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Why we need a wikileaks for social media: Marke Pesce on the launching of the Plexus project

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
8th August 2010


Plexus creates your own, self-managed social network, both entirely self-contained, and also acts as a connected node within a broader network. Because Plexus functions as plumbing – wiring together social services that haven’t been designed to talk to one another – it performs a service that is badly needed, filling a growing void. Plexus is your own plumbing, under your own control.

Wikileaks is vital because it recreates more of symmetry of knowledge between the rulers and the ruled. In social media, the situation is similar, “they” know everything about us, but we do not know what they are doing with our data. Therefore, says Mark Pesce, we need to own our social graph and a transparent social media that gives us insight on what is being done with our data.

The presentation below is stellar and entertaining and I know few speakers as good as Mark. Here’s a small excerpt.

Mark Pesce:

“For half a decade I’ve been thinking about social networks. This little film project allowed me to tie my research together with my desire to have a pleasant excuse to hack. When I sat back and watched the film I’d algorithmically pieced together, I began to get a deeper sense of the value of my ‘social graph’. That’s a new phrase, and it means the set of human relationships we each carry with us. Until just a few years ago, these relationships lived wholly between our ears; we might augment our memories with an address book or a Rolodex, but these paper trails were only ever a reflection of our embodied relationships. Ever since Friendster, these relationships have exteriorized, leaped out of our heads (like Athena from Zeus) and crawled into our computers.

This makes them both intimately familiar and eerily pluripotent. We are wired from birth to connect with one another: to share what we know, to listen to what others say. This is what we do, a knowledge so essential, so foundational, it never needs to be taught. When this essential feature of being human gets accelerated by the speed of the computer, then amplified by a global network that now connects about five billion people (counting both mobile or Internet), all sorts of unexpected things begin to happen. The entire landscape of human knowledge – how we come to know something, how we come to share what we know – has been utterly transformed over the last decade. Were we to find a convenient TARDIS and take ourselves back to the world of 1999, it would be almost unrecognizable. The media landscape was as it always had been, though the print component had hesitatingly migrated onto the Web. To learn about the world around us, we all looked up – to the ABC, to the New York Times, to the BBC World Service.

Then the world exploded.

We don’t look up anymore. We look around – we look to one another – to learn what’s going on. Sometimes we share what we hear on the ABC or the Times or the World Service. But what’s important is that we share it. There is no up, there is no centre. There is only a vast sea of hyperconnected human nodes.

The most alluring and seductive of all of the hyperconnecting services is unquestionably Facebook. In three years it has grown from just fifteen million to nearly half a billion users. It might be the most visited website in the world, just now surpassing Google. Facebook has become the nexus, the connecting point for one person in every fourteen on Earth. Facebook is the place where the social graph has come to life, where the potency of sharing and listening can be explored in depth. But it is a life lived out in public. Facebook is not really geared toward privacy, toward the intimacies that we expect as a necessary quality of our embodied relationships. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on the record talking about ‘the end of privacy’, and how he sees it that a side-effect of Facebook’s mission ‘to give people the power to share, and make the world more open and connected’.

A world more open could be a good thing, but only if the openness is wholly multilateral. We don’t want to end up in a world where our secrets as individuals have been revealed, while those who have the concentrations of capital and power, and their supporting organizations and networks, manage to continue to remain obscure and occult. This kind of ‘privacy asymmetry’ will only work against the individuals who have surrendered their privacy.

This is precisely where we seem to be headed. Facebook wants us to connect and share and reveal, but – particularly around privacy, user confidentiality, and the way they put that vast amount of user-generated data to work for themselves and their advertisers – Facebook’s business practices are entirely opaque. Openness must be met with openness, sharing with sharing. Anything else creates a situation where one side is – quite literally – holding all the cards.

