Spritely: towards secure social spaces as virtual worlds

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Sun 14 October 2018

If you follow me on the fediverse, maybe you already know. I've sent an announcement to my work that I am switching to doing a project named Spritely on my own full time. (Actually I'm still going to be doing some contracting with my old job, so I'll still have some income, but I'll be putting a full 40 hours a week into Spritely.)

tl;dr: I'm working on building the next generation of the fediverse as a distributed game. You can support this work if you so wish.

What on earth is Spritely?

"Well, vaporware currently", has been my joke since announcing it, but the plans, and even some core components, are starting to congeal, and I have decided it's time to throw myself fully into it.

But I still haven't answered the question, so I'll try to do so in bullet points. Spritely:

  • Aims to bring stronger user security, better anti-abuse tooling, stronger resistance against censorship, and more interesting interactions to users of the fediverse.
  • Is based on the massively popular ActivityPub standard (which I co-authored, so I do know a thing or two about this).
  • Aims to transform distributed social networks into distributed social games / virtual worlds. The dreams of the 90s are alive in Spritely.
  • Recognizes that ActivityPub is based on the actor model, and a pure version of the actor model is itself already a secure object capability system, so we don't have to break the spec to gain those powers... just change the discipline of how we use it.
  • Will be written in Racket.
  • Is an umbrella project for a number of modular tools necessary to get to this goal. The first, an object capability actor model system for Racket named Goblins, should see its first public release in the next week or two.
  • And of course it will be 100% free/libre/open source software.

That's a lot to unpack, and it also may sound overly ambitious. The game part in particular may sound strange, but I'll defend it on three fronts. First, not too many people run federated social web servers, but a lot of people run Minecraft servers... lots of teenagers run Minecraft servers... and it's not because Minecraft has the best graphics or the best fighting (it certainly doesn't), it's because Minecraft allows you to build a world together with your friends. Second, players of old MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes and etc from the 90s may recognize that modern social networks are structurally degenerate forms of the kinds of environments that existed then, but contemporary social networks lack the concept of a sense of place and interaction. Third, many interesting projects (Python's Twisted library, Flickr, much of object capability security patterns) have come out of trying to build such massively multiplayer world systems. Because of this last one in particular, I think that shooting for the stars means that if we don't make it we're likely to at least make the moon, so failure is okay if it means other things come out of it. (Also, four: it's a fun and motivating use case for me which I have explored before.)

To keep Spritely from being total vaporware, the way I will approach the project is by regularly releasing a series of "demos", some of which may be disjoint, but will hopefully increasingly converge on the vision. Consider Spritely a skunkworks-in-the-public-interest for the federated social web.

But why?

Standardizing ActivityPub was a much more difficult effort than anticipated, but equally or more so more successful than I expected (partly due to Mastodon's adoption launching it past the sound barrier). In that sense this is great news. We now have dozens of projects adopting it, and the network has (at last I looked) over 1.5 million registered users (which isn't the same as active users).

So, mission accomplished, right? Well, there are a few things that bother me.

  • The kind of rich interactions one can do are limited by a lack of authorization policy. Again, I believe object capabilities provide this, but it's not well explained to the public how to use it. (By contrast, Access Control Lists and friends are absolutely the wrong approach.)
  • Users are currently insufficiently protected from spam, abuse, and harassment while at the same time administrators are overwhelmed. This is leading a number of servers to move to a whitelisting of servers, which both re-centralizes the system and prioritizes big instances over smaller instances (it shouldn't matter what instance size you're on; arguably we should be encouraging smaller ones even). There are some paths forward, and I will hint at just one: what would happen if instead of one inbox, we had multiple inboxes? If I don't know you, you can access me via my public inbox, but maybe that's heavily moderated or you have to pay "postage". If I do know you, you might have an address with more direct access to me.
  • Relatedly, contemporary fediverse interfaces borrow from surveillance-capitalism based popular social networks by focusing on breadth of relationships rather than depth. Ever notice how the first thing Twitter shows you when you hover over a person's face is how many followers they have? I don't know about you, but I immediately compare that to my own follower count, and I don't even want to. This encourages high school popularity contest type bullshit, and it's by design. What if instead of focusing on how many people we can connect to we instead focused on the depth of our relationships? Much of the fediverse has imported "what works" directly from Facebook and Twitter, but I'd argue there's a lot we can do if we drop the assumption that this is the ideal starting base.
  • The contemporary view in the fediverse is that social scoping is like Python scoping: locals (instance) and globals (federation). Instance administrators are even encouraged to set up to run communities based on a specific niche, which is a nice reason to motivate administrators but it causes problems: even small differences between servers' expected policies often result in servers banning each other entirely. (Sometimes this is warranted, and I'm not opposed to moderation but rather looking for more effective forms of it.) Yet most of us are one person but part of many different communities with different needs. For instance, Alice may be a computer programmer, a tabletop game enthusiast, a fanfiction author, and a member of her family. In each of those settings she may present herself differently and also have different expectations of what is acceptable behavior. Alice should not need multiple accounts for this on different servers, so it would seem the right answer for community gathering is closer to something like mailing lists. What is acceptable at the gaming table may not be acceptable at work, and what happens on the fanfiction community perhaps does not need to be shared with one's family, and each community should be empowered to moderate appropriately.
  • I'd like to bridge the gap between peer to peer and federated systems. One hint as to how to do this: what happens when you run ActivityPub servers over Tor onion services or I2P? What if instead of our messages living at http addresses that could down, they could be securely addressed by their encrypted contents?
  • Finally, I will admit the most urgent reason for these concerns... I'm very concerned politically about the state of the world and what I see as increasing authoritarianism and flagrant violations of human rights. I have a lot of worry that if we don't normalize use of decentralized and secure private systems, we will lose the ability to host them, though we've never needed them more urgently.

There are a lot of opportunities, and a lot of things I am excited about, but I am also afraid of inaction and how many regrets I will have if I don't try. I have the knowledge, the privilege, and the experience to at least attempt to make a dent in some of these things. I might not succeed. But I should try.

Who's going to pay for all this?

I don't really have a funding plan, so I guess this is kind of a non-answer. However, I do have a Patreon account you could donate to.

But should you donate? Well, I dunno, I feel like that's your call. Certainly many people are in worse positions than I am; I have a buffer and I still am doing some contracting to keep myself going for a while. Maybe you know people who need the money more than I do, or maybe you need it yourself. If this is the case, don't hesitate: take care of yourself and your loved ones first.

That said, FOSS in general has the property of being a public good but tends to have a free rider problem. While we did some fundraising for some of this stuff a few years ago, I gave the majority of the money to other people. Since then I've been mostly funding work on the federated social web myself in one way or another, usually by contracting on unrelated or quasi-related things to keep myself above the burn rate. I have the privilege and ability to do it, and I believe it's critical work. But I'd love to be able to work on this with focus, and maybe get things to the point to pull in and pay other people to help again. Perhaps if we reach that point I'll look at putting this work under a nonprofit. I do know I'm unwilling to break my FOSS principles to make it happen.

Anyway... you may even still be skeptical after reading all this about whether or not I can do it. I don't blame you... even I'm skeptical. But I'll try to convince you the way I'm going to convince myself: by pushing out demos until we reach something real.

Onwards and upwards!