Archive for the ‘ Code and Design ’ Category

Outsourcing Privacy

In some ways, globalization isn’t a bad thing. One of my favorite experiences thus far in life has been running IRC channels/networks with a global population. On the other hand, the globalization – especially corporatization – of online social life has been a decided negative experience. Having to deal with behemoths like Google, Amazon, and Facebook just to socialize with dispersed family isn’t anything to write home about. The cognitive dissonance of massive corporations whose sole purpose is to surveil you in order to sell the products of that surveillance to advertisers also being the ones who have come to define the meaning of privacy online to an entire generation (and redefine it, for my generation backwards) is truly something to behold. I used to volunteer for an organization which sought to protect the vulnerable from cyberstalking in the earlier days of the internet. These days, the ability to stalk people has grown exponentially – and usually on the backs of platforms which have grown around the express purpose of tracking their users everywhere they go.

How did we get here? The same way we’ve arrived at most of the places we’re currently at, as Western consumers – by way of convenience. One-stop-shopping has been a plague on our habits since it was introduced, and the more it has invaded our social lives, the worse it has become. We’ve centralized everything because it is most convenient. With this centralization has come a relinquishment of control – of myriad aspects of our lives. What else we need to realize, though, is that while these corporations are indeed creepy – they aren’t the real problem. The real problem is us. We are the ones who made them behemoths. We are the ones who sacrificed quality, locality, privacy and personality on the altar of convenience. We have no one to blame but ourselves. Just like the problem came from us, the solution comes from us as well. We have to choose to act differently.

Instead of ordering from a company’s Amazon storefront – order from the company itself. Instead of looking globally for things you need – look locally. It takes more work to find, sometimes, yes – but it also provides more work to people who live near you. I just planted 4 fruit trees in my front yard. I have a paper route, where I deliver a secondhand goods paper to a variety of local businesses. While on that route, I bought the trees from a local feed store, a rake from a hardware store – and since I was delivering papers to a different hardware store at the time, picked up some gravel to fill in holes in my driveway. If you’re going for convenience, go to places that are actually convenient to you. Local places, that are on your way to wherever you are going. On the other hand, sometimes what you need is only available at big box stores – or if you order it. I broke down and went to Home Depot to get some foldable sawhorses yesterday. Where they get you is when you see that they also have red mulch on sale for 5/10$… but I digress 🙂 What I should have done was find a small business that sells foldable sawhorses – but I didn’t think of it at the time – because I’d already looked at all the hardware stores on my route, and none of them sold what I wanted. The other thing I could have done was buy the lumber and make my own sawhorses… but I’ve made a good half dozen sets over the years, and they never last – and they’re a pain to store.

In my Mancave post, I talk about how I’ve shopped local for the building supplies I needed for this project. What I haven’t done as well with is shopping specialty for my equipment. It was so much easier to just make a wishlist on Amazon, populate it, and pick up practically everything for the project from there. I’ve decided that this is the last project I’m doing that way. I’m proud that I’ve been able to support my local businesses (like Jack’s Hardware and Alexander Hardware and Supply) with the building materials, but I really could have done better with the equipment. This is getting a bit afield of the point, though. Where Home Depot is better, marginally, than Amazon, is that they rely (primarily) on having a large stock of items in a central location that you can actually look at and go to. The same thing goes for an Auto Zone, or a Harbor Freight, or other “chain” stores of that magnitude. That is supply chain thinking. Amazon has taken “supply chain thinking” and made it gargantuan – and has mostly eliminated the local option. They are supply chain in the cloud.

With places like Amazon, though, we have outsourced our privacy to gain convenience. Amazon “knows” what we want, and can “suggest” things we might also want by means of number-crunching comparisons to both our purchase history, and that of millions of other people. Facebook and Google do the same thing with our browsing history – and sell the results of that number-crunching to advertisers, to better “target” us. They’re so good at surveilling us that their platforms are also outsourced by government agencies for surveillance tasks. Not only that, they have created “sweetheart deals” with other large corporations to circumvent things like DMCA laws through AI-driven content managers like YouTube’s ContentID. ContentID scans every video uploaded to YouTube, and scans it for copyrighted content. When that content is “flagged” as something a corporation has copyrighted, YouTube forces the uploader to prove that it isn’t copyrighted – to prove a negative. The corporation on whose behalf it was “flagged” is the only court of appeal for that content. Tell me that isn’t backwards! As a church tech/sound guy, I’m in charge of our service recordings. At least two hours of my week, every week, is spent appealing obviously public domain songs that were flagged as copyrighted – because some company, somewhere, has a performance of said song copyrighted. As a result, and after spending some time talking with some others at my church, I’m working on a way to move us off of YouTube – because it has crossed the line into harassment – into cyber-stalking. Big Tech’s relentless drive to know everything about us – the price for using their “free” services – has got us almost convinced that this is normal.

This is not normal. This is not right. I’d much rather go to the expense and trouble of hosting my church’s videos myself, rather than fighting with a Google subsidiary (and her music industry sweethearts) over whether public domain music is actually in the public domain. Outsourcing privacy to Google costs too much. They don’t actually offer privacy – just a fig leaf. The prospect of ads (over which we have no control) during a church service is appalling – and that is the consequence of losing an in-house appeal to a company who has a vested interest(!) in saying that public domain music is not public domain – and there are zero legal consequences for doing so, since Google has circumvented the legal process in place for companies to enforce copyright(s) by using this system. Your privacy has been outsourced in a similar fashion to a variety of companies who have a vested interest in seeing that your private affairs don’t stay private. They have a vested interest in knowing everything about you. Not only that, but they have a vested interest in telling other companies everything they know about you – in fact, that’s their business model. Not only that – but we’ve handed these companies everything about us – because they have told us “we care about your privacy.” They do care – just not in the way we take it to mean. We trust them with our outsourced privacy – and they violate that trust each and every day.

