StrangeStack

Technology, Freedom & Space Anarchy

The growing problem

I first joined the Fediverse in 2016 back when it was mostly just GNU Social instances. I was frustrated with twitter somewhat, but looking back at it, I don't know what we were complaining about. Compared to the modern tech platform landscape, 2016 was idyllic. Silicon Valley have appointed themselves the unelected dictators of public discourse and are decreasingly shy about abusing their authority, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes truly believing they are doing the right thing and sometimes because they have an agenda of their own, chiefly to make money, but sometimes more. I don't have to convince you Facebook and Twitter and Youtube are evil, it's self evident. Modern tech companies are just plain no good.

Whatever rough edges free alternatives have, they can't be so bad that we should continue to tolerate the abuse of such a big part of our lives any longer than we have to. And I agree, completely switching to the free web is nearly impossible and often impractical. But that doesn't mean you have to accept the current situation, even if you can tolerate it now, it will eventually become intolerable. So let's take a look at some current alternative platforms and my experiences with them. There are many more projects in the works including some I'm working on the very very early stages of, but these examples are some of the most popular and feature complete ones I've come across.

Mastodon/Pleroma

Most of you probably know about mastodon and some of you may have even heard of pleroma. Micro-blogging websites are one of my favorite pastimes, possibly yours too. One in particular is extremely annoying, we hate it, we call it “hellsite” for a reason, but we can't seem to get the fuck away from it. That's part of the torture, all your friends are there. The people who develop it don't know how the vast majority of it's users use it, the people in privileged positions on the network actively hate you and the POTUS is threatening countries with genocide on it. We all know the deal, we endure the horror and we get to spend times with our friends. It's not a good deal.

I know some of you still have some Mastodon accounts that haven't been touched in 3 years or more since the last big twitter exodus so I urge you to either dig out those accounts or make new ones or self host an instance like I did. The Fediverse has grown much since then. With almost 1.4 million active users(from about 4.7 million accounts) it's quite a big place now and the software has improved a bit. Not to mention the Fediverse is not just twitter clones now, there are a lot of other apps that all speak the same protocol and we'll talk about them later on, but it's way more interesting now than it was in 2017.

If you already have an account somewhere and if your server is still active, you most likely are all set. For those of you who didn't take a part in the old exodus, here are some basics:

There are two main implementations: Mastodon and Pleroma. They have different UIs but they're essentially twitter like sites, you post and follow people, etc. There are thousands of Mastodon instances and hundreds of Pleroma instances running right now. Each with their own moderation and blocking policy. And of course should their admins choose to let it, they can all talk to each other. So which one should you choose?

I went with Pleroma because I wanted to host a server just for myself. I don't want to be responsible for other users but I also don't want to be subject to somebody else's moderation policy and so I self-host and Pleroma uses less resources in general on the server so I can use a cheaper VPS.

If you're not going to self-host you should instead be guided by what the moderation policy and the general vibe of the community is. Pick one that seems to vibe with you and don't worry too much about what software they use underneath.

Just be advised that some instances allow content that would more than likely get them blocked by other instances, for example sexual drawings that are not obviously depicting adults while legal in some places is highly illegal in others and most admins take 0 chances with that sort of thing. Other instances have extremely lax moderation standards and they often become problems for their neighbors, so pick something permissive enough that you don't feel your self-expression is hampered, but not so permissive that all your friends get to only talk to you from behind the fence other people put around your waste dump of a community :)

If you do choose to self-host, then you're in luck, because it's actually fairly easy if you know a bit of linux. I would recommend self-hosting a private instance though, one where it's only you and maybe some of your very close friends you trust not to abuse the instance since moderating a public instance is a challenge. But if you're up to it, that's an option as well. My personal bias is towards small instances though, where the moderation policy is easier to tailor to the community rather than the other way around. The Free World is unfortunately more dangerous than the walled garden, but it's totally worth it.

