or even a photo collection or something, it makes perfect sense.

    When you look into other options, you’ll find that other providers are a lot more vague about their storage setup than rsync.net.

    Various offerings from Hetzner

    Hetzner is one of Europe’s large hosting companies, and they have several options of interest.

    Their Storage Box competes directly with the rsync.net service. Their per-GB storage cost is lower than rsync.net, and although they do include a certain amount of free bandwidth with each account, bandwidth is not unlimited and could result in charges. Still, if you don’t drive 2x or more your storage usage in bandwidth each month, it would be cheaper than rsync. The Storage Box also uses ZFS with some kind of redundancy, though they don’t specifcy details.

    What differentiates them from rsync.net is the protocol support. They support sftp, scp, Borg, ssh, rsync, etc. just as rsync.net does. But then they also throw in Samba/CIFS, FTPS, HTTPS, and WebDAV – all optionally enabled or disabled by you. Although things like sshfs exist, they aren’t particularly optimal for some use cases, and CIFS support may just be what you need in some situations.

    10TB with Hetzner would cost EUR 39.90/mo, or about $48.84/mo. (This figure is higher for Europeans, who also have to pay VAT.)

    Hetzner also offers a Storage Share, which is a private Nextcloud instance. 10TB of that is exactly the same cost as 10TB of the Storage Box. You can add your own users, groups, etc. to this as your are the Nextcloud admin of your instance. Hetzner throws in automatic updates (which is great, as updates have been a pain in my side for a long time). Nextcloud is ideal for things like photo sharing, even has email and chat built in, etc. For about the same price at 2TB of Google One, you can have 2TB of Nextcloud with all those services for yourself. Not bad. You can also mount a Nextcloud instance with WebDAV.

    Interestingly, Nextcloud supports “external storages” as backend for the data. It supports another Nextcloud instance, OpenStack or S3 object storage, and SFTP, SMB/CIFS, and WebDAV. If you’re thinking you’d like both SFTP and Nextcloud access to a pool of storage, I imagine you could always get a large Storage Box from Hetzner (internal transfer is free), pair it with a small Nextcloud instance, and link the two with Nextcloud external storage.

    Dedicated Servers

    If you want a more DIY approach, you can find some interesting deals on actual dedicated server hardware – you get the entire machine to yourself. I’ve been using OVH’s SoYouStart for a number of years, with good experienaces, and they have a number of server configurations available. For instance, for $45.99, you can get a Xeon box with 4x2TB drives and 32GB RAM. With RAID5 or raidz1, that’s 6TB of available space – and cheaper than the 6TB from rsync.net (though less redundant) plus you get the whole box to yourself too. OVH directly has some more storage servers; for instance, you can get a box with 4x4TB + 1x500GB SSD for $86.75/mo, giving you 12TB available with RAID5/raidz1, plus a 16GB server to do what you want with.

    Hetzner also has some larger options available, for instance 2x4TB at EUR39 or 2x8TB at EUR54, both with 64GB of RAM.

    Bargain Corner

    Yes, you can find 10TB for $25/mo. It’s hosted on ceph, by what appears to be mostly a single person (though with a lot of experience and a fair bit of transparency). You’re not going to have the round-the-clock support experience as with rsync.net, nor its raidz3 level of redundancy – but if you don’t need that, there are quite a few options.

    Let’s start with Lima Labs. Yes, 10TB is $25/mo, and they support sftp, rsync, borg, and even NFS mounts on storage backed by Ceph. The owner, Sam, seems to be a nice guy but the service isn’t going to be on the scale of rsync.net or Hetzner. That may or may not be OK for your needs – I mean, you can even get 1TB for $5/mo, so there are some fantastic deals to be had here.

    BorgBase does Borg hosting and borg hosting only. You can get 1TB for $6.67/mo or, for instance, 10TB for $53.46. They don’t say much about their infrastructure and it’s hard to get a read on the company, but for Borg backups, it could be a nice option.

    Bargain Corner Part 2: Seedboxes

    There’s a market out there of companies offering BitTorrent seeding and downloading services. Typically, these services offer you Unix ssh access to a shell, give you a bunch of space on completely non-redundant drives (theory being that the data on them is transient), lots of bandwidth, for a low price. Some people use them for BitTorrent, others for media serving and such.

    If you are willing to take the lowest in drive redundancy, there are some deals to be had. Whatbox is a popular leader here, and has an extensive wiki with info. Or you can find some seedbox.io “shared storage” plans – for instance, 12TB for $32.49/mo. But it’s completely non-redundant drives.

