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Author: gweinyddwr

Dec 21/ A worthy infrastructure strategy for Wales

If I tell you that It’s not often I’ve found myself excited by a piece of infrastructure policy, I’m sure I’ll be in good company. 

Hold on to your hats; the just-published Wales Infrastructure Investment Strategy (WIIS) is about to smash your concept of what infrastructure policy can mean to the environment, well-being and social justice.

What can I mean by that? Well, take this direct quote for example:

“Infrastructure investment programmes must embody the value of social justice and move to eliminate inequality in Wales.”

It’s true:, this strategy explicitly sets out Welsh Government’s intention to use a strategic approach to infrastructure investment to help tackle social inequality.

In fact, the themes of social justice, environment and place are embedded throughout the document. There is frequent reference to the foundational economy; to the ‘Town Centre First’ approach; and to green infrastructure and natural solutions. Sustainability runs through the whole thing like electrons in a wire.

The increasing focus on improving well-being outcomes from infrastructure isn’t ‘just’ a Wales thing. If you look through some other recent infrastructure strategies, such as the New Zealand draft infrastructure strategy, the preliminary stage on Canada’s Infrastructure Assessment, and the 2021 Australia Infrastructure Plan, you’ll see that well-being is becoming less a peripheral ‘bolt-on’ and more a core component and desirable outcome of infrastructure delivery. Indeed – not that we should be evaluating strategies with this sort of metric – Australia’s Plan contains the word ‘sustainability’ no fewer than 614 times.

The New Zealand draft infrastructure strategy clearly links infrastructure with well-being

But the WIIS goes a bit further; there is a very tight integration between the well-being goals, the nature and climate emergencies, and infrastructure, throughout the document. It appears to explicitly set out to break down the walls between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure, demonstrating that social and natural infrastructure are of equal importance to what might be perceived as ‘traditional’ forms of infrastructure such as roads or buildings.

This aligns with my personal ‘philosophy’ of infrastructure that prioritises happiness, health and long-term sustainability over more straightforward but less helpful indicators such as GDP. This is not to say that economic indicators are irrelevant; but to accept that the playing field has been highly skewed towards increasing outputs that are tangential to well-being, at least once a certain amount of wealth has been achieved at a country-level. 

In order to redress the balance – as required by our understanding of the near-unbearable pressures that our activities are causing to local and global ecosystems – we must therefore radically amend every policy, budgetary and social tool at our disposal. 

Readers of the WIIS will probably be pleased to see frequent mentions to the transport hierarchy and to Llwybr Newydd (the Wales Transport Strategy). The circular economy is also a significant beneficiary of focus, with support earmarked for repair and reuse-type projects. 

Other sectors receiving considerable attention are housing (particularly with regard to decarbonisation efforts), biodiversity and natural capital, and the revitalisation of town centres.

In the foreword to the WIIS, Rebecca Evans AS says:

“Instead of thinking first “what infrastructure should we invest in?” the question must be “what should investment in our infrastructure enable?”.

It’s exactly the right way to structure the discussion. Wales’ infrastructure needs to enable, empower, support and safeguard. In a complex world, replete with wicked problems, we need to create a framework that provides us with the principles and guidance to deliver long-term improvements across every facet of society. 

The Well-being of Future Generations Act is that framework; and this Infrastructure Strategy is a worthy complement to it.

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Some key Welsh policies referred to within WIIS:

Feb/21 What the Romans can teach us about the value of the Welsh language

The Roman Empire was pre-eminent in terms of trade, agriculture and international networks of information and trust.

Not until industrial times did the earth see a city as large as Rome, and as needing such huge quantities of food – and wine. How was it that the Roman empire was able to sustain a population of 1 million people in a city – a population that required nearly 250,000 tonnes of grain annually? And how could it sustain itself at that population for half a millennium?

In principle, transactional costs at each step of the way, say from the food producing regions of the Nile, through to the trading houses at Alexandria, and on to Rome, should have crippled this market, and Rome should never have become a pre-industrial metropolis.