We have nobody to blame but ourselves. Do you want your privacy back? You have to change your behavior. Stop using Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. As far as you can, use less Microsoft & Apple products. If we want the status quo to change, we have to change – because the status quo follows our behavior.

Locality – Virtually

Look, we all have told ourselves to “shop local”. We mean to do it, we really do. We don’t like how massive corporations have taken over practically every facet of our lives. We like the helpfulness of local business owners, and the idea of supporting our friends and neighbors. Then we’re on the lookout for something specialized, and… our local businesses don’t have it. This isn’t specific to small town life, either. Sometimes, we have very specific needs, and nobody even remotely nearby has what we’re looking for. So, where do we go? Amazon.

Why do we go there now? First and foremost, because Amazon has worked very hard to become uniquely ubiquitous. They have rolled a fairly large percentage of their profits, for a great many years, into diversifying – and cornering the market on online shopping. They are a video provider, book publisher, and also provide the hardware to support their various endeavors. They not only have Amazon Prime, but Prime Video, Prime Wardrobe, and Prime Music. They not only have FireTV, but the FireTV stick. They not only have Kindle, but the family of Kindle readers. They have Whole Foods, Twitch, IMdB, Amazon Music, Audible, Goodreads, Kuiper Systems, Alexa, Echo, Ring – their own appstore to compete with Google Play and Apple – and their Basics brand offers cheap(er) knockoffs of just about anything you could want – along with the real thing, of course. They also have their own logistics tail (including Maritime shipping!), warehousing, and of course, their massive online storefront – which has proceeded to incorporate a massive amount of third-party sellers. This doesn’t even count Amazon Web Services, which power a significant portion of the cloud market – about a third of it. In short, they have become ubiquitous – and not in a good way.

Nobody needs a history lesson about how Amazon came to dominate the online market – and thence the brick and mortar market – but it is illustrative of just how much convenience trumps sanity in today’s world. The fact that Amazon keeps buying subsidiaries and capitalizing them isn’t the issue – the issue is that we are the reason Amazon is what it is. They keep steamrolling businesses – large as well as small – because we’ve enabled them to. Whenever we use Amazon because it is easier, we’re giving Amazon business at the expense of local companies – or even other, larger corporations. Now, this isn’t a fault of Amazon – it’s our fault. Don’t get me wrong – it’d be great if other companies invested in infrastructure proportionally – but one business advantage Amazon has is, quite simply, the fact that it doesn’t have to duplicate their logistics tail for each of its subsidiaries. The other is that we have traded convenience and price for control of the markets. It is entirely behavior driven – by our behavior. I confess that I am guilty of this as well.

Amazon does what it does well – practically unexceptionally. That isn’t the problem. That is a feature of the business model they use. Efficiency as the means of cornering the market. Of course they are efficient – and usually cheaper, to boot. The problem is that when they do so, they intentionally drive their competitors into the ground as a feature of their business model. This is free-market capitalism, true – but it only works if we are willing to assist them in so doing. We don’t have to min-max our lives like an MMO raiding guild does with their characters. No matter what the markets say, if we choose to use something a little slower, a little more expensive, and local – we should – because those local businesses are run by people with families, and employ people with families we know. We should, because we want people to work for places other than, well, Amazon – who are famously terrible employers in order to make their business model work. In other words – whenever and wherever you have a choice, choose the option that doesn’t intentionally undercut your friends and neighbors’ ability to do business. If you need hardware, wood, or tools – go to your locally owned and operated hardware store instead of a box store – or Amazon. If you need specialty goods – find a supplier that *isn’t* a box store – or Amazon. It might be someone *else’s* local business – but that’s fine! It might even be a bigger business that caters to that particular specialty – but if it keeps that business from being eaten by the Amazon machine, isn’t that all to the good?

Don’t just shop local, either – live locally. Those ties to small businesses are part of what make communities. The more we live globally, the less ties we have to where we live, and who lives there. It creates an artificial distance between people. It’s fine to have communities where you unite around a common interest – that isn’t the point. The point is that those should be ancillary to communities in your locality. Churches, schools, sports all create local communities within the places where we live. Divorcing our purchasing from those communities drives much of the reasons for living in a particular place, having common interests, and common places of employment into the background – and denudes our lives of an ontology of place. Consumerism can’t provide much in the way of commonalities. Service employers and food service are important, but manufacturing and distribution are also key elements of creating communities that aren’t migratory. If our only choices for employment boil down to which chain of big box, global franchise, or behemoth online megalith we can work for – how much stability and sense of permanence does that offer?

In a similar fashion, outsourcing our communal lives to social media corporations is a bad idea. For the same reason we should stop feeding the Amazon machine so much of our money, we should stop feeding the Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter machines our social lives. Yes, COVID-19 was bad, and the ability to use the ephemeral imitation of society that Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, and Twitch offers was a virtual lifeline – but we mustn’t forget that they are ephemeral imitations – and ephemeral imitations that are only there to provide advertisers with targeted data about us, so that they can more efficiently sell us things. That is the precise and specific purpose for the existence of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Skype, LinkedIn, and a host of similar corporate networking and social platforms. They take what you share about yourself – and sell it to advertisers – full stop.