Once you get to the fediverse, you can follow me on my account

Useful links Join Mastodon Pleroma

Peertube

Peertube is essentially the same thing as the above two, but for video. Peertube also utilizes p2p technology to improve streaming performance and it's definitely the most interesting thing happening on the fediverse right now. We all know how fucked up Youtube is. Content just straight up dissapears, people's accounts get wiped due to overeager algorithms and some of the policies are as batshit filled as the bottom of a cave. An actual attempt is being made to provide a viable alternative and it's very exiting. The platform works on the same principle as mastodon/pleroma. There are many servers who all talk to each other so you can subscribe to channels from other instances. Since they use ActivityPub, the same protocol as Mastodon and Pleroma, you can actually comment on videos and subscribe to channels from your ordinary mastodon account. It's rad as hell. You don't even need an account in order to start following content, you just need to subscribe to some channels from a preexisting mastodon account.

But if you are a video creator, there are again many instances you can join or even host your own. They'll need a court order to get rid of your videos if you do, no algo police, real police have to deal with real layers :)

Useful links: Join Peertube

Funkwhale

This one might be my favorite. Like absolutely everybody I started a podcast recently and while I originally hosted it on Soundcloud, I decided that the free tier wasn't quite enough space as I wanted. Plus, I wanted to use my own domain and have more control over my content, so I self-hosted a Funkwhale instance. The deal is exactly the same as the above systems, except it's for audio. It's features include channels, albums, artists, playlists, you can publish your own music or just follow artists you like and because it's just ActivityPub again, you can even subscribe to channels from outside of Funkwhale with your mastodon or Pleroma account. Give it a try.

Also you can listen and subscribe to my podcast here

Useful links: Funkwhale

Writefreely

Writefreely is an adorable little blogging engine that also talks the ActivityPub protocol. It's minimalist and sparse on features, but good enough. You might be reading this post on my private instance, unless you've followed my blog or somebody boosted a post into your timeline, in which case you might be reading it from your mastodon account. It supports markdown, has drafts and is actually dead simple to set up on a server with just a little bit of linux skill. If you've thought about starting a blog, it's a great option.

If you're not reading this on my blog, but somewhere else on the Fediverse, you can subscribe to the blog here

Useful links: Writefreely

Conclusion

These are some of my favorite apps on the Fediverse, but there are many more. Wordpress has an activity pub plugin allowing it to share it's content on the fediverse. The insanely awesome self-hosted cloud storage system NextCloud also has fediverse functionality. I didn't even mention Pixelfed which is a federated image sharing site or hubzilla, and many many others. You can check them all out at fediverse.party and I urge you to do it. The are so many apps listed there I haven't even looked at a 10th of them. This is an extremely exiting and vibrant ecosystem with many bright minds working on it and no single clear hegemonic vision. We're done with the big dick startup founders telling us how to use the web, it's ours now. No rules on our servers but the rules we make ourselves!

Content warning: severe anxiety

Prologue

The following is my account of the first two months of the 2020 COVID epidemic from late February to early May. While I made an effort to be as accurate as possible, I am only relaying my memory to the best of my abilities, furthermore the goal isn't to give the most accurate and objective account of my experience, but to reflect on the personal changes it has brought in me which is I think more important. The whole story might as well be made up and it's purpose would still be fulfilled: to be a good story.

Part 1: A suspicious and anxious mind

This journey began at the end of February with reports of the COVID-19 virus making it's way to Europe. While officials everywhere were calm and reassuring, my suspicious and anxious mind as well as the conspiratorial crowd I tend to keep company with prompted me to begin preparing. I took several trips to the super market and stocked up on food and other supplies. I usually keep a few cans at home in case I end up being too busy or lazy to cook or otherwise can't order food, plus I like fish but absolutely hate cooking it, so at first I told myself that I was only replenishing my supply. Nothing to worry about, just in case. I'd seen videos of people in Italy panic buying all the pasta and while it seemed funny to me, I bought some pasta and rice and other packaged foods. It became a bit like a game. Look at me, I'm prepping. Ain't I cool? I knew things might go bad, but I didn't think they would. Not at first. So I stockpiled approximately 2 months worth of food and a few other household items I though I'd need. This all happened between the 28th of February and the 1sh of March(Sunday).

