Thoughts on federated social networks

Matt Lee
2 min readApr 6, 2017


Hey there, I’m Matt Lee — founder of both GNU FM and one of the co-founders of GNU social.

It’s been an interesting few days for us.

GNU FM just turned 8, and I wrote a little post about that.

As a response to

The history of GNU social is a little off — GNU social didn’t fork from GNU FM, it was intentional on my part. GNU FM was built to support the site I was building, and I intended from day one for others to build and host their own GNU FM servers. Some people did, but most people did not and so I wanted to exercise some caution when adding social networking type features to GNU FM. I really didn’t want to be a social networking site.

So working with my two colleagues at the FSF, Deb Nicholson and Donald Robertson, and later our intern Steven DuBois we built some prototypes of an early project called GNU Social (capital S) and demoed them at Software Freedom Day in 2010.

Later, we had some ideas to write a series of plugins for Evan Prodromou’s StatusNet project that would extend it to do some of the things we were thinking of for our new GNU social (lowercase S) project, and worked with a local (to Boston) StatusNet developer, Craig Andrews and a couple of interns at the FSF — Ian Denhardt and Sean Corbett to get this started. Craig had already developed a lot of code for StatusNet itself and chose to donate this to the FSF for the GNU social project.

So for a while, GNU social and StatusNet were two projects with a mostly shared codebase, and eventually we all merged with Free&Social into GNU social as it today.

I didn’t think of GNU social as a brand, but as a framework that could be used to build lots of social networks. Rob Myers and I tried to build a network from GNU social called Daisychain. It didn’t work out.

I still think like that, and I’m glad to see Mastodon embrace compatibility with GNU social users as I think it’s still the largest federated social network project out there in terms of active users, but it’s hard to measure such things.

I don’t do much day to day with GNU social now, but I remain committed to free software social networking. I have a fun idea for how to really demonstrate federation in July when my first movie, Orang-U: An Ape Goes To College is released. It’s all made with free software, we’re releasing all the footage and editing files so people can remix and make their own movies.



Matt Lee

Open web and free software activist.