A lot has been happening at IMA! So much so I have not had time to blog. :) So let's get started with an update!
Last year, IMA had a team of volunteers who worked to put together a community website for anyone in Open Simulator at https://infinitemetaverse.org. It was a great effort but unfortunately became unmanageable due to hacking attempts associated with a plugin that opened a security hole. Fortunately, the team had a backup strategy in place that allowed us to restore a prior backup after securing the site and reverting the plugin.
We decided to simplify administration by migrating the site to Joomla which is in progress. All that said, the original plan for the community site was to create a targeted social networking solution for Open Simulator users that would not be under control of any company but under control of the users. Users would have a central location to consolidate promotions, shares about their worlds, and even find volunteers or help.
After the announcement of G+ sunset in 2019 this past week, I decided we needed to revisit that goal and look for long term solutions that would be platform agnostic and could be customized to meet the changing needs of Hypergrid users. The week was spent collaborating with many others on G+ from end users to developers analyzing available options.
To get started on my end, I put together a list of criteria based on feedback and ideas from various IMA meetings. Sharing this publicly, it was then refined to include suggestions from the G+ community. Paraphrasing multiple inputs, there were three common questions for consideration:
1) Is there something out there we could use that no one could shut down like Google is doing?
2) Can we put together a team of developers to make something new that has the features we want?
3) Many of these private social networks require an account to see things people post. What options are out there where we can post things for anyone to see?
This sparked a collaborative search and discussion among G+ers with hundreds of thousands of followers of collections and communities. With different users looking for a new social media home, clearly, mass migration is going to be a challenge. There are a quite a few people in the G+ community working together to help everyone find new homes, address migration issues, and develop a long term approach to supporting the needs of a diverse community of users displaced by the sunset of consumer G+.
As mentioned before, my approach was to first list the criteria for review to answer questions 1, 2, and 3. Then, collaborating with others who were not necessarily virtual worlders, a lot of time was spent evaluating multiple solutions that exist comparing features and characteristics in a public spreadsheet. Thanks to inputs from a diverse community in G+, there are answers to these three questions! First let me share the aggregate criteria:
1) End to end encryption including in the databases (long term goal for Open Simulator as well)
2) Open sourced so it can be audited and made more secure as well as privacy focused (long term goal for the Hypergrid)
3) Fully integrated events, calendar, and network news feeds (events have been broken by Google for some time as well as its calendar)
4) Private features (better ways to private message and selectively share)
5) API's available to integrate with other applications (possibly a toolset or settings addons)
6) Industry standards compliance (for improved interoperability and accessibility)
7) Contact and/or data import from G+ (able to use G+ takeout JSON archives is an unknown at this point)
8) Established user base (starting from scratch is far more difficult)
9) Full moderation capabilities in communities or groups (this is broken in G+)
10) Full moderation capabilities for personal home streams (keep as much power as possible in the hands of the users)
While it was not likely all the above criteria would be met by any one solution, this is where we began our search for answers. All three of the above questions led to animated discussions about centralized social networks versus decentralized or federated social networks. In a nutshell, if a network is centralized like G+, Facebook, or any social website under a single authority, it can be shut down regardless of user needs.
A federated solution is like the Hypergrid with no single authority and is sometimes referred to as the Federation, Fediverse, federated social web, or the Free Social Network. It is not a new phenomenon - it began in 2010 and has been growing. So, the answer to question one is yes. We will get into that more after looking at the other two questions.
For question two, we needed to look at whether there was a need for a ground up build. First, a base of 3.5 million users are already looking for a new home and not likely to wait. Second, if a solution could be found that is open sourced, already works well, and is easy to integrate and customize because it meets industry standards, reinventing the wheel may not be necessary.
On question three, this was not as easy to answer because there is a diverse user base. Some prefer private social networks while others want a public presence, so anyone can see the content they share that is not exclusive to one particular network. Examples cited include: entertainment event promotion, education, meetings, graphic arts, poetry, writing, fundraising, and more.
These examples apply in the realm of virtual worlds even more so than the offline world using social media for promotion and sharing. No matter the use case, other than preferred private networks, social media was designed to be a vehicle for promotion and marketing in addition to viral sharing and community. Private networks are antithetical to most social media user needs as long as users are able to optionally moderate and control access to their content aka have privacy controls.
An amazing collaborative effort evolved in G+ this past week. A list of available alternatives to G+ was quickly compiled and a spreadsheet setup to compare these alternatives. IMA, along with others from the Open Simulator community, participated in this collaborative effort. Ultimately, we had to make some decisions about where we would go with our G+ communities, development efforts, and Open Simulator events we support.
We wanted to find a solution that would give the community a broader reach to grow the Open Simulator and web-based Virtual Worlds user base. Details are public in multiple communities focused on this effort in G+. Ultimately, after testing open source federated solutions, it was clear we could in fact have the best of both worlds.
