The Junk Factory

Navi's Personal Blog


From Mastodon to Free software: My little experience

chadfree

Introduction

It has been a while since I decided to purge several of my social networks (including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn) and mainly stick to Mastodon as the only platform for interacting with people on the internet whom I don’t really know. So far, it has been a positive experience, and I have no doubts that it has improved my quality of life. Furthermore, it has opened up a world that I wasn’t very aware of and that I have become increasingly interested in: The world of Free software.

First Steps

My first real interactions with the world of open source (which was the term I was familiar with) were through my work as a data analyst at one of the companies I worked for. I used Python for most of my analyses because I felt I could do more than the average business analyst with Excel. For the first time, I got involved with the term open source, and I was amazed that there were people who donated some of their time to create projects to share with others (of course, this is a generalization, understanding that there are also various types of organizations). Even more so, someone like me could use these libraries and benefit greatly from them in advancing my projects for which I was paid.

I believe that this is where I began to realize the power of community work and how these projects were not necessarily something artisanal that easily broke. On the contrary, many of these projects are quite solid and provide a great platform for anyone with basic programming skills to use and derive significant value from.

The Breakup with Closed Software Begins

To be honest, this breakup started with social media, which I was an avid user of at the time, and for some reason, I felt quite tired of them. However, I still wasted my time on them. Twitter, in particular, had me fed up because of the level of aggression and toxicity on the platform. When I wanted to read about a topic related to my country, I ended up feeling annoyed by how the interactions were happening (which was similar to the discussions among family members with different political views at the annual family dinner). This reached a breaking point when Elon Musk took over Twitter. Why? Because I never believed in his idea of free speech and his intentions to make Twitter a “better place.” Time has shown us that EM has never been a man of science, and his altruistic purposes are nothing but a nebula of contradictions.

A Wild Mastodon Appears

mastodon

With my intention to leave Twitter, I learned about the alternative of Mastodon as a decentralized platform that is “similar to Twitter,” where privacy was the most important part of its speech. I decided to create an account and see how it was. In fact, I chose Fosstodon (an instance whose main focus is free and open-source software), which is strange because I’m not a software engineer, nor was I actively participating in any FOSS project. My first impressions: absolutely boring. I won’t lie; initially, I didn’t understand the dynamics of choosing an instance and didn’t understand the platform’s trending topics. As I was part of the wave of people who decided to leave Twitter, there were several new accounts on Mastodon, and the trend of leaving the birdsite was strong in those days. But then things normalized, and it all seemed more relaxed. The problem was that I kept going back to Twitter because I didn’t connect with Mastodon, and my browsing on Mastodon ended in 10 minutes. I returned to Twitter, where everything was “buzzing,” and there was always a controversy to engage with.

This behavior persisted for several weeks, but my desire to get rid of Twitter became stronger. And finally, I deleted my account, which I have no regrets about. The truth is that I felt more relaxed, spent a little less time on my phone, realized that many of the influencers and experts in the topics that interested me were posting a lot of irrelevant content. When there was an important trend, I could discover it through other means (on Mastodon, Reddit, or one of the blogs I follow). That’s how I began to embrace the idea of staying on Mastodon, where everything was quieter for various reasons:

  1. No (tricky) algorithms: This is something that really bothers me about social networks. Platforms try to create recommendation systems to keep you hooked, and social media have embraced this method to keep you there. It’s incredible how these algorithms can influence your thinking and what you consume. So, seeing that your timeline is simply organized chronologically is really refreshing.

  2. Privacy: With the first point, you understand the impact of giving away your data to an organization that can do whatever it wants with it, from selling the data to other organizations to training its machine learning algorithms. Our problem is that we have been poorly educated about the value of protecting our personal information, and it’s not the same to easily give it away to any institution, website, or anything else.

