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GNU social: Federation against the social model of Twitter

“Federation issues” may look like a “bug”, but they are really the result of an agreement, an implicit contract: to be part of a conversation on another node, I first have to have received the trust of someone who is taking part in it.

El futuro aquí y ahora: Keynes, Marx, Dewey, Foucault, Dreikurs, Zamenhof, etc.


The Facebook and Twitter socialization model, the FbT model, is like a large plaza where everyone can shout their slogans, while barely listening to each other and without taking responsibility for looking at context and understanding conversations. The result is like a big chicken coop, a “fray,” where any attempt to maintain a conversation on any topic is immediately cut off by an avalanche of slogans and aggression by users who, quite possibly, haven’t even read the article that led to the conversation.

Why does GNU social create more value in its conversations than Twitter?

lamatrizIt is no coincidence that what users most value is having “fewer links that on Twitter, more characters and more conversation,” “a space without noise for calm conversation,” “speaking calmly and dealing with other topics,” etc. All these messages point to the intimate relationship between the value of a conversation and the trust that has already been established within the nodes. It is a consequence of the distributed structure of GNU social. Thanks to it, GNU social is free of any recentralizing tendencies and builds the network based on independent nodes — generally formed by affinity between groups of friends who communicate with each other thanks to the federation of content.

What is “federation?”

villa locomunaThe connections between the nodes of GNU social are established by the users who follow each other. Through these “following” relationships, all nodes can communicate and form a network. It’s what’s known as “federation,” and could be understood as a network of agreements.

All it takes is for me to follow a user on another node for everything that that user publishes to be visible to all members of my node. Thanks to this, you can see not only messages from the people that you follow in your inbox or on your personal time line and messages that are published in your node on the public timeline of the node, but also a much broader collection of messages, “the whole known network,” where, in addition to previous messages, you’ll be able to see messages from people in other nodes who at least one user in your node follows.

This creates wonderful things, like “the whole known network” being different in every node, because its composition is based on the people you follow and who follow your nodemates (or “nodies”). This is a very valuable aspect because it means joint exploration of the network. And starting from the existing relationship of trust between the members of a node, each time a member of the node follows — which is to say, establishes an agreement with — a user on an external node, the space of trust is expanded.

The key to creating space and favorable conditions for conversation is that the federation of content is based on what the users of each node follow on others, and not the general aggregation of all content by all nodes. The result is that if a person that neither I nor anyone else on my node follows says something in a conversation, I won’t see their posts. This might seem like a “bug”, but it’s really the result of an agreement, an implicit contract: to be part of a conversation of another node, I first have to have received the trust of someone who is taking part in it.

“Federation issues”

federationissuesThis model of federation is criticized by many new users who land on GNU social having had the experience of socialization of Twitter and Facebook. They label this difference “federation issues” and complain that conversations they participate in only show messages from the person that they themselves follow or other people in their node. The solution is as technically simple to implement as it is dangerous.

What such a request would do, in reality, is break the federation of content based on implicit contracts and open the doors to the aggregation of everything, everywhere, breaking any chain of trust. That is, it would remove the basis for allowing the nodes to create spaces for real conversation. By breaking this model of federating content, we would be importing the social model of the great centralizers, the Facebook-Twitter model, into the spaces and networks that we built on the basis of tools like GNU social, Diaspora, Friendica, etc.

Massive socialization through Facebook and Twitter has impoverished conversations and cut off the birth of new identities. It has done so by imposing a narrative about how the more accessible any conversation is to anyone, the better a network and its interactions are. In other words, when it is not necessary to have a minimum of prior trust to be able participate or interrupt the conversation of others. However, the search for this kind of accessibility obscures the very basis of distributed networks: the fact that a distributed network is made up of nodes, of independent groups that communicate among each other.


The problems or defects of the federation of content are only such if we accept and approve of the FbT socialization model. Really, we should call them “federation advantages,” because if which we’re seeking is to build enriching and conducive spaces for conversation, what we have today in GNU social is the structure that makes it possible.

The federation of content based on following relationships — agreements between people — is the base on which to build enriching and conducive spaces for interaction and for conversation. This is a determining aspect to not give in to centralizing pressure and turn spaces built with GNU social into a new version of the chicken coop that Twitter or Facebook currently offer us. The distributed structure of servers is “invisible,” and if we change the spontaneous logic of federation so that the user sees the network and behaves the same as in a centralized network, we will have changed everything to keep everything the same.

The world of the federation of content is passionate, and will largely determine the future of the web. Speaking concretely of the model of the federation of content, we sincerely believe that the challenges that we have to confront are in developing private communication and enlarging the system of exchanging short messages to a system where we can share everything useful — creating networks of hospitality, supply and demand, music, etc. — for our circle of friends, associations, community and surroundings.

That is, we believe it would be a mistake to replicate the centralized model and its culture. That would serve information without agreements between people, and therefore, approve of irresponsibility and encourage confrontation. For us, GNU social’s priority should be on becoming the “Swiss Army knife” of distributed networks based on sharing, by developing a culture of socialization based on trust within the nodes and the responsibility for understanding what is being talked about when someone joins a conversation. And for that, the key is to connect through federation, as has been done so far, on the basis of the minimum responsibility that comes with the fact that, to be an equal on another node, someone from that node has to considers what I say interesting enough to follow me.

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)

«GNU social: Federation against the social model of Twitter» recibió 16 desde que se publicó el Miércoles 8 de Abril de 2015 dentro de la serie «» . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por Manuel Ortega.

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El Correo de las Indias es el agregador y plataforma de blogs de los socios del Grupo Cooperativo de las Indias y es mantenido y coordinado por los miembros de la comunidad igualitaria de las Indias