    Seedbox has a partner company, Walker Servers, with some interesting deals; for instance, 4x8TB for EUR 52.45. Not bad for 24TB usable with RAID5 – but Walker Servers is completely unknown to me and doesn’t publish a phone number. So, YMMV.

    Conclusion

    I’m sure I’ve left out many quality options here, but hopefully this is enough to lay out a general lay of the land. Leave other suggestions in the comments.

    Recovering Our Lost Free Will Online: Tools and Techniques That Are Available Now

    Note: This post is also available on my webiste, where it will be periodically updated.

    As I’ve been thinking and writing about privacy and decentralization lately, I had a conversation with a colleague this week, and he commented about how loss of privacy is related to loss of agency: that is, loss of our ability to make our own choices, pursue our own interests, and be master of our own attention.

    In terms of telecommunications, we have never really been free, though in terms of Internet and its predecessors, there have been times where we had a lot more choice. Many are too young to remember this, and for others, that era is a distant memory.

    The irony is that our present moment is one of enormous consolidation of power, and yet also one of a proliferation of technologies that let us wrest back some of that power. In this post, I hope to enlighten or remind us of some of the choices we have lost — and also talk about the ways in which we can choose to regain them, already, right now.

    I will talk about the possibilities, the big dreams that are possible now, and then go into more detail about the solutions.

    The Problems & Possibilities

    The limitations of “online”

    We make the assumption that we must be “online” to exchange data. This is reinforced by many “modern” protocols; Twitter clients, for instance, don’t tend to let you make posts by relaying them through disconnected devices.

    What would it be like if you could fully participate in global communities without a constant Internet connection? If you could share photos with your friends, read the news, read your email, etc. even if you don’t have a connection at present? Even if the device you use to do that never has a connection, but can route messages via other devices that do?

    Would it surprise you to learn that this was once the case? Back in the days of UUCP, much email and Usenet news — a global discussion forum that didn’t require an Internet connection — was relayed via occasional calls over phone lines. This technology remains with us, and has even improved.

    Sadly, many modern protocols make no effort in this regard. Some email clients will let you compose messages offline to send when you get online later, but the assumption always is that you will be connected to an IP network again soon.

    NNCP, on the other hand, lets you relay messages over TCP, a radio, a satellite, or a USB stick. Email and Usenet, since they were designed in an era where store-and-forward was valued, can actually still be used in an entirely “offline” fashion (without ever touching an IP-based network). All it takes is for someone to care to make it happen. You can even still do it over UUCP if you like.

    The physical and data link layers

    Many of us just accept that we communicate in a few ways: Wifi for short distances, and then cable modems or DSL for our local Internet connection, and then many people are fuzzy about what happens after that. Or, alternatively, we have 4G phones that are the local Internet connection, and the same “fuzzy” things happen after.

    Think about this for a moment. Which of these do you control in any way? Sometimes just wifi, sometimes maybe you have choices of local Internet providers. After that, your traffic is handled by enormous infrastructure companies.

    There is choice here.

    People in ham radio have been communicating digitally over long distances without the support of the traditional Internet for decades, but the technology to do this is now more accessible to anyone. Long-distance radio has had tremendous innovation in the last decade; cheap radios can now communicate over several miles/km without any other infrastructure at all. We all carry around radios (Wifi and Bluetooth) in our pockets that don’t have to be used as mere access points to the Internet or as drivers of headphones, but can also form their own networks directly (Briar).

    Meshtastic is an example; it’s an instant messenger that can form a mesh over many miles/km and requires no IP infrastructure at all. Briar is similar. XBee radios form a mesh in hardware, allowing peers to reach each other (also over many miles/km) with a serial or framed protocol.

    Loss of peer-to-peer

    Back in the late 90s, I worked at a university. I had a 386 on my desk for a workstation – not a powerful computer even then. But I put the boa webserver on it and could just serve pages on the Internet. I didn’t have to get permission. Didn’t have to pay a hosting provider. I could just DO it.

    And of course that is because the university had no firewall and no NAT. Every PC at the university was a full participant on the Internet as much as the servers at Microsoft or DEC. All I needed was a DNS entry. I could run my own SMTP server if I wanted, run a web or Gopher server, and that was that.

    There are many reasons why this changed. Nowadays most residential ISPs will block SMTP for their customers, and if they didn’t, others would; large email providers have decided not to federate with IPs in residential address spaces. Most people have difficulty even getting a static IP address in the first place. Many are behind firewalls, NATs, or both, meaning that incoming connections of any kind are problematic.