And yet, in the face of informational uncertainty, and these transactional costs, the city survived – and indeed thrived – for hundreds of years. Not until the London of the 19th Century did a city become bigger.

It was estimated that the additional cost premium of moving grain from Spain to Rome, rather than from obtaining it close to Rome itself, was just 16%, which was a pretty remarkable achievement for the time.

Part of the reason for this success was the ability of the Roman state to eliminate transaction costs at certain parts of the supply chain, through (effectively) a salary, or the promise of gifts due to services rendered.

The benefit of transactional cost efficiency, however, comes at the price of moral hazard – in other words, a misalignment between the interests of the people who want the profits, and those who generate the profits. For example, people making bread in Rome had to pay for future deliveries of grain at an acceptable price, and they had to do that at risk – for what was to stop the farmer at the far end of the supply chain from reneging on their part of the agreement? One must have considerable confidence in the likelihood of generating a return on capital before it is going to be put to work in a far-off land.

The Romans solved this problem partly because they had an efficient and functioning legal system which could be used to verify the contracts. However a strong legal system – on its own – is insufficient for constraining agency costs. This formal legal system was underpinned by an informal ‘moral contract’ of behaviour which was embedded in the relationships between slave owners and freed men who mutually gained from the reputation of the other. 

Trust and reputation therefore acted as a way of constraining systemic agency costs in Roman times, just as it still does today – although it is transferred and imbued in very different ways.

Which brings me to the Welsh language.

The Welsh-speaking community is relatively small within the UK context, and extremely so within the international context. This means that the ‘six degrees of separation’ concept – the idea that any two people on the planet are, on average, six or fewer social connections from one another, shrinks to maybe two or three degrees of separation within the context of Welsh-speakers.

This creates a relatively higher level of social risk associated with acting in bad faith, or fraudulently, within the context of the Welsh language, than in the English language. 

In the same way as a trader within a small village lives – or not – by the quality of their service and their reputation – traders who embrace the Welsh language are making a commitment to the quality of their product or service within the ‘village’ of the Welsh language.

This reputational alignment brings benefits to organisations both small and large. Small companies benefit from provision of Welsh language services by demonstrating their understanding of, and commitment to, language issues, which could arguably be seen as a proxy for their commitment to Wales as a national entity. Large organisations who offer services in Welsh – whether based in Wales or not – benefit from the perception that they have invested sufficiently within the language to understand the value of it to the people of Wales, and further that they value it sufficiently to employ people to be able to deliver their services through the medium of Welsh.

In other words, using Welsh in the world of commerce reduces the risk to the purchaser that the supplier will provide sub-par products or services.

There’s another benefit – to the ‘resilience and prosperity’ parts of Wales – related to organisations domiciled in Wales, and paying local and national taxes, because companies trading through the medium of Welsh are overwhelmingly likely to be domiciled within Wales, and furthermore to be of insufficient scale to avoid paying their taxes here.

So by using Welsh as a preferred language of commerce – for those of us privileged to be able to do so – we are both reducing our risk as users of products or services, and increasing the likelihood that the profits retained from our purchase of said services will be taxed within Wales. For those of us who aren’t able or confident enough to use our Welsh, we can still benefit from the increased levels of trust in those companies that are providing their services through the medium of Welsh.

Do I personally buy all my products or services from companies with a Welsh-language service? No, and partly because that information isn’t readily available. Whilst the likes of Ffônlyfr from Menter Caerdydd are helpful local tools, what Wales needs is a location-based map, response for mobile devices, where you can search for your nearest cafe, pub, hairdresser or professional service that can deliver that service through Cymraeg. This is my challenge to Wales’ vibrant developer community! And I think that there’s a sound business model for such a product. For example, my own company, Afallen, would happily pay a monthly subscription for inclusion in such a directory.

I believe that the growing confidence and numbers of Welsh speakers will have a small but positive impact on our society and economy, and particularly for those organisations who can offer all their services through the medium of Welsh. Now – where’s that app for Welsh language businesses…I fancy a take-out coffee.

