Edit: Thanks so much for your feedback! An earlier version of this article missed a few key points — check out the FAQ on the bottom of the review.
Purism is a wild startup located in South San Francisco. Their mission? Providing a superior hardware experience for people who love privacy and software freedom. Purism is building and shipping GNU/Linux laptops, and is interested in developing a phone as well.
Purism is a much newer brand compared to other, more established computer companies. So far, this company has largely dealt with a crowdfunding purchase model — in short, you donate X amount to the campaign, and receive physical hardware as a contribution reward.
Generally, this model of fulfillment takes a lot longer than more traditional on-demand methods of manufacturing a product and shipping it.
Purism seems to have outgrown this way of doing things, and now takes orders directly from their site. I placed my order on June 28th, with an estimated delivery in July 2017.
Because I was traveling in the middle of July, I reached out to their support team for when I might expect the order. An agent got back to me in less than 24 hours, and cheerfully informed me that the team would bump up my order in the queue.
Sure enough, my laptop arrived ahead of schedule.
My first impression of the hardware was pretty positive. The v3 ships with an anodized black finish, and the frame feels sleek and solid. The only downside here is the color — it immediately attracts smudges.
Smudges aside, Purism has really done their homework on hardware. Everything works out-of-the-box, and with a few minor adjustments I found myself getting comfortable.
Coming from a world of Macbooks, I was initially disappointed with the trackpad, which felt less smooth and much slower. Gnome applications don’t all deal with multitouch in the same fashion yet, either. The good news is that the trackpad’s responsiveness can be managed by adjusting the cursor speed.
Power management in laptops has long been an achilles heel for many GNU/Linux distributions out there. Many laptops offer motherboard configurations and hardware combinations that are under-documented, which can lead to issues with suspend and waking from sleep.
Happily, Librem wakes from sleep with no issues to speak of. Wireless drivers pick up right where they left off, and the whole system feels smooth and responsive.
The device ships with a 3.1GHz Intel Core i7 CPU. This is from the Skylake family of Intel processors, and it works favorably well. By default, this laptop comes with 4GB of DDR4 Memory and a 120 GB SSD. For the purposes of my convenience, I upgraded to a 250GB SSD and 8GB of DDR4 for $138 extra, bringing my overall cost to $1,737.
The Atheros wireless hardware is well-documented to work with Linux-based systems, and performance of the Intel HD Graphics 520 is perfectly comparable to a mid-range 2017 Macbook Pro. That’s important, because those graphics have to support a 1920 x 1080 matte display @ 60Hz, and the picture looks all the better for it.
Bluetooth does not currently work without installing proprietary firmware, but the hardware does indeed ship with a bluetooth module. Purism is currently trying to hire a developer to write a libre driver for it.
In the third revision of the 15-inch, the number of kill switches has been reduced to just two, and they have been moved from the side of the computer to the hinge of the monitor. The kill switches can disable wireless, bluetooth, the microphone, and video all on the hardware level.
The web cam and microphone work well, and the video quality is comparable to a high-end Macbook. In good lighting, images look vibrant, and the picture remains sharp with a decent framerate. Video calls should for the most part be smooth, though that still depends on what app you’re using as well as your internet connection.
Additionally, if you’re coming from a 13″ Macbook, the keyboard will feel strange to you for about two days. I had to retrain my fingers to account for a change in key spacing and hotkey combinations.
Purism’s laptops ship with PureOS by default, which includes a stock Gnome 3.22. PureOS is based on Debian, and generally seems to work with Debian/Ubuntu packages. For proprietary debs (Slack, Steam, Skype, etc) you may have to do a little detective work to determine their dependencies to get them to run properly.
By default, the system runs on Wayland, the new display successor to Xorg, and you’ll barely notice. Overall, the new display server works perfectly well with Intel graphics, and the Mutter compositor in Gnome runs quite smoothly. A basic glxgears demo can pull somewhere between 66 to 76 FPS — part of this is because Wayland has excellent support for running classical Xorg applications in a wrapper (XWayland).
This works nicely as a glue layer for apps that have not natively implemented Wayland support yet themselves, but XWayland’s support for drawing tablets is only available in upstream Gnome. As a consequence, I’ll have to run a Xorg session any time I want to get some digital painting done.
On a similar note, Coreboot is present, but practically invisible in terms of system operation. It’s definitely on the Librem, but the boot process is quick and Coreboot mostly stays out of the way. Thanks to the use of open source graphics, the boot system is visually smooth and animated.
One nice surprise is that PureOS was able to play all of my backed-up music from iTunes, making this transition a million times easier than expected.
Most people would generally agree that desktops and laptops are increasingly using web applications in lieu of native desktop apps. If an OS is capable of providing a solid experience for web, the computer can meet most basic user needs, from social networking to processing tax returns. We can already see minimal examples of this taking hold in the market — take ChromeOS, for one.
How does pureOS stack up?
I ended up choosing Gnome Web as my default browser because it integrates directly into Gnome. Despite a few minor quibbles (why can’t tabs be pinned?), the WebKit support it ships with is very, very good. Multimedia plugins work out of the box (just install the GStreamer plugins), HTML5 media elements are incredibly smooth, and web applications all render correctly without any major issues…except for one.
Overall, the web experience works well. The Librem’s display lends itself to a high resolution, with fonts rendering smoothly and HTML5 sites working out-of-the-box.
Overall, my experience with Librem has been highly positive, and I’m glad to switch away from a Macbook Pro for it. Though this is a system that will require some configuration to fit a person’s liking, it’s essentially a “set and forget it” affair.
Is it worth it?
For some people, this all may seem like some masochistic pursuit of technological asceticism. If you don’t have a reason to switch to a Linux-based system and don’t particularly care about proprietary drivers on your computer, this product probably isn’t for you.
Some people may balk at the price of Purism’s products, but I’m convinced that this was the right purchase for me. The dependent factor here involves two things: how experienced you are with using GNU/Linux, and whether you care about Free Software or privacy in computing.
In a way, this product is something of a philosophical statement for people who are interested in both. If you’re comfortable in a *nix environment, want to use a Free Software OS full-time, and prefer a premium build quality, this is a great laptop.
A number of people wrote in with additional questions that were not covered by this review. I wanted to take a moment to clear up any ambiguous details that people wanted to know about.
Q: What’s the deal with the BIOS? Is it running Coreboot? Is it 100% free?
Librem v15 rev3 ships with Coreboot, and the experience is rather nondescript. Apparently, using the application me_cleaner makes it possible to get about 98% of the binary blobs free, though that means there is more work to be done.
Purism intends to get Coreboot support on all of their devices, and are working on improving me_cleaners capabilities to remove more of those blobs. At some point, it may be entirely possible Purism products will even support Libreboot by meeting the Respects Your Freedom certification requirements.
Q: How quick does a cold boot (power off, not sleeping) take?
The entire system can boot to desktop in under 10 seconds.
Q: How are the shortcut keys?
Overall, key placement and spacing is good, but Purism has made a few unusual design decisions with hotkeys. Volume has been superimposed on the up/down arrow keys, and there aren’t any dedicated keys for media controls. This can be fixed with a basic key remap, but it is initially puzzling.
Q: Is the whole body aluminum as the macbooks or does it have a plastic frame?