    Do you see what that means? It has weakened the whole point of the Internet being a network of peers. While IP still acts that way, as a practical matter, there are clients that are prevented from being servers by administrative policy they have no control over.

    Imagine if you, a person with an Internet connection to your laptop or phone, could just decide to host a website, or a forum on it. For moderate levels of load, they are certainly capable of this. The only thing in the way is the network management policies you can’t control.

    Elaborate technologies exist to try to bridge this divide, and some, like Tor or cjdns, can work quite well. More on this below.

    Expense of running something popular

    Related to the loss of peer-to-peer infrastructure is the very high cost of hosting something popular. Do you want to share videos with lots of people? That almost certainly is going to require expensive equipment and bandwidth.

    There is a reason that there are only a small handful of popular video streaming sites online. It requires a ton of money to host videos at scale.

    What if it didn’t? What if you could achieve economies of scale so much that you, an individual, could compete with the likes of YouTube? You wouldn’t necessarily have to run ads to support the service. You wouldn’t have to have billions of dollars or billions of viewers just to make it work.

    This technology exists right now. Of course many of you are aware of how Bittorrent leverages the swarm for files. But projects like IPFS, Dat, and Peertube have taken this many steps further to integrate it into a global ecosystem. And, at least in the case of Peertube, this is a thing that works right now in any browser already!

    Application-level “walled gardens”

    I was recently startled at how much excitement there was when Github introduced “dark mode”. Yes, Github now offers two colors on its interface. Already back in the 80s and 90s, many DOS programs had more options than that.

    Git is a decentralized protocol, but Github has managed to make it centralized.

    Email is a decentralized protocol — pick your own provider, and they all communicate — but Facebook and Twitter aren’t. You can’t just pick your provider for Facebook. It’s Facebook or nothing.

    There is a profit motive in locking others out; these networks want to keep you using their platforms because their real customers are advertisers, and they want to keep showing you ads.

    Is it possible to have a world where you get to pick your own app for sharing photos, and it works even if your parents use a different one? Yes, yes it is.

    Mastodon and the Fediverse are fantastic examples for social media. Pixelfed is specifically designed for photos, Mastodon for short-form communication, there’s Pleroma for more long-form communication, and they all work together. You can use Mastodon to read Pleroma content or look at Pixelfed photos, and there are many (free) providers of each.

    Freedom from manipulation

    I recently wrote about the dangers of the attention economy, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. Fundamentally, you are not the customer of Facebook or Google; advertisers are. They optimize their site to keep you on it as much as possible so that they can show you as many ads as possible which makes them as much money as possible. Ads, of course, are fundamentally seeking to manipulate your behavior (“buy this product”).

    By lowering the cost of running services, we can give a huge boost to hobbyists and nonprofits that want to do so without an ultimate profit motive. For-profit companies benefit also, with a dramatically reduced cost structure that frees them to pursue their mission instead of so many ads.

    Freedom from snooping (privacy and anonymity)

    These days, it’s not just government snooping that people think about. It’s data stolen by malware, spies at corporations (whether human or algorithmic), and even things like basic privacy of one’s own security footage. Here the picture is improving; encryption in transit, at least at a basic level, has become much more common with TLS being a standard these days. Sadly, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is not nearly as much, perhaps because corporations have a profit motive to have access to your plaintext and metadata.

    Closely related to privacy is anonymity: that is, being able to do things in an anonymous fashion. The two are not necessarily equal: you could send an encrypted message but reveal who the correspondents are, as with email; or, you could send a plaintext message over a Tor exit node that hides who the correspondents are. It is sometimes difficult to achieve both.

    Nevertheless, numerous answers exist here that tackle one or both problems, from the Signal messenger to Tor.

    Solutions That Exist Today

    Let’s dive in to some of the things that exist today.

    One concept you’ll see in many of these is integrated encryption with public keys used for addressing. In other words, your public key is akin to an IP address (and in some cases, is literally your IP address.)

