GNU Social: a decentralized answer to Twitter


In modern times social networking is a double edged sword. While it enables us to spread the word quickly, it also puts way much information on us in hands of companies like Facebook or Twitter. It also enables law enforcement authorities to crack down on activists.

In this post I want to look at an alternative to Twitter which isn’t driven by the sole purpose of monetizing from it. This alternative is GNU Social. A few years ago the StatusNet project merged with GNU Social.

What’s GNU Social?

GNU Social is a better alternative to Twitter simply due to its core workings. Instead of a central server (easily accessible to law enforcement) it runs atop servers spread across the world, meaning you can pick where your data is hosted, this is very good as it makes accessing your personal data much more difficult thanks to the various laws governing different countries where servers are hosted.

Although there are lots of different instances (instances can talk to other instances making up GNU Social network) which you can join, the high quality servers have been compiled on the GNU Social website already however if you look around on wikis it’s possible to find more.

I recommend going with Quitter or LoadAverage, Quitter provides you with an interface much like Twitter and you can either pick their Swedish, Norwegian or Icelandic servers, the latter two are outside of the EU so if you’re an EU resident it will be much harder for police/agencies to get your data from the server in question as they will have to go through more loopholes.

Once you have signed up to GNU Social and set-up your profile page it is time to start adding people, by default there are two main feeds (I’m writing from the perspective of a LoadAverage user), your home feed and the public feed, whenever you login it automatically sets you to reading the public feed and you have to use the links down the side to switch to the home feed. Being on the public feed however lets you look for people to add.

add-gnu-socialThe image above shows what a third party would see on my page. When you press the subscribe button it will ask you to type your GNU Social handle which will look something like [email protected], in my case it is [email protected] Once you have entered the details and pressed subscribe you are redirected back to your GNU Social instance where you can confirm you want to subscribe to the person you just tried to subscribe too.


Make a Group

A big feature of GNU Social is Groups, they are one of the more complicated features to work out on GNU Social because they span across servers and some are difficult to find at first. The first place to look for a group is by pressing Groups under the Public header (again I’m on LoadAverage so things may be a bit different for you), here you can find groups native to your server. You can join these as easily as pressing the ‘join’ button.

On the other hand, if you want to join a group that is not on your server, for example ‘the federated universe’ or Richard Stallman’s invented holiday ‘gravmass’ group, then you’ll have to do a bit more work.

Head to the search box and type in a group name. Next look for posts, some words in the message are preceded by an ‘!’ and the following word is a hyperlink, this will take you to the group you were looking for. When on the group page you can do the subscribe process similar to that of adding a new users from an alternate server. TIP: search ‘!groupname’ to find results quickly. When in the Group directory you can also see a list of Active groups and Popular groups, some of these groups aren’t listed in the directory because they’re on another server.



The search box is a very useful tool on GNU Social, I’ve already described how it is critical to finding groups. You can also use it to find hashtags to follow, simply search for a hashtag you want to follow, an example would be to type ‘#python’ and you can find a subscribe button on the feed, this will add #python to your tags list, making it easy to find content you’re interested in.

There are also trending topics to accompany hashtags. They work in pretty much the same way Twitter’s hashtags where the most popular ones are listed as trending. As far as I can tell they do not incorporate popular phrases as Twitter does into the trending topics, just hashtags.


Saving search terms

If you just want to save search terms can do a search query but without a ‘#’ in front of the query, once the results are loaded press the subscribe button, the saved term will be listed under searches now, instead of tags.

Going mobile

The GNU Social network is made better due to the availability of high quality apps on marketplaces such as F-Droid. To be fair, there’s a decent 3rd party Twitter app in there too but when it comes to Facebook, Google+ or Youtube you’re left out in the cold.

My app pick for using GNU Social on mobile is AndStatus. It supports a lot of the major functionality you get from the desktop app, handles conversations well and uses the new Android theme introduced in Lollipop.

AndStatus will let you connect a Twitter account too if you like but I find it gets too irritating to manage multiple accounts because you have to fiddle with sliding drawers to switch between accounts.

If you ever find yourself offline, AndStatus will keep all the posts readable offline for a long time by default. New content is always being pulled in while you have an internet connection so you are ready to read the latest posts when you go into the app. In addition, if you are offline and want to make a post, you can. AndStatus will keep the message pending until it gets an internet connection then it sends out your message.

Other alternatives

GNU Social isn’t the only decentralised platform, if you prefer a more Facebook-like experience, minus all the negative, creepy-stalker aspects then Diaspora is a great choice. Adding people on that site is a lot more seamless than GNU Social and gets updated with new features more frequently, unfortunately the mobile apps for Diaspora leave a lot to be desired.

Some other decentralised networks include Friendica and RedMatrix, the latter is interesting having just signed up. Where Diaspora is similar to Facebook and GNU Social is like Twitter, Red Matrix is something else entirely. From initial impressions (I just made an account) it appears to be a mixture of social network, blogging platform, events manager and cloud storage.

Whether or not you check out one of selections or all of them try to experiment with them for at least a week or so. The sooner people start to break away from typical centralised services the better. We will all be in a much stronger position to fight against snooping laws like the Freedom Act.

Moving to decentralised service sends a message to leaders who want to plunge us into a technological dystopia, where everything input into an internet connected device is monitored. With internet connected sensors coming in the form of wearables and other IoT devices, we will be handing over enormous amounts of data, by switching to decentralised services we will be able to retain much more of our personal data.

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Free and Open Source software advocate. I've been enthusiastic about new technology for over half a decade and now I'm just waiting for the technological singularity. Post-Snowden, I've developed a dislike for surveillance meaning I use FLOSS religiously over proprietary alternatives. Amateur Astronomy is also a hobby of mine!
  • Marc van Geel

    A really good and informative article that opened a new horizon for me. I am not sure however that EU citizens are better off using an European based server. Now that the Patriot act has come to an halt inside U.S. territory and European goverments getting involved again and again in N.S.A related scandals it appears to me that outside of the U.S. there is far less control over this organization.

    • Paul Hill

      The best thing to do is use servers on another continent to you where your home country and the country where the server is hosted have no data sharing deal set up.

  • bulletbites

    Its great. With remote follow it binds different gnu servers together & with ANDStatus app you are mobile. Come try it out.

  • Diaspora has roughly the same features as Twitter. The only things Dispora has that Twitter doesn’t is longer messages (no 140 char limit), MarkDown support, and live chat (via XMPP). Hubzilla (the new name for RedMatrix) has most of the features of FarceBook or Google, including things like events calendars, blog/ video publishing, and file storage, and is well worth checking out. Another new free code app with a similar range of features is Cozy but it’s still in beta and will need more work before its fully production ready.