I have been pondering the power of social networks for six years, so I am peculiarly conscious of the price you pay for participation in someone else’s network. I’ve come to realized your social graph is your most important possession. In a very real way, your social graph is who you are. Until a few years ago we never gave this much thought because we carried our graphs with us everywhere, inside our heads. But now that these graph live elsewhere – under the control of someone else – we’re confronted with a dilemma :we want to turbocharge our social graphs, but we don’t want anyone else having any access to something so fundamental and intimate. If the CIA and NSA use social graphs to find and combat terrorists, if smoking, obesity and divorce spread through social graphs, why would we hand something so personal and so potent to anyone else? What kind of value would we receive for surrendering our crown jewels?

By the end of last month it was clear that Facebook had become dangerous. Something had to be done.”

So, what is Mark doing about this: creating Plexus. Here are some details:

“For the past few weeks those of you following me on Twitter have seen me tweet about ‘Project Thunderware’, which was the silliest code-name I could think up for a project that is actually entirely serious. The real name is Plexus. Plexus is design for a second-generation social network. It is personal – everyone runs their own Plexus. It is portable – written entirely in Python so you can drop it onto a USB key (if you want), and take it with you anywhere you can get Python running. It is private – no one else has access to your Plexus, unless you want them to. It’s completely open and completely modular. Plexus is designed to take the passive social graph we’ve all got tucked away in our various devices, translating it into something active, vital, and essential.

There are three components within Plexus. First and most important is the social graph, a database of connections known as the ‘Plex’. Each of these connections, like a business card, comes with a list of connection points. These connection points can be outgoing – ‘this is how I will speak to you’, or incoming – ‘this is how I will listen to you’. They can be unilateral or bilateral. They can be based on standard protocols – such as SMTP or XMPP, or the APIs of the rapidly-multiplying set of social services already available in the wilds of the Internet, or they can be something entirely home-grown and home-brewed. They can be wide open, or encrypted with GPG. Everything is negotiable. That’s the point: something’s in the Plex because there’s an active connection and relationship between two parties.

The Plex is only a database. To bring that database to life, two other components are required. The first of these is the ‘Sharer’. The Sharer, as the name implies, makes sure that something to be shared – be it a string of text, or a link, or a video, or a blog post, or whatever – ends up going out over the negotiated channels. The Sharer is built out of a set of Python modules, with each particular sharing service handled by its own module. This means that there is no limit or artificial constraint on what kinds of services Plexus can share with.

Conversely, the third component, the Listener, monitors all of the negotiated channels for any activity by any of the connections in the Plex. When the Listener hears something, it sends that to the user – to be displayed or saved or ignored according to the needs of the moment. Like the Sharer, the Listener is also a set of Python modules, with each monitored service handled by its own module. The Listener should be able to listen to anything that has a clearly defined interface.

When Plexus starts up, it reads through the Plex, instancing the appropriate Sharer and Listener objects on a connection-by-connection basis. Everything after initialization is event-driven: the Plexus user shares something, or the Listener hears something and offers that to the Plexus user.”

The above came via Ross Dawson who explains how Plexus differs from the better known Diaspora project:

“Diaspora* has gained massive attention by offering an open alternative to Facebook, famously raising $200,000 on crowdfunding site when they were looking for only $10,000. It is under development and hopefully will be running in the next months.

However while Diaspora is open, it is not a truly distributed platform. Plexus is an example of a distributed social network in which its participants fully own their own data and social participation, and can connect with any platform they choose, including existing networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Plexus may prove to be a solution that many are hunting for, and take off rapidly as a protocol and platform. Perhaps others will offer alternative ways to give people back ownership of their social networks. Or possibly the vast majority will remain happy to live beholden to those who control their social data.”

Watch the video here:

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One Response to “Why we need a wikileaks for social media: Marke Pesce on the launching of the Plexus project”

  1. thatch Says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but my reading was that if I set up a Diaspora “seed” on my own server, I owned my data and I could move it to another server otr a hosted server etc

    Surely the two projects have more in common than they do differences.

    Or have I messed something here and am being naive?

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