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 giving users the opportunity to contest such orders when possible.)
“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.
Thirty-six-year-old Knutson, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, started the year as an observer of politics before evolving into a committed OWS activist. His metamorphosis started during public-employee strikes in February against proposed policies of Governor Scott Walker that would affect their benefits and collective-bargaining rights.
“Before this year we had the idea that things maybe were starting to improve a little,” he said. “But when things started happening in February we were like, ‘No, no. Things are getting worse.’”
While organizing a “Walkerville” protest camp in June, Knutson met, over Twitter, members of Spanish protest movement 15M. They had just built a web site, Take the Square, to track occupations around the world, from Tunisia to Madrid. He also met Alexa O’Brien – founder of campaign-finance-reform organization US Day of Rage and a co-founder of Occupy Wall Street. After OWS kicked off, Knutson came to the East Coast for a while, visiting New York, Boston and Philadelphia and joining with other techies in those cities.
Through all those connections, Knutson has focused on building the technology for an international occupations network. But the politics are tricky. “Some of the people in Spain are kind of resentful of OWS, because they got all of the credit,” he said, noting that the Spanish occupations started first and are still far bigger.
As a counterpart to Knutson, Sam Boyer focuses on the US occupations, building tech for a collection of interlinked social networks across the country with the working title Federated General Assembly, or FGA. Working on Occupy has brought him full-circle.
When he was an undergrad in 2005, Boyer, who is now 27, took a job at the Student Trade Justice Campaign, an organization focused on trade policy reform. In 2007, he wanted to build an online platform for individual chapters to organize into groups and to link those groups for national discussions – essentially what the FGA is meant to do. But Boyer couldn’t build it, he said. “I didn’t even know how to program at the point that I started with it.”
So Boyer started learning, and falling in love with, Web programming; and he switched from being mainly an activist to mainly an engineer. His specialty is an open-source content-management system for web sites called Drupal, which FGA will run on.
Knutson, Boyer and the other Occupy geeks don’t have to build everything from scratch. “These are standards that have been around for a while, and we are not reinventing the wheel,” said Boyer.
For instance, the projects will rely on set of technologies known as Open ID and OAuth that let a user sign into a new website using their logins and passwords from social networks like Facebook, Google and Twitter. Those technologies let you sign up for a new service by logging into a Twitter or Google account, which vouch for you to the new site without giving over your password or forcing you to get yet another username and password to keep track of.
In the new OWS tech, an activist’s local-occupation network can vouch for a user to another network, and the local networks all trust each other, they all trust that activist. Someone can sign into one network and post and comment on them all.
Some sensitive posts, say about civil disobedience, would be private. Others, like a statement of demands or press release, would be public, but only trusted members of the network could create them.
FGA wants to differentiate itself from the the me-me-me narcissism of Facebook. It has a strong focus on groups — working together on topics like alternative banking or electoral reform.
And there’s a lot of work today. Currently, the group aspects of Occupy web sites are a cacophony.
“You get there, and the first thing you look at is this useless activity feed,” said Boyer. Every comment – whether a brilliant idea, a troll comment or a me-too pile-on – pops into the list as it’s generated. “You’re only guaranteed that one person really thought that post was a good idea – not the whole group,” he said.
In the FGA system, each group has a discussion on what information to push to their home page, such as a description of an event, a blog post or minutes from a meeting. “In the same way that, when you look at Reddit, you know that the articles on top are the most upvoted, the user could know that posts appearing on a front page represent the concerted agreement of the group,” said Boyer.
The activist coders also want to be able to push and pull info to and from the rest of the movement. The idea is that they can have disparate systems that label info with shared tags that will, some day, make it possible to enter a search on any one site and pull precise results from around the world.
Ed Knutson’s job is to get those sites talking to each other, even though the content may be in different languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, etc.) and created with different content management systems, or CMSs, such as Drupal or Wordpress. The Global Square network will connect not through those systems but through “semantic Web” standards designed to link up disparate technologies.
One key standard has the wordy name Resource Description Framework, or RDF, a universal labeling system.
If an occupier wants to post the minutes of a meeting, for example, they might type them in the appropriate text box in the content management software running the site. That software pushes the information to an RDF database and tags it with some universal label – it could be called “minutes” or any other term that all the occupations agree on. The local occupier might also select “Group: Alternative Banking” from a dropdown list, and that label would be added as well. Using the same labels allows all the sites to trade information. So a search for minutes from an Alternative Banking group would pull up records from any occupation with that kind of group.
With RDF, sites can work together even if they run on different content management software, such as Drupal (as in the FGA) or Wordpress (as in the Spanish M15 group).
“The handoff point is that everything goes through RDF,” said Knutson. “You don’t care if they have a Drupal site or some kind of Frankenstein combination of different stuff.”
The problem the coders face will be the same one that’s faced the web for years – getting people to agree on standards and to then adopt them. One long-running attempt to do this quickly is called Microformats – a way of including markup data in HTML that’s invisible to an human visitor, but which can be understood by their browser or by a search engine. Examples include marking up contact information so that a reader can simply click contact information to add it to their address book and annotating a recipe so that search engines can let you search for recipes that include ’spinach’.
These linkage and collaboration capabilities would be useful well beyond the Occupy movement.
“I think any type of small or medium-sized group or a team that has one person in eight different cities,” could use it for collaboration, says Knutson. And he sees no reason against spinning off the tech to businesses.
“Every small and medium business owner is a member of the 99%,” said Knutson. “Furthermore, exploring relationships with businesses… is pretty important to having a tangible impact.”
“A lot of what we are tying to do is build a better conversation so that this cacophonous discussion can be more coordinated,” said Boyer. As an analogy, he recounted an OWS workshop from a conference on December 18 in New York City when the moderator asked everyone to shout out their best idea for the movement.
They were probably all good ideas, said Boyer. But he couldn’t hear any one of them through the noise of the others.
The Web of trust among networks, RDF labels that link data across occupations, working-group consensus on what to post – all are designed to help the right people connect to each other and to the right information. “Let the sheer number of people who are interested get out the way of the many things actually happening,” said Boyer.
But for now, all those ideas are just that – ideas. And whatever does emerge will come piecemeal.
Sam Boyer hopes to launch in the following weeks what he calls a stepping stone — a roster of occupations around the world called, for now, simply directory.occupy.net. M15’s Take the Square site has provided something like that since May, as have other sites. But directory.occupy.net will be unique in using RDF and other technologies to label all the entries. It will also allow people from each occupation to “own” and update their entries.
“The directory should be useful, but it’s not our big debut,” said Boyer. He’s hoping that will be sometime in the spring, when a rough version of the FGA social network launches.
The Global Square Knutson is helping to build is finalizing its tech and will launch, probably in January, with basic linkages for various Occupy sites to trade messages, re-publish articles and allow cross-commenting on them.
“I’d say it would be a pretty major accomplishment to get a couple of the [web site] systems that everyone is using, like ELGG and Drupal and media wiki and maybe Wordpress” to work together, he said.
But even just having the discussion has been a big deal. “It’s hard to get people to even think about that kind of stuff.”