Here's a blast from the past... December 2, 2010
"The Aussie Bastard" is a guy named Mark from Kiama that used to run a popular blog about all things Australian. Some of the stuff I said back then makes me cringe today after the intervening 9 year roller coaster ride, but it is what it is."We're really not competing with anybody. We're just trying to create a great social network."
The Aussie Bastard interviews Friendika's founder.
I caught up with Mike Macgirvin at the Robertson pub to ask him about Friendika. Friendika is the Aussie Facebook "clone" which has been getting a bit of press recently.
AB: Everybody seems to have heard about Diaspora, the Facebook killer from New York. Lately people have been talking about Friendika as a "Diaspora killer". Do you think Friendika can topple Facebook?
Mike: (Laughs) Not at all. I'm amused by all the talk of killing Facebook, but let's be realistic. They've got half a BILLION members and an army of programmers churning out code. We aren't out to kill anybody. This is just a personal project to link up friends and family.
AB: Do I detect an accent? Are you a yank?
Mike: Yeah, I'm from California originally. I was at Netscape during the wild days of the net - and also AOL, Sun, Symantec and a bunch of others. During the California dot-com bust I ran a music store and remember selling a guitar and amp to Zuck (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) when he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. He mentioned it in Rolling Stone. It's hard to be angry with somebody that gets you [even indirectly] into Rolling Stone. But I'm a software developer with a long history - and you can find my name littered all over the web.
AB: I did. All kinds of juicy stuff. You've got a very colourful history. How did Friendika begin? I understand it wasn't always called Friendika. Where did the name come from?
Mike: You might be aware that early in 2010, there was a huge backlash against Facebook. This culminated in a "Quit Facebook Day". I was a long-time Facebook user and fan. In fact I convinced most of my family to join. But I began to be disturbed at the amount of control that Facebook was exerting into popular culture, and was quite alarmed at the probability for a "1984" (George Orwell) future depending on who ends up with Facebook's data farm. We all know that companies die and their intellectual property goes to the highest bidder. I watched this happen time and time again during the dot-com bust in Silicon Valley. Who is likely to end up with all this information, and what might they do with it? It's positively scary if you carry this to its logical conclusion.
So I decided to leave Facebook. But as I soon found out, there was no other place to go for social networking (in early 2010). I wasn't about to go back to MySpace, and none of the other possibilities seemed remotely interesting - Orkut, Twitter and a host of other services which on the surface seemed to all want to do the same thing as Facebook - take all your data and get rich selling it to somebody. And I find the Twitter social model incredibly lame. 140 characters and no conversation threading. What - did we get bombed back into the stone age? Whenever I'm on a Twitter-like network I want to build a packet assembler for them.
I looked for other alternatives. This was about the same time that Diaspora launched their record-breaking fund-raising drive. But they were just starting and wouldn't have anything useful for months, if ever. Distributed networking seemed like the right model. It takes away the element of central ownership. So I searched the net for other distributed projects. There was one called Appleseed. I downloaded it and spent hours trying to figure out what to do with it. I couldn't figure out how to make friends, send a status update, none of the stuff that Facebook had ingrained into our lives. There was another project called "6d". I couldn't get it working. Once I did, I discoved it was only half-finished and so insecure you wouldn't think of letting your mom use it. So I rolled up my sleeves and decided if nobody else had a Facebook alternative, I'd have to create one.
That's an "alternative", not a replacement. Most of my friends were quite happy with Facebook and thought I was wacky to leave.
So there wasn't any place to go for those of us who left Facebook. This was a problem. But as a software engineer, I never let little stuff like that stop me. It's all SMOP - a Simple Matter Of Programming.
The first thing I did was look at Internet protocols to find out if any could help me. There are a lot of protocols for how computers interact with each other. Some of them were OK, but I found that there was something (big) missing. None of the web protocols were designed for sending private messages between two people, with the possible exception of SSL. Email protocols do this (and so do some chat protocols), but web protocols don't. You can't really create a distributed social network if you can't send private messages.
So the first step was writing a brief doco on a secure web protocol. I called this DFRN - the Distributed Friends and Relations Network. This was around June. Then I started working on a "Facebook like" web interface to make use of it. I called the overall project Mistpark. This makes plenty of sense since I live in Robbo, in the Australian Southern Highlands. I found the domain was free on namethingy.com - another one of my projects. My friends overseas didn't get the joke.
Eventually I came up with Friendika for a name because it's something that you can turn into a brand. It's hard to turn Mistpark into a brand name. It's even harder to come up with a logo. Perhaps something green and white and nebulous? No. I decided that just wouldn't work. The Friendika logo is pretty cool. It's bright and has a bit of yin/yang to it. It symbolises connections.
AB: I understand you had a bit of a kerfuffle with the Federated Social Web (another distributed web project). What happened?
Mike: The FSW is a collection of people much like myself who are all trying to create social software that works together. It's driven by a guy from Canada who runs status.net - which is a Twitter clone. The first thing you need to realise is that everybody in the FSW has an agenda, and most of them are pushing their own protocols to be the next big thing. Admittedly I was no different. This immediately put me at loggerheads with Evan (the Canadian dude) because he's naturally trying to push his own stuff, which is called OStatus - and it was his party I was crashing. This turned into a shouting match because the protocols he's pushing; and which are now the de facto language of the federation - aren't private. You can't do Facebook-like stuff with them. Yeah, you can do Twitter-like stuff , but that's not what I was trying to do. They also left gaping holes in the protocols for spammers to get through. I hate spam. So I cussed at a few people about being ignorant idiots or something like that - and got bounced off the forum.
It's likely that federated concepts will take hold - if they can ever get the privacy stuff straightened out. So I built these into Friendika. You can be friends with Friendika people and you can also be friends with FSW people. But it's a big mess trying to get them to work together, because one network (ours) is private and the other one (theirs) isn't.
The FSW mandates "pubsubhubbub", which is a delivery mechanism. You tell somebody you've got a message and that site delivers it to anybody who was interested in seeing it. That can be anybody. You can't run private mail on pubsubhubbub - it just won't work, because anybody and everybody could be listening.
The other FSW protocol that has caused a lot of grief is "Salmon" - which was written by John Panzer - a friend of mine from Netscape [now at Google]. Salmon lets you send a personal message to somebody and they can verify you sent it. That's great.
But it's only half secure and half private. You can verify who wrote a message, but they can't verify that you're the only person reading it. So the privacy it provides is an illusion. It can be tricked.
I didn't need pubsubhubbub or salmon because I already had DFRN, and it does these things - and does them better for what I was trying to accomplish.
If John sends a message to Mary, by golly John knows that it's Mary on the other end of the line, and Mary knows it's John sending it. At this point you can send anything to each other. We don't care what it is. This is privacy. You have to know who is at each end of the pipe and then you send stuff to them. I don''t think the FSW folks will ever understand how fundamental this is.
But I don't care. We can be part of the FSW, but we aren't limited by them. We've got privacy. They don't. Someday they probably will and we'll implement it. Until then they can have their Twitter network. That isn't what we're building.
AB: What about Diaspora? Are they your competition?
Mike: No, they're just another project that appears to be doomed - although they have a bit of momentum. It's too bad because they've taken a lot of people's hopes and aspirations with them. Their technology runs on weird platforms (Ruby/Mongo) and for that reason alone will never be mainstream. They lack leadership. They lack direction and they don't scale. Fail.
We run on PHP/MySQL - just like a Wordpress blog. There are millions of folks who can run our software or at least not be intimidated by it.
We're really not competing with anybody. We're just trying to create a great social network.
AB: Another beer?