Dec 20/ Welsh Government’s approach to ‘digital’

Welsh Government’s approach to digital is being described through a series of blog posts.

I’m really encouraged by this approach to a new #digitalstrategy for Wales – and for public services in particular.

 I like the way that a blog is being used to describe each of the ‘missions’ which underpin the strategy, and I think that there are many positive aspects (and potential outcomes) from the missions. 

But….so far, there’s been a notable omission from any of the narrative for me – and that’s any explicit mention of #opensource.

Open source software (yes, and even hardware in some cases), underpins most of the world’s IT infrastructure and systems. It liberates, educates, and is a tool to lower barriers and costs for billions of existing and potential digital users globally.

In the context of Wales’ Future Generations legislation, it’s a slam-dunk for many of the goals, and more so in many cases than closed-source tools.

At the outset of a digital strategy development cycle, we have the incredible opportunity to embed a philosophical and practical commitment to using, supporting, developing and championing open source technologies. With the devolution of education, we also have the opportunity of developing this theme through formal education in schools, colleges and universities; and through informal routes such as Code Clubs.

I’ve previously written about the dangers to democracy from untrammelled use of ‘corporate surveillance’ platforms. The other side of that coin is the growth of the open source social media world – the ‘Fediverse’ – which points to a more responsible, respectful and kinder online world.

It’s not beyond imagination that Wales becomes a standard-bearer for open source solutions, playing a significant role in global contributions to software and hardware. The outcomes for us – and for the world – could be huge. Look what happened when Estonia developed a strong Governmental interest in digital and cybersecurity!

I look forward to seeing future blog posts from Welsh Government, and I hope that open source starts becoming a more visible component of future updates!

Nov 20/ What drives the IndyWales conversation?

As someone with a strong interest in politics and public affairs, I’ve been following the IndyWales discussion with interest for many years.

Nothing has the potential to change the nature of our politics, constitution, society and environment as much as becoming an independent nation, and whilst these discussions have taken place as long as my political awareness has been in existence, they have hitherto not been part of mainstream public discourse.

The meteoric rise of YesCymru membership which now numbers more than 13,000 (from just over 2,000 at the start of 2020) has changed the framework of public debate in Wales. According to some sources, paid-up members now number more than any political party in Wales except for Labour.

A picture of a tweet of YesCymru's membership reaching 12,000, with the comment that YesCymru is the second largest political force in Wales

I decided to take a look at mentions of YesCymru on Twitter, from the very first days (August 2014) until now. I was curious about what was driving the discussion. Taking mentions of YesCymru as a proxy for interest in the organisation as a whole (and therefore IndyWales more generally) and I wanted to test the theory that pronouncements made in Westminster have an impact on YesCymru interest.

The early years

The first graph shows the frequency of mention of YesCymru over the whole span, from August 2014 until the present day.

By recent standards, there was very little activity over those early years; the activity tended to be catalysed by events within Wales itself, such as marches for independence.

However more recently there are clearly defined peaks in activity which correlate more strongly with specific events in Westminster. For example, there was a flurry of activity on the day following the General Election in 2019 in which the Conservatives were returned with a significantly increased majority.

The next big peak occurred during a period in mid-April when it was revealed that England’s health service had superseded the Welsh Government’s provisional deal for PPE equipment, and that England’s Covid death figures had not included those occurring in care homes.

The big peak(s)

Most interesting for me has been the more recent direct correlation between events in Westminster, and mentions of YesCymru on Twitter.

The furore around Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight resulted in more than 3,000 mentions of YesCymru over three days. And the vote by MPs in Westminster not to extend free school meals for the poorest children in England caused many Twitter users to vent their anger, resulting in much more activity for YesCymru.

And most telling of all, the ‘big’ peak of more than 4,000 mentions came following the more generous furlough agreement made after Johnson’s decision to lock down England for a month, despite rejecting pleas by Wales and Scotland for more support in the weeks prior to the decision.

