If you can’t be first – Federate

There is no point in being the only person in the world with a telephone, or a fax machine, or to have these, but nobody you want to communicate with has one. You could be the only person you know who has a mobile phone, and as long as your friends have telephone land lines you can talk to them – because the networks interoperate.

Networks need a critical mass to be usable, and the large social media systems, such as Facebook and WhatsApp have turned this into a ‘winner takes all’ game, in which they are the winners. It is at least possible to see a Tweet without being a user, but Whatsapp divides the world very definitively into those who have it and those who don’t. Anyone who has a suitable smartphone can join Whatsapp for no financial payment, but paying instead, not only with information about themselves, but everyone they know. Although Facebook pages can be ‘public’, they are not truly public, they can be seen by anyone is on Facebook, but if you look at them from a web browser which does not know (and tell Facebook) your details (for example in a Private or Incognito window) you will see how you are simply persuading non Facebook users to join.

There are people and organisations who do not like this, but many of them agree with the ‘Winner takes all’ – they just have a different idea about who should be the winner. Most of the systems which claim superiority to Whatsapp, for example, want to replace it with another system, which will be ‘better’ because it uses their walled garden rather than Whatsapp’s.

The answer, unless you have a serious shot at first place, is to stop being greedy and aiming to ‘own’ the market and federate with other systems, adding value for your users, though improved user experience, possibly well targeted advertising, additional services specific to your offering, but Federate – in other words talk over a well defined, open, even if evolving protocol with others. This is a way email and the web work, and chat and social media could work that way too.

For chat there is a stable protocol called Jabber or XMPP (eXtensble Message and Presence Protocol) which is federated very much like email (SMTP – Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). It has addresses which look like email addresses, e.g., and like email can messages Google used XMPP for its Gtalk chat (and which was able to talk to other XMPP implementations until they stopped), underlies Facebook Messenger (basically XMPP using your Facebook user as the user name and it can only talk to other Facebook users), Whatapp (uses your mobile number as the username and can only talk to other Whatsapp users).

Competitors to the market leader should try federating their offering, and working out ways to provide a better offering by using them. They also think an economic case, which might be to prevent your user base migrating to your market dominant competitor, in the case of a commercial, or a desire for an ‘everybody wins’ game for governments or social or charitable organisations.

Small Organisation Server

Why Sharing Federated Social Media Systems is Important

If you are are a non technical person – or more importantly a group of people – as being social on your own is not much fun – and you are looking for a place on the Internet to get together your choices are pretty limited. Everybody in your group is probably on WhatsApp, and Facebook, and it is easy to set up free Zoom accounts, and then you only need somebody, or a couple of people to have a paid account and you are are all set.

If you want to avoid that route your choices are much more limited. In fact if you are not technical they are pretty much non-existent.

If you are purchasing a large piece of commercial software they often have an example user to show how things can be set up. For example have the example of a “a global fictitious company that sells computer hardware including storage, motherboard, RAM, video card, and CPU.” This gives you an idea of their target market.

I will use the example of a small (say 20-50 members) Gardening Club. Suppose they want to chat, but some of their members do not have a smartphone, or for some other reason they do not want to use WhatsApp (this is a Gardening Club – software freedom, privacy and such like are less important to them than effective defenses against carrot fly, or whether to over-winter dahlias in the shed). There is a protocol called Jabber or XMPP, which has been around for a well over a decade, which does everything which is needed, but it has never really taken off in the ‘real’ world. One reason for that is that there is not much reward for running an XMPP server for public use. There have been several attempts at mass-XMPP – Google Talk used to be proper federated XMPP, Duck Duck Go had a free XMPP service, there are numerous free XMPP services which are not accepting new accounts.

There is a cost to running a service – somebody has to pay for the hosting, network use etc – and running one, free, as a business does not make sense, and generously offering the service to strangers will exhaust anybody’s resources. Our Gardening Club could – if they knew about it – go to and pay to have their XMPP hosted there, but if they also wanted to have a web site, for example using WordPress, they would have to go somewhere else.

If federated social media systems are to take off then our Gardening Club needs a simple recipe for what they can do, preferably go to a provider, pay a small, understandable fee (paid for out of their membership subscriptions, the same way they are now paying for their Zoom accounts) follow a simple set up process and get communicating.