Here’s something else to think about. Do you remember when “cyberstalking” was a big issue? I do. I used to volunteer with a group who addressed cyberstalking (CyberAngels)- especially of women and children. Online privacy was a very big deal for a decade or more. Once all of these big corporate social media companies got into the mix, however – most of that buzz just… disappeared. The big tech empires basically do everything we used to tell people was cyberstalking. They encourage all of the behaviors we discouraged in people’s online habits. Sharing personal information, photos with clear location data, photos of children… practically every single thing we advised that people stop doing – they want you to keep doing – and use their services to do them. They then have the audacity to ask you to trust them.

How the Internet is Supposed to Be

For those of you old enough to remember when there wasn’t an internet – you probably also remember its infancy. Back in BBS days where you had to dial in to someone’s computer, or to a usenet service – then later to providers like AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve. As the internet grew older, there were always a couple of competing philosophies – whatever the most insistent FOSS advocates remember.

There have always been the decentralized, individualist proponents – and have always been the corporations trying to centralize as much as humanly possible under their brand. AOL was a giant, comparable to Facebook today for the time and then-current userbase. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and its war with Netscape (which was often bundled with dialup giant software!) was a fascinating struggle – comparable to the modern corporate throwdowns today.

It’s no accident that Apple and Microsoft are still players. Their forays into the incipient internet were largely due to the fact that their products ran a sizable portion of the computers that all the corporations vied to capture as customers. The corporate opportunism displayed by Google, Twitter, and Amazon is nothing new. In fact, it seems to be part and parcel of internet history for companies to repeatedly (serially and in parallel) attempt to capture large swathes of the internet. The argument for distributed and decentralized internet is not that corporations shouldn’t do what corporations do – but that the construction of the internet ensures that corporate entities can’t take it over, and definitely not for long – unless we give it to them wholesale.

There might well be a danger, currently, of large corporations “owning” large channels of distribution. However, that danger is largely due to our own complaisance – and complacence. Nobody made us sign everything over to Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon. We did it ourselves. I’ll offer up a reason for this: we’ve become accustomed to handing over large chunks of our lives to big companies for convenience’s sake. We did this in the 90s, the 00s, the 10s, and we continue to do it today. The same thing happens on a smaller scale, with companies like Steam, Epic, Spotify, Adobe, or a host of others like them. Companies always try to get you into their walled gardens. That’s what they do. The cool thing about the internet is that those walled gardens last only as long as we decide to put up with them. AOL, for example, crashed and burned precisely because we were done putting up with their walled garden. Their DSL offerings had nothing to recommend them over other ISPs – and in fact, charged for services they overlaid that other ISPs offered for free. Other companies had similar problems. Where is Yahoo! these days? Compuserve?

Look familiar? It should. Facebook can buy up WhatsApp and Instagram – AOL could buy Time Warner. They’re making the same mistake, and setting up the same sort of walled garden. The CEOs of these bright new internet startups that seem to have taken over the internet are suffering from the same caretaker syndrome that the second generation of CEOs of the original startups suffered – for much the same reasons. Why did AOL crash and burn? They crashed and burned because people realized that they were paying to be manipulated and advertised to. These companies create problems that they try to sell themselves as the solution to.

We’ve never needed them. We all know that. It’s just easier to let someone else do the work, give up a little bit of privacy and control – and “use it for free”. It’s easier to use the all-in-one shop than it is to do the traveling and research things for yourself. The “swiss army knife” operating system is a lot easier to work with than any of the specialty jobs that the Linux community offers. There’s a reason that Ubuntu is the only one of them with any sort of significant market share – and even that is infinitesimal in comparison. Ubuntu can’t do everything that Windows or Apple does – and we’ve become used to the idea that it should. Some of the things that are done by Windows or MacOS aren’t things they should be doing.

That is neither here nor there – just offered as a comparison. There are, I think, three (somewhat) separate issues with the tech giants that need to be addressed. 1) Ease of use/familiarity 2) Ubiquity 3) Privacy. I’ll use Facebook as an example here.

Ease of use

While nobody will call Facebook’s interface truly user friendly, it is easy to use – and easy to seamlessly plug things into. Like any CMS, it is purposely modular, and meant to give the administrators a myriad of ways to plug in content in discrete blocks. This modular design is well-suited to Facebook’s swiss-army-knife philosophy. Grandma both can and does use this platform – and so do her grandkids. Hate it or not, it *is* easy – but no more so than any CMS.


Again, hate them or not – everyone and their Grandma uses Facebook. Pretty much literally. It is the very definition of ubiquitous. It doesn’t have to be good – it just has to be everywhere. Since it is everywhere, it has what Facebook (the business, remember!) really wants – reams of data, to sell to advertisers – and an absolutely killer market share. They are, by any measure, the largest and most popular social network in the world, with over 2.7 billion users.


We’ve grown used to everything happening “in public”. Everything. This was not always the case. Every thing in your life is now fair game for sharing. Our lives are content. We are all part of The Everscroll. Our digital lives are primarily composed of scrolling, endlessly, through other people’s lives. What they choose to share of them. What they – and we – choose to share, though, is practically everything. Why do we do this? We do this because we are incentivized to – through notifications, likes, comments – the entire social media ecosystem hamster wheel. We can talk about dopamine, about habit-forming, about a large number of things – but it all boils down to “they designed it that way, and we’re eating it up just like we eat up tabloids and reality tv.” If you didn’t eat up tabloids and reality tv before – you do now. It just comes in your endless scroll.