Analysis

As with many social media movements or campaigns, there was not much in the early years to report on.

Typically, early activity from any social media account consists of regular engagement to build up ‘brand’ awareness and forge relationships.

The science of social media demonstrates empirically that large social media accounts grow more quickly and have far greater interaction, so even in the absence of external factors, there would have been an increasing trend of mentions of YesCymru over time.

However, what we can see from the data is that external factors are playing a huge role in engagement, and that the factors which appear to be playing the biggest role are indeed those performed by UK Government – as highlighted by Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts.

I find it particularly interesting that even where decisions are taken in Westminster that do not directly affect the people of Wales – the decision not to provide free school meals to the poorest children in England as a prime example – this still results in a huge amount of increased discussion around IndyWales.

This appears to suggest that the institutions of Westminster are becoming increasingly scrutinised by the people of Wales for unfairness, not just to Wales, but to citizens in other parts of the UK.

It’s still very early days for discussions about independence in Wales, but it’s certain that analysing Twitter will continue to provide a rich seam of data for researchers examining politics and society here.

Sept 20/ The Fund (short story)

I took the arrival of a recent pension update letter as inspiration for a short story. Enjoy!

The year is 2020. It’s August, and lockdown is nearly over. Whilst this has been an extraordinary epoch in the life of Dave, some things are as mundane as ever.

The post drops on the floor, and the letterbox slaps shut. Outside, the clouds hover ominously. Autumn rides on the midday sun, lower in the sky than during the preceding months of gloriously too-hot heat.

The house is quiet; a rare spell when the children and wife are out of the house, and he’s able to boot up the computer to ‘hit the mainframe’. Dave gets up off the stool and heads to the door. 

Katie, Katie, Katie….here’s one for me. Fuck! He thinks; it’s that time of year.

Every summer, regular as clockwork, comes the pension statement. No money input to *that* pension since I left *that* job. It’s a sad reminder both of colleagues abandoned for better things, and of the total inadequacy of his pension provision.

Holy crap…this one’s a record loss. £3k in one year…that’s more than 10% of the total fund. What the *fuck* do these fund ‘managers’ (mirthless laugh) do for their money.

Summoning The Force, Dave crouches to his knee and leaps, punching a hole clean through the ceiling, through the bedroom, out of the roof and arcs high into the air. 2.339 seconds later he is smashing through the window of his fund manager’s office in London.

The Occupant is stunned for a moment, before recognising his client. 

“Ah – Mr. Clubb. How nice of you to drop in! Don’t worry about the window. We absorb those kinds of costs into our management fee”

He pushes the rolex self-consciously up his slender arm, as if to conceal it below his shirt cuffs. 

“Is it the £3k loss, or the annual management fee. Again.”

Clubb breathes in and out. “I guess retiring at 50 is out. Just hand over the keys to the safe and I’ll be out of your office.”

The Occupant blocks the path to the safe; rips off his shirt and trousers in a one-two, hands sything across his body. Revealing a skin-tight black lycra suit.

“You know the rules, Clubb. Hard way, or easy way.”

“Your rolex just popped its strap, buddy.” As The Occupant glances down, Dave glides forward, seemingly without touching the floor. One billionth of a nanosecond later, The Occupant disappears in a magnesium-white pillar of flame. 

“It’s Dr. Clubb to you” says Dave, smashing the safe open with the heel of his hand.

Inside lies a single scrap of paper, with IOU scrawled on it in large letters.

With a slurping noise, Dave melds into the floor. There is only the sound of blinds flapping in the wind. They beat a scattered rhythm. “Next year. Next year. Next year”.

Sept 20/ The digital threat to Wales’ democracy

“our data are our stories. When our data are manipulated, distorted, stolen, exploited, or misused, our communities are stifled, obstructed, or repressed, and our ability to self-determine and prosper is systematically controlled” (1)

The UK story

The story of the 2010s can – to a significant extent – be told by the exploitation of private data, unwittingly harvested from individuals, to allow falsehoods to be directly targeted at those most susceptible. 

