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Done with Facebook and Twitter? Try building your own private social network

As part of a Mozilla Foundation fellowship, internet artist Darius Kazemi created a guide for building small social networks. It may be a glimpse at the future of the web.

Done with Facebook and Twitter? Try building your own private social network
[Image: Abert84/iStock]

On programmer and internet artist Darius Kazemi‘s private social media network, he and 50 other handpicked users are the arbiters of what’s allowed—and what’s not.

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“On Twitter, you have to rely on Jack Dorsey to decide what speech is good and what speech is bad,” Kazemi says. “I can just talk to my 50 friends and say, we won’t stand for anyone who says pineapple on pizza is bad, and we will flat out ban people who dislike pineapple on pizza. We can do that as a community of 50.”

It’s one of the perks of building a private social network website, which Kazemi started doing last summer. His handiwork, called Friend Camp, is a personalized offshoot of the open-source, decentralized social media site Mastodon, which is similar in format to Twitter. But because Kazemi is the administrator, he sets the norms and rules for how people on Friend Camp should behave. All the Friend Camp users’ posts are only visible within a private internet oasis, safe from the prying eyes of advertisers and judgmental uncles alike.

A screenshot of the desktop version of Friend Camp. [Image: Darius Kazemi]
Setting up a server to host your own social network is no small task. That’s why Kazemi spent his recent fellowship with the Mozilla Foundation writing a how-to guide that can walk anyone who’s interested through the advantages and challenges of having a private site, as well as providing technical advice on how to implement such a setup. The guide is open for anyone to use, and they can set their community rules as they see fit. The goal? To make small, decentralized social networking much more accessible to the masses.

Friend Camp arrives at a moment when closed, private social networking is becoming more popular online. The decentralized sites that Kazemi supports are not a perfect alternative to Twitter or Facebook, where moderation lies in the hands of large corporations. Small, decentralized sites place the policing of content and norms in the hands of administrators like Kazemi, who wield total control over their turf and set the terms based on their own value systems in a setting that’s private and lacks oversight. That can be a lovely, utopian idea when it enables people to feel safe and comfortable online, but it can also turn dark when hate groups use the same concept to hide their communications from the public eye—as the alt-right has now done in other areas of Mastodon.

Friend Camp mobile. [Image: Darius Kazemi]

Kazemi began his experiment with Friend Camp last year, rounding up a few friends and soliciting anyone who was interested by posting on his regular Mastodon account. He began with 10 people, all of whom agreed to follow a specific code of conduct he laid out for them: Friend Camp is explicitly “anti-free-speech” when the term is used as a license for people to say hateful things about others. To maintain his code of conduct, Kazemi believes that keeping the number of people limited was an absolute necessity. As a result, Kazemi writes in his guide, if a user on Friend Camp engages in hate speech on another website, he will mute or ban that user. If he sees Friend Camp users harassing someone on a different social media platform, or if he hears of administrators of other servers that he trusts blocking certain users, he says he’ll usually block them as well.

“This would be inadvisable on a huge network like Twitter, but on Friend Camp, we have all agreed we don’t want to see certain things and we don’t want to engage with other servers that allow for those types of speech,” he writes.

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That might sound draconian, especially given how we’re used to thinking about social media sites—as virtual gathering places for hundreds of millions if not billions of people that have to accommodate all of their conflicting thoughts and opinions. But by hosting your own social network site on your own server, you get to make the rules. Given the countless problems that sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have with content moderation, it’s an appealing thought.

However, taking control out of the hands of corporations has its own dark side. Gab, the alt-right-focused Twitter clone that’s been banned from its hosting service and from multiple payment systems, recently found a home on Mastodon, becoming the open-source network’s largest node.

Last week, Mastodon released a statement disavowing Gab for providing a platform for racist content: “The Mastodon community does not approve of their attempt to hijack our infrastructure and has already taken steps to isolate Gab and keep hate speech off the fediverse [a larger decentralized social network that Mastodon is part of],” wrote the editorial director of the Mastodon blog, pointing to a few Mastodon apps that now block Gab’s domain and highlighting that most independent networks (like Friend Camp) also block Gab.