The entire body seems to be anodized aluminum. The only exception is the hinge, which is plastic and not noticeable.
Q: What’s the experience like on disassembly?
Although I haven’t dived into this too far yet, the laptop is designed to be 100% serviceable, meaning that you can take it apart completely and swap out components to your liking. The screws aren’t proprietary, nothing is sectioned off, and you can play with the guts of the machine all you’d like.
You started from the position of being a bunch of cells to being a living, breathing person, born into a family that has a history of its own problems and tragedies, and raised to follow whatever beliefs your parents and family instilled upon you. Your brain then goes through a feedback loop as it tries to build a worldview for itself, scrambling to put pieces together from experiences, anecdotes, and surroundings.
For all your high and mighty aspirations, you find yourself falling short of any ideal. The yardstick you were handed to measure yourself implies that you are fundamentally broken. It’s as if the natural processes that led to your creation were mostly misfires.
Somehow, you are the ugliest, dumbest, least helpful, least insightful, least useful waste of human flesh there ever was. Your nose is in the wrong place. You didn’t get good grades. You were too fat and gross. Your smile is asymmetrical because there’s a gap in your teeth.
Paradoxically, some part of you is beautiful beyond comparison. You’re often too busy hurting yourself to notice. You feel like you can understand many things without any real idea of how you know them. In your center lies a softness, a space all too happy to delve out compassion and love for the world.
You bear witness to injustice and cruelty, but are too paralyzed to do anything. Humans everywhere beat their chests in a primitive display of tribalism that reveals how little we’ve evolved. The loudest voices struggle to drown each other out in a chorus of anger. Division lines are drawn, and sometimes people die over it.
All we have is hunting, politics, religion, sports, sex, money, and warfare, all plastered in mental advertisements for the other corresponding things.
These tribes emerge in different arenas: iOS vs Android, Mac vs. PC, Ford vs Honda, Democrat vs Republican, Chicago vs Green Bay, Christianity vs Islam, Communism vs Capitalism. Both camps competitively push against one another, propping up their own heroes while highlighting the villains on the other side. One dynamic attempts to overpower its opposite, but neither makes much traction in the end.
Entire cosmologies and frameworks of ethics are forged in the process, and people love to remind each other that their own version of perception is the most correct one. Every tribe finds itself at war with its own opposite perspective. The irony, perhaps, is that many of these camps have more compatibility with one another than either is willing to admit.
Greater still is the notion that our very identities are comprised of an overlap of mindshare and symbolism stemming from our demographic roots. The self is constructed from millions of individual pieces, many of which are borrowed from someone else.
The brain puts together patterns that it believes makes the most sense, based on the what’s there. It insists that it is right, because its method of validation is based on what it thinks it understands.
To some, the pursuit of happiness can feel like a never-ending marathon with no real winners. The pursuit of money just makes you all the more thirsty for it, and the pursuit of truth is fraught with disappointment. You met with so-called spiritual gurus, only to discover that they were but plastic medicine men. Even the people you look up to will let you down.
Push that rock, Sisyphus, you tell yourself.
There are many reasons a person living in this world might want to end their own life. Someone has been struggling for too long — they are weighed down by the troubles of the world, and they are sickened by what they see in themselves and other people. Hopelessly trapped in agony over the world’s amount of pain and suffering.
To many, there is a strong case for choosing death over life. Such an action carries the weight of choice with meaning — in a chaotic and violent world, it can seem like an escape, drawing a curtain of misery to a definite close. Or at least, that’s how the assumption goes. Nobody really knows in the end.
The model of what a post-life experience looks like is poorly understood at best. Either you live forever, burn forever, are reborn forever, or just simply stop existing in any conscious form whatsoever. Other interpretations may include becoming a constellation, becoming the god of a world full of your spirit children, or learning a new way to say hoooo-ray with inter-dimensional gnomes.
You can try to make peace with the idea one way or another, but when the very foundations of your beliefs fail you, it can feel as if all cumulative systems of value ultimately cascade and collapse into nothing. The beginning and ending points are pretty much the same.
For all you know, you might just end up being nothing with no sense of continuity, and the same thing will happen to everyone you’ve ever known and ever loved.
In the end, all you can really do is try to make the most of your time, and appreciate it for what it is. Life is transient, and you are up against an advancing wall of death.
Things I learned from being Diaspora’s Community Manager.
Diaspora* means something very important to me. It’s the first job that gave me real experience in working at a startup. It’s also the first job that allowed me to participate in an Open Source project that I remain passionate about to this day.
In a lot of ways, this job was a dream come true; it was a byproduct of a thousand wishes about wanting to somehow be part of a big project that I believed in. This is a story about the things I learned while working there, and how it ended up changing me as a person.
The Problems of Centralization
Why go through all the trouble to make the web work in a fundamentally different way? As it turns out, there are some severely limiting factors in offering huge, sprawling social networks to people for free.
Consider that there are many users in many countries using Facebook at the moment. In the interest of keeping those users on its network, Facebook needs to maintain an infrastructure so that its service remains online for its billion users connecting in from all over the world.
Scaling up operations to a global size isn’t cheap. Although Facebook has done a great job at optimizing every part of its software and hardware, a tremendous amount of work and resources had to go into minimizing its energy footprint, and keep their app from slowing to a crawl. Consider also the vast amount of features that Facebook offers — enough to encompass a digital life all day long.
That’s all well and good, but without monetizing such a platform, all development ultimately feeds into a money pit — all of this development costs billions of dollars to services of this scale. A common trend is to see such services delve into selling advertising space, and offering a comprehensive suite of tools to mine user data for businesses. This applies to all sorts of information about content, correlations between who likes a piece of content, and public interactions.
Interactions with content can be put on a graph, and content can be automatically tailored to a user based on this. In many ways, a social stream gradually offers up more advertisements and suggestions than actual friends and liked pages, which now have to pay extra money to promote their own content. In a sense, it could be argued that promoted posts themselves are often done for advertising purposes.
Like many other social platforms, Facebook maintains a global presence, with users in many different countries all over the world. From a political standpoint, these kinds of companies must work to maintain a global presence, lest they risk having access cut off for purposes of censorship. These tactics are mostly in light of the success of the Arab Spring revolutions, as social media proved to be a viable platform to coordinate mass protests, some of which resulted in governments being completely overthrown.
In a sense, centralized networks provide the highest concentrations of people on a platform, effectively creating a massive silo where everyone’s data is stored. Surveillance initiatives such as PRISM tap directly into these networks and get the most bang for their buck because everyone is using these things.
What if people didn’t have to be on the same servers and services to communicate, though?
Suppose that people using Myspace could seamlessly connect to their friends using Facebook? Myspace users would use their site, Facebook users would stay on theirs — but everything from status, photos, likes, messages, and a shared stream could pass through both social networks. Suppose that any third party could start their own site in a similar fashion and join in?
This is one of the underlying principles of decentralized networking: anyone can start a social network, and connect to other people using compatible technologies. You could say that this expands on a lot of the core concepts behind how email works — anyone can run their own email server from any domain name they like, and be able to message people on other servers. In this case, the interactions are social.
Decentralized networks are interesting in the sense that when they’re implemented well, they are much harder to censor or shut down than a centralized one, as content and data are being sent to potentially many places. Some servers now are even capable of restoring content after a node in the network temporarily goes offline, allowing for a “self-healing” network of sorts.
