Occupy Geeks Are Building a Facebook for the 99%
“I don’t want to say we’re making our own Facebook. But, we’re making our own Facebook,” said Ed Knutson, a web and mobile app developer who joined a team of activist-geeks redesigning social networking for the era of global protest.
They hope the technology they are developing can go well beyond Occupy Wall Street to help establish more distributed social networks, better online business collaboration and perhaps even add to the long-dreamed-of semantic web — an internet made not of messy text, but one unified by underlying meta-data that computers can easily parse.
The impetus is understandable. Social media helped pull together protesters around the globe in 2010 and 2011. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak so feared Twitter and Facebook that he shut down Egypt’s internet service. A YouTube video posted in the name of Anonymous propelled Occupy Wall Street from an insider meme to national news. And top-trending Twitter hashtags turned Occupy from a ho-hum rally on Sept. 17 into a national and even international movement.
Now it’s time for activists to move beyond other people’s social networks and build their own, according to Knutson.
“We don’t want to trust Facebook with private messages among activists,” he said.
The same thinking applies to Twitter and other social networks — and the reasoning became clear last week, when a Massachusetts district attorney subpoenaed Twitter for information about the account @OccupyBoston and other accounts connected to the Boston movement. (To its credit, Twitter has a policy of fighting such orders.)
“Those networks will be perfectly fine — until they are not. And it will be a one-day-to-the-next thing,” said Sam Boyer, an activist turned web developer, turned activist again, who works with the New York City occupation’s tech team.
A move away from mainstream social networks is already happening on several levels within the Occupy movements — from the local networks already set up for each occupation to an in-progress, overarching, international network project called Global Square, that Knutson is helping to build. Those networks are likely to be key to Occupy’s future, since nearly all of the largest encampments in the United States have been evicted — taking with them the physical spaces where activists communicated via the radically democratic General Assemblies.
The idea of an open alternative to corporate-owned social networking sites isn’t novel — efforts to build less centralized, open source alternatives to Facebook and Twitter have been in the works for years, with the best known examples being Diaspora and Identica.
But those developments aren’t specifically focused on protest movements. And the Occupy movement’s surprising rise in the U.S. has added new impetus to the desire for open source versions of the software that is playing an increasingly important role in mobilizing and connecting social movements, as well as broadcasting their efforts to the world.
One challenge that all of the new efforts face is a very difficult one for non-centralized services: ensuring that members are trustworthy. That’s critical for activists who risk injury and arrest in all countries and even death in some. To build trust, local and international networks will use a friend-of-a-friend model in Knutson and Boyer’s projects. People can’t become full members on their own as they can with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
“You have to know someone in real life who sponsors you,” said Knutson.
To Boyer, it’s more important to identify someone as trustworthy than to ensure that their online name matches a passport or birth certificate.
“I respect pseudonyms as long as they treat them as pseudonyms and not as masks,” said Boyer. In other words, someone shouldn’t hide behind a fake name to get away with bad behavior — in an extreme case, infiltrating the movement to spy on or sabotage it.