    Data link and networking technologies (some including P2P)

    • Starting with the low-power and long-distance technologies, I’ve written quite a bit about LoRA, which are low-power long-distance radios. They can easily achieve several miles/km while still using much less than 1W of power. LoRA is a common building block of mesh off-the-grid messenger systems such as meshtastic, which forms an ad-hoc mesh of LoRA devices with days-long battery life and miles-long communication abilities. LoRA trades speed for bandwidth; in its longest-distance modes, it may operate at 300bps or less. That is not a typo. Some LoRAWAN devices have battery life measured in years (usually one-way sensors and such). Also, the Pine64 folks are working to integrate LoRA on nearly all their product line, which includes single-board computers, phones, and laptops.
    • Similar to LoRA is XBee SX from Digi. While not quite as long-distance as LoRA, it does still do quite a bit with low power and also goes many miles. XBee modules have automatic mesh routing in firmware, and can be used in either frame mode or “serial cable emulation” mode in which they act as if they’re a serial cable. Unlike plain LoRA, XBee radios do hardware retransmit. They also run faster, at up to about 150Kbps – though that is still a lot slower than wifi.
    • I’ve written about secure mesh messengers recently. One of them, Briar, particularly stands out in that it is able to form an ad-hoc mesh using phone’s Bluetooth radios. It can also route messages over the public Internet, which it does exclusively using Tor.
    • I’ve also written a lot about NNCP, the sort of modernized UUCP. NNCP is completely different than the others here in that it is a store-and-forward network – sort of a modern UUCP. NNCP has easy built-in support for routing packets using USB drives, clean serial interfaces, TCP, basically anything you can pipe to, even broadcast satellite and such. And you don’t even have to pick one; you can use all of the above: Internet when it’s available, USB sticks or portable hard drives when not, etc. It uses Tor-line onion routing with E2EE. You’re not going to run TCP over NNCP, but files (including videos), backups, email, even remote execution are all possible. It is the most “Unixy” of the modern delay-tolerant networks and makes an excellent choice for a number of use cases where store-and-forward and extreme flexibility in transportation make a lot of sense.
    • Moving now into the range of speeds and technologies we’re more used to, there is a lot of material out there on building mesh networks on Wifi or Wifi-adjacent technology. Amateur radio operators have been active in this area for years, and even if you aren’t a licensed ham and don’t necessarily flash amateur radio firmware onto your access points, a lot of the ideas and concepts they cover could be of interest. For instance, the Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network covers both permanent and ad-hoc meshs, and this AREDN video covers device selection for AREDN — which also happens to be devices that would be useful for quite a few other mesh or long-distance point-to-point setups.
    • Once you have a physical link of some sort, cjdns and the Hyperboria network have the goals of literally replacing the Internet – but are fully functional immediately. cjdns assigns each node an IPv6 address based on its public key. The network uses DHT for routing between nodes. It can run directly atop Ethernet (and Wifi) as its own native protocol, without an IP stack underneath. It can also run as a layer atop the current Internet. And it can optionally be configured to let nodes find an exit node to reach the current public Internet, which they can do opportunistically if given permission. All traffic is E2EE. One can run an isolated network, or join the global Hyperboria network. The idea is that local meshes could be formed, and then geographically distant meshes can be linked together by simply using the current public Internet as a dumb transport. This, actually, strongly resembles the early days of Internet buildout under NSFNet. The Torento Mesh is a prominent user of cjdns, and they publish quite a bit of information online. cjdns as a standalone identity is in decline, but forms the basis of the pkt network, which is designed to foster an explosion in WISPs.
    • Similar in concept to cjdns is Yggdrasil, which uses a different routing algorithm. It is now more active than cjdns and has active participants and developers.
    • Althea is a startup in this space, hoping to encourage communities to build meshes whose purpose is to provide various routes to access to the traditional Internet, including digital currency micropayments. This story documents how one rural community is using it.
    • Tor is a somewhat interesting case. While it doesn’t provide kernel-level routing, it does provide a SOCKS5 proxy. Traditionally, Tor is used to achieve anonymity while browsing the public Internet via an exit node. However, you can stay entirely in-network by using onion services (basically ports that are open to Tor). All Tor traffic is onion-routed so that the originating IP cannot be discovered. Data within Tor is E2EE, though if you are using an exit node to the public Internet, that of course can’t apply there.
    • GNUnet is a large suite of tools for P2P communication. It includes file downloading, Tor-like IP over the network, a DNS replacement, and facilitates quite a few of the goals discussed here. (Added in a 2021-02-22 update)

    P2P Infrastructure

    While some of the technologies above, such as cjdns, explicitly facitilitate peer-to-peer communication, there are some other application-level technologies to look at.