From the perspective of the citizens of Wales, the biggest systemic impact of the decade was Brexit. It will likely be the biggest impact, potentially eclipsing even the extraordinary social impact of coronavirus, for decades to come.

One of a series of adverts displaying a false dilemma during the campaign on voting to change the electoral system for elections to the UK Parliament.

Although the deliberate false dilemma (2) has been used numerous times in election campaigns prior to the Brexit vote (notably by those responsible for running the Vote Leave campaign), it was hitherto not possible to target such advertising to the individual. It generally appeared in the traditional press, on billboards and in other public places.

Techniques became available through the 2010s which allowed advertising to be targeted to an astonishing level of detail; never before was so much falsehood directed with such accuracy. Animal-lovers were targeted with images of bullfighting and encouraged to sign up to the vote leave campaign. People hostile to immigration were targeted with (false) images of Turkey joining the EU. The EU was even falsely accused of wanting to ‘kill our cuppa’ – whatever that means.


A false dilemma advert for the Brexit campaign, presumably targeted geographically or by origin of the individual viewing it. Note the £350 million figure again, presumably ‘spent’ in hundreds of different ways during the campaign depending on the advert recipient.

In presenting issues of extraordinary complexity, in such a simplistic, binary and dishonest way, the leave campaign was able to provide strong messaging in a way that caused people to act; to sign up, to part with their personal data, and often to become activists. This messaging contrasted with a more nuanced, and highly flawed, attempt to persuade people that their interests were better served by remaining in the EU – something that will almost certainly be borne out by the reality of the consequences of the vote to leave.

One of the most astonishingly brazen acts of data collection was with the launch of a £50m competition – statistically almost impossible to win – which was free to enter, and which was promoted by household names, including Ian Botham (3).

Ian Botham was happy to become the face of the project to harvest – effectively for free – the contact details of hundreds of thousands of competition participants

In order to qualify for the competition, the user had to submit personal information, including contact details. It was the perfect, albeit ethically dubious, way for a campaign to move from a database of zero to potentially hundreds of thousands within a very short timeframe.

While we have yet to know in what way the impacts of Brexit will play out for our families and communities, we do know that the methods of campaigning deployed with such devastating impact during the Brexit referendum are likely to be refined and re-deployed in future elections and referendum campaigns.

So what does that mean for us here in Wales?

The threat to Wales

At the moment any existential threat to Wales’ democracy seems fanciful. The increasing powers of the Senedd (4) have been endorsed in consecutive referenda. Public levels of confidence in our legislative body are extremely high compared with attitudes towards Westminster (5), an attitude which has been bolstered by a visible difference in how the rules governing behaviour during the coronavirus outbreak were implemented in Wales compared to England.

However, those of us who are strong supporters of a powerful and independent Senedd would do well to consider what could happen if and when the attention of the masters of manipulation social media turn their attention to elections in Wales. Should they wish to create or support a campaign to dismantle the Senedd, can any of us assert with confidence that our institutions are invulnerable? Could a package of misinformation, targeted to trigger the innermost hopes or fears of millions of users of social media in Wales, result in the activating of large swathes of our hitherto non-voting population agreeing with messages such as:

  • “Better funding Welsh schools or an expensive talking shop (referring to the Senedd)”
  • “More nurses in Wales’ hospitals or an expensive talking shop”
  • “A strong Welsh culture and language or an expensive talking shop”
  • “A new transport system or an expensive talking shop”

(It will be interesting to see how the Conservative party’s Welsh branch, supported with digital marketing expertise from party headquarters performs in the 2021 Senedd elections. My hunch is that they will considerably overperform against current polling, and that the change will happen in the month or two prior to the vote, concomitant with a digital campaign.)

