We Distribute — Part 0: This is not Instagram

We Distribute is a series of short articles explaining Free Software in relation to the ongoing efforts of various projects to bring decentralized server-to-server communication to the web.

Old patterns don’t always have to paint the same picture, even if the pattern happens to be familiar. As we move into an era that further embraces technology as a point of personal convenience, we find ourselves surrounded by digital services that blend into many different facets of our lives.

All too often, certain services grow at such a rate and with such velocity that they become fixtures in society. Generations upon generations of people are being exposed to technology that is only ever getting easier to use and more intuitive. Huge companies have invested billions of dollars into reinventing themselves over and over, in varying efforts to maintain a position of popularity to remain a fixture anchored by a dedicated community of users.

One type of user community. I am the guy with the sunglasses in the middle of the picture raising my left hand.

Don’t you ever forget it. Users are the bread and butter of social networking companies. All day long, you’re on their services. You follow your friends, you look at their pictures, you watch their videos, you listen to their music and you have conversations across different mediums. All on a company’s dime. Sometimes they wave ads in your face, but you put up with it.

For the most part, most mainstream social networks don’t allow for much user customization beyond changing an avatar and putting a picture on a header behind it. Every profile looks the same, and all content is formatted in one uniformed way to fit a vanilla style smeared on everything. Mostly, users don’t give it too much thought, as many social apps focus primarily on content anyway. That’s the appeal.

Image credit: Peeping Tom

Who owns your content, exactly? If you’re using someone’s services and you upload your own pictures and works, are they yours if someone else hosts them for you and makes a profit from the advertisements, the sponsored posts and the videos that get crammed down your throat? Maybe you willingly uploaded a topless picture to a social media cause. Maybe you didn’t.

Regardless, everything you post is on somebody else’s server somewhere, filling up databases and analytics charts galore. It’s not too far of a leap to say that user content is the commodity that drives people there in the first place, and although you legally own your own content, you sure don’t own the spaces it’s sitting in. Some companies have even floated the idea of using user generated content directly in advertisements themselves, since a brand can appear stronger if your friends are directly talking about the same thing.

Day 139 — Work! by Phil and Pam Gladwell

You don’t even own your own social experience, in terms of defining the way you get to use a social network’s features. You can’t have pictures in certain dimensions and proportions on Instagram, for example, and you don’t have any way to put content into an organized collection on it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to use these services. Other things exist; you could get your own server and get something set up. You could customize everything. In this day and age, it’s starting to sound dated to try to set up something for yourself, but there are projects out there working to support a more independent and decentralized web, and they have the potential to change how social communication on the web works. People can set up their own servers and connect to anyone else they want to if they’re running something that can speak the same protocol.

I wrote a custom theme for MediaGoblin that mimics the feeling and style of Instagram pretty well. You can check it out here.

As a first step, I would recommend taking a look at public instances of MediaGoblin, which you could say holds similarities to Flickr. Truth be told, MediaGoblin can be themed, and there are people like me out there working to create new themes and give the project a pretty face. You can host the content yourself, post what you want to post, and style it however you like.

In the future, MediaGoblin will include its own federation system based on Pump.io’s federation protocol. This means users on MediaGoblin will be able to follow one another and connect with one another in a similar fashion to what Diaspora pods do.

Everyone can have their own private stylized corners of the web where they can post what they want to post and have more control over the data they push out than what a centralized system can offer, and all of the pods can talk to one another. You get to choose who you connect with. You can post pictures, upload videos, publish recordings, share PDFs, make ASCII art, and preview 3D models.

This is not Instagram. It isn’t Flickr, nor is it DeviantArt, YouTube, or SoundCloud. MediaGoblin can be made to look and feel like all of those things, and the people using them could one day connect to one another seamlessly.

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