The Real Problem, Summarized

I remember what things were like before there was social media. Before Amazon. Before Google. It was a lot like it is now, just without nearly as many people on the internet – and way more glued to their network TVs. Soon after, Cable (and syndicated programming, let’s not forget) blew open the TV biz – and internet streaming has blown it up even more. Since that is true – why did we once again have Netflix owning practically all the streaming content? Well, we didn’t have all the other networks opening their own shops. Now that they have, what do we see now? Streaming everywhere. All the things. Streaming. Constantly. Netflix is still a powerhouse, but it doesn’t own streaming anymore. iTunes owned music content for a while. Not anymore. Why? Competition. Alternatives.

While it’s annoying that streaming is fragmented over a bunch of networks – much of the annoyance is over the fact that we have to choose now. Everyone has streaming. Everyone has platform-exclusive shows or movies. Remember what we said earlier about walled gardens? Companies always try to get you into their walled gardens. That’s what they do. While it is annoying, the fact that there is is competition is a good sign – that the corporations are going to be busy fighting each other like monsters in a Kaiju movie. In the space that leaves for thinking things over – there’s an opportunity for reflection.

What if your choice was not between which corporate behemoths to give all your personal data to – but between telling the corporate behemoths to go take a long walk with their creepy corporate surveillance culture and using community-or-family sized alternatives with a vested interest in your interest? Like I said at the beginning – there have always been two simultaneous internet cultures. Somebody made all the cool alternative stuff you used to think was cool, back before social media. Newgrounds, Strongbad, all those awesome (but mostly stupid) flash games… most of those were made by random dudes and dudettes – and were posted to communities. Those guys that used to host BBSs started making their own websites, and hosting IRC servers, building community forums. The internet of the 90s and 00s was weird – but there were so many quirky things that would get lost in today’s mindless everscroll. Virality is fleeting – and monetizing virality, more fleeting still.

We can do a bit better than IRC servers, a forum, and a website now. Of course, we can still do all of those – and many do. I’m an IRC server admin myself. You’re reading this on my personal website that I’ve maintained since 2003 – using the internet handle that I’ve used since the early-to-mid 90s. This website has changed software at least 4 times, and themes a dozen or more times – but it is just as recognizably “mine” as it was back then. If you want to grasp how identity and privacy should work – that’s a start. Further, the internet itself should work similarly. Your primary identity service should be yours. If anyone wants to know who you are, they should ask your stuff (your personal identity server) – which shares precisely as much as you wish to share, and no more. Not Facebook, not Twitter, not Amazon – and certainly not Google – you. Any “central” datastore about you should be in your hands, and no one else’s. Using other people’s services should be a matter of verification with you of your identity – just like any other identification is – not a carte blanche to share whatever they feel like with whoever they feel like – about you. No service is worth that.

Ubiquity should devolve to how ubiquitous you choose to be, not how promiscuous your social media platform chooses to be with your identity. Ease of use is no excuse for being creepy. Google, Facebook, Amazon and their ilk know too much about us, and we give it all to them by our behavior – because we do too much stuff on their sites. If you want things to change, you have to change. You have to change your behavior, your habits, and where you do things. We all whine about Walmart and Target, and talk about how we should “shop local” – but it is our shopping behavior that drove their competition into the ground – drove our neighbors into the ground, because that is who runs those local businesses competing with the big box stores. Amazon is driving all the specialty box stores into the ground – and all the specialty shops too – unless they bite the bullet and become part of “the ecosystem”.

There is a problem – we’re too centralized. It’s our problem. We created it, we perpetuate it, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves for how much of our lives Big Tech has taken over. Once we recognize that here is a problem, we have to commit to change. Pick one Big Tech company to wean off of – and start moving. There are alternatives for each and every service we have learned to not live without in these all-in-one companies. You can start somewhere.

There are alternatives.

Sometimes, however, you don’t want an alternative.

I’ll be honest with you. There’s nothing else quite like Facebook. That’s not really a bad thing, in my estimation. Facebook shouldn’t be a thing. At least not in sense of the ginormous everything-to-everyone behemoth that it has become. Facebook still has your grandma, or your kids, or your best friend from 4th grade. If you want to move off Facebook, you’re going to have to get together with those people and start making plans on how to continue keeping in contact – and having this same conversation with each of them, to fill the specific needs for your friends & family list. You might need something for birthdays and events. You might need something for groups. You might need some sort of social media hub that you can all keep in contact with. You might need chat. You might need video calling. All of those exist, all can be done – but only at the cost of work, and possibly expense on the part of your group. If you’re already doing that sort of thing, like I am, you probably have the infrastructure for doing a good portion of the above. You probably also have the know-how to help others learn how to manage their own identities, away from Big Tech. If you don’t, and you’re reading this entire article with a bit of alarm about how scathing I am about Big Tech in general, and you trusted these big companies – be aware that I am actually understating how bad the situation is, for the most part. Ask your techie family member or friend about those companies, and see what they tell you. You might be surprised to learn that the only reason they are still on Facebook is because of you – and people like you. Don’t take that the wrong way – it shows they care about you enough to use something they hate – just for you. Let it be a wake-up call for you – all of these companies are using your relationships as fodder for selling information to advertisers – and tracking your every move from the epicenter of your usage of their services. It’s what they do. The reason they exist is to target you as accurately as possible, so that someone can sell you exactly what you want.

That might be convenient – I won’t say it isn’t – but it is also dystopian to an extreme usually seen only in scifi until recently. What price does that sort of convenience actually have? If you want things to change, you have to change. You have to use these companies’ stuff less – and because they have also sucked all of your friends and family into the same black hole’s gravity well that you’re circling, you’ll have to convince them of the same thing. Not only that, but you’ll have to use the same thing(s). Preferably something that isn’t a walled garden just like the one you’re leaving – only not quite as big. How you build your communities is up to you – but build them you must – unless you want some big company to continue doing it for you – and vacuuming everything about you into their big server farms.

