Categories
Social Media Standards

Testing Tribel, counter.social, and Mastodon

Elon Musk’s Twitter antics are getting harder to ignore, so I’ve joined with others to look at social media competitors in hopes of finding that perfect Twitter alternative.

Hint: there aren’t any.

The Trouble with Tribel

The first app I checked out is Tribel, a social media app created by Omar Rivero, also known as the founder of Occupy Democrats.

Tweet by Omar Rivero talking about founding Tribel

I verbalized Tribel as “tribble” right at the start, which made me inclined to like the service. However, friendly associations aside, Tribel is trouble.

The first red flag for the service was when it asked for age and gender when signing up. There’s absolutely no reason for this type of information unless the people behind Tribel plan on doing some data gathering. If you don’t want the kiddies, then just put a disclaimer in at signup requiring that the person be over 18.

Hmmm.

Once reluctantly passed the intrusive sign on, the next roadblock is figuring how the system works.

Tribel doesn’t seem to have the word count limitations of Twitter, and as someone pointed out, you can edit your posts. But the system also forces you into behaviors that are annoying.

For one, you can’t just do a post and publish it to the world. You have to pick your audience, and then you have to select from a gawd-awful huge list of topics and sub-topics. If you choose to submit a personal post, then you can only share it with friends. If you do pick a topic, then it asks if you want to be a Contributor, when all you really want is to publish a damn post.

You could look beyond these design fails, but how people treat you on the service is something you can’t ignore. Woe unto you who criticizes Tribel, the software.

The screenshot below is an example of an exchange I went through when I expressed my unhappiness about some of the Tribel design decisions (specifically, having to choose from a gawd-awful list of topics). I don’t think in my entire life, I’ve been accused of being a traitor to the Democratic cause solely because of tech criticism.

screen capture from Tribel where I was told to get the hell out because of being critical of Tribel's tech

This screenshot demonstrates the biggest problem with Tribel: it is an echo chamber, similar to TruthSocial but falling over on the left. That the members are Democrats, or progressive, or liberal doesn’t matter: it’s an echo chamber; an echo chamber that exhibits zero tolerance for dissent.

I’m a Democrat and a progressive and a liberal…but I’m not a clone or a cult member.

Tribel promises to be a “kinder, smarter network.” It’s anything but.

counter.social and the 90s live again!

The second social media app I tried was counter.social. Unlike Tribel, it’s fairly simple to post…once you get past all the 5xx errors from a service that’s being hit with a lot of new signups at the moment (a problem all the apps are experiencing right now with the sudden interest).

Once you can access the site, your first thoughts might be, “The 90s called, and they want their web design back.”

It actually features a scrolling banner at the bottom. Wow, when was the last time you saw a scrolling banner? The rest of site is a jumbled mess of columns, all white text on dark background and featuring a lot of ‘stuff’ including that scrolling banner.

screenshot of counter.social featuring scrolling banner on bottom, left

Thankfully, counter.social does feature an ostrich mode in preferences that turns off much of the cruft, including the banner. You can access preferences by clicking the three dots next to your profile.

screenshot of counter.social with the cruft turned off

There is no option to change the coloring to dark on light. or make it less messy. The most you can do is actually make it more messy by adding more columns of stuff to the page.

Additional functionality including creating groups and lists and modifying the appearance is behind a subscription paywall. The amount you have to pay isn’t very much ($4.99 a month), but having to pay for what should be basic functionality isn’t necessarily conducive to increased participation.

I did find the folks on counter.social to be quite friendly. The service is still small enough to have a nicely intimate feel to it. Two things, though, don’t work for me.

The first is the design and layout, which is just too busy and overwhelming. It’s hard to see what’s going on. Even in Ostrich mode, it’s too busy. I suspect even if I could switch to a dark on light background, it would still be too busy.

added more columns to counter.social, and it is really messy now

The second concern—and the primary concern—is the fact that the service is controlled by one person.

The counter.social app, itself, is a fork of Mastodon (discussed next), by The Jester, a very well known hacktavist. In real life, The Jester is a man named  Jay Bauer.

snapshot of tweet by the jester noting that counter.social is a fork of Mastodon

The counter.social site promises a hate-free environment, and I have no reason to doubt this isn’t true. Moderation takes resources, though, and we have no idea how many resources counter.social has.