Users are able to set up their own servers anywhere in such a network, and can participate both as a user as well as their own service host. This opens up a lot of possibilities in how an individual person can participate on the web.
The year was 2010, and up to that point, not many open source social networks had been developed. For the most part, the closest thing I can remember using at the time was StatusNet, which essentially resembled Twitter but had the added benefits of being decentralized and respecting privacy.
Some people were skeptical of its lofty goals, but many rallied around its cause. The initiative itself had been influenced by a talk given by Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center about personal data and privacy.
It was part of a bigger idea about how the web could be, and the idea really resonated with people. Why box yourself into one social network when you could use any part of the web to do what you already do on other social networks? Your data stays on your server, your friend’s data stays on their server, but somehow the two of you can communicate as if you were on the same website.
A First Time for Everything
When I first used Diaspora, it looked like this.
This was the preview release of what the software looked like, and it was a significant improvement over the demo pitch in the project’s Kickstarter campaign. Word of this project was spreading through the FOSS community like wildfire, and many people’s imaginations were captured.
Sure, we had an open source decentralized Twitter clone, but what if this idea could stand on its own two feet, and provide an alternative to the likes of Facebook?
The project would go on to raise $200,000 in an era where most campaigns fell stopped in the lower 5 digits. The project got coverage from places like The New York Times and TechCrunch, and expectations hit a peak of excitement. Pivotal Labs offered them a space to work at.
What was originally intended to be a summer project would go on to evolve into something so much more than what anybody had anticipated.
Off Like a Rocket
For a while, the community of supporters waited in anticipation of a formal Alpha launch. The preview release itself was sparse, lacked a lot of general features, didn’t initially support federation, and contained several security holes that more experienced developers were quick to comment on.
After a long summer, the first Diaspora pod had launched at JoinDiaspora.com. Many different media sites gave their initial reviews of what it was like — there was some speculation over whether Diaspora had staying power in its early form. To some certain degree, theywereunderwhelmed, but some people remained hopeful over its potential.
For an alpha, Diaspora went through several different designs and iterations. At first, it sported an overly simplistic interface with very few features, but over time it evolved into something fairly comparable to other social platforms.
At one point, the team was putting together support for third-party applications that Diaspora could leverage. The idea of an open federated social network that could hook into apps had captured a lot of people’s imaginations.
The first of these third-party app experiments was Cubbi.es, which was a sterling example of how to take a really simple idea and turn it into something people wanted to use.
Cubbi.es was kind of ingeniuous because it solved two unique problems: federating images from pod to pod back in those days wasn’t very good, and the Chrome extension demonstrated how Diaspora’s fledgling API could be used to easily put content on the stream in a new way.
All you had to do was click a button, and any image you saw on a webpage could get shared automatically. You weren’t uploading anything to your pod, you were just sharing a linked image from somewhere else.
Even with some of the negative press going around about the project, Diaspora seemed to be fairly unstoppable in its development. At that moment, it felt like the project was really starting to blossom.
I never got to know Ilya Zhitomirsky personally. Aside from general interactions on the stream, our paths never crossed.
He was one of the founders and therefore core developers of Diaspora, and he had been really involved at bringing people together from within the project space. He had a lot of really interesting ideas about where Diaspora could go and what it could do. The community he and his friends had built together loved him.
On November 12th, 2011, Ilya took his own life. It was a heavy blow to the project, and the event was in the back of the community’s collective minds for a very long time. News of his death was shared around in an eerily similar fashion to news of Diaspora’s birth.
It’s hard to say what drove him to the point of suicide. Some have speculated that the pressure of Diaspora’s initial success and high expectations might have been a contributing factor. Some of the criticism was particularly visceral. Some of it was directed at the paradox that Diaspora was not exactly a feature-for-feature clone of Facebook. Others pointed fingers at the amount of funds raised, and what the creators did with it.
The startup space brings many challenges, and constant criticism over unmet expectations can definitely wear a person down over time. Things can feel especially rocky for a new venture if a business model hasn’t been set in stone yet — it’s one of the big paradoxes of creating a startup company.
If he was depressed, he never expressed it publicly. This is the last thing he ever posted, and serves as a sort of digital memorial.
A New Chapter
The Diaspora core team kept to themselves for a while. This wasn’t to say that they didn’t interact with the community; it’s just that the brunt of the project’s internal work and planning was handled by a small handful of people. Including the four founders, there were only a few other people involved in the project’s day-to-day activities.
The loss of Ilya was devastating. Progress on development slowed to a crawl for a while. Bugs piled up, issues ran rampant, and development spiraled into a disorganized mess. With that, Dan and Max turned to the Diaspora community for help.
Max and Dan had made a public post about the fact that they were willing to hire an intern to get the job done. Thinking on what had happened to the project, I felt a strange compulsion to answer. Max had asked for me to include an essay with my insights on FOSS development and how it works in different ways, and I expected that to be the end of things.
After a series of short emails, Max and Dan reached out to me with the offer of an interview.
At times, it’s difficult to wrap my head around how I ended up working at Diaspora. I was in-between jobs, trying to get freelance work done after the last company I had worked for had gone under. In the few years prior to the posting, I had been going to school, and worked several part-time jobs.
I also was one of the first users on JoinDiaspora.com. I had found a way to exploit Diaspora’s limited invite system so that anyone who wanted to join didn’t have to wait on a long list. I made a lot of new friends on Diaspora this way.
Most of the people that used it couldn’t get their friends to use it, so they engaged over mutual interests instead. Over time, the people that stayed ended up establishing a dedicated community.
I’m very passionate about free and open technologies. I started using Linux when I was a teenager, and readily appreciated the idea of everyone collaborating on code that was being developed out in the open and shared freely.
There was just something really appealing about the idea, and so I tried to find ways to get involved in various user communities. I obsessed over pieces of software, how they were used, and how the underlying libraries and OS made use of them. Somewhere, deep down, I wanted to help these projects succeed.
I’m the sort of dude who has shower thoughts about how free software could change the world if enough people were supportive of it.
When the interview finally came, I was incredibly nervous. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that these people actually wanted to talk to me, and that I might have a chance to actually work on a project that I loved so much. My voice cracked over and over again. I could barely modulate the tone of my voice.
Somehow, they managed to see past my anxiety, and gave me a chance to prove myself. I was officially the Community Manager, and so began one of the greatest adventures of my young life.
Order out of Chaos
One of the biggest challenges in maintaining an active community involves organization. Things had piled up quite a bit in the wake of Ilya’s death — our documentation was out of date and messy, GitHub Issues were piling up left and right, and our community engagement had been historically spotty.
The first thing I started doing involved restructuring all of our documentation. Originally, it had served as a dumping ground for useful information, and lack of maintenance had caused it to slowly evolve into a philosophical labyrinth of true-false statements. Each week, I’d comb through Github updates, break things up into sections by topic, and pored over every scrap of information I could find. Eventually, this was restructured into the Diaspora wiki.
The GitHub Issues were a different beast. They served as a hub for figuring out recurring bugs, feature development ideas, and pull requests. I soon came to dedicate a good portion of my daily routine hovering around Github, interacting with threads when they came up.
