How I learned to love the federated web

I’m pretty sure that everyone on the Diaspora platform has their own story about how they found Diaspora, made friends, and got into the network. Some of us have enjoyed it more than others. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that this is a very opportune moment for a community to come together and really shine.

But it begs the question: how did we get here? More specifically, how did we get to this point as a community? This is where my story comes in.

Over the years, I’ve noticed the rise (and sometimes decline) of sites such as Myspace, Friendster, Orkut, Xanga, Ning, Facebook, you name it. I’ve always wondered why there really hasn’t been all that many FOSS-based social networks, aside from maybe a few smaller projects like Crabgrass, or Red Hat’s ill-fated Mugshot. For quite a few years, I felt like there really wasn’t a network around for celebrating things like Free Culture and Free Software. In other words, the communities I loved the most lacked the social hubs I could call home.

Oh, Mugshot. Whatever became of you?

Then, one day out of the blue, I discovered identi.ca. Identi.ca is basically a Twitter clone based on the StatusNet social platform. It had (and continues to have) a huge community of enthusiasts, writers, creators, and developers. The constant conversations, occasional flamewars, and numerous lessons from group discussions helped me really grow into the community to a certain degree.

Then, one day Diaspora was announced. I remember it like it was yesterday; there were a few small projects trying to make their presence known on Identica to try and gain public support, and Diaspora was one of them. There was a lot of speculation about what the platform would be like, how it would work, and what all of that would mean for the social web.

Needless to say, I was elated to hear about it. We have a handful of Twitter clones, but getting a fully community-supported Facebook alternative at the time was somewhat unheard of.

Days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months. I eagerly made an effort to check the Diaspora blogs and Tweets day after day to see if any new news was coming out about the project. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, the Pre-Alpha source code drop happened. I hurriedly rushed to download it and attempted to install it on my shared web host.

Except, it was a Ruby system, and at the time there really weren’t any instructions on how to set it up for DreamHost. I struggled in vain to set it up with the questionable instructions the ISP provided for Ruby applications. After waiting for half an hour to upload the entire website, I was dumbfounded to realize that I was doing it all wrong. I was experienced in setting up PHP sites, and was completely clueless about what I was doing.

So I decided to look around and see if anyone had set up a host. To my delight, I had found OpenSpora, and I eagerly signed up to test it out. Charlie Melbye had taken the time to set things up.

Openspora was one of the first Diaspora pods to attempt to also play with a color scheme.

Dear god. It had more bugs in it than the local cornfield, and the server had a habit of going down several times a day. The bugs and server instability wasn’t all that great, but the benefit of being able to test out the platform and meet new people was pretty neat. I remember, back in the old days, there were only three features: status updates, posting photos, and adding/dragging friends around in Aspects. The layout was somewhat primitive at the time, and there were no notifications to speak of.

I decided to put up with the instability for a month or two, at least until I somehow scored an invite to the JoinDiaspora.com server.

This depicts exactly how I felt.

And so an entire year went by. A year of evolution and growth. Features crept in at an alarming rate, sometimes on a daily basis. I remember the members getting excited over something as simple and taken-for-granted as notifications and private messaging. I remember when we first got hash tags, and how everyone wondered if Diaspora was going to be more like Twitter. (Luckily, it isn’t. The hybrid social design works out really well.)

Pods sprang up in different parts of the world, and we all began to federate together. It eventually became a quite seamless experience for the most part. The PodUpti.me tool was set up to show all of the active Diaspora pods, and a fair amount of them are quite capable of connecting together. The latest significant development for federation was that Friendika users could interact with Diaspora users, and while it’s not perfect yet, the fact that anything works at all is just great.

That being said, the biggest thing about Diaspora is not its features, but the community that surrounds it. Several times a day, I’ll check in and notice great conversations going on by people that originally didn’t know each other at all. In fact, I’ve made a good handful of friends there, from all walks of life. The best part is that it’s not just a bunch of Linux nerds. There are people there that are passionate about film, technology, art, philosophy, literature, you name it. It is a community of passion, and it continues to grow on a daily basis.

Sean is a guy from the middle of nowhere in Illinois who passionately supports Free Software, Free Culture, and decentralized communication systems. He serves as the editor of We Distribute, a publication dedicated to the development of the fediverse. In his spare time, Sean is a budding indie game dev, writer, web developer, and a musician.

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