Collaborative Practices and Free Software

I will try here to summarize some thought from different experiences; the aim of this post is to raise attention to the tools we, independant collectives, are using to organize; presenting, both their inadequacy and their capacity to split and weaken our social networks[1], and human organisations.

  • What is the issue, differentiating between autonomy, organisational and privacy issues
  • What are the possibilities, where can groups share, and how to engage them
  • What means can we use to converse, organize, and archive stuff.

In the context of third technoscape theses issues are equally addressed by the 3ts card game, this topic is only ment to pindown some practical details, and build from experience.

What is the issue, differentiating between autonomy, organizational and privacy issues

While there are numerous independent platforms that are used by activists to announce their events, among others Indymedia, Demosphere, who each have decentralized installations in different cities or, it still feels that a lot of information goes out on centralized Siliconed platforms, and not only announcing events but also coordinating between groups and people. Practically speaking, this means, the tools we are using to organize aren’t made for this, quite the contrary. Therefore, instead of helping us to coordinate they foster individual practices and split information to the benefice of surveillance capitalism, whose companies, contrary to us, have the possibility to aggregate the information we provide them.

There are several issues with this, the first that comes to mind is about privacy and personal security, basic computer security skills are far from being shared knowledge. However, what is also of importance in the actual situation, is to assess the consequences of our communities organizing on Siliconed platforms, and how it is a nuisance to autonomy and self determination.

Censorship and Dependency

The usual argument to explain sharing on centralised platform goes like: “we want to reach out to everyone” “not everyone is technology proficient and they can’t use anything else”. Those are quite easy to counter, firstly because what you want to communicate is dependent on the promotional choices of the platform you choose to use and they will not promote your posts they eventually will delete your accounts. Centralized platforms are often the first blocked when censorship happens, preventing their use during uprising exactly when we need them, both because they are centralized and because they are used by so many people. By running Ooni Probe as an app you can help measure censorship.

Split Information, a destructive model

On these Siliconed platforms making an event usually ensures participants are informed, but more than anything else it ensures that your network[1:1] depends on the platform, and they do not provide features that allow to correlate between informations on different timelines, reorganize the groups that follows one or several events (note that they have the access to do this for themselves with your information). The only possibility for you is to publish another event, engage a new group, or continue with the preexisting event. Those platforms are not working the way collective organization do, they do not help to structure over time, on the contrary they aim to separate people and split information.

The format proposed by those platforms is fixed, it depends on corporate choices, it is mostly organized around the individual through, event announcement and reactions to it (likes comment etc…), contruction of knowledge through collectively constructing text is not in their features. There is no possibility of taking the information out of the platform, and very limited possibility of structuring it into anything useful. Cross-linking of information is minimal and there is no possibility to reorganize, keeping what is important and discard noise for example. Therefore we are spending a lot of our precious time in feeding those platforms and we loose the agency to use of our own work, while it could be precious information for us.

What are the possibilities, where can groups share and how to engage them

  • Instead of relying on external platforms, there are a number of tools available that can allow us to easily build a platform that can serve both for announcing information and sharing concerns and organization. Think of the features that you need, for example:
    • Have public and private sections,
    • Deal with comments with different levels of granularity
    • Reorganize existing information structure or visibility
    • Access the groups that are tied to an event and reorganize them
    • Store and share information
    • Use calendars
    • Use maps
    • Use encryption

Several free software tools propose those features including the one we are using here, called Discourse.

When deciding to move to a new software/platform for your organisation and annuncements, ususally several issues arise, some of them may be :

  • How to make your announcements visible:
    One person is hidden in a crowd but several construct their space inside the numerous. For many of us online communication has been promoted as an identity-based process where each person and/or group is supposed to display its uniqueness and difference. But this is not what what we are up to, how about thinking differently and bringing ourselves together in our differences to share online ressources gaining in traction and visibility.
  • How to host your services:
    There are people working in making free software and working in hosting independent tools, those people need you to use their tools, if not their work is useless, it is as important to engage in free software tools for your groups as it is for the people who develop those tools. To reach them, check your local hackerspace and ask what are the independent hosters and what tools they provide. We can provide a few friendly references here, for example: in France and Belgium they are organised in a federation: FFDN, in Germany they all revolved around local CCC clubs, and there are also, among others, the incredible Librehosters network. If you explain to them what are your needs not only will you get a human answering you, but also they will explain you up to what extend you can trust them on protecting your personal information.
  • "We are many" and "We shall overcome"
    Yes this is the reality, but reality also makes it difficult to find common grounds between activists groups, and we more often argue with our neighbor than organize, and for many of us we quickly feel overwhelmed by “commensal” wih different identities, while, corporate platforms seem to be neutral, but think about it, is it really the case? Sharing common mediums of communication does not mean we agree on a common discourse, sharing a platform does not mean we share a common discourse either, one online platform can host different agonist and antagonist discourses, in the same way that structures could share physical space: I mean with clear agreements. There are many ways to deal with the granularity of information, think of the digital space as somewhere with many possibilities to separate a common space in several different spaces adapted for each group. However, looking to get together on a platform can help tying bonds, in the same way as when groups organize to share a space. This means agreeing on certain things ahead of time, such as:
    • What form do you use for communication: do you want to agree on language, way of adressing people, netiquette, code of conduct… for example.
    • How do you organize the platform, who has what responsibility, and what administration rights, they often go together, and it is important that several persons are engaged, not relying on one administrator (bus factor).
    • To make sure interactions happen smoothly, further then clarifying how you feel people should interact in this space, it is crucial to build a care team, essential to the well being of the people of the project, therefore the project itself. They will serve as a reference point to people who face critical situations in the forum, they need to a help team is be able to receive anonymous demands.
    • Also it is useful to define some moderation responsibilities that can help to support engagement engaging people in conversations, organizing topics, referencing existing conversations to newer ones for example, moderators need to be able either to answer or to redirect to knowledgeable people for any questions.

