Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus)

After much careful thinking, I’ve decided to abandon Google Plus. The Nymwars have another victim!

This was not a light decision to make. When I was kicked out of Facebook, I was naturally furious enough to grumble and complain, specially because I had used Facebook IDs to log in to some sites and games, and lost access to all of them. This was annoying, as well as losing contact to my friends via Facebook as well.

On the other hand, I really never liked Facebook. I just joined because, well, nobody who is serious about social networking and online communities can afford not to be on Facebook, even if they don’t use it much. So it was something that I did discard pretty easily, and enjoy the idea that now I don’t need to worry any longer if people send me messages on Facebook and complain that I don’t read them quickly enough! Anyone wishing to contact me knows that they will have to send me an email or an IM to Second Life instead (more on IM later).

Google Plus, however, is a different story.

You can see how excited I was with Google Plus two months ago. I think that the major reason was not technological, nor even how cool Google Plus handles things so well. No, for me it was a question of principles. Google is (was?) the “company that does no evil”, and masters at integration. I remember the frustration when Facebook stopped the ability to easily (I mean easily) get images from Flickr and videos from YouTube to display on users’ profiles: they prefer that users upload them directly, of course, so that their own policies of overtaking users’ copyrights could be applied in force. It was a nasty move, and Facebook is constantly doing those kinds of things.

Google, by contrast, until recently had a much more friendly attitude. They seemed aligned with the “old spirit” of the Internet and imbued with positive, optimistic ways of doing things — while at the same time ruthlessly pursuing a multi-billion-dollar advertising & profiling business. That was fine with me; I’m all for ethical business. If you’re nice to your customers, who cares if you’re profiting billions from them? This is, in fact, pretty much what Google’s policies say: they can make a profit without hurting people.

Encouraged by that, since 2005 onwards I have been using Google’s many services more and more. From shared calendars to documents, from project management to posting pictures of Second Life, from YouTube videos to launching Google Code projects, I’m subscribed to dozens (not yet a hundred!) of Google’s services. I enjoy how easily those work together and that I have a single login for them all. And, of course, I’m also in the ad business and use Google AdSense and Analytics on a plethora of sites (in fact, I often forget how many sites I own or operate that are interlinked with Google in some way!). Google knows my credit card data and sometimes sends me some money from ad revenues; and if Google Checkout worked well in my country, I would be using that instead of PayPal for all my purchases.

So a substantial part of my online activity is somehow related to a Google product here and there. Professionally, as an IT consultant, I’m constantly pushing companies to move over to Google. One of my best friends (who ironically doesn’t know about Second Life or my pseudonym…) is a top system administrator for Google. There are strong professional ties that I have with them in many forms, and the reasons are twofold: their technology works, but, most important, their policies are not evil. And every Google service is getting more and more integrated every day, which means that I need to be subscribed less and less non-Google services, which is so much more convenient.

Well, all this changed, and it’s curious to notice that the buzz around how Google is now dealing with their faithful users has completely changed. In the past two months, I have never seen so many discussions around pseudonymity on the Internet. You see, us oldtimers take that for granted. We always lived on the Internet under the assumption that our basic rights as human beings would be respected, and that any company connected to the Internet would naturally abide by its rules (known as RFCs).

This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone who has first logged in to the Internet in, say, the last decade. There was a moment in time when not everybody was connected to the Internet 🙂 which might be strange to imagine nowadays. But there were alternative networks instead, set up by corporations, and some of those were even bigger than the Internet. The Internet was a strange phenomenon — strange to us, reading and writing in 2011 — because it was a counter-cultural movement in many aspects. Instead of centralisation, it used federation. Instead of control, it used reputation. Instead of forcing users to abdicate their rights as human beings, it forced corporations — if they wanted to interconnect using the Internet — to enforce a set of rules and principles, or face being disconnected.

The federated model of the Internet, however, had a big problem. It became far too successful. When all node operators knew themselves by name, it would be pretty easy to shut down anyone who was not complying with the Internet’s policies (and note that those were not the result of a bright mind, but a complex, democratic process of voting upon what kind of rules — technological and social — would be adopted by the Internet). These days, however, everybody is on the Internet, most importantly, governments and megacorps. And these have different agendas from the people who built the Internet from scratch.