    • IPFS has been having a lot of buzz lately, since the Brave browser integrated support. IPFS headlines as “powers the distributed web”, but it is actually more than that; various other apps layer atop it. The core idea is that content you request gets reshared by your node for some period of time, somewhat akin to Bittorrent. IPFS runs atop the regular Internet and is typically accessed through an app.
    • The Dat Protocol is somewhat similar in concept to IPFS, though the approach is somewhat different; it emphasizes efficient distribution of updates at the expense of requiring a git-like history.
    • IPFS itself is based on libp2p, which is designed to be a generic infrastructure for adding P2P capabilities to your own code. It is probably fair to say libp2p is still quite complex compared to ordinary TCP, and the language support is in its infancy, but nevertheless it is quite an exciting development to watch.
    • Of course almost all of us are familiar with Bittorrent, the software that first popularized the idea of a distributed mesh sharing knowledge about which chunks of a dataset they have in order to maximize the efficiency of distributing the whole thing. Bittorrent is still in wide use (and, despite its reputation, that wide use includes legitimate users such as archive.org and Debian).
    • I recently wrote about building a delay-tolerant offline-capable mesh with Syncthing. Syncthing, on its surface, is something like an open source Dropbox. But look into a bit and you realize it’s fully P2P, serverless, can support various network topologies including intermittent connectivity between network parts, and such. My article dives into that in more detail. If your needs are mostly related to files, Syncthing can make a fine mesh infrastructure that is auto-healing and is equally at home on the public Internet, a local wifi access point with no Internet at all, a private mesh like cjdns, etc.
    • Also showing some promise is Secure Scuttlebutt (SSB). Its most well-known application is a social network, but in my opinion some of the other applications atop SSB are more interesting. SSB is designed to be offline-friendly, can do things like automatically exchange data with peers on the same Wifi (eg, a coffee shop), etc., though it is an append-only log that can be unwieldy on mobile sometimes.

    Instant Messengers and Chat

    I won’t go into a lot of detail here since I recently wrote a roundup of secure mesh messengers and also a followup article about Signal and some hidden drawbacks of P2P. Please refer to those articles for some interesting things that are happening in this space.

    Matrix is a distributed IM platform similar in concept to Slack or IRC, but globally distributed in a mesh. It supports optional E2EE.

    Social Media

    I wrote recently about how to join the Fediverse, which covered joining Mastodon, a federeated, decentralized social network. Mastodon is the largest of these, with several million users, and is something of a much nicer version of Twitter.

    Mastodon is also part of what is known as the “Fediverse”, which are applications that are loosely joined together by their support of the ActivityPub protocol. Other popular Fediverse applications include Pixelfed (similar to Instagram) and Peertube for sharing video. Peertube is particularly interesting in that it supports Webtorrent for efficiently distributing popular videos. Webtorrent is akin to Bittorrent running efficiently inside your browser.

    Concluding Remarks

    Part of my goal with this is encouraging people to dream big, to ask questions like:

    What could you do if offline were easy?

    What is possible if you have freedom in the physical and data link layers? Dream big.

    We’re so used to thinking that it’s quite difficult for two devices on the Internet to talk to each other. What would be possible if this were actually quite easy?

    The assumption that costs rise dramatically as popularity increases is also baked into our thought processes. What if that weren’t the case — could you take on Youtube from your garage? Would lowering barriers to entry lower the ad economy and let nonprofits have more equal footing with large corporations?

    We have so many walled gardens, from Github to Facebook, that we almost forget it doesn’t have to be that way.

    So having asked these questions, my secondary point is to suggest that these aren’t pie-in-the-sky notions. These possibilites are with us right now.

    You’ll notice from this list that virtually every one of these technologies is ad-free at its heart (though some would be capable of serving ads). They give you back your attention. Many preserve privacy, anonymity, or both. Many dramatically improve your freedom of association and communication. Technologies like IPFS and Bittorrent ease the burden of running something popular.

    Some are quite easy to use (Mastodon or Peertube) while others are much more complex (libp2p or the lower-level mesh network systems).

    Clearly there is still room for improvement in many areas.

    But my fundamental point is this: good technology is here, right now. Technical people can vote with their feet and wallets and start using it. Early adopters will help guide the way for the next set of improvements. Join us!

    The Hidden Drawbacks of P2P (And a Defense of Signal)

    Not long ago, I posted a roundup of secure messengers with off-the-grid capabilities. Some conversation followed, which led me to consider some of the problems with P2P protocols.

    P2P and Privacy

    Brave adopting IPFS has driven a lot of buzz lately. IPFS is essentially a decentralized, distributed web. This concept has a lot of promise. But take a look at the IPFS privacy document. Some things to highlight:

    • “Nodes announce a variety of information essential to the DHT’s function — including their unique node identifiers (PeerIDs) and the CIDs of data that they’re providing — and because of this, information about which nodes are retrieving and/or reproviding which CIDs is publicly available.”
    • “those DHT queries happen in public. Because of this, it’s possible that third parties could be monitoring this traffic to determine what CIDs are being requested, when, and by whom.”
    • “nodes’ unique identifiers are themselves public…your PeerID is still a long-lived, unique identifier for your node. Keep in mind that it’s possible to do a DHT lookup on your PeerID and, particularly if your node is regularly running from the same location (like your home), find your IP address…Additionally, longer-term monitoring of the public IPFS network could yield information about what CIDs your node is requesting and/or reproviding and when.”