Unfortunately the threat to a well-financed digital media campaign informed by huge troves of data obtained from the citizens of Wales is not easy to mitigate. The Electoral Commission has shown itself to be toothless in the face of law-breaking with regard to referendums and elections (6). Fines of tens of thousands of pounds are meaningless in the context of shifts of power between political parties, or on matters of great constitutional significance. With the UK Government profoundly unconcerned by reports of Russian interference in the last General Election (7), we now hear that the Electoral Commission itself is on the list of organisations threatened with extinction (8)

What of digital protection? Outside the EU we are no longer covered by the GDPR. Whilst the UK is almost certain to legislate in some form to protect the interests of the individual, I believe it unlikely that the Government will strengthen protection for our citizens over and above the privileges that we enjoyed as EU citizens.

In other words, the conditions are potentially ripe for individuals or organisations wishing to turn back the devolutionary clock in Wales.

The solution?

A threat this complex, well-resourced and intangible is not easy to manage. With little prospect of protection for our elections – and the way that campaigns are managed – from a UK Government which is demonstrably dismissive of devolved institutions (9), the answer will lie within Wales itself, and will require a strategic and long-term approach, coincidentally the approach mandated by the Act for the Well-being of Future Generations. 

Very briefly, some elements of defence against the current social media dominance would include

  1. Education; this needs to start early – ideally before children have become comfortable with the idea of ‘sharing’ their personal data without an understanding of the value of that data, and of the potential consequences from so doing. However the education needs to go for beyond schools, and into civil society. Agents of education will be needed in many different spheres of public life.
  2. Promotion of platforms which provide similar functionality but which respect privacy and data, and do not allow advertising or the sale of user data. There is an ethical, open source alternative to many existing social media platforms, and good resources describing how to subscribe to them (such as switching.software)
  3. The adoption of ethical alternative platforms by the institutions of Welsh Government and governance, in order to demonstrate their understanding of the issues surrounding existing structures, and to visibly support the fledgling open source platforms with the gravitas of their institutions

Unless the users of corporate social media platforms vote with their feet and start really ‘taking back control’, we will end up feeding the digital corporations with the revenue and data which enables them to exert almost unrestricted power and influence over our democratic processes.

And, ultimately, over our democratic institutions themselves.

Some first practical steps

The process of moving towards a privacy and democracy-respecting digital workflow does not have to be overly complicated. It can start with steps as simple as the following:

David Clubb, a Partner at Afallen, is a moderator on the toot.wales instance of Mastodon (an open source version of Twitter), and is able to provide training and support for organisations starting on their journey to a more sustainable and democracy-supporting use of digital technology and social media.

Bibliography

1.     Lewis T, Gangadharan S, Saba M, Petty T. Digital defense playbook: Community power tools for reclaiming data. Detroit: Our Data Bodies;

2.     False dilemma. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=False_dilemma&oldid=968609618

3.     correspondent ASP. Vote Leave launches £50m football prediction competition. The Guardian [Internet]. 2016 May 27 [cited 2020 Sep 3]; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/27/vote-leave-launches-50m-football-prediction-competition-euro-2016

4.     Referendum 2011 [Internet]. Welsh Parliament. [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://senedd.wales/en/gethome/elections-referenda/Pages/referendum-2011.aspx

5.     Over twice as many trust Welsh Parliament as trust Westminster to look after the interests of Wales [Internet]. Nation.Cymru. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://nation.cymru/news/over-twice-as-many-trust-welsh-parliament-as-trust-westminster-to-look-after-the-interests-of-wales/

6.     Vote Leave fined and referred to the police for breaking electoral law [Internet]. [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/media-centre/vote-leave-fined-and-referred-police-breaking-electoral-law

7.     Sabbagh D, Harding L, Roth  and A. Russia report reveals UK government failed to investigate Kremlin interference. The Guardian [Internet]. 2020 Jul 21 [cited 2020 Sep 3]; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/21/russia-report-reveals-uk-government-failed-to-address-kremlin-interference-scottish-referendum-brexit

8.     correspondent PWP. Tory plan to scrap election watchdog ‘undermines democracy’. The Guardian [Internet]. 2020 Aug 31 [cited 2020 Sep 3]; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/aug/31/tory-plans-to-scrap-election-watchdog-undermines-democracy

9.     Written Statement: Welsh Government’s analysis of the UK Government’s negotiating mandate for the Future Relationship with the EU [Internet]. GOV.WALES. [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://gov.wales/written-statement-welsh-governments-analysis-uk-governments-negotiating-mandate-future-relationship

July 20/ Open source social media will save our democracy

In an opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, Carole Cadwalladr describes how Facebook is the virus that has enabled the catastrophes of both Brexit, and the ascension of Mr. Trump to the White House.