CC BY 4.0 Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus) by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

  • Oh! Gwyn! I’ve found quite a few SL’ers at Diaspora. It’s still got a few bumps to go through, but there, you can be whomever you need to be. It is decentralized, not a corporation, you can even run it on your own server. Personally, I have Moonrise Azalee at Diaspora via poddery.com. Check it out and spread the word. Diaspora was big on the scene last year, open source. They were big in the news with their ideas of creating ‘aspects’ to put your contacts in, and a ‘stream’ of posts. If you look at it, it even looks like g+. Not at ALL hard to see where G+ got their ideas from. The BIG difference is though, that Diaspora was put together by 4 university guys, on a grant from Kickstart.
    I’ve been spouting off about g+ all over the place, including ON g+ and would love to see more people try out alternatives like Diaspora. I am in the process of moving all my services away from Google. I’m sick of them. Didn’t realize how tangled up I was in Google until I made the decision to move away. *cheers* on a wonderfully written article.

  • Like BirchWind, I also found friends at Diaspora. I expect we’ll all be heading there eventually.

    Untell then, to promote a meme…

  • Like BirchWind, I also found friends at Diaspora. I expect we’ll all be heading there eventually.

    Untell then, to promote a meme…

  • Great article, Gwyneth. Nothing much to add, I guess. The problem with Diaspora is that it is not clear for whom it is being created. At least it is not obvious when looking at their website. The project will suffer if the general audience does not get it at all. And no matter how advanced (or no) they are right now, more clarity would be a plus.

  • Great article, Gwyneth. Nothing much to add, I guess. The problem with Diaspora is that it is not clear for whom it is being created. At least it is not obvious when looking at their website. The project will suffer if the general audience does not get it at all. And no matter how advanced (or no) they are right now, more clarity would be a plus.

  • All right, thanks for the link to poddery.com! I’ve registered there; I’m assuming that they are already interconnected to other Diaspora servers?

    Now that I’ve seen Diaspora from the inside, I’m actually shocked. Google didn’t even take any time to create their own HTML+CSS design! They just copied & pasted it from Diaspora!

    I’m confused!! Diaspora predates Google Plus for about a year…

  • All right, thanks for the link to poddery.com! I’ve registered there; I’m assuming that they are already interconnected to other Diaspora servers?

    Now that I’ve seen Diaspora from the inside, I’m actually shocked. Google didn’t even take any time to create their own HTML+CSS design! They just copied & pasted it from Diaspora!

    I’m confused!! Diaspora predates Google Plus for about a year…

  • I agree. It’s too geeky. Then again, Google Plus suffers from exactly the same problem and that didn’t prevent them to get 25 million or so users in little time. Of course, they’re Google…

  • I agree. It’s too geeky. Then again, Google Plus suffers from exactly the same problem and that didn’t prevent them to get 25 million or so users in little time. Of course, they’re Google…

  • hehe Sio 😀

  • hehe Sio 😀

  • Larry Rosenthal

    pay 10 bucks for a server and an email account…. and lobby for a “tax” paid  email address system/with maybe a home page  … that or just wait till Google issues visas..and youre too short to ride this ride.

  • I’m enjoying this article, but one little nit pick, XMPP is not built on HTTP, it’s an independent protocol.  (With it’s own ports, an XML based protocol, it’s own SMTP-like DNS, etc.)  It can be tunneled over HTTP, but that’s an unusual use case.

  • Excellent article. I have moved to a server in Iceland where they are implementing IMMI, a very important initiative, and I am now a Google-free zone….(also on Diaspora).

  • Excellent article. I have moved to a server in Iceland where they are implementing IMMI, a very important initiative, and I am now a Google-free zone….(also on Diaspora).

  • I know, it’s pretty crazy. Diaspora has been open for a while, and is open-source. Obviously some people at G+ thought it was a great idea and ran with it. Amazing what can be accomplished with a few billion dollars and well paid employees, as compared to the 4 young guys in University that came up with Diaspora. Sad really, I’m glad to be a D* member and am working to remove myself from all Google services. And yes, all pods intercommunicate with one another.

  • Google just need to be honest about what their aim is with Google plus, the whole real name policy is baloney, William Shatner doesn’t know plenty of his followers and nor does Robert Scoble who keeps arguing the case for real names, he doesn’t know his followers, they are not real life friends of his, he benefits from being Robert Scoble, people wouldn’t care if he was Robert X Cringely as long as they could recognise him.

