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Transcript: Becoming more independent online

·2790 words·14 mins
Issac Dowling
Issac Dowling

Too many modern websites are bloated, typical social media is on a downward trend, and email actually doesn’t work like it used to because of consolidation. And I’ve been planning on joining less centralised social networks and fixing my website and email for a while now, but I don’t just want to jump into one company’s way of doing things, because what if they shut down or what if they suddenly change how things work? I want everything of mine to be standard and as portable as possible and to own as much of the platform as I possibly can. But I also want to be cheap. Which makes things more difficult, especially since I’ve got different requirements in that regard depending on the service that we’re talking about. But the first thing we’ll start with, since it’s probably what you’re most expecting, the Fediverse. Mastodon is by far the most well known piece of Fediverse software. So well known that some people, including me sometimes, just use it as a stand-in when they mean any of the other ones. We just say Mastodon in the same way that you might say you’d photoshop something when you actually just mean edit the image. And the reason that Mastodon can talk to all these other pieces of software is the same reason that your Gmail can talk to your friend’s Outlook. It follows standards, specifically a standard called ActivityPub, which is an official standard for how social media should work. The problem is, even though it’s really nice that it gives you choice, that just adds to the analysis paralysis. Do I want GoToSocial, Mastodon, Pleroma, Akkoma, PeerTube, PixelFed? There are a bunch of different things that don’t actually necessarily do the same thing, but all use ActivityPub underneath so they can all talk to each other. The most obvious choice there, again, is Mastodon because, as mentioned before, it’s the most well known. But it’s also pretty well known for being kind of resource heavy, which isn’t acceptable in my case because I’m going to be running it in the cloud because I’d rather not expose something on my home network directly to the internet. And that means I’m going to be working with 20 gigs of storage, 2 gigs of RAM, and one CPU core, which means I just can’t use something that’s so inefficient. Pleroma seems to be basically the closest thing to Mastodon except easier to run, and I was recommended a fork of that called Akkoma, which at first glance looks good, but I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know much going into this, and I still don’t really about Fediverse software and their different merits, so I was just going on what the repo looked like for the most part. However, before I put the effort into actually running it, because again, I’m going to be running it myself so I couldn’t just find an instance and try it and then I would know if it’s good, I decided to look at another category of Fediverse software, specifically things made for single user instances, ones where instead of having a whole community on them, I would just have an instance for myself and then I would connect to other servers, which is what I plan on doing. And two pieces of software that stood out to me were GoToSocial and GoToSocial seemed especially interesting since partially it’s written in the language that I’m currently trying to learn, Go, but also it just seemed ridiculously resource efficient compared to anything else I’d been looking at. The only reason I didn’t end up going with it is because of its self-admitted beta state and I kind of, I don’t know enough to troubleshoot Fediverse things, and because there’s no web UI, and even though I don’t plan on using the web UI myself, I would like people who aren’t part of the Fediverse to still have a link to go to if they just want to see my posts, kind of like you could with Twitter or anything else like that. So GoToSocial didn’t seem like an option there, even if it’s probably ideologically closer to what I want. So it’s Akkoma that I went and set up. The install guide was fairly simple to follow, even if the compile times were a bit bad on the hardware of my VPS, and I misread the configuration docs a few times. But yeah, within around an hour I went from not to this. I’ve got a custom theme, I disabled seeing a federated timeline from the site, since although federation is still happening, my server will talk to other servers. You should only be using my web UI for quick glances at my profile, the point isn’t to use it as your own instance. And importantly, since they’re on by default, I disabled signups from the web UI. I can kind of see it making sense that they’d be on by default, since most instances of Akkoma won’t be single user like mine, but also it seems like they should maybe be off by default for you to enable once the instance is fully ready. If I hadn’t disabled this, anyone could just go to that website and sign up on my server. But besides that, I’ve had no issues. I can sign in fine through apps, I’ve tried Tuba on Linux and Moshidon on Android, both of which worked fine, and I was actually very impressed to see that they use OAuth rather than some weird API key thing, which I was just surprised given it’s something you set up yourself, but it felt very fancy and nice. And I tested federation with someone in my Discord server and that seemed completely fine as well. I wouldn’t say setting up my own instance was painless, but it was surprisingly not painful, it was the expected amount of pain. And I think that the main issue with it, like I mentioned in the intro, is that with the Fediverse there were just a lot of choices, and eventually I just went and picked one and it seems to have worked, but still, I gotta think in my head, what if I would have picked Go to Social? How much lighter would it have been? How much easier would it be to configure? What if there’s some other piece of software that I’ve just not heard about? But eventually you just have to settle with something that works, and Akkoma works well for me. We’re not done though, since although it’s nice to have my own social media that’s fancy and set up by me, I don’t honestly expect to post too much but we’ll see how that goes, I still need to fix my email and website. Though this is obviously not sponsored by Squarespace, I do think that having a website is important, it’s just I want to be cheap, and I don’t need the kind of things that you get from companies like that, like a fancy site builder and looking super modern, I just need something basic that I need to update, the once in a million years that I make a new blog post or post a transcript for a new video, and for that I think a static site generator would be perfectly adequate. With that I can design a whole site in just markdown, which is basically just text, I can modify a theme to match exactly what I need out of it, and then the static site generator will take that markdown and, following the rules of the theme, turn it into HTML that a browser can understand. Then I just need to find a way to publish that to the web, and I’ve got a really quick way to make new posts when I need it and modify things really simply and not need to mess with the HTML directly much, and the output from that is basically as fast as you can get since it’s pretty much just HTML and CSS being served directly to you. I mean, that’s so simple, maybe I