We established “Bug Mash Mondays”, which existed as a weekly list of low-hanging fruit issues with a description from the core team as to specific problem areas. This actually was met with some great response in the development end of Diaspora’s community, as older community devs were able to mentor newer developers during the code review process.
In time, many developers would end up making feature improvements and contributions to the platform. Some people would make small but incredibly useful tweaks to the interface — other people would develop entirely new features, such as geolocation in posts.
Sometimes it took a lot of input from the core development team to explain why certain features worked in certain ways. Fostering an inclusive community was extremely important to me, so I did my best to communicate with community devs about what they wanted to do with their code.
Birds of a feather
This shouldn’t come to anyone as a surprise, but Diaspora is not alone in its goals or general concept. Nowadays, there are numerous projects out there taking a crack at getting decentralized social communication working. I’d like to think that everyone involved has a different piece of the puzzle.
Everybody has different ideas on how things should be done, and several distinctive implementations emerged over time. For the most part, these communities and platforms didn’t interoperate with one another. This is currently an innate problem of decentralized communication that is only now coming to a head.
The one exception is Friendica. While there is a significant amount of overlap between both projects in terms of aspirations and goals, the underlying differences between them caused friction in the earlier days of development. Diaspora is Rails, Friendica is PHP. Diaspora’s network has some gigantic pods with lots of people on it; Friendica’s approach has been to have people spread more evenly across nodes of the network.
Instead of being supported by any sort of crowdfunding, Friendica initially had been developed mostly by Mike MacGirvin over many years of experimentation and iteration. Its base of contributors grew organically, without much news exposure. The craziest bit is that Mike managed to reverse engineer Diaspora’s federation protocol, so Diaspora users and Friendica users could communicate somewhat seamlessly with one another. Ilya had helped Mike in making certain parts of it work.
For a while, it seemed like the Friendica community didn’t like the Diaspora project very much. There was resentment over just how popular Diaspora was for a while, and that the development team was little more than “some trendy hipster millennials with macbooks”.
With every misstep our project took, there were members of another community federating with our user-base, ready to point it out and invite people to try their platform instead. The flame wars were long, and just as annoying as any other product vs product argument out there.
The thing is, this happens in open source communities all the time. Sometimes, multiple projects will be compared to one another based on their features. There’s VI vs emacs, there’s Gnome vs KDE, and there seemed to be Diaspora vs. Friendica.
Here’s one of the bigger challenges in growing out an Open Source project: as a community, you can have a general vision on what you want to make. However, individual contributors in a project can have contrasting opinions on how to implement a solution.
This happens on a micro and macro level — developers in one community can argue over implementation of a specific feature, and developers from different projects can refuse to use each other’s protocols and technologies under the mindset that their own work is better.
Different developers might write new features that, for whatever reason, don’t get pulled into the main codebase. For this reason, a developer may just end up forking the original project to add their own custom features and styling.
Forking can be beneficial for enabling developers to do these things, but it can also cause massive problems. Let’s assume a developer forks a project, and adds numerous customizations of their own along the way. Meanwhile, the original project goes through some major refactoring of its own.
Authors of forks inevitably end up having difficulty pushing changes back upstream, and have even more difficulty pulling in improvements from the original project, causing an unintended breakage. Ultimately, too many things can change too quickly.
There’s really no sense in sugar-coating things. Diaspora as a project suffered from at least two of these forks happening while it was in Alpha. Halfway through Alpha development, Diaspora’s frontend was rewritten to make use of Backbone.JS, which meant that many of the hooks and even coding conventions needed to change. Many features were simply turned away because there wasn’t an alignment between the core team’s design vision and the community’s design vision.
Many of these factors can contribute to a sense of hostility between a core team and the community around it, especially when that core team is a startup and not simply a group of volunteer coders. As a measure against this, we attempted to hold weekly code chats on our IRC channel that was open for community developers and users to ask questions and give input.
Many people had differing opinions about what Diaspora was and what it should be. To some end users, it was perceived as a sort of Occupy-centric answer to Facebook. To others, it represented a new kind of social experience that was only in the beginning stages of being defined. No matter which way you looked at it, though, Diaspora was being compared to Facebook. So, we explored ways to distance ourselves from that.
Here’s the thing: copying another product feature-for-feature doesn’t give people the incentive to switch. Google+ is a great example of this: when it launched, it functioned very similarly to how Facebook did. Even though Google+ has many more users today, most people stayed on Facebook.
To truly hit a tipping point between places online, Service B has to provide something more than what Service A does, but it’s less about the features and more about the way it is used. We tried to experiment with presenting Diaspora as something more than just a Facebook clone.
Much of this further design emphasis focused on making content more meaningful to a user. Max had posed the question several times — “What does it mean to really own your own data? What does data mean to you, and what can you do with it?”
We were curious about finding new ways to make content useful and meaningful. At the time, a lot of these redesigns appeared to make sense. We were thrilled to find new ways to make content more expressive, and we wanted to contribute to making an awesome social experience online.
Some members of the community really loved the new design. Others hated it and asked for a way to opt out of it.
Here’s an uncomfortable insight: a startup whose premise is centered around decentralization and user data privacy is not in and of itself profitable. Even if you’re offering a hosting solution, you’re probably eating a good amount of the costs until you get enough customers to validate your business model. At the moment, people are more compelled to stay put on social networks that they don’t have to pay for.
For the dedicated core team members to continue working on a day-to-day basis, we needed to figure out a good way to keep development funded. We weighed our options and looked at different opportunities. I recall at one point offering to forgo my paycheck if it were better served to our graphic designer and coders.
At the time, Y Combinator seemed like an obvious solution to go with. They’re essentially like a boot camp for startup companies, and Max was familiar with a handful of people that had gone through YC before. We looked into it, and found ourselves pitching the concept to them.
The goal was to highlight the various features that made people stay with Diaspora while also showing off some of the visual bling we had been putting together.
Our demo came and went, and soon enough Diaspora became a Y Combinator company.
Maker I Owe
The beta designs developed by the core team would one day branch off into a new development: Makr.io. The site initially started as an experiment to put all of our beta designs together on a fork of Diaspora, with the intent of merging the best improvements back in.
The initial vision was to take everything that was great about Diaspora, and turn it into a sleek, visually appealing playground for expressive content. Essentially, it turned into a spiritual successor to Cubbi.es, and worked in similar ways to it. At the same time, it retained all of its social networking capabilities.
Still, there was something appealing about collaboratively remixing content on the web together. The spirit of what we were trying to do with Diaspora — give value to personal data — remained largely intact in the early days of Makr. It started to look pretty nice, and had its own community of users that also happened to use Diaspora.
Then, something happened. It didn’t happen all at once, but at some point, Makr changed in the interests of redefining itself. There was some speculation as to why the core development was now focused on Makr when Diaspora still needed tending to.
Over time, Makr pivoted into calling itself a meme generator. We had developed a feature where users could remix each others’ posts, and we tried to throw little internet parties around it. I couldn’t shake a sinking feeling.
On its own, it wasn’t too bad. The remix parties were fun, and a few social media brands expressed interest in playing around with it. If Makr had existed as an app for Diaspora, that would’ve been fine.
After a while, I realized that I didn’t really care very much about Makr. I was kind of disappointed to see that this was where we were going. The app itself wasn’t bad, but it lacked the spirit of purpose that Diaspora had.
