Promoting free software and free communications on popular social media networks

Sites like Twitter and Facebook are not fundamentally free platforms, despite the fact they don't ask their users for money. Look at how Facebook's censors confused Denmark's mermaid statue with pornography or how quickly Twitter can make somebody's account disappear, frustrating public scrutiny of their tweets and potentially denying access to vital information in their "direct message" mailbox. Then there is the fact that users don't get access to the source code, users don't have a full copy of their own data and, potentially worst of all, if most people bothered to read the fine print of the privacy policy they would find it is actually a recipe for downright creepiness.

Nonetheless, a significant number of people have accounts in these systems and are to some extent contactable there.

Many marketing campaigns that have been successful today, whether they are crowdfunding, political activism or just finding a lost cat claim to have had great success because of Twitter or Facebook. Is this true? In reality, many users of those platforms follow hundreds of different friends and if they only check-in once a day, filtering algorithms show them only a small subset of what all their friends posted. Against these odds, just posting your great idea on Facebook doesn't mean that more than five people are actually going to see it. Those campaigns that have been successful have usually had something else going in their favour, perhaps it was a friend working in the media who gave their campaign a plug on his radio show or maybe they were lucky enough to be slashdotted. Maybe it was having the funds for a professional video production with models who pass off as something spontaneous. The use of Facebook or Twitter alone did not make such campaigns successful, it was just part of a bigger strategy where everything fell into place.

Should free software projects, especially those revolving around free communications technology, use such platforms to promote themselves?

It is not a simple question. In favour, you could argue that everything we promote through public mailing lists and websites is catalogued by Google anyway, so why not make it easier to access for those who are on Facebook or Twitter? On top of that, many developers don't even want to run their own mail server or web server any more, let alone a self-hosted social-media platform like pump.io. Even running a basic SIP proxy server for the large Debian and Fedora communities involved a lot of discussion about the approach to support it.

The argument against using Facebook and Twitter is that you are shooting yourself in the foot, when you participate in those networks, you give them even more credibility and power (which you could quantify using Metcalfe's law). The Metcalfe value of their network, being quadratic rather than linear, shoots ahead of the Metcalfe value of your own solution, putting your alternative even further out of reach. On top of that, the operators of the closed platform are able to evaluate who is responding to your message and how they feel about it and use that intelligence to further undermine you. In some cases, there may be passive censorship, such as WhatsApp silently losing messages that link to rival Telegram.

How do you feel about this choice? How and when should free software projects and their developers engage with mainstream social media technology? Please come and share your ideas on the Free-RTC mailing list.