    So in this case, you have traded giving information about what you request to specific sites to giving it to potentially hundreds of untrusted peers, some of which may be logging this for nefarious purposes. Worse, you have a durable PeerID that can be used for tracking and tied to your IP address — a data collector’s dream. This PeerID, combined with DHT requests and the CIDs (Content ID) of the things you host (implying you viewed them in the past), can be used to establish a picture of what you are requesting now and requested recently.

    Similar can be said from everything like Scuttlebutt to GNU Jami; any service that operates on a P2P basis will likely reveal your IP, and tie your identity to it (and your IP address history). In some cases, as with Jami, this would be limited to friends you add; in others, as with Scuttlebutt and IPFS, it could be revealed to anyone.

    The advantages of P2P are undeniable and profound, but few are effectively addressing the privacy implications. The one I know of that is, Briar, routes all traffic over Tor; every node is reached by a Tor onion service.

    Federation: somewhat better

    In a federated model, every client connects to a server, and there are many servers participating in a federation with each other. Matrix and Mastodon are examples of a federated model. In this scenario, only one server — your own homeserver — can track you by IP. End-to-end encryption is certainly possible in a federated model, and Matrix supports it. This does give a third party (the specific server you use) knowledge of your IP, but that knowledge can be significantly limited.

    A downside of this approach is that if your particular homeserver is down, you are unable to communicate. Truly decentralized P2P solutions don’t have that problem — thought they do have a related one, which is that clients communicating with each other must both be online simultaneously in order for messages to be transmitted, and this can be a real challenge for mobile devices.

    Centralization and Signal

    Signal is centralized; it has one central server farm, and if it is down, you can’t communicate or choose any other server, either. We saw it go down recently after Elon Musk mentioned it.

    Still, I recommend Signal for the general public. Here’s why.

    Signal brings encryption and privacy to meet people where they’re at, not the other way around. People don’t have to choose a server, it can automatically recognize contacts that use Signal, it has emojis, attachments, secure voice and video calling, and (aside from the Musk incident), it all just works. It feels like, and is, a polished, modern experience with the bells and whistles people are used to.

    I’m a huge fan of Matrix (aka Element) and even run my own instance. It has huge promise. But it is Not. There. Yet. Why do I saw this about Matrix?

    • Synapse, the only currently viable Matrix server, is not ready. My Matrix instance hosts ONE person, me. Synapse uses many GB of RAM and 10+GB of disk space. Despite extensive tuning, nothing helped much. It’s caused OOMs more than once. It can’t be hosted on a Raspberry Pi or even one of the cheaper VPSs.
    • Now then, how about choosing a Matrix instance? Well, you could just tell a person to use matrix.org. But then it spent a good portion of last year unable to federate with other popular nodes due to Synapse limitations. Or you could pick a random node, but will it be up when someone needs to say “my car broke down?” Some are run from a dorm computer, some by a team in a datacenter, some by one person with EC2, and you can’t really know. Will your homeserver be stable and long-lived? Hard to say.
    • Voice and video calling are not there yet in Matrix. Matrix has two incompatible video calling methods (Jitsi and built-in), neither work consistently well, both are hard to manage, and both have NAT challenges.
    • Matrix is so hard to set up on a server that there is matrix-docker-ansible-deploy. This makes it much better, but it is STILL terribly hard to deploy, and very simple things like “how do I delete a user” or “let me shrink down this 30GB database” are barely there yet, if at all.
    • Encryption isn’t mandatory in Matrix. E2EE has been getting dramatically better in the last few releases, but it is still optional, especially for what people would call “group chats” (rooms). Signal is ALWAYS encrypted. Always. (Unless, I guess, you set it as your SMS provider on Android). You’ve got to take the responsibility off the user to verify encryption status, and instead make it the one and only way to use the ecosystem.

    Again, I love MAtrix. I use it every day to interact with Matrix, IRC, Slack, and Discord channels. It has a ton of promise. But would I count on it to carry a “my car’s broken down and I’m stranded” message? No.