The nearest to this route at the moment is probably hosting a FreedomBox on an virtual, or hosted real system on the internet, although their attention is more towards onion routing than onion sets. There is a community around FreedomBox, as there is around many of the other federated social media projects, but it is a technically oriented community.

If the barriers to entry for Federated Social Media systems are such that only people who are capable of, and have the inclination to, install their own system from scratch can participate then the main topic of the Fediverse will be itself, which is not a healthy state.

Our hypothetical Gardening Club, knitting group, model railway society, dentists association, primary school, needs tools built around their interests, which can federate and accommodate the keen gardener, communicating with her fellow dentists professionally, knitting and working on her model railway when the weather is not suitable for gardening, and making jam for her children’s primary school summer fair.


The Social Power of Market Dominance

There are some markets which are completely dominated by one product. That product is not necessarily the best, but once it becomes dominant in the market number of social, rather than technical factors help it to stay there.

I can’t get this to work – I must be stupid

Everybody knows that Microsoft’s Office products are easy to use – that is why everybody uses them. Thus if somebody finds that they can not get Word to do something, they conclude that the fault must lie with them.

Similarly everybody knows that everyone uses Zoom, so if they can’t get it to work the fault must lie with them, or their computer, or their Wifi, or something, whereas any other Video conferencing system has to work perfectly first time or it will never have a second chance.

I can’t get this to work – it must be stupid

Consider someone who is not technical, just wanting to get a job done, for example to produce a spreadsheet, and is persuaded to try, for example LibreOffice Calc rather than Excel. The person suggesting this probably does not, by preference, spend a lot of time producing spreadsheets, and so will have to do a bit of learning themselves to get the desired result. When this does not happen instantly the person who just wants a spreadsheet will switch to Excel, known universally to be easy.

Can I help you ?

Despite being ‘easy to use’ the market dominant products are not, in reality always easy to use, and there are lots of tips and ways of doing something that someone who spends a lot of time on Facebook, Word, Powerpoint, Zoom etc can share with their friends and colleagues who are struggling with some aspect of them. This makes the person who has helped feel good, and the recipient of the advice get the job done. This is good for everybody – especially the vendor of the market dominant product.

Can you help me ?

However hard you try, if you have a profession which has computers, or IT in the title, people will assume you are automatically going to help with one of the market leading products, even if, for example a network engineer or a software developer does not require advanced skills in office products.

As all spreadsheets, word processors, presentation software, video calling software and so on, have a common facilities ‘under the hood’ a computer professional is likely to find themselves, for example sorting an Excel spreadsheet by column into numerical order, or some such. This is not something I need to do very often myself, either in LibreOffice Calc, or Excel, but because I know it can be done, and have been using spreadsheets a bit every since Visicalc, if someone asks for help I groan inwardly, and find how to do it in Excel.

This not only means the spreadsheet user knows how to do another thing in Excel – which they can proudly show to others – but reinforces my reputation as someone to go to for help with Office products.

Feedback and networking effects

Google’s search engine is very good, and they do work hard to keep it that way, but they have a big benefit from the fact that not only do they want their users to be able to find what they are looking for, but the owners of websites want people to be able to find them through a Google search.

Similarly people want to use an Instant Messenger or Social network to keep in touch with their friends, and that means the one which dominates the market.

Willingness to learn in non dominated markets

When I learnt to drive my driving instructor had, I think, some kind of Triumph, with a normal gear level in the centre of the car, but the handbrake to the right of the driver (I am in the UK, so drive on the right – that is to say left 🙂 side of the road). My parents had a Peugot 404, which had a dashboard mounted gear lever, and a sickle handbrake. While still learning they switched to a Peugot 504, with a more conventional layout of controls. After I passed my test I bought a Mini, and since then have owned a variety of cars, and driven many other types of cars and vans, manual and automatic, on both sides of the road.

Because they are cars. people know, and expect them to be different and are prepared to spend a bit of time learning the differences. They also realise that different vehicles are good for different things. A little sports car is similar in concept to a minibus, but you would not try to carry a football team in the sports car. As it is software many medium companies which have grown gradually try to do everything on increasingly massive and ill-suited spreadsheets (Excel of course)

Even when there is a choice brand loyalty can be very significant. Switching between Android and Apple phones is something many people are not willing to do. (or persuading some small children to switch cereal brands !)