Suramya's Blog : Welcome to my crazy life…

November 9, 2022

FOSS: Asking folks to run their own servers/services is not the answer

Filed under: My Thoughts,Tech Related — Suramya @ 1:06 AM

A few days ago a discussion was going on in a FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) group that I am part of about Twitter and how it is imploding due to the recent changes. One of the members commented that “Both Twitter and Gmail are private services (not public utilities). Hence FOSS. Hence self-host your blog / email.” This is a very problematic view that is unfortunately quite common amongst techies. They (we) tend to believe that everyone has the time, knowledge, interest and resources to do things the way we do.

In the early 2000’s I hosted my site & blog on a VPS (Virtual Private Server) which I maintained on my own. It was a great experience because I got to learn Linux Sysadmin skills on a live environment and I did it for a few years. Then as my responsibilities and workload started increasing I had less time to devote to managing the server, plus I had issues with the costing so ended up moving hosting providers and to a shared hosting plan. Since I was moving to a different role, I just wanted to host my site and not worry about managing the server and this move allowed me to do that. I can move back to a VPS if I need to since I have the tech background and skills to manage it. Expecting everyone to do the same is nonsensical and impractical. I know the time it took me to walk my parents through how to access their email from various computers & phones. Just thinking about asking them to manage sendmail/postfix servers and secure them is enough to give me nightmares about hours on the phone trouble shooting.

FOSS is a great thing, it has made life easier and allowed us to retain control of the devices that we use to manage a large portion of our life. However, it is not practical to expect everyone to have the skills to host their own servers. Imagine if other services did the same thing, you would need to run your own sewage treatment plant to process your waste and have to manage your own power generation plant, or grow your own food. That sounds pretty nonsensical right? Which is how you sound when you tell folks to run their own servers for stuff that shouldn’t need it (like email or social media). Unless you want to only communicate with a microscopic portion of the population and feel superior to everyone.

Our goal is to encourage people to use FOSS whenever possible and that requires us to make the software usable, stable, have a shallow learning curve and smooth/easy onboarding. If you think that people will learn about server configs to access your product then you are dreaming. For example, GIMP is an awesome software but its UI sucks, which is why it has been unable to gain popularity and beat Photoshop. One of the great mods for GIMP which came out in 2006 called GIMPShop modified the UI to make it similar to Photoshop and people loved it. Other software / systems have the same problem as well. The most recent example is Mastodon which is a pretty cool software but onboarding process that explains how you would access it and setup accounts is something that I still am confused about. I had a client I worked with early in my carrier who would ask me to “Just make it work” when faced with complicated software setup. She was smart as hell but didn’t have the time to waste to setup/configure software as that took her time away from her core responsibilities.

The general user will go for ease of use, they will go for easy onboarding and accessibility. IRC was an amazing protocol but the clients sucked (I mean they worked but didn’t have mobile clients and were not user-friendly) as the years passed newer protocols and clients came into the picture and they had snazzy UI and clients (e.g. Slack) which enabled them to take over as the communication channel for a lot of communities. We can moan and complain that IRC was much better but from the end user perspective it wasn’t better because it didn’t allow them to do what they wanted using the devices they wanted to use. Like it or not mobile is hear to stay and not having a native mobile client made IRC a hard sell. (There are a few clients now, but the damage is done).

Usability is not a curseword. We need to start embracing making the software/systems we create more userfriendly. I am not saying remove the advanced / power functionality, I would be one of the first to leave if you did that. A good example on how to balance the two is the approach Firefox takes: they have the general UI for all users with sensible defaults and a configuration setup that allows power users to go in and modify pretty much every aspect of the system.

Coming back to Twitter, the fix for this current issue is not to run our own servers but to make the existing systems interoperable the same way Email systems are interoperable. Cory Doctorow has a fantastic post “How to ditch Facebook without ditching your friends” where he talks about how this could work. It would require pressure (regulatory/government/user) on the companies to adopt this model but in the long run that would removed the walled gardens that have popped up everywhere and restore the old more distributed style of internet.

I still need to figure out if I want to join a Mastodon server and if so which one, I will probably look into this later this month once I have some free time.

Well this is all for now. Will post more later.

– Suramya

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