    How about some of the other options out there? I mentioned Briar above. It’s fantastic and its offline options are novel and promising. But in common usage, it can’t deliver a message unless both devices are online simultaneously, and doesn’t run on iOS (though both are being worked on). It also can’t send photos or do voice or video calling.

    Some of these same limitations apply to most of the other Signal alternatives also. either that, or they are encryption-optional, or terribly hard to set up and use. I recently mentioned Status, which shows a ton of promise, but has no voice or video calling capabilities. Scuttlebutt is a fantastic protocol with extremely difficult onboarding (lengthy process, error-prone finding a pub, multi-GB initial download, etc.) And many of these leak IP addresses as discussed above.

    So Signal gives people:

    • Dead-simple setup
    • Store-and-forward delivery (devices need not be online simultaneously)
    • Encrypted everything, including voice and video calls, and the ability to send photos and video encrypted

    If you are going to tell someone, “it’s so EASY to get your texts away from Facebook and AT&T”, then Signal is the thing you’ve got to point them to. It may not be in two years, but for now, it is. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It advances the status quo without harming usability, which nothing else does yet.

    I am aware of all of the very legitimate criticisms of Signal. They are real and they are why I am excited that there are so many alternatives with promise, some of which I use actively. Let us technical people use, debug, contribute to, and evangelize the alternatives.

    And while we’re doing that, tell Grandma to contact us on Signal.

    Non-Creepy Technology Purchasing & Gifting Guides

    This time of year, a lot of people are thinking of buying gadgets and phones as gifts. But there are a lot of tech companies that have unethical practices, from terrible working conditions in their factories to spying on their users. Here are some buying guides to help you find gadgets that are fun – and not creepy.

    The Free Software Foundation’s Ethical Tech Giving Guide is a fantastic resource from what’s probably the pickiest organization out there when it comes to tech. Not only do they highlight good devices, they also explain why and why you should, for instance, avoid the iPhone (their history of silencing political activists and spying on users).

    The FSF also has a Guide to DRM-Free Living talks about books, video, audio, and software that respects your freedom by letting you make your own backups, move it to other devices, and continue to use your purchases even if you have no Internet or the company you bought them from goes bankrupt. This is a fantastic and HUGE resource; there are hundreds of organizations out there that provide content in a way that respects your rights — and many of them do it for free, legally, as well.

    PrivacyTools has a fantastic series of guides on everything from email providers to operating systems, as well as links to a number of other guides.

    The DeGoogle wiki on Reddit (as well as the sidebar) has a lot of fantastic alternatives to things like Chromebooks, Chrome, Gmail, etc.

    Related resources

    Here are some resources for education (what the issues are) and information about what companies and products to avoid.

    In addition to the FSF’s other fantastic resources above, they also have a list of proprietary malware. It lists things, practices, and companies to avoid, and talks about the reasons why. Their addictions page is particularly good and relevant to my recent post on the problems of the attention economy.

    The Surveillance Self-Defense site from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a fantastic introduction into how corporate surveillance works and how to defend against it.

    Use with a grain of salt:

    Mozilla, the people behind Firefox, have a site called Privacy Not Included that rates products by how “creepy” they are. They focus more narrowly on privacy than the more expansive set of freedoms the FSF considers (privacy is one of a number of things the FSF looks at), and in some cases I would say Mozilla is too generous (eg, with the Amazon Kindle, a number of their data points are just incorrect.)

    How To Join the Fediverse and Cast Off the Attention Economy

    Note: this page is also available on my webiste, where it will be periodically updated.

    In a recent post, I wrote about how the attention economy in use at big social networks hurts you.

    In this post, I’m going to suggest what to do about it.

    Mastodon and the Fediverse

    When you use email, you can send a message from an account at Google to one at Yahoo, Microsoft, or any of millions of businesses and organizations running their own mail server. Unlike, say, Facebook, email isn’t a single service, but rather a whole bunch of independent systems that can communicate (or federate) with each other.

    The Fediverse is similar, and the most advanced Fediverse client is Mastodon.

    Mastodon:

    • Lets you easily migrate your account from one Mastodon instance to another, similar to how you can migrate a phone number from one carrier to another
    • Lets you communicate with users across the Fediverse (other Mastodon instances, and those running other software too)
    • Supports very high-quality conversations through sensible moderation controls

    It’s easy to get started! Head over to joinmastodon.org and click “Get Started”. Pick a community — don’t worry, this isn’t a hugely consequential decision, as you can always move or change later. You can browse activity from across the Fediverse, or just on your local community, so if you find a community with similar interests, it can be a neat way to find others to follow.

    If you’re looking for more details, mastodon.help has a nice guide.