You can do it – but you’ll have to give up some familiar things – our goal, though, is to keep the familiar people. I’ll post more about ways to detox from surveillance capitalism and the Big Tech ecosystem next time. In conclusion: The internet has always been corporate and individual – but in structure, it has always been decentralized – no matter how many walled gardens are constructed. Those walled gardens last only as long as we decide to put up with them. Decentralized is how the internet is supposed to be.

I’m old enough to remember the text-only internet, as well as some of the initial forays into media. Advertising has been ubiquitous from almost the beginning of the mass market adoption of internet as a service – but I remember the days when it was generally banned! I was still a kid then, but it was a thing for a good while.

Nowadays, advertising really is ubiquitous! In the larger sense, even I engage in a mild form of advertising, by linking to sites I enjoy, or to my webhost -although, now that I mention it, my affiliate link is so far expired that it wouldn’t get me anything if someone clicked it… I digress.

We all know the sorts of things that chap our hide. Adwalls on websites, with those little shamey messages that try to justify their business model by attempting to make you ashamed for using an adblocker. I mean, it’s not like their ads have tracking enabled in them or anything… right? If you believe that, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona… but let’s just be honest here. If your business model requires ad clicks, that business model is not stable. We’ve known that for a very long time now. We knew it within a year or two of the introduction of online ads. The reason that we still have ads, even though they are very low percentage, is because those ads are more and more targeted. How do they get targeted? By mining data. Where is that data mined from? The gigantic corporate sites, with millions, even billions, of users.

That data is mined from the users of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and a selection of other sites – and their penumbra of tools, integrated with other websites all over the world, contribute to that data mining. Why can you “log in with Facebook”, Google, or a variety of other corporate accounts? You can do so because when you do, you contribute to those data mines, maintained by those companies. That data is sold to other businesses, or used by the corporate giants, for a fee, to target you, the user, with ads “relevant to you”.

Ad-driven consumption models, which use those large data stores to build algorithmic targeting, are what drive the corporate internet. The corporate internet includes the social media giants – Facebook and Twitter. The news sites are all dialed into these monoliths, and all of the legacy media has been essentially tamed to work in tandem with the social giants to target you. Why? Well, to rephrase the old saying – if you’re not paying for it, you’re probably the product. Open Source software doesn’t necessitate you being the product, after all! However, here’s a good rule of thumb to follow:

If the service or software you are using does at least two of the following:

  • Operates as a for-profit entity
  • Sells user data
  • Makes money by selling advertisements

Then you’re probably the product. On Facebook and Twitter, you are definitely the product, as an end user. On some of the adwall-enabled sites mentioned earlier, you are the product – unless you buy a premium subscription, at which point you revert to being a normal paying customer. They are a sort of hybrid model. That doesn’t make ad content any less annoying if you aren’t a paying customer, however.

Here’s a couple more examples. On network, over-the-air television and radio, you are also the product. Television delivers people. They use the content to draw your eyes and ears – because the real customers are the advertisers. You, on the other hand, are the product being sold. Why don’t radio stations play uninterrupted music? They have to make money. Why do TV stations have commercials? They have to make money. How do they make money? They sell you to advertisers. Free tiers of streaming services do the same thing – they sell you in exchange for the advertisers having access to you. The content you watch is what you are selling yourself in exchange for. This happens on Spotify, Hulu, and YouTube, to give a few examples.

When you pay for the service directly, those ads magically disappear. What’s the difference? You’re the customer now, not the advertisers. The service itself has changed. You no longer have to listen to advertisements, because you’re the one paying – not the advertisers. If you’re not paying, you’re probably the product.

So, let’s get to the reason I brought all this up. With alt-tech popping up to compete with these business models, you have a wide variety of choices. There are pluses and minuses to all of the various platforms – but there are, in general, several choices available to you.

  • A centralized (usually corporate) subscription service model
  • A decentralized (usually community-managed) federated model
  • A decentralized (usually individually managed) peer-to-peer model

Gab, Parler, and MeWe are variants of the first model – which is usually a business model. Additionally, most of the legacy media sites and networks use this model. They are often referred to as “walled gardens”. They use proprietary software to “lock you in” to their platform, and you are allowed to interact only with the content generated on their platform. You may or may not be able to view the content – or there may be limits on the amount that you can view – but there will be some limitation on your interactions, as a non-paying customer – and there will be limitations on functionality for non-paying customers, even if they allow most functions as a “free” tier subscriber. Once you’re a “premium” member, you unlock additional functionality. See: Spotify Premium, Gab Pro, MeWe Premium, Newspaper subscriptions, Hulu (NoAds), etc.

Mastodon, Pleroma, Pixelfed, Matrix, IRC, and PeerTube are variants of the second model – which is usually a community-managed, voluntarily supported non-profit model. There might be a “main branch” for the code contributors that is supporting employees, but the project itself is FOSS (Free Open Source Software). Typically, individual server operators host their own servers because they like to, or with the support of voluntary contributions from the community served by that host. They tend to be nerdy folks, and are not in it for the money – or your data. They tend to know the members of their community, and their community members are there specifically because those server admins are known quantities.

Peer-to-Peer networks are probably most widely known from filesharing – things like Napster, Limewire, or Bittorrent (Or Gnutella, Kazaa) – other famous current examples of peer-to-peer networking are Bitcoin and Tor. However, there are a number of social protocols built using similar means. PeerSocial, Aether, and WeYouMe are examples of this.