The funding for the site is a month-to-month operation. That’s one of the actual design elements: a progress bar tracking whether the month’s funding goal has been met. The site does tend to make its funding fairly quickly during the month, but the nature of the funding and  ownership make the service very precarious.

Frankly, I don’t want to trade one service that was purchased by a billionaire with another that could easily disappear or be sold.

I quit counter.social after my first impressions, but then decided to continue giving it a try (I’m @bbird). I might be able to learn to live with the 1990s design, but that single owner is likely to be a no-go for me. This leads me to the next social media app, which goes from one owner to no owner.

I’m on Mastodon. Somewhere.

Mastodon is a fascinating social media application, because unlike Twitter, or Facebook or counter.social, no one owns it. Or, I should say, everyone owns it.

My mastodon.social main feed page, using a dark text on light background

Mastodon is a federation of individual servers based on open source software and protocols managed by different groups or people located all over the world. When you sign up for Mastodon, you don’t sign up at a single entry point: you locate and find a server you’re interested in, and then sign up at it.

Once signed up, though, people can follow you regardless of what server they’re on and you can follow them back. So, I’m signed up at mastodon.social as @burningbird, but I can follow @someuser at phpc.social, and my posts show up for them, and their posts show up on my home page.

Each server may or may not have a waiting list, and each server sets its own moderation rules. In addition, each server may monitor or block other servers that they deem to be the source of spamming, hate, pornography, or misinformation. As an example, you can see a list of filtered, limited, and suspended servers for the Fosstodon Mastodon, to get an idea what type of servers do get moderated and blocked.

In addition, you can sign up at multiple servers if you wish. I’m @burningbird at mastodon.social, but I’m also @burningbird at phpc.social, and @burningbird at fosstodon.org. I can keep the separate accounts, or if I decide to stay with just one, I can migrate all my follows/followers to the Mastodon server of my choice. If I do migrate my account from one server to another, we’ll still be connected, and you won’t even know I’ve moved.

Best of all, I can install and setup my own Mastodon server at burningbird.net, and join into the federation—something I am seriously considering. The only downside to this approach is that I won’t have access to folks on a local server when I run my own. Which is why I may stay with an existing server, and why it’s important to sign on to a server that best matches your interest.

(If I do install Mastodon, it would be for personal use. I’ve done the running a server for multiple people in the past, and it was exhausting and very stressful.)

Of course, the freedom to sign up at multiple servers is also one of the problems with Mastodon: there’s no way to know who is authentic and who isn’t. I’ve signed up as @burningbird at three different servers. Someone else can sign up as @burningbird at other servers, and you won’t know who is who without some other way of authenticating the individual. In most cases, you’ll have to find the correct Mastodon user by following a link they’ll provide either at a web site, or other social media app.

(Note that Musk doesn’t consider authentication to be a big thing, since he’s turned the famous Twitter blue authentication checkmark into a marketing brand anyone can buy. I like what one person wrote on Twitter: the blue checkmark will become the equivalent of posting an Amazon Prime subscriber badge.)

From a usability perspective, Mastodon is about the closest experience I’ve found to Twitter, notwithstanding the expected growth issues related to a sudden surge of new users. You start out with light text on dark background, but you can change to the dark text on light background in Preferences. In addition, you can change to slow mode for your feed (new posts require a click rather than automatically scrolling), set image size, determine what happens when an image is hidden and so on.

mastodon preferences page

Unlike counter.social which tends to get into your face about contributing funds, the Mastodon servers typically include a request for donations in their About pages, and they’re not pushy about it. Having said this, if you do like Mastodon and you like your server and don’t want it to go away, consider contributing.

Mastodon isn’t owned by corporations, the Saudi government, or some rich guy. Because of the open source nature of the software, and the standardized open protocol of the federated access, trying to buy out Mastodon would be like trying to buy out the web or the entire internet. Not even a big bucks guy like Musk could do it.

What about Bluesky?

In the midst of all of this, Twitter’s original founder Jack Dorsey has popped up with Bluesky—seemingly his version of a federated social media app.

When I first heard about it, I signed up for the beta. If I get invited, I’ll probably check it out for grins and giggles. But will I stay with it? Unlikely.

To me, the biggest strike against Bluesky is the fact that Dorsey chose to go his own way on designing the federated protocol for Bluesky—the AT protocol—rather than work with the open source and open standards community. This type of arrogant indifference to open standards and its “I know what’s right, and I’m doing it my own way” attitude just stinks. I’ve seen it too much and have fought against it for years. I certainly don’t need to buy into it because one technocrat thinks he know better than anyone else.