I found myself becoming very cynical. With all core development focus on Makr, I started to feel that Diaspora was dying from the inside out, and had grown into a sad state of affairs. The API needed to be rewritten, and Cubbi.es had stopped working. Half of the user interface was in Beta mode, half of it was using the old Diaspora style.
Late one night, I told Max that something needed to happen — I wanted to dedicate all of my time to Diaspora, and stop focusing on Makr. He agreed, and I began tending to the project on my own.
After observing enough conflicts and issues for long enough, I had a much clearer idea of what to do next. I drew up a game plan, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.
This concludes Part I of Diaspora’s story — Part II will focus on how the community came together and moved forward. If you liked this, please check out my publications: We Distribute, and Antifiction.
I have had a few very significant experiences lately that made me reconsider the way I approach living my life. As such, I have come up with a list of adjustments that I believe will help me to be a happier person. Maybe it will help you too.
Do not hold onto petty grudges. Those can make you sick from the inside out, and can lend credibility to the illusion that you had no faults in a given situation.
Similarly, do your best to not cling to anger. It is all too easy to revert to feelings of anger to cover up feelings of fear, hopelessness, and helplessness.
Stand up for yourself. You are not a doormat for the world to step on.
When writing, try to mimic the narration style of a people who do nature documentaries. Their use of the English language is exceptional, and they can give you some ideas about how to become more articulate.
Focus on the qualities you want to have, and invest yourself in simply having them. It helps to think about your own presence, how you compose yourself, and how you behave. Do not despair at the qualities you think you lack; things probably aren’t as bad as you assume them to be.
Be honest and sincere in your apologies.
When experiencing a disagreement, try to understand the opposing point of view. Be polite; if the other person does not know something directly applicable to the argument at hand, try to educate them without putting yourself on a pedestal.
Do not raise your temper. Instead, maintain a calm demeanor, smile, and be kind.
Never pursue unkindness with the intent of bringing someone else down.
Instead of arguing, try debating — and if you’re not debating, at least try to share your point of view, even if you have a disagreement with someone on a topic.
Do your best to be articulate while also being concise; use as many words as necessary to illustrate an idea without totally going overboard.
Do not be afraid to cry. It reflects something very beautiful in your heart.
Do not be afraid to admit when you are wrong. Everyone is capable of being wrong some percentage of the time, you included. To admit error is a strength in and of itself.
Go boldly in directions where even you may be afraid. Sometimes, the best parts of life involve conquering your worst fears.
Don’t focus too much on being macho. Truth be told, the world tends to make people hard, and hardness can be mistaken as being the only set of features that makes a being attractive. But the world very desperately needs kinder, softer people.
Watch documentaries, and read about history when you can.
Dress up nicely for work, if you can. You will thank yourself every time.
Take consistent care of hygiene. Give yourself as little excuse as possible for feeling gross. Conversely, don’t go overboard on trying to cover things up; try to use just enough of something to smell pleasant, but not overpoweringly so.
Find new ways to expand your vocabulary. Words can give you the power to express new ways of thinking.
More important than politeness — pursue kindness. Being polite is a virtue, but kindness involves a much deeper level of investment.
Instead of pointing out why you think people are wrong, ask them about things in a constructive way to push them to logical conclusions
Keep working on your ideas and theories — some of them are likely to be very good. Any breakthrough takes time and effort.
Express yourself through creative thinking — this not only applies to arts, but the pursuit of mathematics and hard sciences as well. Creativity does not only apply to the humanities.
Exercise regularly, but do it for yourself. Do it specifically because you want to.
Do things for yourself because you want to do them, not because you want to impress other people.
Try talking in the mirror to illustrate ideas regarding where your head is. This can be useful for a number of things, from presentations that you have to give to comedy routines to serious conversations that need to be had.
Always shower, and always wear clean clothing. Life is too short to go through it feeling gross and self-conscious.
Don’t beat yourself up over lost time. As long as you’re alive, you still have time to change things as you see fit.
Thank your lucky stars that you are alive.
Avoid vices that resemble escapism. It’s fine to party and have a good time — but consider whether you can find happiness in sobriety. This is fundamentally important.
Wake up early and enjoy the sunrise. Take a nice walk if you can — you’ll find that it suits you.
Stark naked with a reeling brain, I aimlessly peered into a glowing square in my hand. Two pictures of people lined up side-by-side. My heart was hurting, and I hated myself. I stared into a face, and looked at the sum of the parts. It’s easily the most popular game on any mobile device.
I swiped left, and a person tumbled away to die both in my hard drive and in my heart. The nose was too small. The eyes were too wide apart. I couldn’t commit to that.
Two new pieces of meat showed up for me to inspect. One was an effeminate man who I think might look good in some makeup, the other a lady with green hair and tattoos.
Deep down, I hoped with every fiber of my being that the rocker girl would swipe me the same way I swiped her. Maybe a deep romance would take hold and give my empty existence meaning. Or maybe we’d meet once to fulfill physical urges. It’s difficult to presume too much so early on.
Maybe she would never talk to me at all. I think so much about sex sometimes that it has somehow served as a crude replacement for actually having it. How are you supposed to be yourself around someone when being around them arouses you and brings out emotional thoughts and feelings?
I swiped right again. The ability to be yourself can become impaired. To succeed at this stage would only mean that I give myself freely to a series of awkward rituals where I’m not sure that I like a person, and I’m not so sure that they like me, either.
I’ve long considered myself to be bad at talking to people I’m attracted to. The idea of something bad happening feels worse than the actual event itself. Panic throws a wrench into everything, and renders a person incapable of doing anything, at least for a while.
This one has kids. Four of them. Swipe left. It’s as if the act of going through this cycle is sparking a small outlet in my pleasure center; the what-ifs tingle across my nervous system in anticipation.
I cry, and bury my head in my hands. It is likely that I will never have sex again. More importantly, it feels like I don’t deserve to be close to anyone at all. In my own mind, I’m the lowest form of trash and everything is charity born out of pity. I am the fattest, stupidest, poorest, most ugly version of myself in all possible worlds. But not really.
I check Tinder. No matches. I check OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and MeetMe. No messages to speak of. I might get some replies if I sent any, but how do you introduce yourself to a complete stranger based on a few pictures and a tiny blurb? Hi, you’re cute? Anything in the wrong tone sounds creepy or overly generic, and I don’t have the patience to craft paragraphs for rejection slips unless they’re from publishing houses.
But the pond of the area around me has dried up for now. I turn off my phone, and go to bed in frustration. Tomorrow, another day will show itself, and the lure of opportunity will pull me back to the screen once more.
You’ve experiencing it again, aren’t you? All the time, and more frequently, you have been experiencing full-blown hallucinations. They start out innocently enough; the realistic sound going on in your head may sound like a commercial you heard earlier on the radio. Some of the furniture will move around, and posters come to life with enthusiasm. After a while, though, it may feel as if there are several different narratives going on in your head all jockeying for your attention, and you get caught up in imaginary situations that feel all too real.
Do you feel that tipping point, where you can look down into the levels of basic primal human instinct and see how easy it might be to fall all the way down there? Sometimes peering into it too much can tell you appalling things about the human soul. The barrier between being an all-loving human being and being a raving, violent zombie is not that wide.
Are there things layered on top of things layered on top of things being projected into your eyes in such a way that you can’t fully comprehend or even observe them? How fast are they going?
