A recent article by Bruce Sterling explains why, thanks to Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft talking about the Internet stopped making sense in 2012. The article caused the following comment an Italian mailing list: unfortunately, this isn’t news at all… What would be news would be to find alternatives. I answered that comment as follows.
Sure enough, projects like Diaspora were born just to replace some of those services, but they are still in the early stages. Here, however, I would like to explain that maybe we don’t have to wait because, technically speaking, almost all the alternative already exist, and suggest to assemble them together.
Email has been manageable in a completely autonomous way for a long time, for the reasons and with the tools I already presented in another article and its included lnks. I already use Squirrelmail for this, but there are also interfaces much more similar to Gmail.
For online bookmarks, like Del.icio.us but self-managed, there is SemanticScuttle. You can browse my own personal installation here.
Self-hosted cloud storage of photo galleries, texts, contact lists, calendars… is doable with owncloud. Notifications are the realm of RSS feeds, which you can aggregate, integrate and process however you see fit. The screenshot here shows how I do that. Simple scripts that I wrote by myself in a few hours collect in one HTML page on my server, automatically updated, all my news sources. Including, as you can see, Twitter and (not present in that specific screenshot, but working just fine), the notifications from my Facebook account (I mention this to stress that the proposal here is not an “all or nothing, NOW” proposition).
Online publication, without some private company taking you offline in a second, just because they go out of business, or feel like it? Personal websites like this and many, many more have been using WordPress for years and are very happy with it. Federation, that is automatic connection of many independent WordPress websites with already existing mechanisms like OStatus, would provide social, Facebook-like discussions without the need for a Facebook account (and no place for Comment Nazis).
I could continue, but I hope the overall concept is clear by now.
Installing (even on cheap hosting accounts) all this Free Software applications and others I didn’t mention for brevity on a virtual Linux server you get one single blob of living bits that lets you do everything you need online, with all the privacy you need and NO fear that the “landlord” disappears or kicks you out in the street without notification. Because you can do all the complete copies and backups you want, and move the whole blob of bits, without particular problems, to a new hosting provider.
Of course, you are thinking yes, strictly speaking it’s clear but…
If all this already exists, why isn’t everybody doing it? Well, simply because there is no integration at all among all those objects. I am sort of a geek, so personally I have no problems to install everything one piece at a time and do a lot of manual configuration work. Heck, I even like it, most of the time. Besides, I couldn’t care less if every windows (email, chat, news…) looks and behaves different from ALL the others, and ALL are ugly as sin. For almost all human beings, however, this is an unbreakable wall.
But creating one, single, turn-key bundle of Free Software that contains:
all the pieces, already configured to work together
one single, coherent and beautiful visual look
predefined GUI procedures for external backups, adding users, software updates from trusted repositories etc…
is not that difficult! Sure, it takes a non negligible amount of time and some online infrastructure to distribute the result, but it’s not rocket science. And if such a software “product” existed, everybody could do what todays happens with WordPress, for every part of his or her online life: “download and run it yourself if you want, otherwise click here to start a blog on our server, with the certainty that you can migrate it in any moment without problems”//. Heck, there could even be a nice service business here…
But that is another issue, my point is that all this is possible. And the sooner it’s done, the better, whoever does it. What? Me? Well, since you ask… :-) I do have the both motivation and the skills to do a good part of the job and coordinate the rest. I am not doing it because, as I said it would take a lot of time, which I can’t afford to give for free. But if any sponsor is listening, feel free to contact me :-)