Leaving Facebook

Yesterday was my last day on Facebook.  Today I deactivated my account.  I was torn between deactivation and deletion, but I've always been unhappy with people who participated in conversations online and then disrupted them by deleting their contribution to them, and I didn't want to be one of those people, so I just turned it off.  My problem with Facebook isn't that they have my posts, anyway.

To paraphrase John Kennedy, I chose to leave Facebook not because it was hard but because it was easy.  What made it easy to leave was the knowledge that I could encourage a few people to come with me.  I'm going to try to encourage a few more.

I've been using what we now call "social media" for decades.  I opened my WELL account (which I still use) in 1987, and that was far from my first experience with online communications.  The whole time, there's always been something really unsatisfactory about it.  There have basically been three common models for online sites:  
  • Free, open to everyone, and terrible as a result (Usenet), 
  • Paid by subscriptions, viewable only by subscribers, and full of pathologies and resentments against the greed and incompetence of the owners (the WELL, GEnie, CompuServe), and
  • Paid for by advertising, open to everyone, and ruinous to society (Facebook).
I've encountered a couple of customer-owned sites that work too (the WELL today, and MLTSHP).  I think that model has a future.

I'm trying something relatively new:  a site that I own and run myself, for me and the first-order nodes of my friend graph.  (What we used to call "friends.")  It's up, it's running, it looks pretty good, people are participating.  We'll see where it goes.  I don't have growth ambitions.  I'm not looking for up-and-to-the-left curves.  It's not a business.  It's a lifestyle accessory.

And this can be yours, if the price is right

You, too, can have this lifestyle accessory.  It will cost you, like it costs me, $21 a month.  You can probably expect that cost to come down modestly over time.  

Here's what you will need if you want to do this yourself:
  1. A Google Form.  This will take you maybe half an hour to create if you're careful about it.  I created one that explained why I was leaving Facebook and asked my friends for their names and email addresses.  I posted it on my Facebook feed every couple of days for a few weeks.
  2. A domain name.  That will cost you $12 annually if you find one that nobody's squatting on.  Amazingly, I found this one.  I used Google Domains, because I know where to find those guys
  3. A Concept account at Mailgun.  This costs nothing until you've sent 10,000 emails in a month (you won't get near that).  It requires a credit card.  Do not use the completely free, credit-cardless option.  That won't work.
  4. A Digital Ocean droplet.  This costs $20 a month - I'm using a 4gb/80gb instance.  When you create this, you'll look under "One-click Apps" and pick Discourse.  (Why didn't I use Google Compute Engine instead?  I mean, I know where to find those guys too.  Technically, I am one of those guys.  The answer's that GCE is for people who run hundreds or thousands of machines, not just a guy, and the user experience reflects that.  I clicked a couple of buttons on Digital Ocean's page and had a machine with Discourse installed on it.  In order for this to be something that lots of people do, it has to be something that anyone can do.)
The hardest part of this entire process was getting email hooked up correctly.  The instructions for setting up your Discourse instance available via Google are clear and correct, but you have to have set up the right Mailgun account (I didn't) in order to make Discourse capable of sending out invitations, which is a pretty important part of the process.

Customizing Discourse took me a while.  I had to go through all of the canned text in the app (there's a lot of it) and edit it to my tastes:  The out-of-the-box distribution of Discourse appears to be configured for gaming blogs, and so there's a whole lot of bleating about civility as well as a default terms of service that you'll need to edit for the use case of being a human being.  Also by default the system has all kinds of social-media sharing features turned on; you'll probably want to turn those off.  And, of course, you want entry to the site to be invitation-only.

Once you've got Discourse tuned to your preference, you'll want to go to your domain registrar and add an A record pointing to the IP address of the instance.  

Then you can start sending out invitation emails.  Start by inviting your second email account to join your system.  (You have a second email account, don't you?)  It's important to see what your invitees will see, and Discourse doesn't provide a built-in way of doing this.  (It's hard enough to find the text setting that controls the content of that email, but poke around, you'll find it.)  Once you have the email right, invite a couple people, let them play around until they and you are comfortable, and then invite everyone else.

There's also a script you can run that automagically provisions a certificate for you via LetsEncrypt and installs it on your instance.

If you're interested in setting up your own instance of Discourse to get off of Facebook, and you'd like some help, drop me a line.


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