a new era of free software after Twitter?

In response to the digital giants’ monopolies, free software political movements are fighting to offer more freedom and more control to digital users. Since Tesla founder Elon Musk took over Twitter, a growing number of users are leaving the social network for free software: Mastodon.

The sale of social network Twitter caused a lot of ink to flow. After months of delays and a legal showdown, Tesla’s eccentric CEO, Elon Musk, acquired the blue bird at the end of October for $44 billion, well above its estimated value. . A period of unrest that did not stop there.

In addition to laying off half the workforce the day after the acquisition, Elon Musk wants to change the very essence of Twitter. The new CEO has been campaigning for several years for complete freedom of expression on the network, without most moderation rules. A new libertarian policy is unacceptable to many users who continue to criticize the possible excesses of freedom of speech. Journalists, writers, scientists, activists or simple citizens, who are good users of the social network, have now left the ship, in favor of a new platform called Mastodon.

Mastodon, Twitter like free software

Before its acquisition, the platform was criticized for its weak moderation, disclosure tweet sometimes at the limit of legality. Now many barriers have been lowered under the leadership of Elon Musk. This situation raises the fear of a wave of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, conspiratorial messages, fake news and pornographic content that is difficult for many users to accept.

Tired of enriching Elon Musk and sensitive to well-being in social networks, a vast exodus is organized towards a little brother of the blue bird: Mastodon. Mammoth – the mascot of the social network – still pales in comparison to the 300 million accounts of the giant Twitter. But Mastodon is making a way. It has now reached 7.5 million users, with nearly 600,000 weekly sign-ups since the Twitter acquisition.

But why join this particular social network?

Mastodon is built on a different principle from Twitter: fediverse, the contraction of “federation” and “universe”. Unlike blue bird which has a single platform, Mastodon consists of many interconnected servers. And each server has its own moderation.

To better understand, researcher Brian C. Keegan, who specializes in social networks, compared these servers to dormitories. The dorm you are first assigned to may be random, but it greatly influences the type of conversations you access and the relationships you develop. he explained in an article published in The Conversation, You can still interact with people who live in other dorms, but your bosses and dorm rules determine what you can do “. If the selected server and its rules do not suit the user, it is possible for him to join a new server more in accordance with his values.

Therefore, this management is different from the other dominant platforms, Facebook and Twitter. In these two situations, one and the same dormitory welcomes all users who must respect a battery of rules unique to all. But beyond the technical, Mastodon stands out above all for its political significance. It is free and decentralized software, descending from a long political line at the very origins of computing.

free software and open-source

The first software was born in 1970 in the suburbs of San Francisco where small groups of computer scientists were organized, which, from possibilities and ends, laid the first bricks of the digital revolution. Largely conceived by the hippie movement, a sharing community around computers was set up. Ideas, software and production methods pass freely between these experts, allowing rapid development in the sector in just a few years.

But this dynamic of “freedom” is simultaneously contested, as sociologist Dominique Cardon describes in his book Digital culture (2019). Actors will bring the commodification of software, especially Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and his MS-DOS operating system that the billionaire will sell to the IBM company before creating Windows a few years later. This private software (restricted, immutable and sold under the form of a user license), also called “proprietary software”, will quickly become more democratic and dominate the electronics market.

A political and social movement was organized in the early 80s in opposition to this system: the free software movement. Its founder, the American Richard Stallman, would invent, in response to the private operating system UNIX, an open, free and sharable system that he would call “GNU”.

Thus, for software to be claimed as “free” according to the characteristics of the free software movement, the latter must guarantee full transparency in the source code, the basis of any computer tool. Having access to it guarantees every user the freedom to use, study, modify and distribute the software. The latter therefore becomes a common good, in the sense given to it by the American economist Elinor Ostrom. Software should be the result of self-organization by and for citizens without state or company intervention. Other figures will bring this vision of the common such as the Finnish Linus Torvalds who in 1996 could imagine the software open-source thanks to Linux.

Although they share the same view of the common good, open-source and free software do not serve the same purpose. The former sees free sharing as a way to get better. Collective intelligence enables the development of more flexible and efficient software. On the contrary, free software is part of a political logic of liberation. Users no longer remain dependent on the companies that own the software, particularly because they can modify it and adapt it to the uses they want it to make.

Free Software is ultimately a message sent to the digital giants who make their money on users’ digital data and habits. For them, digital should be managed collectively and democratically. It should not be used for malicious purposes, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal where the company appropriated the data of millions of Facebook users to influence voting intentions.

Reclaiming digital, a not so easy exercise

This move to Mastodon is therefore an awareness of many users of their trust and vulnerability in these influential companies. But Mastodon, and free software in general, also has limitations. First, because relying on a network, here Twitter, remains significant for many users to create their community.

Social networks are tools for socialization, exchange and debates that often depend on the time spent on them. Leaving Twitter also means accepting the loss of these links. Moving to Mastodon requires in return to recreate a network, to get used to a new interface, to interact with a software that is less intuitive at first glance than Twitter…

Especially since running Mastodon also poses technical and financial problems that Brian C. Keegan describes well in his article, Once the honeymoon is over, Mastodon users must be prepared to pay membership fees, participate in fundraising campaigns, or see promotional advertisements to cover server hosting costs, which may reach several hundred dollars per month and per server. “. The Mastodon is therefore not yet obvious at the present time. The imminent death of Twitter has been announced loud and clear, but this sudden change in the direction of the blue bird does not yet question its existence.

Despite this, many free software projects are emerging around the world, both for social networks, office automation, professional software… Collectives are also created to raise digital awareness and democratize this participatory operation, like Gulls. (groups of users and users of free software). This new form of governance contributes to demonstrating the relevance of common people, despite its limitations, to the development of a more democratic society, which is not centered on profit and individuality rather than shared, collective intelligence and developing digital tools that are accessible to many people. as possible.

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

Cardon, D. (2019). The hippie origins of digital culture. Digital culture (pp. 46-55). Sciences Po Press.

Cardon, D. (2019). “Wants to be free of information”: Free and common software. Digital culture (pp. 111-122). Sciences Po Press.

Keegan, BC What is Mastodon? A social media expert explains why this isn’t the new Twitter. The conversation.

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