Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus)

There was a huge clamour back in 1996 or so in my country, when the Government decided to break a rule of the local DNS provider and registered an invalid domain name according to the rules. This quickly became political. Internet Service Providers and users of Internet services joined forces to protest and claimed that if the Government was not abiding by the Internet’s rules, then the Government would be ostracised from the Internet. This kind of thing made headlines on the news. At the end, Government forced the local DNS registry manager to resign, replaced it by a political puppet, and went ahead with breaking whatever rules they pleased.

The Internet community was shocked. At a stroke, a tiny Government from an insignificant country had shown that they couldn’t care less about the rules that made the Internet work so well for several decades. A flip of a coin, a whim of the moment, and everything that has been so carefully built over the years, is all shattered because, well, Governments have the power to fire people they dislike. Megacorps might not be able to do the same, but they can threaten, lobby, or simply buy key elements to impose their will. Eventually they will also get away with it.

So over time the whole concept of what the Internet was designed for has been replaced by something quite different. Now we have Governments like the UK seriously considering to filter information (like China does), using the pretext that rioters can organise via the Internet. Now we have companies like Facebook and Google loudly proclaiming that they couldn’t care less about basic human rights (i.e. the right to privacy and anonymity), hiding under the very convenient argument that “nobody is forced to use our services” and so they’re allowed to ignore all kinds of public complaints.

It’s true that in the not-so-distant past, complainers could go to the Government and say: “this company is not playing by the rules!” or claim that they would be “abusing their dominant position” — effectively manipulating a market where they’re a quasi-monopoly — and, well, Governments would interfere. But these idealistic days of having a “government by the people, for the people” to step in when companies start playing evil have long since gone. These days, megacorps like Yahoo or Google negotiate with China about the best way to filter content and provide profiling data to the Chinese government about the citizens they wish to control — something that Western countries like UK find immensively attractive. It’s an utter perversion of what the Internet was designed for: to sustain multiple attacks to several different nodes and still remain operational. Nowadays, it’s all about control, and imposing a will, a morality, a conformity: “do it our way or we’ll ostracise you”. But it’s not people setting the rules, nor even Governments any longer.

I remember that I was an avid reader of the cyberpunk authors of the 1980s, because they mingled dystopias with technology and brought a completely different way of thinking about ourselves and our society. Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson, and many others gave us a vision of a “near” future of a high-tech society dominated by megacorps, weak governments with little or no control over vast slums, and a network-of-networks — the “grid” or “matrix” or “metaverse” — where individuals would meet, socialise, and transact business. Most authors were vague about the future but they sort of placed it in or around 2000-2020 and kept technological advances reasonably possible for that period; it was the social changes that were most hard to grasp.

Now it’s 2011 and suddenly all those scenarios become incredibly believable. Our democratic countries have been established with constitutions that limit what governments can and cannot do to their citizens. For the past two centuries or so, we saw the source of all evil to lie on politicians and governments which had all the power. So democracies established a way for that power to be checked. Cyberpunk dystopias show what happens when governments matter little or nothing and are unable to defend or protect civil rights; our societies have few ways of dealing with the power that will fill in that void, but, in 1984 (when William Gibson’s Neuromancer was written — an ominous date for dystopias!), it seemed rather impossible for that to happen. We saw cyberpunk authors as being oddities — an artistic or cultural movement, but nothing more. Not to be taken seriously. Cyberpunk sort of died a slow death in the 1990s with its rampant economy; and the new millenium brought the collapse of the dot-com bubble and war against the Middle East, sort of showing how governments are still all-powerful and companies are engaged in activities that will lead to their self-destruction due to greed.

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.