  3. More optimized for conversation: Honestly, I think I’ve seen better discussions in general on Mastodon than on other social networks. It’s not that these discussions don’t exist on other platforms, but they are a tiny fraction beneath a mass of people trying to sell content. You can notice on LinkedIn the influencers who use the term “game changer” every week to describe the next technology or software they discovered. On Twitter, people share bullet points in a thread about “how to basics,” which is nothing more than a reuse of content someone else posted a few days ago. Or the idea of delivering the simplest and most effective message that gets the best ratings, but it’s full of fundamental errors, which is quite typical in political discussions. On Mastodon, these interactions can also happen, but there’s no algorithm boosting this type of content, so it’s almost nonexistent. This ends up discouraging all kinds of influencers looking to reach more people with certain strategies, creating a parasocial effect as mentioned in the blog of Drew Devault, which I recommend reading other articles from that blog.

A Space to Understand the Impact of Free Software

Over time on Mastodon, I began to read posts from people in the tech world who weren’t just occasional users of open-source software (as I am), but actively participated in its improvement and promotion. I understood why many of these people reduced their use of social networks and, instead, had their own blogs (in fact, this blog started with that idea in mind). And the idea of reclaiming personal space on the internet instead of depending on oligopolies and other companies with questionable practices.

Over time, I started evaluating the software I use and the websites I visit to reduce the impact they might have on matters related to my privacy. I ended up deleting other social networks and looking for open-source software alternatives or at least ones that have a more respectful attitude toward privacy for things I used to do with proprietary software. Here are some of the changes I’ve made (note that these are not the only alternatives, so I recommend researching if you don’t like these software choices):

  • Excel -> Python, R, Julia
  • Word, PowerPoint -> Typst, Pandoc, Quarto
  • GitHub -> Codeberg
  • VSCode -> Vim/Neovim
  • Chrome -> Firefox
  • Google Search -> DuckDuck Go
  • Twitter -> Mastodon
  • Medium, Substack -> This blog and use of an RSS reader (newsboat) to read other blogs
  • Mac OS -> Considering a move to Asahi Linux
  • Nord Pass -> Bitwarden

And I’m still making changes…

But I haven’t been able to make all the changes I wanted. For example, for staying in touch with my family from a distance, I still use WhatsApp. Obviously, this is a sensitive issue that is not negotiable, so as long as I don’t have an alternative, I will continue to use that application. However, I may use Signal as a replacement in the future.

I’m Interested in This, What Do You Recommend for the Transition?

The best thing you can do is make a gradual transition. Some of this software is not so simple to use. If you’ve never programmed in your life and have never opened your computer’s terminal to perform any operations, some of this software may seem more complicated than it really is. So, I recommend starting with things that are super simple to change, like your browser. If you’re using something like Bing or Google Chrome, download Firefox. Create an account on Mastodon and join an instance that interests you. See if you like it more than Twitter, and then delete your Twitter account. I assure you that if you don’t like Elon Musk, no matter how much you complain on his platform, nothing will change. Install the DuckDuck Go extension and avoid opening Google.com for your searches. Okay, but what next? If you’re a business analyst, I recommend considering learning one of the alternatives to Excel. You’ll realize that you can do much more than with Excel (and in 6 months, you might negotiate a better salary or a job change with better benefits). Besides, I think this will be the gateway to other skills. But above all, it’s worth the idea of learning new things and stepping out of your comfort zone, as it will allow you to be a little more free and independent from third parties. For example, I created this blog on my own with some open-source tools and by browsing the source code. What I mean is, can someone come and delete my posts or block me without consulting me? The answer is simply no.

Of course, this is not so difficult, and you don’t need to be a software engineer to do many of these things; in fact, I’m not. As an extra anecdote, a friend of mine also decided to buy a Raspberry Pi and has learned a lot about self-hosting and networking, which allows him to create websites and not rely on third parties to host his blogs and other sites he creates. I think I’ll do the same in the future.

What Positive Impacts Have You Had?