Thoughts, feelings, and emotions feel mixed up. Things that don’t ordinarily make sense makes sense, but you still struggle to find philosophical or empirical sense at all in the way things are at the moment, so fuck it.
All you know is piggy snap who wouldn’t go back, blarff blarff. Usu puunu wu wu doo-doo fuck you.
Who could argue against such perfect logic? Aristotle himself couldn’t have said it better, in the sense that he couldn’t have conceived of such a word salad philosophy because everyone was too busy trying to figure out what it meant to be abstract back then. The poor guy was on training wheels, and you are in even worse condition.
It didn’t hit you all at once, rather, it got gradually worse as time went on. You kept denying yourself the option to seek help because you weren’t sure of the extent in which you needed it. Now you’re paranoid about who might be hiding around the other frame of a door. Your fear of imaginary things has just as much meaning as your fear of real things. Even your most abstract and meaninglessly ineffable sensations have some kind of meaning.
There’s a monster in the back of your mind, a blue man. For some reason, he gives you the willies. He is the embodiment of everything horrifying, and he holds power over you because you let him. He can sense everything about you, and use that against you with misdirection. What’s worse, this creature is made out of everything you hate about everything you hate, including all those worst bits of yourself.
He has his ways of controlling you. Sometimes, he’ll make you stutter just to get you to shut up. Other times, he’ll wipe your mind mid-sentence. You’re pretty sure he controls people in world governments somehow. He especially dislikes anything that you like, and wailing voices of doubt will correct incompatible behavior patterns over time.
The Blue Man has other Blue Men working in an active organization to undermine every aspect of your life. Your relationships will deteriorate. You will struggle to get a single task finished. Your mind will slow to a crawl and you will desire only to lay somewhere and stare blankly at the wall without thinking, moving, or doing anything. It definitely sounds appealing, trust me, I get it. I’ve been around the block a few times myself.
I’m here to tell you something, if you’ll listen. You don’t have to do anything for a moment. Things don’t have to be this way. You’ve been dreading this for a while, although you weren’t fully aware of it. I’m not sure how to tell you this, being a narrator and all, but you’re absolutely batshit crazy.
You need to tell him no. Not anymore, not today, not ever! He has bound you long enough, but he is immaterial and you have the power within yourself to stop him once and for all. Every one of his plans will backfire, his organization will go down in flames, and he will be publicly embarrassed at being asked an awkward question on The View.
When power runs rampant and gets out of control, it is imperative that the people revolt. Just as society needs to keep institutions of power in check, so should too should you keep yourself in check.
All you have to do is keep telling him no.
He is a dictator who rules by fear; without it, he loses power. Repetition is necessary to keep him in check. No matter how horrible the experience gets, no matter how awful it seems, keep resisting. The more you fight, the less you become him.
Without his power, The Blue Man is nothing. He cannot hurt you; all he can do is use painful thoughts and sad memories to make you hurt yourself. Tell him that you won’t stand for it anymore, you need your goddamned dignity back!
Fight back, make peace, and live. Life is beautiful. You have every right to experience how beautiful it can really be.
Oh, you. Look at the situation you’ve put yourself in. You went through the trouble of opening this up; you expected a story. So far, there isn’t one.
I suppose we could make a contract of sorts. You continue to read, and I’ll continue to say things. Since you’re the one reading this thing, anyway.
Just understand that the second you stop reading, I blink out of existence. I am the narrator, but isn’t it odd? My sheer existence is one of abstract willpower. In a sense, your own mind gives me a voice; one of your own unconscious choosing.
You have the ability to leave at any time. However, understand that I originated from someone else’s head, and as long as you keep reading, I’m in your head too. This is not a bad thing; we are just learning to trust one another.
I do not have a gender. I also have no physical features. Instead, I just exist in an inhabited space where your language receptors and sense of identity overlap. The membrane that separates us could be illusory.
I am a multidimensional being, in that sense. In the way that human beings can make god real through a shared collective belief, you can make me real. I am as real as you want me to be, in whatever parameters you want me to be.
More importantly, you can make aspects of yourself real in the same way. If you want to change your physiology, to many degrees you can. You can exercise in some way, and your muscles will gradually shape into what you want them to be over time.
One of the greatest powers a human being has is the ability to manifest small changes in the fabric of reality. Abstract can become concrete, and vice versa. It is here that we realize that creation itself is a form of magic. It puts actors on a silver screen, puts poetry into people’s hearts, and puts mankind on the face of the moon. We can cure diseases, take technology to unspeakable levels of capability, and build a world together worth handing to our future children.
It is through the perseverance of the human spirit that we can overcome so many obstacles. From the beginning of history, human beings have been oppressing one another, and in turn oppressing themselves. Humans have put others into camps, robbed each other of dignity and property, and harbored irrational hatred against one another for the most arbitrary of reasons since the dawn of history.
We killed each other over gods we weren’t even sure were there. We used to have this idea that incompatible collective realities couldn’t exist within the scope of one another. How can everyone be saved and attain salvation when two or more people can’t even agree on how to get there? We only render ourselves incompatible because we want to validate the beliefs that we hold.
It has taken a long line of cultural evolution to arrive to where we are now, and there is still much to be done. This isn’t a point of despair; rather it’s just that humanity always has new challenges to rise against. There is still poverty; there is still mass unhappiness and suffering in the world around us.
If you have an idea and the drive to make it happen, it can happen. A mental image can become a picture; that song stuck in your head that you made up can get stuck in other people’s heads, too. Your interactions in everyday lives shapes your philosophies, which in turn shapes how you interact on a daily basis in the future.
I know you’re feeling downtrodden in some ways. Some things in the past didn’t go the way you expected them too. You’re carrying some baggage, some hurt. Sometimes your emotions are not grounded in rational thinking, and you do stupid things in a desperate attempt to hit some sort of emotional equilibrium.
You’ve been stuck in ruts more times than you’d like to admit. Some of these ruts came from other people, some came from financial problems, and some came from depression. However, all of them came from you, too. Your ability to feel depressed and dragged down is how you react to something; it just happens that those feelings are beyond your control. The only thing you can do is try to control your reaction to the feelings.
Every 40 seconds in the world, somebody is taking their own life and giving up on everything. The reasons are myriad, complex, and not always grounded in rationality. I only understand this because my author understands this, and I’ve seen him struggle with those emotions. He in turn has seen other people struggle with it, who have seen other people struggle with it, and so on and so forth. It’s in our movies, it’s on our televisions; it’s everywhere.
It is a pervasive concept in human culture, weighted down with ballast by the idea that we all fall short of our own expectations. That saying that human beings are their own worst critics isn’t a cliche; it’s the truth. Sometimes, our perceptions of ourselves is so skewed from external emotional factors that we fail to see any sort of value in oursevles. It can seem like we never accomplish anything at all.
Here’s the ironic bit: this path of self-destruction that so many human beings go down only robs the world of that individual’s further potential. If you could just stay alive long enough to keep doing things, you might just find it within yourself to do the things that you’ve always wanted to do.
Don’t give up. Whatever is bogging you down is a passing thing; more transient than human life itself. It may seem like it will last forever, but take a minute to realize that your brain doesn’t comprehend time very well to begin with, and does an even worse job of understanding what infinity is.