The route I’ve chosen is option 2 – primarily because I am a longtime web selfhoster (usually by means of commercial hosting companies that I pay to rent space/bandwidth from).

I’m a server host for an IRC and Pleroma server and the accompanying website. Our network also runs a Matrix server, as well as another IRC server linked to mine. In all, we use 4 servers in total, between us, as volunteer hosts. I also host a group theology/apologetics website, a church site, a game project site, and my own personal site(s). I do so, in all of these cases, because I feel like it, and I enjoy doing so.

The flipside to this coin, of course, is that anytime I don’t feel like it, I can click a button and anything I want to purge is gone. This is always the problem with community hosted projects. What mitigates this risk is the very thing I mentioned earlier, however – knowing your admin(s). My personal website has been up, without much downtime to speak of, since 2003. The apologetics and gaming project sites, since 2006. That’s a very long time, when it comes to the internet! When your community manager/host has a track record of commitment and stability, there’s a lot higher than normal chance of that community being technically stable. Both of those websites, for example, are as old as Twitter. My personal site is older than Facebook! However, I have never had to advertise to make money, and have kept them up and viable for well over a decade now. I don’t say this to toot my own horn – just to offer an example.

While you might not be able to find a community admin you trust, or a community with similar interests, you can always roll your own – at a very reasonable price! Many server hosts offer very inexpensive VPS packages that are capable of running small, or single-person federated instances, or P2P servers. Further, if you have a spare computer at home, you can often run something via one of a number of dynamic dns services – some of which may be packaged in your router right now! Whatever you choose, you don’t have to be the product, or stuck in a walled garden. It might be fun to learn something new while you’re at it, no matter which solution you go for.

One thing is for sure, though – unless you like being a commodity for some big tech company, why wouldn’t you switch to something that doesn’t sell you to advertisers? I’m not a fan of walled gardens, but the tech barriers to using federated social media aren’t all that high. If you’d like to talk it over, hit me up via any of the means listed to the right, and I’d be happy to talk options with you. I don’t have anything to sell, I just don’t like the way big tech commodifies us, and would be happy to help you make a change in your online behavior.

Social Media Should Be Social

I probably don’t need to tell you all of the things that are wrong with corporate social media. I probably should point out a few things about it that aren’t pointed out as often, however.

Whatever we may think about the politics of their founders, there is little functional difference between a walled garden maintained by Twitter, and one maintained by Gab. To interact with Twitter users, you have to be logged in to Twitter. To interact with Gab users, you have to be logged in to Gab. This is what a “walled garden” is. While Gab does, of course, have a “groups” function – so do Facebook, and MeWe. You have to be logged in to their respective services to use these features.

I have been hosting my own sites for far too long to have ever really liked corporate social media. Those of you who have only ever used corporate platforms for things like chat, forums, blogging, and the like may have some difficulty seeing the difference here – but there is a significant difference in using FOSS programs you spin up yourself, vs. those owned by a corporation, and subject to their whims – and let’s be clear about this – their rules are whimsical.

There’s another aspect of freedom to be evaluated, though. If we believe that corporate solutions are the only solutions in town, we’re stuck with whatever they decide, right? Our only freedom of choice is between which corporations we choose to give our laughable expectations of privacy to – and whose company store we prefer. In any given town, should we merely expect a choice between national (or international!) chain business locations?

Of course not. Further, when we can, we shop local too, don’t we? After all, it’s our neighbor that owns that business, and it’s their kids who go to school with ours! Why does it have to be different with social media?

Structurally, the Fediverse is exactly the solution to corporate social media saturation. Culturally, the members of the Fediverse aren’t, so much. Let me explain, because it might be a bit confusing.

Many of the pioneers of these platforms are megageeks. This should not surprise anyone. Their politics can vary, wildly – from raging anarcho-libertarianism to raving eco-socialism. There are no-rules instances, lots-of-rules instances, instances for geeks, unix, individual flavors of linux, Raspberry Pis – all sorts of geeky things. These are what makes those communities, communities.

Some of the biggest communities on the fediverse are Japanese art and anime (along with less… savory types of media) sharing groups. The largest single fediverse server is actually run by a Japanese DeviantArt-type site – pixiv – with much the same sort of culture that DA has. Other large communities revolve around LGBTQ+ causes and groups, furries, sex workers… you get the idea. What they have in common are not, on the main, things that we, as Christians, would approve of. Most of the larger “general” servers tend to lean either heavily radical, or heavily reactionary. Not conservative – I meant what I said above. Most of the social right on the fediverse is composed of reactionaries, not conservatives. Most of the social left on the fediverse is composed of radicals, not liberals.

Thus, what I say next shouldn’t be a surprise: The Fediverse is a wild place at the moment. There are a few Christians around, but they are exceptionally few. In the last week, I’ve only been able to find a few dozen currently active users – and I’m pretty good with this here interwebz. Since this is so, why am I still writing about it?

I’m writing about it because, structurally, it is still vastly superior to the current paradigm. I’m Reformed, and a Reformed Baptist – so being a small minority in the greater stream doesn’t bother me much. I help run the only Reformed chat network there is, to the best of my knowledge.

Here’s why it is superior, structurally – since I’ve mentioned it twice, now. While it uses a familiar server>client paradigm, the servers can all federate. What this means is that any user on any server can interact, fairly seamlessly, with another user on another server. Those servers are called instances. Not only that, but there are a great many different platforms, with different capabilities and specialties, that can all interact with each other.