    Defeating the Attention Economy

    So, why does Mastodon make a difference?

    First of all, you get to pick your host (and even software). With Twitter, you pretty much are using Twitter (yes, I know of things like Hootsuite, but for the vast majority of people, it’s twitter.com only). With Mastodon, you have choice. Pick the host that runs the software and has the kind of moderation you like.

    Secondly, Mastodon is not for profit. There is no money to be made in keeping you on the site. Almost all Mastodon instances are ad-free. And Mastodon’s completely open protocols make it easy to go elsewhere if you like.

    It’s Not Just Mastodon!

    There are plenty of other programs in the Fediverse. And, this is really key, they all interact with each other. You can share photos in Pixelfed (sort of like a federated Instagram) and see them and comment in Mastodon! Some things to point out:

    And there are many others.

    This blog, for instance, runs WordPress and uses an ActivityPub connector; comments from the Fediverse integrate here.

    Find me in the Fediverse

    You can look me up: just type in @jgoerzen@floss.social in the search box of any Mastodon instance and click Follow. You can also follow this blog at @jgoerzen@changelog.complete.org.

    How the Attention Economy Hurts You via Social Media Sites like Facebook

    Note: This post is also available on my website, where it will be periodically updated.

    There is a whole science to manipulating our attention. And because there is a lot of money to be made by doing this well, it means we all encounter attempts to manipulate what we pay attention to each day. What is this, and how is it harmful? This post will be the first on a series on the topic.

    Why is attention so important?

    When people use Facebook, they use it for free. Facebook generally doesn’t even try to sell them anything, yet has billions in revenues. What, then, is Facebook’s product?

    Well, really, it’s you. Or, more specifically, your attention. Facebook sells your attention to advertisers. Everything they do is in service to that. They want you to spend more time on the site so they can show you more ads.

    (I should say here that I’m using Facebook as an example, but this applies to other social media companies too.)

    Seeking to maximize attention

    So if your attention is so important to their profit, it follows naturally that they would seek ways to get people to spend more time on their site. And they do. They track all sorts of metrics, including “engagement” (if you click “like”, comment, share, or otherwise interact with content). They know which sorts of things are likely to capture your (and I mean you in specific!) attention and show you that. Your neighbor may have different interests and Facebook judges different things are likely to capture their attention.

    Manipulating your attention

    Attention turning into money isn’t unique for social media. In fact, in the article If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today writes:

    In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

    News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.

    You’ve probably seen fear-based messages a lot on Facebook. They will highlight messages to liberals about being afraid of what Trump is doing, and to conservatives about being afraid of what Biden is doing. They may or may not even intentionally be doing this; it is their algorithm predicts that those would maximize time and engagement for certain people, so that’s what they see.

    Fear leads to controversy

    It’s not just fear, though. Social media also loves controversy. There’s nothing that makes people really want to stay on Facebook like anger. See something controversial and you’ll see hundreds or thousands of people are there arguing about it — and in the process, giving Facebook their attention. A quick Internet search will show you numerous articles on how marketing companes can leverage controvery to get attention and engagement with their campaigns.

    Consequences of maximizing fear and controversy

    What does it mean to society at large — and to you personally — that large companies make a lot of money by maximizing fear and controversy?

    The most obvious way is it leads to less common ground. If the posts and reactions that show common ground are never seen because they don’t drive engagement, it poisons the well; left and right hate each other with ever more vigor — a profitable outcome to Facebook, but a poisonous one to all of us.

    I have had several friendships lost because I — a liberal in agreement with these friends on political matters — still talk to Trump voters. On the other side, we’ve seen people storm the Michigan statehouse with weapons. How did that level of disagreement — and even fear behind it — get so firmly embedded in our society? Surely the fact that social media shows us things designed to stimulate fear and anger must play a role.

    What does it do to our ability to have empathy for, and understand, others? The Facebook groups I’ve been in for like-minded people have largely been flooded with memes calling the President “rump” and other things clearly designed to make people angry or fearful. It’s a worthless experience, and not just that, but it’s a harmful experience.

    When our major media — TV and social networks — all are optimizing for fear, anger, and controvesry, we have a society beholden to fear, anger, and controvesy.

    In my next installment, I’m going to talk about what to do about this, including the decentralized social networks of the Fediverse that are specifically designed to put you back in charge of your attention.

    Update 2020-12-16: There are two followup articles for this: how to join the Fediverse and non-creepy technology purchasing and gifting guides. The latter references the FSF’s page on software manipulation towards addiction, which is particularly relevant to this topic.