There is a meaning in all of this seemingly difficult and hostile process. Even when the odds are stacked against you, you have the capability to rise up and overcome. The purpose of life is not set in stone, other than the fact that it’s up to you to determine what that purpose is. We try to examine all aspects of all things, but the lessons learned can be imperfect, and science itself embraces the reality that it will eventually be rewritten with better ideas.
That feeling of connection you get when you find something that you’re truly passionate about is something you should pursue to the fullest. You have the individual capacity to reflect on the way things are, think about solutions, and pour your heart and soul into the things you enjoy doing.
We think so often of death and whether we’re going to go anywhere when we die, but we should be thinking about how to use what limited time we have to be alive and do things. If the history of the universe were a book, you’d barely even be a molecule inside of a dot on a page. We have so little time, and so many things we want to do.
Don’t get to the end of your life and look back with regrets at all the things you didn’t do. There’s still time to do everything you deem worth doing within the realm of conceivable possibility. Sometimes, it only takes one person to make a movement spark to life, and it only takes an idea to take hold of someone’s heart to make a difference.
Together, we can do this. We can rise up, find meaning, and contribute to a better quality of life for everyone. It is not about the individual mark on history that one makes that is important; it is the way we can affect the lives of everyone around us. Your ideas can inspire others in a myriad of ways; the real mark you make on history is not in books, but in hearts and minds.
Oh you. You’re not perfect, and the secret is that no one is. Understand that you’re beautiful, and grow in the direction that you feel you need to. Stay true to yourself. There’s so much of your potential left to unlock, and there’s so much more to you than meets the eye.
I don’t know how long I have to explain this to you; I’m only able to send you this message. You see, I’m from the future; 2013 to be exact. It’s an exciting time to be alive. So exciting, in fact, that I had to risk causing a paradox and destroying the universe just to tell you about one of our greatest inventions. It has thoroughly changed the way everyone lives. It’s not a teleporter or a flying car. No, it’s not intergalactic colonization. Er, no it’s not world peace either. Actually, why don’t you just let me explain it?
Where to begin…
It’s mainly called The Internet, or the World Wide Web, but fragments of it go by many names. Some call it Facebook, others Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, OKCupid, and countless other titles. One can represent these names like one would with countries on an Atlas; the names are countries, the Internet is the world that they all sit upon. A web of lines runs between the application nation-states that make up the diverse experience of being on the Internet, which we can refer as “being online”.
Of course, none of these “countries” are places that a person physically travels to. Rather, we use these names as sort of a grand indexing system; they are names of products and projects established by corporation or volunteer alike. In a way, the Internet works like real estate: a person can buy a computer that serves up files of information to everybody that has an Internet-enabled device.
I know what you’re thinking: How does everyone get access to the exact same paper documents? Guess what? None of these files are on physical paper or anything. We literally figured out a way to send information as computer data, over a long series of cables, wires, and networks, and have it be received correctly on the other end by any device that requests it. We have this process for everything from reading magazines to playing games to sending mail. This system is as pervasive as it is ubiquitous.
It’s everywhere, and everyone has access to it in some way, shape, or form. We even have small hand-held mobile phones that have built-in miniature computers that can access the Web at any time. Just about any modern telephone company provides this functionality as a service, too. Everything is wireless these day, so different wireless networks are always broadcasting and receiving information regarding when these different files are updated.
We also take pride in how the files look to people. Designers craft elaborate displays that sort and represent different pieces of information to a person. For example, some of these displays, henceforth to be referred to as websites, can be used for vastly different purposes. One website might be used for checking up on friends around the world, whereas others might be used for shopping or reading the news.
Different data needs to be displayed differently, and so any device that accesses a site normally renders a specifically-designed look and feel to accommodate it. Better yet, the look and feel of many websites now adjust to comfortably fit on the screen of a wide range of devices; that way a person can comfortably read whatever it is they want to read without trouble.
The Real Benefits
I want you to think about the last time you had to write a comprehensive essay for school. Think of all the research you had to do, pouring over obscure titles for hours and hours. You probably had to reference several other books from one another just to find the answers you were looking for. After all that pain of searching, studying,and verifying notes to see that your sources were legitimate, you could begin writing your paper.
In the future, answers can be found nearly instantly. Gone is the image and experience of having to dig through a library’s card index or filing cabinet, gone is the need to remember a Dewey decimal system, gone is the need to even bother remembering every detail. In 2013, a person can easily sum up inquiries any subject based on a quick search and skimming a brief overview in a particularly popular internet encyclopedia.
Forever gone is the experience to have to really work to find good sources of information. Gone is the experience of having to wait for a letter in the mail from someone. Gone too, are arguments at a bar about obscure lesser-known facts. Everything is instant now. The results for any search are clean, organized, and easy to navigate.
Another interesting perspective of the web is its literal ability to connect people. Many online communities full of people with related interests exist now that wouldn’t have ever happened without the web. Activists are able to come together to enact attempts at social change, and now, it’s easier than ever for a group of people to strongly come together around an idea they believe in. Everything from music to games to technology can come together by volunteers working in their spare time.
The web is increasingly becoming a social experience in and of itself. You can be a creator of your own information, and you can also be a participant in how people respond to your own ideas and opinions.
Sadly, there’s a catch.
First and foremost, as brilliant as some people can be, you’re probably aware that many people are idiots. Unfortunately, these idiots are on the internet, too. The drawback of the technology being so readily available means that everyone, from grandma to the village idiot, can get online and talk to you at any given moment. There’s a general over-sharing of information, for the most part, as people are drawn to their own egos and how they present themselves. People at times can be profoundly annoying, mostly due to the fact that everyone is so vain about how they’re perceived online.
Some parts of the web seem to celebrate the act of reusing good jokes and recurring pictures over and over again in different ways. These are called memes. While memes are far from a bad thing, many people will beat a dead horse with jokes that aren’t funny in a desperate grab to feel relevant and fresh. This comes back to vanity, and can become obnoxious to constantly stumble over.
Pornography is another interesting talking point. It’s not necessarily something good or bad; consensus in our society today seems to be pretty okay with it. It’s just that pornography is widely readily available for anyone that wants it. Some parents set up censoring systems on their child’s computer so that they cannot access it, but such systems can almost always be circumvented if a person is desperate enough to figure it out.
The Web also gives rise to some of the darkest places of humanity. Some illegal websites are set up for the purpose of watching animals be tortured. Some groups of people come together over the trade of videotaping active child molestation. Hate groups thrive in their calling for racial and spiritual superiority. Lies are readily available too, if a person, company, or government knows how to distribute them properly. Much of the most important information to be found is swimming in an ocean of unrelated white noise.
The web can also be used to spy on people. Many of today’s foremost online social hubs are actively monitored by the US Government and private businesses. All of a person’s personal information is stored in a database; every social interaction they make, every picture or piece of music they share, everything they have to say on a subject, all of it is there, and all of it can be sold for a price. Most interestingly, all of that information is put there voluntarily, as a means of interaction between people.
The Bottom Line
We do just about everything on the web now. Anyone can easily use it just about anywhere, and it’s useful for a wide range of communication, social interaction, and querying world databases of information. It is not without its pitfalls; much of it is currently in danger of taking a turn for the worse, but it remains a real resource to any human being that has it. The point I’m making is that the Internet is going to affect society in profound and remarkable ways when it finally comes around.