For instance – on the Fediverse, you can follow a video creator on Peertube, a platform comparable to Youtube, follow and comment on status from a friend on, a Facebook-type site with groups and forums; you can interact with microbloggers on Pleroma, Mastodon, Misskey, GNU Social or diaspora; check out a CMS-type setup on Hubzilla, look at pictures on Pixelfed, or jam out to tunes from Funkwhale.

They are all small, and are all generally in their infancy. Their dev cycles are longer, because they are typically community projects. Let me put it to you this way; would you rather be someone’s product and comfortable, or help with an experiment in a global project that needs a Christian influence?

The only “Christians” most of the Fediverse ever see (there are exceptions) are extremely political, extremely reactionary people, to whom their faith comes a distant second, at best. If you don’t believe me, look around the Fediverse. Then look through Facebook outside of your curated, comfortable friends feeds. Facebook and Twitter have much the same paradigms going on – you just don’t see them for the most part, because you’re not into sadomasochism 🙂

While I encourage you to at least start moving your way to the Fediverse, I want you to keep several things in mind.

  1. Do I need social media at all?
  2. How much value is there in leaving all of my friends behind?
  3. How much value am I providing others within the current paradigm?

If all you do is post political stuff, I think that the answer to 1 is “no”, 2 is “for them, a lot”, and 3 is “absolutely zero”. That’s just my opinion, but you’re welcome to take it or leave it 🙂

If you want to talk about theology, your hobbies, professional esoterica, there may be a different set of answers. You don’t have to just up and leave your old social media. You can ease your way from one to the other. You could also repost from one to the other.

There are differences in the Fediverse, however.

One way that the Fediverse differs is the “Content warning”. This doesn’t have to be “nsfw” images, and it is often not. These content warnings, often called “subjects”, are tags that tell others what you’re posting. A *lot* of instances don’t want political or “culture war” content in their timelines without a way to let people choose whether they want to read it or not. So, they use a mechanism similar to spoiler tags to hide that content as an opt-in measure. On my instance, all posts with subject lines are collapsed by default. If it’s tagged, you choose whether or not you want to read it.

Another difference is that there is no quote-tweeting (boosting, or repeating in other parlances). This cuts down significantly on dunking/brigading.

Yet another is that your timeline (especially on the microblogger platforms) is divided, from the beginning. You have your own follows in a timeline, then all of the content posted from your own instance, then a timeline of all of the content from all of the people that people from your instance have followed or interacted with.

On the instance itself, admins have a range of options available to them for interacting with other instances. They can block entire servers (I mentioned one earlier that is often entirely blocked), filter images from, or accept only public posts from (to disallow DMs from bad actors), along with several other choices.

On the client side, you can filter bad words, images, as well as the usual block or mute.

Finally, discovery is harder – on purpose. You aren’t given suggested lists of people to follow. You aren’t profiled by sophisticated software to find who you might know. You compile your follows list as you go – and your network of friends of friends grows as you, and they, interact. It is an organic process, not mechanical.

What you should remember is that the Fediverse is very Wild West. However, the setup for individual instances being able to federate means that we can set up a large number of small communities that can federate with each other, to provide each community access to the larger community, which in turn has access to the worldwide fediverse – while every user can pursue his own interests at whichever level of community he desires. The culture of the fediverse is the Wild West. The structure of the Fediverse is exceptionally elegant.

If we want social media to be social, we’re more than capable of bringing our own societies. Not Twitter societies – but Christian societies, where we can cooperate, debate, and even squabble – but do so not as data points on a corporate spreadsheet, but on instances run by friends or neighbors, who enjoy doing this sort of thing, and have our best interests at heart. That’s what I think is great about the potential here.

RefChat’s instance is still in alpha, and will probably be limited to people we know, for a while – but how about you send your geekiest friend this article? I’d be happy to talk to them, or you, about what it takes to roll your own instance.

Author’s Note: MadeOfLions and ThePinion from SSG’s Dev team have addressed the Calaquendi issue – the current prologue text identifying the player character as having dwelt in Valinor is incorrect. Their quotes will follow the text of this post.

To preface this post, I’ve been playing LOTRO since 2008. I’m a massive LOTR fan – enough so that our Rebekah’s middle name is Luthien. One aspect of LOTRO’s IP that can sometimes be frustrating is the fact that they can only use The Hobbit and the LOTR Trilogy – not the Silmarillion, or the other entries into the posthumous Tolkien canon. That being said, Standing Stone Games, the successor to Turbine, decided to add the “High Elf” race to the available choices, coinciding with the release of the upcoming Mordor expansion. The announcement was greeted with excitement, as well as some trepidation in some quarters. Here’s an interview snippet I want to share, to start with.

Pay close attention to it, because it will be important.

MMO-C: All righty. Let’s turn back to happy fun Made of Lions. We want to talk High Elves. You guys have already said there won’t be a new class coming out like what happened with Beornings. And Professor Olsen, of course people are going to ask him what he thought about it on his livestream on the official last week or the week before. He said the High Elves would by lore default be Noldorin like Galadriel or Sindar like Thranduil rather than Vanyar cos they never came back from Valinor. So if this happens, will we be getting a new starting instance for them to explain how they’re coming back to Middle earth because High Elves are the ones who went to Valinor and came back.

