Artist and programmer Darius Kazemi has been running his own social network site, Friend Camp, since August 2018. Friend Camp has 50 users, which makes it an "intentionally small" social network. Most of the members are friends. Kazemi describes it as a Slack channel where you can subscribe and talk to people who are in other Slack groups.
What makes Friend Camp different from Slack, Facebook, and Twitter, though, is that users can customize their groups and make their own rules and policies using open-source social media software. And the whole thing is run off of user-owned servers—basically cutting out the corporations and the risks that come with that.
"Friend Camp does not have the annoyances of big social network sites," Kazemi said. "We sell no data, we collect no extraneous data, there are no advertisements at all, and no major features get changed unless I talk to the campers about it first."
Based on his experience setting up Friend Camp, Kazemi has released "Run your own social," a guide to creating your own small social network.
Running your own social site "gives you the flexibility to [communicate] in the context of a broader internet," Kazemi said.
The guide outlines why people should consider creating small social network sites, how to solve social problems, ways to introduce new users to the network, and what the future of these small networks looks like.
The guide also includes information on the technical side: how to set up servers or what to do if you lack the skills to do it yourself.
Friend Camp uses open-sourced software Mastodon that lets users modify its social network framework. Users can also hard-code bans against other communities—such as Nazis—and essentially removing them from the group's existence.
"I have friends who have their own servers and they're like, 'Oh, we don't think that blocking or muting Nazis is enough,'" Kazemi said. "'We need to put up a firewall and have it so they don't even know this exists."
But because Mastodon is a decentralized network, it means that groups are free to use its own social network as it pleases, including for hate. Mastodon is sort of the connective thread between these servers, so it's up to individual communities to decide whether or not those groups "exist" to their communities.
Kazemi pointed back to Friend Camp. "If I find a server that allows hate speech against transgender people, then I'll just block that on a server level so I'm blocking it on behalf of all 50 of my users."
Keeping the social network sites small is essential for customization that will meet everyone's needs. Kazemi doesn't suggest going over 100 users. Smaller communities are easier to manage both technically and socially, but it also creates an intimacy where it's possible to know everyone in the group, creating a truly private, curated space.
One problem is that social media sites—even the open-source ones—are typically designed to spread messages far and wide. But small social media sites should have the option to send messages only to the group. Kazemi said he's working to solve this problem by releasing a modification of Mastodon that's got all the features he wishes it had, like giving people the option to send messages only to their communities.
Kazemi told VICE he'll release this "soon," alongside other software options that offer "commodity options" for users.
"One thing that Facebook can't copy is small community," Kazemi said. "Their job isn't to be a small community; it's to be the biggest community on Earth."