When I announced that I was cutting back on blogging, I explained that it was so I could focus my energy on other projects. One of those projects, which I’ve dubbed the Alternate Social Media Project (ASMP), has been replacing the social media functionality provided by Facebook. Why? Because Facebook has become not only a total invasion of privacy (which most people apparently don’t give two shits about) but also an increasingly useless platform for anybody with beliefs that aren’t state approved (which people seem to care about when they find themselves being censored by Facebook’s administrators). Rather than demand that the government step in and force Facebook to run its operations in the manner I approve, I decided it would be easier to just move somewhere freer.
This project is occurring in steps. The first step was to find something to fulfill the primary use of social media: communication. My requirements were modest. The solution upon which I settled had to be decentralized, fully usable on mobile platforms, and offer the option of secure communications. I settled on Riot.im since it was one of the few decent options that met those requirements.
Riot.im is the reference client for the Matrix protocol. The Matrix protocol is, basically, an evolution of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Unlike other attempts to improve on IRC, Matrix is also federated, which means anybody can run a server and those servers can communicate with one another. Facebook demonstrates the importance of federation. If you express wrongthink of Facebook, you risk being exiled. If you express wrongthink on a Matrix server, you risk being exiled from that specific server but you can migrate over to another server, possibly your own server (where you can express all the wrongthink your heart desires). So long as the new server you’re on is federate with the servers your friends are on, you can continue your conversations.
Unlike IRC and many other older communication protocols (XMPP comes to mind), Riot.im works well on mobile devices. Android and iOS like to kill apps in the background and when those apps are killed, all of their active network connections die with them. With IRC this means you have no idea what is going on in the room until you open the app and reconnect. Riot.im, on the other hand, will work like other modern communication tools when your app isn’t running. When activity happens in one of the rooms of which you’re a member, you will receive notifications (unless you disable those notifications). If something piques your interest, you can open the app and jump into the conversation. My previous attempts to migrate friends to other platforms were thwarted because none of them were willing to use something that didn’t play well with mobile. I’m happy to say that Riot.im doesn’t suffer from that shortcoming.
Riot.im fulfills the third criterion by offering the option of end-to-end encryption. Matrix has no concept of direct messages as far as I can tell. When you want to communicate privately with somebody, you’re placed in a private room with them. If you want your communications to be private, you can turn encryption on in the room. Another nice feature is that once encryption is enabled in a room, it cannot be disabled. This setup, although potentially confusing to some people, has two nice features. The first is that this setup enables any room to be encrypted. You and your friends can setup an encrypted room where you can express wrongthink without the server administrators being able to see it (unless you invite them into your room). The second is that you don’t have to worry about somebody secretly turning encryption off at a future point (and thus exposing your wrongthink to outsiders).
Riot.im obviously isn’t a replacement for Facebook. At most it’s a replacement for Facebook Messenger. Since everything on Riot.im occurs in a chatroom, it’s not as easy to have a conversation about a linked article and there is no way to accrue imaginary Internet points like you can with Facebook’s reactions. However, I’m not actually a fan of services that try to do everything. It’s too difficult to replace individual parts when something better rolls around or an update to the current tool makes it unusable.
If you’re interested in migrating off of Facebook or other restrictive social media platforms, you could do worse than starting with Riot.im.