Libby: Well, that’s primarily the case but for our interpretation, one of the things that we’re thinking of going with is that it’s not only Elves who went to Valinor and came back, it’s also their descendants. We’re going with the concept of… and this is one of those things I think is sort of necessary in our game, in that you’ll need to be… you may have some proportion of High Elf in your blood, for instance, in order to in a way power you down slightly, so that you’re not Galadriel running around, because that’s not really the power level I think we can suspend disbelief on all that well in there are hundreds of High Elves running around and they’re all Galadriel-level people. I think that’s not a realistic way to present it, so we’re going more with the concept that there are people and characters of High Elf ancestry in addition to the sort of straight-up High Elves that we know from the book like Galadriel and in that way, we could have High Elf adventurers that weren’t mentioned, for example, like we traditionally have done with several of our other races and classes. I’m not sure that Grimbeorn had hundreds of kids running around, but for our game, you can make a Beorning and have Beorning adventures. So for the High Elf, you would be a High Elf in that you still have the benefits of being a High Elf and maybe some of the drawbacks that there might also be, like still working out gameplay concept for all of this obviously, but Sauron is going to be especially unhappy about High Elves and that might cause some difficulties for you. You’re going to be feeling the call of Valinor more strongly than other people, than other Elves even. And, as for the original question, we will probably have some starting instance of some stripe, but I don’t want to get into what that will entail at the moment.

Snook: I would say that, and Professor Olsen will probably appreciate this, we do have a fairly large what you might call a lore-doc in how High Elves would fit into Lord of the Rings Online, and that’s something we’ve been looking at, and a lot of it is a little behind the scenes kind of documentation, but we’re looking at a way to perhaps distill that for community read to help kind of place where they will fit into the game.

Ciccolini: Yes. I would love to see the community sort of have more insight into the gratuitous amounts of lore documentation that we generate.

Snook: (laughter) It’s a massive document.

Ciccolini: The community just doesn’t see some of this fantastic stuff.

Snook: I was like, ‘why is this PDF so large?’

So, with that in mind – spoilers incoming. Seriously. Lots of spoilers.

Read the rest of this entry

I really have to ask…

Why on earth does anyone still use blogspot blogs?

The interface stinks, the comment platform is terrible, it can’t do trackbacks to save its life, and the “plugins” are laughable. Why on earth would you use it? It’s mystifying to me.

Week 4’s topic was “Theology and Apologetics”

Here’s the audio!

So… I haven’t posted jack here in a good long while.

Here’s why.

1. We have a baby due within a month.
2. Our kids play soccer now – which consumes the better part of 4 nights/week.
3. I’ve started a game modification project.

Rebekah is due November 7th, but my wife has a history of delivering early. She’s VERY much hoping that trend will continue 😀

Soccer is… wild. I’m assistant coach on both teams, and it’s the time sink of doom. it’s fun, but exhausting.

The mod can be found at

So, umm… I’m busy. Yup. Blogging may or may not resume in the near future. I’m going to be severely hit or miss for the forseeable future, in any case.

Gregarius Aggregation

The folks in the Gregarius IRC channel asked me to write up a tutorial for how I did the Vox Apologia aggregator through WordPress, using Gregarius.

So, here’s a quick and dirty tutorial.

1. Install Gregarius. The instructions can be found here. Enable the RSSView plugin, in the config of your admin section. This is essential.

2. Add your feeds.

3. Navigate to the folder you’d like to aggregate to an external source – in our case, Vox.

4. Scroll to the very, very bottom of the page – you’ll see a tiny link entitled “RSS” – that’s the key to it all.

5. Use that link in the tool of your choice, and begin displaying your aggregated content.

Now, that’s the quick and dirty tutorial. Nothing I’ve done is hard, but you need to tweak a bit to get WordPress to display it correctly.

I’ll forget steps one through 3 – it’s easy, and documented elsewhere. The difficult part is knowing how to format it to get it to show up correctly in a call from javascript or from within WordPress.

Tools required:

1. A WordPress blog
2. External script to format the RSS feed for display
3. Plugin to enable php to be executed from within a page

For number one, I am on WordPress 1.5 for one blog, and WordPress 2.0 for the second.

For number two, I am using rss2html, designed by feed4all, which parses the RSS output into html, to be displayed on a webpage. What I prefer about this, is that I can host the script *on my own site*, without having to rely on yet *another* external application.

There are external options, however. Feedroll and FeedDigest can do much the same, as well – but, they do so on *their own* servers. Which are often slammed. Like all free services, you get what you pay for.

For number three, I use the runphp plugin, from Mark Somerville. It works. You type whatever you want to run from within special html-looking brackets – and it works.

Easy stuff. What, however, do I run? I run the script listed above – rss2html_full.php. What this does, is format whatever the feed inputs are into html, however I want them to, using a stylesheet and template. What you can also do, is run feedroll or feedigest the same way – but they display with javascript. This way is much, much better. I would venture to say that trying to do this with an external tool wouldn’t be very nice, at all.

For sidebar RSS updates, there is a smaller rss2html script that displays it in a more compact, “headlines” style format. I use this as well – and export it to several places.

This combined setup (Gregarius, rss2html, WordPress) does the following things:

Aggregates the RSS feeds on *your* server. *Exports* the feeds you’ve just aggregated – which no other “on my own server” aggregator software/setup I’ve found can do. Plus, it lets you take that exported, aggregated feed, format it and display it in your blogging software, on it’s own distinct page. Nothing against Gregarius’ server-side display – but you can’t put that on *anyone else’s site*. Which brings me to the thing I really wanted to mention – also, with this setup, I can export the *aggregated* feed – *with* formatting, to *anywhere* else.

Gregarius gives you the aggregation muscle, and the distinct advantage of *exporting* an aggregated feed (which, I might add, only blogdigger allows you to do, from the external aggregator tools – and they are notoriously slow!). Rss2html gives you formatting options on that aggregated, exported feed – and allows you to display it anywhere.

It’s a powerful combination, and I hope someone else finds it useful.

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