On programmer and internet artist Darius Kazemi‘s private social media network, he and 50 other handpicked users are the arbiters of what’s allowed—and what’s not.
“On Twitter, you have to rely on Jack Dorsey to decide what speech is good and what speech is bad,” Kazemi says. “I can just talk to my 50 friends and say, we won’t stand for anyone who says pineapple on pizza is bad, and we will flat out ban people who dislike pineapple on pizza. We can do that as a community of 50.”
It’s one of the perks of building a private social network website, which Kazemi started doing last summer. His handiwork, called Friend Camp, is a personalized offshoot of the open-source, decentralized social media site Mastodon, which is similar in format to Twitter. But because Kazemi is the administrator, he sets the norms and rules for how people on Friend Camp should behave. All the Friend Camp users’ posts are only visible within a private internet oasis, safe from the prying eyes of advertisers and judgmental uncles alike.
Setting up a server to host your own social network is no small task. That’s why Kazemi spent his recent fellowship with the Mozilla Foundation writing a how-to guide that can walk anyone who’s interested through the advantages and challenges of having a private site, as well as providing technical advice on how to implement such a setup. The guide is open for anyone to use, and they can set their community rules as they see fit. The goal? To make small, decentralized social networking much more accessible to the masses.
Friend Camp arrives at a moment when closed, private social networking is becoming more popular online. The decentralized sites that Kazemi supports are not a perfect alternative to Twitter or Facebook, where moderation lies in the hands of large corporations. Small, decentralized sites place the policing of content and norms in the hands of administrators like Kazemi, who wield total control over their turf and set the terms based on their own value systems in a setting that’s private and lacks oversight. That can be a lovely, utopian idea when it enables people to feel safe and comfortable online, but it can also turn dark when hate groups use the same concept to hide their communications from the public eye—as the alt-right has now done in other areas of Mastodon.
Kazemi began his experiment with Friend Camp last year, rounding up a few friends and soliciting anyone who was interested by posting on his regular Mastodon account. He began with 10 people, all of whom agreed to follow a specific code of conduct he laid out for them: Friend Camp is explicitly “anti-free-speech” when the term is used as a license for people to say hateful things about others. To maintain his code of conduct, Kazemi believes that keeping the number of people limited was an absolute necessity. As a result, Kazemi writes in his guide, if a user on Friend Camp engages in hate speech on another website, he will mute or ban that user. If he sees Friend Camp users harassing someone on a different social media platform, or if he hears of administrators of other servers that he trusts blocking certain users, he says he’ll usually block them as well.
“This would be inadvisable on a huge network like Twitter, but on Friend Camp, we have all agreed we don’t want to see certain things and we don’t want to engage with other servers that allow for those types of speech,” he writes.
That might sound draconian, especially given how we’re used to thinking about social media sites—as virtual gathering places for hundreds of millions if not billions of people that have to accommodate all of their conflicting thoughts and opinions. But by hosting your own social network site on your own server, you get to make the rules. Given the countless problems that sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have with content moderation, it’s an appealing thought.
However, taking control out of the hands of corporations has its own dark side. Gab, the alt-right-focused Twitter clone that’s been banned from its hosting service and from multiple payment systems, recently found a home on Mastodon, becoming the open-source network’s largest node.
Last week, Mastodon released a statement disavowing Gab for providing a platform for racist content: “The Mastodon community does not approve of their attempt to hijack our infrastructure and has already taken steps to isolate Gab and keep hate speech off the fediverse [a larger decentralized social network that Mastodon is part of],” wrote the editorial director of the Mastodon blog, pointing to a few Mastodon apps that now block Gab’s domain and highlighting that most independent networks (like Friend Camp) also block Gab.
Kazemi says that Gab’s recent co-opting of Mastodon’s technology hasn’t impacted Friend Camp at all, though he says he’s blocked the Gab domains he knows about. “Because I preemptively block servers that our community considers hateful as soon as I hear about them, they essentially do not exist in our universe,” he says.
Because of the strict rules and norms he’s developed, Kazemi says that the things Friend Camp users (or campers) post tend to be more vulnerable and honest than on other, more public forums. People write about what’s going on in their lives, complain about work, and present half-baked ideas that they’re still thinking through. “We have people who post about parenthood in very honest ways, or various life struggles,” he says. “It’s more like the norms of a group chat between a bunch of old friends over text.”
Social media in general is moving toward this kind of smaller, private group communication. Even Facebook announced earlier this year that it will begin encrypting private and group messages as it shifts its strategy away from public-facing communication toward these smaller digital spaces, because Groups is the fastest-growing part of the platform (there are now more than 400 million users who are part of these Groups). However, some critics have pointed out the ways that closed groups make it harder for Facebook to police hate speech and posts that violate its terms of service. For example, ProPublica recently reported on a secret Facebook group of border patrol agents that is full of racist and sexist comments and memes, and Gab’s new home on Mastodon also points to how the move toward private spaces online doesn’t necessarily engender inclusive ones.