Dave Troy touched on much of this in an in-depth piece that discusses Dorsey, his relationships with Musk, and their world views. What he wrote made me wary even before discovering the AT protocol. Read it, and form your own judgement.

Ultimately, it’s not the application or the technology: it’s the people

After testing the three tools, I’ve decided to stay with Mastodon. I’m still exploring the network, still considering what server I want to live on, but what I’ve seen pleases the open source “can’t be owned by rich assholes” part of me.

However, I’m not quite ready to give up Twitter, and it’s not because I’m enamored of the app. I actually find Mastodon to be better tech fit for me. No, leaving Twitter means leaving the best part of Twitter, the part that Elon Musk can’t and will never understand:

The people.

I have built relationships with folks out on Twitter. I have a good group of very smart people I follow and interact with. They’re in technology, Constitutional law, food safety, the environment, politics, news, and life. They can write amazing things in a very small space. They can convince, inform, instill wonder, spark outrage, inspire thoughtfulness, and make me laugh.

A platform’s technology is such an unimportant component of social media. Yes, you want to prevent security hacks, and you need to scale your app to fit the demand. Social media applications are complex and take real skill to manage. I’m not disparaging the abilities of the people who maintain a social media app.

But it’s the people that make the social media app, not the other way around.

Elon Musk doesn’t understand this. He never will. And it’s why I’m investing time in other platforms and encouraging others to do the same. Because someday I hope all the wonderful people I connect with on Twitter will be somewhere else, and I can kiss Twitter good-bye.

And in case you decide to pursue a Mastodon account, find me at @burningbird@mastodon.social. Or you can always find me here, at Burningbird.

Categories
Government Standards

Corporate food production interests yank the chains of Congress

Second update

House just can’t wait to pass this bill. It goes to the Floor on Thursday. Note: there is no comparable bill in the Senate.

stirring up a batter of trouble

Update

In the ultimate of ironies, the Senate passed an amendment to their appropriation bill, that would require genetically modified salmon be given a GMO label. How to explain the inconsistencies?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska)…downplayed concerns that salmon labeling would set a precedent for labeling biotech crops saying, “Corn doesn’t swim from one field to another and propagate with corn in another state. Fish move. Fish escape,” she said.

No, no. No one has ever heard of pollen floating on the breeze and contaminating organic crops.

earlier
How can you tell if Vermont will prevail in the lawsuit filed against its new GMO labeling law, Act 120? Easy: Congress decides to create a national anti-GMO labeling law. More on this in a moment. First, though, a recap on the court challenge.

In April, Judge Christina Reiss issued a decision denying in part and granting in part Vermont’s motion for dismissal, and denying, outright, the *plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction. The latter means that when you consider how speedy civil cases of this nature proceed through the court system, Vermont’s GMO label law will be able to go into effect in 2016.

The Judge quickly dismissed the dormant Commerce Clause challenge to the GMO labeling. After all, the basis for this challenge is that a state law must discriminate against out of state interests, and Vermont’s law applies to in-state as well as out-of-state interests. The decision also reflects a growing push-back against the application of the dormant Commerce Clause, possibly reflecting the Supreme Court’s own ambivalence about its application. I particularly liked the Judge noting that Vermont’s GMO labeling law won’t lead to a “patchwork of state laws”, because no other state has implemented a GMO labeling law, and hence, no inconsistency is introduced with Vermont’s law.

The Judge did feel that the plaintiff’s claim about the law’s reference to the use of “natural” on labels was strong enough to warrant denying Vermont’s request to dismiss the Commerce Clause challenge related to it. Yeah, that was one Vermont would have been best to just leave out of the GMO law.

In my original writing on the law, and the legal pushback from Lauren Handel, we felt the strongest challenge to the Vermont law was the Supremacy Clause, and whether the law was expressly preempted by the labeling requirements in the FMIA (Federal Meat Inspections Act) and PPIA (Poultry Products Inspection Act). The FDA’s FDCA and NLEA are both quite amenable to state labeling requirements, so aren’t really a challenge. The FMIA and PPIA, however, do have strict label requirements, and do assume federal authority of said labels.

