GNU social and #RIPTwitter

What a weekend! Buzzfeed sent rumours soaring that Twitter was going to stop displaying tweets in order and instead have an “algorithm” optimise it. Scary, right? I have no idea if it’s true but the possibility hit a nerve. #RIPTwitter was trending globally and it encouraged a small fraction of Twitter users to wonder “what could I use instead?” That is, one heck of a lot of people.

Next minute, thousands of new users are pouring into GNU social—a social network whose existing users only numbered in the thousands to begin with. It’s free software’s decentralised answer to Twitter and to date it has a fairly niche following. Not any more. The admin of the largest server, quitter.se, reported 1200 new signups in two days.

Few of the newbies were aware that the software is GNU social. The best known servers are all called “Quitter” so there were plenty of messages saying how cool “Quitter” is. When they discovered that quitter.no and quitter.is also exist many people signed up to all three before they realised that you can follow people on remote servers. (Pick up your game, Danes. Sweden is totally kicking your butt over here.)

You should realise that the pre-existing community consists mostly of polite free software enthusiast types. They normally have the sort of conversations you might overhear when your neighbour is watering his lawn in his weekend chinos. From what I could discern reading their posts the new users are mostly teenaged anime fans and they microblog a completely different way. They post anonymously with wild abandon. They use loose language and enormous quantities of manga imagery.

The administrators of the most popular servers were kept busy for a couple of days while they cleaned up the mess and shooed away the most egregious disturbers of the peace. This brought about a few muffled cries of censorship but it also activated one of GNU social’s superpowers: you can create your own server and it’s as good as anyone else’s.

Some had doubts that the new users even had the technical chops to set up a PHP webapp. I was not among them. Check out this amazing thread—it even includes somebody posting root credentials and a brief squabble for control. That eventually resulted in gnutan.xyz, a new “anything goes” server. Separately, shitposter.club also appeared. The people who want to post random stuff now have somewhere to go without cluttering the public timelines of the serious-business servers. Thanks to federation they can still cross-follow specific accounts if they want to.

The network even got its first server dedicated to pornographic content, iamover18.org. (You can type that one in yourself, you lecher.)

The problems aren’t all solved though. Right now federation is completely open. If someone on quitter.se follows an account on iamover18.org the “Whole Known Network” page on quitter.se will have porn on it. Obviously the quitter.se people don’t want that so somehow we need to introduce some filtering. The simplest solution would be to cut off federation with sites like iamover18.org but that is kind of a pain. More subtle solutions are being discussed like marking posts NSFW so they don’t appear in public timelines.

Meanwhile some of the old guard are whinging as if this was the Eternal September all over again. I’m more optimistic. Everyone will find their way to the most appropriate server and things will settle down.

To all our new comrades: Welcome! Enjoy your stay! Visit gnu.org sometime.

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