  • … I’m trying to find you on Diaspora but haven’t succeeded yet hehe

  • The more I think about it, the more I suspect everything. There are so many un-Google things surrounding Google Plus. The only thing they were rather consistent is in the “limited access” to the semi-open beta, because they knew from the past experience with Gmail how quickly that attract geeks, who obviously “all want to be part of it from the start”. But the whole way Google has communicated the project is starting to look very strange.

    Some people estimate that around 10% of the users have already closed down their accounts, but this could just be a stupid rumour. It’s more than clear that the ones interested in privacy, security, and pseudonymity are not such a high figure; on the other hand, everybody is so eager to get a Facebook alternative, so this 10% seems overwhelmingly high. Of course, among SL residents, I can very well believe that — but the figure was quoted by a non-SLer who actually uses their own real name on G+ but dislikes Google’s policies.

  • Thanks, Winter 🙂 I stand corrected.

  • You know, on a different universe, Google would either be completely ashamed in public or be subject to a lawsuit.

    How is it possible that none of the major tech writers could have failed to spot that Google Plus is just a clone of Diaspora? And it’s such a perfect clone that it’s really uncanny. It’s like downloading Mac OS X Lion and suddenly seeing your Mac running Windows, just the startup icon being different. I mean, one thing is drawing “inspiration”, that’s ok. The other thing is pretty much replicating the concept (like for example BuddyPress tries to do regarding Facebook), but coming up with something different but vaguely familiar.

    I had never tried Diaspora before because I never managed to get an invite to it, and never saw snapshots of it before. All I knew was that it was “similar to Google Plus, but Google calls ‘aspects’ ‘circles’ and has cute animations for it”. Well, it’s not similar. It’s exactly the same thing! Down to design — CSS, HTML, even the font type and the colours — but also functionality. Conceptually there is absolutely no difference. If the Diaspora designers had protected their work with a patent, they would be worth billions. On the other hand, copy is the highest form of flattery — even though, in this case, it’s not even a copy: it’s a perfect clone.

    Well, ok, to be honest, they did not copy the whole CSS, but just wrote equivalent CSS to accomplish the same thing. And Diaspora uses the font “helvetica, arial, sans-serif” instead of Google Plus which uses “arial, sans-serif” so on some browsers there might be a slight difference. The word “Stream” before the circles (shouldn’t it be “Circles”) is in bright orange, while Diaspora has “Your Aspects” in black. The central part, where the stream is, has just one horizontal separator on the left side in Diaspora, but horizontal separators on both sides on Google Plus. It’s like a game of “spot the differences”, you actually have to pay very close attention to see what’s different.

    And the whole conceptuality behind it is exactly the same.

    Again, as said, I’m shocked. I will post something about it with a side-by-side comparison. I cannot understand how so few people actually noticed it.

    This article shows an earlier version of Diaspora http://raventools.com/blog/google-copies-diaspora/ where the fine details of the layout were still slightly different from Google Plus.

  • I’m not sure when exactly that snap shot of early D* was taken, but yes, it has progressed and tidied up since then. I’m pretty sure that D* was looking the way it does currently, in June, but it would be interesting to see how the growth of both progressed. The key thing though is that G+ takes all the credit for organizing circles and posting to different circles, when in reality, D* brought that out into the limelight when they publicly discussed their vision. I just think it’s too bad that the word wasn’t out there a bit earlier, in regards to the fact that there have been open registration pods for quite some time. Then again, with D* only now getting into the beta stage, still currently in alpha, probably best that there wasn’t more people on it. Bumps and glitches tend to scare people away, so people there in the very beginning would have seen a different D* than we have now.
    You know what would be great? A SL’er with a server, hosting their own pod. Even though we all connet anyhow, with the new surge of people to D*, I can see the current pods filling up fast! 😀

  • I’ve tried to do just that, but the only two servers I’ve got access to don’t work well with Ruby on Rails. One is simply too old, which is a pity, since it’s a dedicated server; the other is a shared server which does support Ruby on Rails, but not persistent processes. I’ve tried to look for (cheap) alternatives but currently I’m out of money, lol — perhaps next year I’ll be able to afford to host something like that!