Vermont was aware of this, and built into Act 120 exemptions related to meat and meat products, which should encompass those products that would be covered under the FMIA and PPIA. Where we felt there was the possibility of conflict was a product like soup. Soup is a manufactured product and, we assume, would be covered by Vermont’s Act 120. Soup can either contain meat products, or not. If the meat content exceeds 3% raw, or 2% cooked meat, then it would be managed by the USDA; otherwise, it’s managed by the FDA. This soup conundrum reflects the truly mish-mash nature of food safety handling in the US.

Since Campbells is part of the group suing Vermont, I fully expected soup to raise it’s head at some point. If it did, though, it quickly ducked. According to Judge Reiss’ decision:

In opposing dismissal and seeking preliminary injunctive relief, Plaintiffs narrow their FMIA and PPIA preemption claims to argue that some GE food products that contain meat, poultry, and eggs which do not fall within Act 120’s exemption for products “consisting entirely of or derived entirely from an animal,” 9 V.S.A. § 3044(1), are regulated for labeling purposes by the FMIA or the PPIA. They identify canned meat and poultry products and pre-made frozen meals containing meat or poultry as examples of products that fall within both statutory frameworks. In their Amended Complaint and declarations, however, Plaintiffs fail to identify even one of their members who produces a non-exempt GE food product that is covered by the FMIA or PPIA.

In other words, something like chicken noodle soup would either be exempt under the Vermont law, or isn’t a food product covered by the FMIA or PPIA. According to the FSIS guidelines:

Although FSIS has jurisdictional authority over food labeling for products containing meat and poultry, the FMIA and the PPIA explicitly authorize USDA (through FSIS) to exempt from its regulatory coverage food products which contain meat or poultry “only in relatively small portion or historically have not been considered by consumers as products of the meat food industry …

Soup is, typically, not considered a product of the meat industry, no matter how much meat it contains. And let’s face it: most canned soups really aren’t brimming with meat.

If there are no products not exempt under Vermont Act 120, but governed by the FMIA and PPIA, the plaintiffs can’t establish standing for this particular challenge. The only reason the Judge did not dismiss the preemption challenge outright is because the plaintiffs argued there may be small food producers who are making such a product who haven’t been identified yet.

We can only imagine food producers all over the country are working late into the night, trying to create and market some product that falls between the infinitely tiny crack that may exist between the Act 120 exemptions, and FMIA and PPIA governance.

Judge Reiss than took on the First Amendment challenge to Act 120. The plaintiffs claimed Act 120 violates corporate freedom of speech because Act 120 is “a politically motivated speech regulation”—it compels political speech. Well, this is just plain rubbish. The Judge agreed, though more tactfully:

A manufacturer who is required to disclose whether its products contain certain ingredients is not compelled to make a political statement even if such a statement “links a product to a current public debate” because “many, if not most, products may be tied to public concerns with the environment, energy, economic policy, or individual health and safety.”

The more compelling challenge related to freedom of speech was whether Act 120’s disclosure requirement is nothing more than just a satisfaction of consumer curiosity. This is what torpedoed Vermont’s statute related to labeling milk that contains recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (“rBST”) or recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (“rBGH”). However, unlike that statute, Act 120 did raise the debate about the safety of GMO products, in addition to other factors:

Act 120’s “Findings” and “Purpose” extend beyond the mere appeasement of consumer curiosity, and the State emphasizes that it is not making the concessions it made in IDFA. It cites to what it characterizes as an ample legislative record documenting the scientific debate about the safety of GE ingredients and the studies that have produced positive, negative, and neutral results. This record includes studies about the safety of consuming GE plant-based foods, as well as studies about the environmental impacts of GE and GE crops. The State also points to its interest in accommodating religious beliefs about GE, as well as its interest in providing factual information for purposes of informed consumer decision-making.

The Judge did feel the intermediate scrutiny of Act 120 as it relates to the First Amendment was a question of law, and should be debated during the court hearing related to the case. Therefore, Vermont’s motion to dismiss was denied. However, the Judge also felt that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail in this challenge in the court, and their request for a preliminary injunction was denied.

Judge Reiss wrote a long, thoughtful, and careful decision. Though the plaintiffs case was not dismissed outright, many of its challenges were dismissed, or had doubt cast on them as to their viability. And that leads us to HR 1559, the so-called Safe and Affordable Food Act, which just advanced from committee to the House floor. How can you tell if Vermont will prevail in the lawsuit filed against its new GMO labeling law, Act 120? Easy: Congress decides to create a national anti-GMO labeling law.