By Monday the internet chatter didn't slow down. Reports of panic, toiled paper memes and my prepper and conspiracy friends on twitter raving about it all. I was beginning to panic myself. I'm already an anxiety prone individual and the fact that I was developing a soar throat didn't help. I start reading the news. Government is starting to activate and enact measures. Light at first, daily briefings begin, political squabbles start taking a backseat, but are still prominent. I spend my days from then on with near constant anxiety, permeated occasionally by panic. My only reprieve are my long night walks I take in the evenings. Even in the winter I take walks when I'm having a difficult time. It helps but not enough.

In a few days the slight sore throat would have transformed into a pretty descent sore throat and I start running a fever. I make a trip to the pharmacy for some coldrex and trachisan like I do for every cold I even had and manage to scrape the last few masks they have. They're overpriced and complete crap. I got 4 of them, 0 chance I could reuse them, they look like they're made of styrofoam or something. They're too small for my face, even if I didn't have a beard in the way. Better than nothing though. I start wearing them outside. I have 4 trips, I better budget them well. At this point I'm convinced that I did the right thing stocking up early and decided to not come out in the near future. The fever got worse.

I spend the next 10 or so days working remotely, smoking by my window staring at the outside and sweating out this cold or whatever it was. I still don't know. Could it have been COVID? I have no idea. I didn't go to any doctors. I wasn't coming out of my apartment for any reason. My anxiety grew worse. I began convincing myself that I was about to die. I knew rationally that that was extremely unlikely, but that's not how anxiety works. I can barely focus on my work. I do the best I can but I'm not productive at all. I manage to push along but my mental state is deteriorating. At this point the first confirmed case in Bulgaria is announced. An elderly couple. Had symptoms for over a week. That means that it's been in Bulgaria since at least the 1st or 2nd of March and possibly much earlier. I'm now in complete batshit mode. By the 12th the government has declared an emergency even though we only have 8 cases and lockdown begins. I was already working remotely because I was ill but now everybody was working remotely. I am now officially NUTS.

Part 2: Banishment

This is not good. I'm used to anxiety, but this was something different. I haven't had it this bad for years, and even then it was only a few days at a time, this was consistent and persistent and I wasn't recovering from my illness fast enough. It wasn't getting worse, but it was healing very slow. I continue to try and sweat it out. I eat cans, pasta and lentils. I go outside for the last time to buy cigarettes. I buy enough for a whole week.

A few days previously I had seen a tweet from the folding@home project and decided to put my GPU to work. Maybe help somehow. I feel so helpless. Maybe it was that, I don't know, but somehow I had the urge to help. I could do nothing. I sat at my window and I stared at the trees outside. There was a light rain. I cried, it seemed so beautiful. I wasn't going to be sorry if I died, it wasn't a bad ride I thought.

I light up a cigarette and put it in the ashtray. That was my banishment ritual. Ghosts and evil spirits dislike tobacco smoke. I begin to pray. I pray to any force in nature or beyond it. It doesn't matter. I don't pray like a Christian. I don't beg the universe for good will. I pray like Conan.

“Grant me my life back, rid me of anxiety, give me my power back and I will serve others with it”.

Simple. The momentary catharsis I gained from crying a few minutes prior and the calm of the outside evening sky sharpened me and I was tuned into the moment. I wasn't free and I wasn't done but I made the first step. In the next few weeks I would built a new PC to use for the folding@home project and I would spend what energy I had left to be as positive as I could be online. I couldn't manage more. I was still sick. The disease had gone away somewhat but then came back. The true test began.