Some technical aspects do still need addressing as noted in a recent publication and based on our criteria above. But, we believe this will be a great start. Anyone can host and interconnect with others immediately and the software is free. So let's talk more about why we are recommending a decentralized solution and how it works:
What does federated mean? The Federation (aka Fediverse aka federated social web) refers to a global social network composed of nodes that talk to each other. Each of them is an installation of software which supports one of the federated social web protocols. Federated social web protocols are part of W3C standards efforts. You can find links at the bottom of this article. Each network type, application, or app must be federated to interconnect but can provide different user experiences.
How many users exist? Currently, there are 2.18 million users according to an opt-in reporting site. This number could double as G+ers look for new social networking homes based on research that estimates current active G+ users are around 3.5 million. Over the past week alone, as a result of collaboration, admins report around 5500 new users from G+ have established accounts and are using the federated social web. Opt-in reports show the number is now around 10,000 new users on the federated social web within six days of the sunset announcement. (updated 10/14/18)
How much does it cost? Most solutions are 100% open source. Costs depend on whether you host a pod, instance, node, or channel yourself or if you have someone host it for you. One solution will run on a Raspberry PI! Estimated costs by technical G+ers is $0.025 per user for a typical server but that does not count potential development or labor involved to maintain it. Our recommended solution runs on a LAMP stack but at least one popular node is running nginx. So, there is some flexibility regarding implementation.
What is it like? There are many federated network types with the most common being Mastadon, Diaspora, Pleroma, Friendica, and Hubzilla. Mastadon is more like Twitter while Diaspora and Friendica are more like G+ or Facebook. User familiarity helps reduce learning curves and speed up onboarding.
Who controls it? There is no single authority or control. Users own and control all their own data and activities. Anyone can host approximately 1000-2000 users per typical server software installation. As noted in the collaborative effort, if 100,000 G+ers migrate, 50-100 new server installations (pods, instances, nodes, or channels) will be needed to accommodate a mass migration. The tech community among G+ers are already organizing to assist each other.
Do all the different solutions in the Federation work together? Some do some don't. Friendica, Diaspora, and Hubzilla users can connect and comment on each other's posts easily. However, Diaspora users at present cannot see likes on comments or edit posts. Development coming up may resolve those two issues. Friendica users can view Mastadon posts or follow Mastadon users and vice versa but posting to each other is always public. A lot depends on how each technology solution is implemented by whomever hosts them. But, it is proven possible to have full social interaction between different solutions on the federated social web.
This is like different software installations of Open Simulator grids connected to the Hypergrid allowing avatar travel between grids and communication between users of different grids. Very few grids run the exact same version of Open Simulator with the exception of the Dreamgrid project by design. Most of the larger grids have unique backend implementations.
After evaluating all the federated solutions, we found that Friendica met most of the criteria out of the box and has mechanisms in place to replace functions of G+ in a manner most people on the Hypergrid use. You create a user for each collection or community then go to advanced user types to make them soapbox, news, or community forums for users to follow. Hashtags are also supported, and friends are easily found using a variety of search options available by name or interest.
There are also bonus usability features in Friendica. The user interface itself has several themes and users have the ability to create more. These are like skins in the viewers used to access Open Simulator. In addition, you can alter the content layout to suit your preferences. We are experimenting with addons to connect to Blogger, Twitter, G+, WordPress, Jabber and more. You can also selectively view local community posts or global community posts in addition to your friends' posts.
Hyacinth Landry of HGLuv grid is hosting a temporary Friendica node for development of features for Open Simulator users where you can go to create a test account to be transferred later to a permanent node. I will host at least one permanent node and HGLuv will also have a permanent node when initial configuration testing is complete.
The good thing is, anyone can host a node. There is even a VirtualBox image available, but Hyacinth might make us something better if we help her out! If we had at least one node per grid and per large group project like Dreamgrid, that would be a great start!
We have an opportunity here as a community to shape our part of the federated social web to meet the needs of Hypergrid users and web-based virtual worlders! Hyacinth's HG search engine has been added to the UI on her development node already. There is no reason owners of Web-Worldz and Cybalounge cannot do the same for their sites. Every Friendica node will function independently. IMA will ultimately host a permanent node as well and map it to a subdomain of infinitemetaverse.org for general community use.
How can you check it out for yourself and join the effort to build a long-term social network solution for Open Simulator?
Create a free account at https://hey.lookits.me
Here are some links to learn more about Friendica:
Here are two collaborative sheets that evolved from the effort:
Finally, here are some informative sources
and a place to help with the mass migration.
Any questions or comments are welcome! You can find me on G+, in the federated web space, or in world as Shelenn Ayres. Feel free to get in touch!