This bill seeks to preemptively undercut Vermont’s Act 120, before it has a chance to take effect. Many of its proponents are people who consider themselves tried and true “states rights” advocates…well, up and until a northern state, like Vermont, passes a bill that goes counter to select interests in their state. Can’t have them uppity Northerners telling nice southern and midwestern corporate boys what to do, no sirree.

Regardless of your stance on GMO and labeling, the bill should give you pause because it seeks to use Congress to bypass state statutes that reflect the interest of the people of the state and that have withstood a constitutional challenge.

That latter is important. Vermont’s Act 120 isn’t seeking to prevent gays from marrying or women from having access to abortion. It’s a statute impacting on commerce that ensures additional information is provided to consumers. More importantly, it’s a statute that has not failed in the courts—has not proven to be unconstitutional.

It has long been the right of states to impose stricter restrictions on commerce, particularly commerce related to food production, as long as such a restriction doesn’t unfairly impact out-of-state interests. Revoking this right because corporate agricultural interests aren’t happy about disclosing certain information is the proverbial slippery step to undermining other state laws related to food production and safety.

Want to drink raw milk? You can in states that allow it, but not in states that don’t, but this could easily change if the raw milk dairies had enough influence in Congress. Want to allow cottage industries to sell meat products or other food items long restricted? Again, no problem…if the industries have enough influence.

Of course, that’s the real key, isn’t it? These other industries don’t have the power to bring about change at the Congressional level, and that’s not a bad thing. But the GMO labeling law impacts on the very powerful, very wealthy, and very influential chemical, biotech, and food manufacturing interests, and therefore, this particular state law triggers Congressional action. And it does so not in the interests of the consumer—it is a deliberate attempt to withhold information from the consumer. Only the powerful benefit from this bill.

Regardless of your views on GMO labeling, you must deplore such an obvious act of buying Congress.

The biotech, chemical, food manufacturing et al interests have their chances in the court. Our Constitution is giving them their chance. They have the ability to bring their best arguments to the table and defeat Act 120…in the court. With this House bill, they chose not to do so. Instead, they’re putting pressure on Congress, and Congress is allowing them to. It’s a dirty move that is no less dirty because you may not agree with GMO labeling.

* The plaintiffs have filed an appeal related to the denial of a preliminary injunction, and asked for expedited handling of the appeal. This request has been granted, with back and forth filings due by September 8th.

Categories
Standards

Simpler is better

Manu Sporny and Ian Hickson have had an interesting, and telling, exchange about RDFa and microdata in the HTML WG list (see the opening email for the thread). In one of the emails, Hickson writes about why he created a whole new microdata section, rather than incorporate RDFa:

By “technical problems” I mean problems with the design, as opposed to
editorial problems. They’re primarily usability issues, which are to some
extent subjective. I make no apology for having an opinion on what makes a
usable language; it’s my job to have such an opinion.

Generally speaking, my position on this topic is a straightforward one:
simpler is better.

One asks: what is simple about creating an entirely new metadata solution, when there are two viable ones (microformats and RDFa) with both history and use? A new microdata section with predefined vocabularies that will be out of sync with their outer specification counterparts before the ink on HTML5 is even dry?

I haven’t touched on the microdata section of the HTML 5 specification in my little story on HTML 5 yet, because that one, in particular, is really key to everything that is wrong with the HTML 5: the specification and the process. It all really boils down to Ian and a few of his friends having opinions, and the power to enforce those opinions on the next version of the web. There are no checks. There are no balances. There is nothing but an illusion of equality and fairness.

What’s obscene is that no one really likes the microdata section, not even Ian himself. Oh, a few of his buddies manfully came out with the appropriate murmurs of delight, but none of these folks are interested in metadata. More importantly, where there is universal application of microformats and RDFa, there is no implementation that supports microdata (though I imagine one will be tossed into Opera quickly, just for spite).

In the end of the thread, when last I looked, Sam Ruby has vetted Manu Sporny’s RDFa alternative HTML 5 specification. So what does that mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but in my opinion, it does not mean that RDFa has a fair chance, any more than creating specification text for a new description of the summary or alt attributes, means these will be given a fair chance. If any of this comes down to a vote, I have no doubt that the WhatWG folks will be able to swing a majority. After all, client side data storage is sexy, summary attributes for screenreaders is not.

Having a majority does not mean that the best decision wins.