Group organization work is a preliminary, not only will it help to ensure there is an engaged and active community, but also it will help clarifying what are the intentions of the groups associating for the construction of the platform. This does not mean that you should do 10 meetings before, but a couple workshops that engage people in acknowledging their relation to technology, and it which ways it engages the construction of their collective organisation and/or international networks. To this end at p.s.: we use the 3ts card game, and we would be more then happy to join you for a workshop with it.

  1. here, we’re talking about your human social network: the people you relate to. ↩︎ ↩︎

What means can we use to converse, organize, and archive stuff?

There are many tools available to organize online, keep track and record of collective memory, and enjoy the continous flow of online conversation to accompany a community over time. This is a short introduction to Discourse, the software of choice for the organization at Petites Singularités, a gentle scratch on the surface of a deep iceberg of collective empowerment online. It aims to respond to the question: what differentiates Discourse from mailing lists or web forums?

At :ps: we chose conversation as the primary form of organization, for it benefits in the long run from the continuity of deepening relations, changing minds and situations, and iterative knowledge building and norm refinement. Discourse is a web-based conversational interface, also called a “forum”, although it does not share much with other web-based fora. Discourse is conceived and designed “for the next 10 years of the Internet”, and as “a replacement for mailing lists”. It works well by email, on a mobile phone, or on the desktop.

Trust Levels

One of Discourse’s differentiating features is the concept of trust levels. Instead of depending on human moderation against spammers, Discourse monitors users’ participation and rewards presence and reading to empower active participants. The more you participate and read, the more you get the community’s general feeling, and the more you’re entitled to make meaningful changes in the forum, such as flagging content, turning posts into wiki, editing topic titles, or recategorizing content. It’s not a perfect system, but I see two concrete advantages to it: 1) it effectively defeats spam; 2) long term forums are controlled by their most diligent contributors.

Post > Topic > Category

In Discourse the basic contribution is called a post. A private message is a post, a response is a post, a category description is a post. Posts can be turned into a wiki, allowing any trusted contributor to edit the post. Posts can be quoted in context, merged, moved around. Posts are usually found in sequences of conversations called a Topic. Topics can be grouped in categories, that are containers and come with interesting collaborative features.

You can assign an email address to a category, effectively turning it into a mailing list, each thread going to a separate topic. If you have an existing mailing list, you can mirror it on your Discourse instance.

Categories can be restricted to certain groups: permissions range from nothing at all, to See, to See and Reply, and finally: Create, Reply, See, that allows any group member to create a new topic, reply to existing topics, and read existing posts. The special Staff group can, in addition, create new topics as “Shared Drafts”, enabling collaborative topic preparation, where every staff member can edit one or more posts, discuss changes, and finally delete what’s irrelevant before publishing the shared draft to a category, where it will appear as a pristine first draft, clearing out all the preparation history: a perfect tool for working on more complex publications.

Email Support / Encryption / Privacy

You can assign email addresses to selected categories and groups, making it possible to interact with a Discourse instance almost entirely via email. Discourse can be used to replace mailing lists, offering a mailing list mode that you can either configure for the whole site, setting default email mailing list mode on to “send an email for every new post by default”, or that each user can set for themselves in their preferences.

This is great for normal usage in the public space, but may come as intrusive if your forum is private. Discourse has a counter-setting to enable private email that will keep notifications terse and avoid leaking forum content via email. There’s also the possibility, via the discourse-encrypt plugin, to enable end-to-end encrypted private messages; as this feature evolves, we can imagine a fully encrypted forum for the near future. But privacy and security, although important to Discourse, are not where it shines…

From Conversation to Knowledge Building

Discourse is conceived to integrate, as much as possible, features that facilitate and encourage civil behavior and kindness among participants, rewarding respect, attention, building and following community norms, and generally helping reading and conversation by getting out of the way and promoting reading and easy interaction. There are many hidden features that are unnecessary for basic participation, but quickly become very useful to regulars, such as:

  • replying while browsing around the forum so that you can quote relevant contributions across the board and keep everything in context
  • pasting a link by itself on its own line and have it turned into a “onebox”, including for videos
  • merging subsequent posts from a single person to encourage advanced responses and quotes
  • splitting drifting posts from the original post (OP) to create a linked topic of its own, saving future readers from the off-topic concerns, while keeping a trace of the original context
  • want to know more? Ask @discobot to display help!

These are just scratching the surface of what is possible with Discourse, built-in the software, that are often a pipe dream in other software, because they’re not conceived with the same conversational approach. Discourse naturally follows a conversation’s patterns, and make it easy to go with the flow while enabling infinite iterations of repurposing contents, so that you can turn conversation into knowledge over time, at your community’s pace.

Archiving with Discourse?

Nothing beats Discourse at conversation, and it is very good at linking external (public) resources. Its image upload feature can remove meta-data from your pictures, and you can go straight from your mobile phone’s camera to a Discourse topic, making it a fantastic support tool for mobile action in the public space.

But Discourse has no intention to become your community’s data vault. For sharing and archiving files, especially heavy contents like video or compressed archives, NextCloud seems to be more valuable. As Discourse is going to implement the ActivityPub protocol, it will become increasingly easy to combine the conversational power of Discourse with the announce power of ActivityPub and the archiving power of NextCloud, so that each media type could be hosted on the most appropriate instance, and used in context anywhere relevant.

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