Part 3: The Test

I had made a promise and while all I could do was be nice online and donate compute time, I had to recover mentally and physically. I noticed that I had lost weight, worrying since I was already a very skinny man. The anxiety and the intermittent carbs I was eating in addition to the illness had taken a great toll on me. I hadn't moved much in weeks. I ran out of cigarettes on the 22nd of March. I had 3 cigarettes left that day. I decided I was going to give it a shot and not go outside to buy more. I had my vaping mod and enough juice for a few weeks, I could manage. I started exercising. Very cautiously at first. I hadn't moved in weeks and the last thing I needed was an injury. No weights for the first few days then eventually I dusted off my kettle bell. The next few weeks are a blur. I didn't feel them go by. I had some anxiety but not like before, I was still getting sick but not like before. I start taking vitamins and order proper food. I get off of hard booze. I do astrophotography, I have my telescope pointed out of my window and stare at the sky any time it's clear. I talk to people online. I can't do anything else for them. I play a lot of Rimworld and listen to a lot of podcasts and audio books. I start recording my own podcast and I set up this blog. I'm planing my companies reboot. We have a mission to get back to.

Part 4: The Mission

End of last year a friend and I started an open source company. The goal was to develop commercial applications for the Fediverse. I really like the ideas and the potential for social change the technology provides and like an idiot I decide to stake my career on it. We worked on it while also managing day jobs and we didn't get too far but we were just getting the ball rolling workflow wise when all of this happened. I suspended every thing I was doing for two months and now with my country beginning to reopen I feel like I should reopen myself as well and continue the work now with move vigor and a clearer vision. Before the pandemic I was motivated my my distaste for Big Tech, those companies that I viewed as unjust and detrimental to the promise of technology, the reason I became a programmer was to empower users and those companies are the antithesis of that in my view. I raved about it online and I wanted to defeat them. Now two months later I see my mission is still the same, but restated differently. My mission isn't to destroy my enemies, it is to empower my allies. It is to build tools and teach others.

I told a twitter friend that “Our job as warriors is not to save people or vanquish enemies. Our job as warriors is to live well and fight with honor and for the right reasons”. I truly believe that. Defeating FAANG is only possible through love and kindness and helping and empowering each other. They don't care about us, we must care for each other. That is the real mission.

Epilogue: Day of Bravery

While I did go outside to handle deliveries and such the lat time I left my apartment and stepped away from my building was that night on the 12th when I bought myself my last weeks supply of cigarettes. That's a long time to be inside. It has now become clear to me and to the world that we'll be living with this threat for at least two years, possibly more and we must develop strategies for functioning as a society and as individuals in these conditions. I'm optimistic but cautious. Reopening my business means I have to handle things outside of my apartment and my last anxiety has to be overcome for that to happen. I'm preparing myself for that last step. To put on a mask and gloves and go outside and handle life and hopefully eventually do some good. Cases in Bulgaria seem to be light, although with extremely limited testing and this incompetent and corrupt government of apes and donkeys I doubt we know of even a fraction of the real cases and the real extent of the threat but we're reopening anyway. It is inevitable. Whatever comes, comes.

All I can do is think of the coming St. George day on the 6th of May. Day of bravery and the official holiday of the Bulgarian armed forces. Also the subject of a very special song. The Bulgarian version is called St. George, but the song is a cover of a Roma song called Ederlezi. There are versions in every single major Balkan language and it is indeed the most Balkan of songs. The Bulgarian version is about confronting our difficulties and praying to St. George for help. It is a song of hope, bravery and looking forward to the future. While the first verse is written in the present tense, the second verse is sung in the future tense and it's one of my favorite pieces of writing:

“Other paths will be laid in front of us, we will go together,(x2) when St. George's day is here. And stars will strew over us, they will hide our sorrows,(x2) when St. George's day is here. “

Youtube link to the song