Kazemi says that Gab’s recent co-opting of Mastodon’s technology hasn’t impacted Friend Camp at all, though he says he’s blocked the Gab domains he knows about. “Because I preemptively block servers that our community considers hateful as soon as I hear about them, they essentially do not exist in our universe,” he says.

Because of the strict rules and norms he’s developed, Kazemi says that the things Friend Camp users (or campers) post tend to be more vulnerable and honest than on other, more public forums. People write about what’s going on in their lives, complain about work, and present half-baked ideas that they’re still thinking through. “We have people who post about parenthood in very honest ways, or various life struggles,” he says. “It’s more like the norms of a group chat between a bunch of old friends over text.”

Social media in general is moving toward this kind of smaller, private group communication. Even Facebook announced earlier this year that it will begin encrypting private and group messages as it shifts its strategy away from public-facing communication toward these smaller digital spaces, because Groups is the fastest-growing part of the platform (there are now more than 400 million users who are part of these Groups). However, some critics have pointed out the ways that closed groups make it harder for Facebook to police hate speech and posts that violate its terms of service. For example, ProPublica recently reported on a secret Facebook group of border patrol agents that is full of racist and sexist comments and memes, and Gab’s new home on Mastodon also points to how the move toward private spaces online doesn’t necessarily engender inclusive ones.

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Kazemi is aware of Gab’s problems, but his priority with Friend Camp—and with his guide to creating a social network—is to provide ways for people to protect themselves and their communities. He says he doesn’t have any plans to preemptively stop malicious actors from using his code.

“To make it personal, I’m an Iranian American, and I don’t think I can realistically stop a bunch of people from meeting in a private place online or offline and talking about how Iranian Americans should be stripped of our U.S. citizenship or worse,” he says. “I think people should be able to work out their uninformed or malign beliefs in private. These spaces may even have the effect of amplifying or radicalizing. But I don’t believe that the solution is to surveil or to ban private spaces. Where it matters for real is when they bring those beliefs out into the public, and that’s where the flexibility and protections offered by a small social media site matter.”

All of these networks—including Friend Camp, Gab, and other Mastodon-based sites—are part of the Fediverse, which also includes open-source sites that resemble Instagram and YouTube. Because all these sites use the same standardized language, users are able to follow each other across sites (imagine if you could see people’s Twitter and Instagram posts all on one feed). Campers can also see and follow other public content on Mastodon, but the major bonus is that they have their own, hyperlocal feed that’s hosted on Kazemi’s server. And ultimately, because it’s Kazemi who owns and runs this server, he also has the power to keep his community a safe place on the internet—though he won’t have any say over the servers of people who use his guide. “The difference is that on the Fediverse, as an island an individual server is able to protect themselves in any way they want,” he says.

It’s not free though: Maintaining Friend Camp takes him about two hours a week and costs $31 a month, the latter of which is covered through a Patreon that campers donate to. But for him, running the site is worth it, even though he’s not compensated for his time, because he’s so deeply invested in the community that it supports. After half a year or so of running the site, Kazemi reports that several users reached out to him and told him that Friend Camp helped ease some of their anxiety around going online and that the site was the highlight of their year.

So how do you set up your own version of Friend Camp? Kazemi’s guide will help, and he’s published all his code for the site online, but the barriers are still relatively high for nontechnical people. That’s why he points people toward Masto.host, a service that will host Mastodon-based private sites for a nominal amount per month—similar to how you can pay WordPress to host your WordPress site, rather than implementing it yourself. “Hopefully there will be more technical solutions to make [running the site] less labor-intensive,” he says.

Since the guide launched earlier this week, Kazemi has fielded multiple inquiries from programmers looking to implement his code, and several institutions have asked him to host workshops to make his guide even more tangible—something he hopes will help him reach more nonprogrammers.

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Kazemi’s goal to make decentralized social media sites more accessible is admirable in part because it empowers individuals to create the kinds of communities that they want online, but it also raises complex questions about privately owned and operated social media. Even when people escape big tech platforms, issues like hate speech and its proliferation online still haunt them.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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