Facebook allows lies to spread virtually unchecked. It permits those people with the most money and least scruples to disseminate falsehoods to those most susceptible. And it allows this with no prospect of holding individuals or organisations to account.

Whilst Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms have enabled a blossoming of connection, conversation and shared ideas; they have also created a bitter, divisive, polarised digital world where shareholder value is enhanced most by highlighting division and minimising harmony. Quiet, reasoned thoughts are filtered out by algorithms designed to maximise clicks, retweets and likes. Volume is king.

Many people want to make a difference but they don’t know how. But there is an antidote to the virus of misinformation and hatred. That antidote is open source social media, and it’s already spreading at the fringes of the online universe.

Open source social media

Open source social media doesn’t permit advertising. It doesn’t sell data. It prohibits hate speech and intolerance*. And it’s moderated by users, not resourced at the behest of global tech giants. 

More worryingly for the incumbents, the hotbeds of innovation are no longer in the mega-corporations with their teams of thousands in the offices and boardrooms of (mostly) America. They are in the open source equivalents, with code freely available for thousands of supporters and volunteers across the globe to build and improve. 

From the perspective of Wales’ Future Generations Act, anybody using, promoting or supporting these open source platforms is supporting the goal of a Globally Responsible Wales. From a worldwide perspective, that same user or supporter is increasing the freely-accessible sum of human knowledge. 

One clear example of this innovation is the federation between open source platforms (also known as the Fediverse). Federation is the ability to connect different social media platforms, so that posts and updates become mutually visible.

This means that if you post a photo on Pixelfed (ethical version of Instagram), it pops up in your feed on Mastodon (ethical version of Twitter). Likewise websites, blogs and updates on the ethical equivalent of pretty much every ‘surveillance capitalism’ platform you can think of can cross-post to each other, enabling much more streamlined conversations and updates.

What are the downsides (and upsides)?

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room; the big downside of the new open source Fediverse is that user numbers are far, far lower than for the established platforms.

This is hardly surprising; there’s a headstart of fifteen years or so for many of the tech giants. And the science behind social media means that there’s an agglomeration effect; once most of your friends are engaged on a platform, it takes a significant effort to leave them behind and start something new.

For me personally it meant (mostly) leaving my Twitter account of several thousand followers, and starting a fresh new Mastodon account on toot.wales, one of many ‘locality’ type instances across the world. 

I instantly ‘lost out’ on the instantaneous stream of updates from my many friends and colleagues, and on the rough-and-tumble of (what passes for) debate there. There’s likely an impact on my ability to promote my new business, Afallen, through that network, too. 

However, what I have found is a new community of online friends and collaborators. I’ve witnessed almost zero hatred or bullying. And I’ve relished using platforms which don’t harvest my personal data in order to sell them to companies who may – in many cases – place profit above the public good.

The truth is that the community of users in Mastodon (and the other platforms) is growing steadily – see the example below for activity on toot.wales. At some tipping point – I’m convinced – the growth will start to become exponential, and then the users who became active first will see the biggest benefits.

Weekly interactions on the toot.wales platform

But the biggest benefit of all will come when people start to leave the platforms of the tech giants en masse, lessening their influence as the custodians of online debate and information-sharing, and contributing to a kinder, gentler and more thoughtful world of public discourse.

Further information

If you’re interested in finding out more about the ethical, privacy-conscious alternatives to the mainstream social media platforms, head to switching.software.

*Almost all ‘instances’ of open source social media ban hate and intolerance. Those that don’t are generally blocked, so the hatred is restricted to a small portion of the Fediverse