    In the mean time, I can only volunteer to install it on a suitable server, if someone has a spare one hanging around and no time to configure Diaspora on it…

  • I’ve tried to do just that, but the only two servers I’ve got access to don’t work well with Ruby on Rails. One is simply too old, which is a pity, since it’s a dedicated server; the other is a shared server which does support Ruby on Rails, but not persistent processes. I’ve tried to look for (cheap) alternatives but currently I’m out of money, lol — perhaps next year I’ll be able to afford to host something like that!

    In the mean time, I can only volunteer to install it on a suitable server, if someone has a spare one hanging around and no time to configure Diaspora on it…

  • Samantha Atkins

    Huh?  It is not corporations setting into law unlovely things like SOPA.  It is not corporations claiming that it is ok to throw anyone, even citizens, into a military prison without trial, indefinitely with mere accusation of terrorism or that is ok to render them up to be tortured.  Most of the abuses you place at the feet of corporations are greatly aided by the fact that the State has unchecked power that corporation *can* buy.  Without such buying of legalized force a corporation has relatively little power to force anyone to do anything or to avoid effective competition if it gets out of line.  Your paper seems to absolve the State, blooded by hundreds of millions of deaths of its own citizens in the last 100 years and even hold it out as curative of the evils of mere businesses.  This is surely dangerously upside down. 

    You also don’t seem to say much about the evils that corporations do at the behest of the State.  It is much easier for the State to squeeze a few corporations than many.  All it has to do is threaten them with new disastrous regulations or sufficient taxes or with denial of the right to operate in their markets.  Then the corporations become tools of State oppression and get the blame while the State gets handed even more power to correct the evil it is actually behind.  A neat trick, eh?

  • Samantha Atkins

    We actually want most of the things that more integrated technology and data can bring us.  But to have it without great danger requires growing up a bit as people and growing up institutionally as well.  It requires removing all notion that anyone should be controlled or criminalized for any sort of victimless activity, for instance.  It requires admitting who we are and what kind of people we are without worry.  The technology to make these things more prevalent will only accelerate.  We have a very difficult struggle to grow up into the kind of people that can live well with such things. 

  • I agree completely! The question is just how to grow up into that kind of people, and what exactly we can do to grow up the institutions around us. Aspiring to do so is great, but what method will work to achieve that result?

    My belief is that education is the first step — educating in the sense of opening people’s eyes towards how things are, and letting them think about it — and eventually suggest an alternative until then.

  • Perhaps we’re saying the same thing but in different ways: e.g. that unlike in previous decades, as I mentioned, governments allow corporations a lot of abuse which would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, because governments are more easily bought these days — politicians are more greedy, feel more self-confident, have less sense of duty as servants to the public, whatever the real reason is.

    On the other hand, I don’t blame “the State” (or “the government”) for doing bad things to its citizens — I blame the people that are part of the “State” or “the government”. In the past 100 years, as you said, they had the power to do whatever they pleased, and so, over time, and very slowly, citizens managed to put checks on them. So the people moved away from “government” into “corporations”, where such checks are not put in place, making sure they left “puppets” behind that they could easily buy to be protected. So, if you wish, both are the two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, what it means is that “people in power” will smoothly move from either the government or to government-protected corporations to not only remain in power but to continue to “oppress” (like you said). And yes, I agree it’s a neat trick. The Putin/Medvedev/Gazprom troika is a typical example; in my own country, pretty much every politician is “willing to serve” for a few years in exchange for a life-long position as CEO or at least as Board Member on a top company; it’s something they “expect” that will be handed over to them on a silver plate for carrying the “burden” of sitting in office for a few years. And while they do so, of course, they will try to please as much as possible any potential big corps in order to assure a position there. (A nasty side-effect is that, as politicians come into power and get voted out, you have to artificially create more and more positions outside government where they can get a job at the top for the rest of their lives — when the number of private corporations ran out, the State had no choice but to “invent” and “create” artificial “institutes” or publicly-owned companies without real function just to place retiring politicians there, at the expense of taxpayers’ money. But that is possibly restricted to a country with relatively few big corporations and a huge number of politicians eager to get a well-paid job for life without any qualifications whatsoever.)

    My suggestion in the article was how to avoid this trap. It’s perhaps not the best of suggestions, and there might be many. But it works, in a very limited way.