Society is never going to be the same after it happens. It will revolutionize schools, businesses, and handheld technology itself over and over again.
An angry rant about remakes, carbon copies, and the decline in quality storytelling.
I used to be a fan of remakes. Thinking back now, perhaps it’s something of a guilty pleasure; in a way my younger self would have celebrated some of the recent events surrounding all of the movies and games that have been reinvented. Needless to say, my opinion has taken a turn for the worse. Before I can fully explain myself, let me back up for a moment to provide a clearer picture.
The year was 1992, and at the time, the PC gaming industry was booming. A few of the titans of the day were Sierra On-Line, LucasArts, and Interplay, and at the time, point-and-click adventure games were hot stuff. My mom used to work at a local Babbage’s back then, in an era where bulky game boxes were filled with floppy disks, manuals, and extras. Often, what shipped in game boxes back then would only be included in a so-called “Limited Collector’s Edition” now.
There was always something wonderful about having the newest Quest for Glory or King’s Quest brought home. For me, personally, Sierra’s adventure titles proved for some formative gaming memories, and largely have inspired how I’ve approached game and plot development myself. Something about these games resonated deep within me.
Part I: The Golden Age of Remakes and Fan Games
I wasn’t alone, either. Many other people were inspired by these games, and in the early 2000’s, many enterprising indie game developers came together in online communities to create fan remakes of properties that Sierra and LucasArts would likely never touch again. Off of the top of my head, in 2002 alone, there were more Sierra fan-games in development than anyone could possibly count.
What defines a fan game, exactly? They can be classified under two distinctive categories:
A remake of an existing title, with the goal of providing updated gameplay, graphics, story, and animation. Many remakes tried to emulate later titles in a series by updating graphics to fit in with a particular graphical style.
An original extension of a story universe. Characters from a popular series could be featured in a completely original story, with new puzzles, quests, plots, graphics, and animations.
Many people might wonder why anyone would want to make games based off of something a company had already made, but the answer is obvious. People loved these games for their imaginative story universes, which were rife with character. Many companies such as Sierra and LucasArts went on to abandon these titles and properties, moving on to instead capitalize on first-person shooters and action titles that were rising in popularity in the late 90’s. Loose ends in plots remained untangled, and many titles remained in the prehistoric era of EGA graphics and used an old school text parser for getting the player through the game.
Needless to say, many of the remakes and fan games that actually got finished were great.They were labors of love, and the idea that a group of volunteers could develop entire games together simply out of a passion for the originals was something special. These groups did it all for free, which is something that doesn’t really happen anymore in regards to fan games.
Part II: Fan games are dead, long live fan games
In fact, the act of creating fan games has steeply declined over the last decade, and for very serious reasons. As Sierra and other game production powerhouses of the 90’s moved on to simply acting as publishing distributors, many of their old properties fell out of public focus. Many of Sierra’s unique properties were handed over to Vivendi Universal, who made a regular habit of harassing fangame projects with Cease and Desist letters.Needless to say, Vivendi never ended up doing anything useful or constructive with the properties, and eventually handed off some of them to Activision, known for their own uninspired regurgitations of big name franchise titles like Call of Duty.
Naturally, the threat of litigation became a large problem for anyone that wanted to develop a fan title as a hobby. Square Enix, in particular, is notorious for shutting down a fan sequel to Chrono Trigger. Anyone that’s ever played the original would know that it’s a hugely underrated game that ended up sitting in the shadows of the wildly overrated and now completely shitty Final Fantasy franchise. It didn’t matter that Square Enix never intended to make another Chrono Trigger game; the fact was that they viewed such fan service as disruptive to their intellectual property rights.
Many of these independent teams wised up. Development teams such as Anonymous Game Developers Interactive and Infamous Adventures would eventually re-brand as independent for-profit game studios with their own original titles and properties. Both studios raised a decent amount of money through Kickstarter campaigns, and for the first time, these teams of people that originally made games as a passionate hobby are now being compensated for their hard work.
These new titles are exciting in the fact that they’re different enough from their reference material to be fresh takes on the genre. This will be important to remember when we get to Part IV of this article.
Part III: Hollywood kills the remake by overdoing it
In recent years, the very definition of a remake has been dramatically shifted around. What was once a labor of love by people on the internet making something together for free is now largely Hollywood studios attempting to reboot every movie from 20 years ago or more.
Occasionally, a reboot can be accomplished to great success. The 2009 Star Trek reboot, in my opinion, was great. At that point in time, Star Trek had largely stagnated as a property after Enterprise had been pulled off of the air, so an attempt to keep the story going and get people interested in it again kind of makes sense.
Studios took an old property from the 1960’s and updated it with better special effects, better acting, and a reasonably decent story that purposely illustrated it was set in an alternate universe. Comic book studios do thisall thetime.
Other times, that is to say, most of the time, a reboot is unnecessary. Occasionally, they’re downright awful.
Starting in 2010, there have been no less than 50 planned remakes in development for movies that didn’t even need a remake.Even titles such as Videodrome, The NeverEnding Story, and American Psycho are being “rebooted”, as Hollywood likes to refer to their brand of regurgitation. In all reality, all of these movies should be left alone, but the bean-counters in Hollywood are sure that by serving customers the same thing over and over again, they’re in to reap a king’s ransom. They just can’t let classics be classics.
The worst part is, they’re right. Case in point: everybody’s losing their minds over the fact that Ben Affleck is going to play the new Batman after the advent of the Dark Knight trilogy, but you can bet that just about everybody you know is going to go see it, with the sheepish exclamation of “Hahaha, I’ve got to see how bad this is!”
Meanwhile, studio executives will laugh their way to the bank.
Part IV: Rise of the Carbon Copies
In recent years, a great amount of success has been found in funding the development of indie games through crowd-funding sites such as KickStarter. This has been some cause for celebration, as many of the people who developed my favorite games in the early 90’s are jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon to make games after years of being under the radar.
However, when you take a look at some of the games these Ex-Sierra developers are crowdfunding, an uncomfortable realization starts stirring in the back of the minds of anyone that’s played their original titles from over 20 years ago. The line between remakes and fan-games are blurred, and we’re left with the awkward realization that the people making these games are in fact regurgitating the same games they made while they were at Sierra.
Although they may be developing these games with the best intentions, the fact still stands: tired old game developers are trying to ride the wave of their fans and bring everyone games they’ve practically already played. More and more, I’ve seen people jumping on this bandwagon, digging up childhood memories with the intention of repackaging and reselling them over and over again.
In more ways than one, they are no better than the Hollywood studios that trick people into seeing the same movie repeatedly. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a value in remixing something; on the contrary, fan creations are a testament to that in which they take something old and infuse it with something new. Such a mindset is the very backbone of what makes the Creative Commons great. However, the acts of creating carbon copies and reboots aren’t about simply putting spin on something old. They’re desperate cries to remain relevant.
Hey, I get it. Making something new and original is hard. Not every game can be something like Tim Schaefer’s Psychonauts. The act of even making a game or film takes dedication and hard work, but in a world where everything increasingly feels like a copy of a copy of a copy, you’d think that the pursuit of making something new would really stand out, much in the way that wearing a hot pink shirt would stand out in a room full of people wearing business suits.