could find someone to host it for free. Someone who’ll host it? What happened to self-hosting it? Well, with something like social media, I really do require full control over that whole situation, and it requires a pretty small but still a non-zero amount of resources, so just a VPS or a Linux box in the cloud is the solution for that. But a simple website? The amount of resources required to run that is practically negligible, and the main priority here is that I control the domain. So yeah, I can use a free tier, and if I get kicked off it or I go beyond the capabilities of it, I could switch to someone else with a better free tier, or worst case scenario, I could just put it on a VPS. Websites are very simple, and there are lots of places that you can get to host them for free. In my case, I’m using pages, which there’s GitHub pages, GitLab pages, CloudFlare pages, but they’re all the same concept. You can point them at a Git repo of your site, and whenever it changes, they will build the site and publish it for you. Then I can just point my domain to that, and I’ve got a website. The actual static site generator I use is called Hugo, and it’s the one I generally see most recommended nowadays, and the really cool part of using something like that and then pages to host it is that, well, actually anything could host it. I could use fancy magic cloud things like pages, I could use a regular VPS, I could use a Raspberry Pi at home, and if I want to, which I do so I have it public, you can just look at that Git repo that my site is built out of and you can see everything that’s put together. Plus, it’s more accessible, both in the typical sense of the word that I imagine, though I don’t actually use one so I could be wrong, that simple just HTML is very very easy for a screen reader to use, and there are no GDPR issues, if you block JavaScript it’s not going to break the site, basically anyone can access it and basically any connection will be able to load it super quickly. Plus, I compress all the images on the site very heavily so those shouldn’t affect it too much. So with all of that in mind, although I definitely do see the point and the value for some people in a graphical site builder, the extra complexity and lack of portability for me doesn’t make sense in this case. I have found a static site generator with pages super flexible and workable for me. And both lastly, and most simply for me to get set up, emails, which I think a lot of people overlook now since they just come free with most big tech signups, you know you get a Gmail and an Outlook and you just have those, but there are a lot of reasons that they sound ideal to self-host. A lot of email plans only come with single digit to low tens of digits of gigabytes worth of email storage. Meanwhile, if you’re storing things locally, terabytes of mechanical storage can be had for less than a year’s worth of that email service. Plus, there are the obvious privacy and potentially security, if you set it up really well, benefits of having everything go directly to you. The problem is, modern email isn’t as basic as it should be. Rather than one person being able to go beep boop SMTP here you go mail server and the other person going beep boop IMAP mail server give me the emails all is good everything was received. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the background as an attempt to fight spam and that kind of thing. IP addresses can have reputations for the kind of email that they send regardless of the actual content of the email going through them. So a spammer might have used a server first and then you join it, you send perfectly fine emails, but then Outlook might receive it and go I’m not even going to read it this is going straight to spam or potentially not even getting delivered at all because well it might be suspicious. I actually used Outlook as an example there because yeah I could use Gmail or Proton or Outlook and they all support custom domains so I could still have it look fancy and nice and stuff except I have sworn off Outlook. While using just their free tier, so not doing anything fancy, not configuring anything myself, they have sent a bunch of important email to spam. I don’t think there have been any cases where it hasn’t been delivered though I wouldn’t know because I wouldn’t have gotten it but there are lots of times where actually important things that I needed to see went to spam and everything in spam gets deleted after 10 days so there are probably things that I just never saw. Furthermore even though you’d think it might lighten the load on the mail server if it didn’t have to check all the emails for spam I can’t disable spam filtering plus there are just the other issues with Outlook web like the focused and other inboxes which had to turn back into a normal one and the ads and stuff but just in general uh Outlook particularly has been a bad time for me and then for the other email services well Google is kind of the exact opposite of being more independent online and Proton sounds pretty nice but also are relatively expensive compared to what I’m looking for since they offer quite a lot in their suite but I’m not interested I just want email. Ultimately no matter what platform you go with setting it up will be exactly the same Purelymail seems like a great choice if you just want email Zoho has a whole suite if you’re interested but also I’ve heard meh things about them. Proton is probably a good choice if you want a whole suite of things and if you really really do want to self-host it yourself there are Docker images that make that as simple as it can be just keep in mind that IP reputation stuff and email delivering and receiving it can just get messy so this is the kind of thing where I’m going to entrust somebody else to handle that for me. All I had to do was pay some money point my domain to the email company servers set things up in an app and be done and if you’re looking for some apps I’m currently using a K9 mail on Android and I would recommend Thunderbird on Linux if you’re looking for something fully featured and Geary if you just want just email without much complex stuff going on. Ultimately besides the rest of it a huge huge part of why I prefer being more independent with my emails even if I’m still relying on another company to actually run the servers is that portability if my account were to be randomly automatically flagged as a bot if the company were to go bust no matter what happens I still control the domain as much as you can and so I can just move I don’t have to worry about what company I’m using and whether they will stay the way they are I just need to think about well what’s cheapest what matches the features I need the most like that kind of thing. The goal as with social media and as with the site is to follow standards and just have fun if even if you think everything else I’ve said has been pointless so far that’s my catch-all that makes this worth it for me it’s just kind of more interesting to do things this way and think about the infrastructure that makes the things that I use work. If you want to ask questions or talk about technology you can do it in the discord server below. Huge thanks to Ducky! and pt1997 who subscribed on patreon and are going by on the bottom of the screen you can do that too if you’d like to if not subscribe if you think it’s worth it and bye I’ll see you next week


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