The most important and highlighted impact is the feeling of tranquility and less stress. After purging social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn), I’m simply much less attached to my phone, and I receive less stress from information overload. It’s basically one less addiction in my life, and it’s difficult to control. If you’re the person who’s glued to your phone, it’s not your fault, but it’s these platforms that turn their product into a drug to keep you there for as long as possible. In fact, checking the statistics of my Instagram account, I spent around 1 to 2 hours a day there. Doing what? Nothing relevant, if you ask me. So, I won’t deny that my life has improved.

On the other hand, I’ve learned different things about computers that I had no idea about before, and I’ve become better at it. Just by knowing certain tools, I became more proficient at work, so I could automate things that other colleagues simply didn’t know how to do. I automated tasks with Bash scripting, created pipelines with Python to manipulate data, and learned a bit more about statistics since I now had libraries available, among other things.

Lastly, I’ve learned more about the value of personal information and independence. Many of the proprietary software we use have some form of telemetry or seek to gather all kinds of information about you. I understand that people don’t place much value on their personal information, but I think it’s something we shouldn’t so easily give away. After all, companies make money directly or indirectly from your information, and it’s a shame that schools and the education system, which are supposed to be guardians of forming free and independent individuals capable of thinking for themselves, do not emphasize these topics and promote dependence on proprietary software without even mentioning these alternatives. For example, when Windows forces you to accept new updates or changes to the license (which few probably read), you can realize that you’re not really free to choose. And if your PC becomes slow because software updates are denser than any hardware can handle, then consider installing Linux and saving that PC.

What Negative Impacts Have You Had?

The truth is the only negative impact I can mention is that by not using social networks, I’m not “up to date” with what acquaintances and colleagues are doing. I don’t know if they changed jobs or what they did yesterday, which was something Instagram, for example, was good at. Is it really important? Not at all. In fact, I think we tend to overvalue the idea that knowing in real-time what’s happening with 300 people (or more) is important. I have a group of friends with whom I still talk from time to time, and I can really know what they’re doing, and that’s enough for me. If there are people who matter to you, ask them for their email or some other means of contact where you can chat from time to time.

Conclusions

This has been my experience primarily delving into the world of open-source software and reducing the consumption of social networks. These are two different things but are closely related. To summarize in a few points:

  1. Try to eliminate social networks, especially those supported by recommendation systems to keep you hooked.
  2. Consider and value the idea of using open-source software. If you’re using proprietary software, evaluate if there’s an alternative that upholds the fundamental principles of open-source software or at least follows minimum values of security and privacy.
  3. Learn more about open-source software, and if there’s software you use regularly that helps you in your daily life, look for ways to support it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to learn more. I believe the idea of “I don’t know about computers,” “I’m not a programmer,” among others, is a poor argument for self-limitation. Take the time to learn gradually about these topics.

I hope this has been helpful, and if you have any questions, you can write to my email or find me on Mastodon.

Articles from blogs I follow around the net

The Reasonable Effectiveness of Using Old Phones as Servers

I installed linux on a OnePlus6T. Setup took less than an hour, technical issues included. Why $90 for 8GB RAM, 128GB storage, 2.8GHz 8-core CPU Linux on the OnePlus 6T is well documented Low power consumption Tiny footprint No additional cables …

via jarbus.net on March 16, 2024

Plotting data in Julia

And so we come to the third post in my extremely ill-considered foray into learning Julia. In the first part of the series I taught myself some of the foundations for writing Julia code, in the second part I discussed data wrangling in Julia, and so in t…

via Notes from a data witch March 2, 2024

Reproducible data science with Nix, part 10 -- contributing to nixpkgs

I’ve very recently started contributing to the nixpkgs repository of packages, which contains all the packages you can install from the Nix package manager. My contributions are fairly modest: I help fix R packages that need some tweaking to make them succes…

via Blogs on Econometrics and Free Software February 29, 2024

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