Open Source, Decentralised, and Federated Social Media Alternatives

tl;dr: Join me in exploring some alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Discord, Slack, Zoom, Skype, etc. Only through trying them out and starting to develop a critical mass will we be able to free ourselves from these giant platforms that don’t have our best interests at heart.

When it comes to social media these days, we users are very definitely the product. We are bombarded with ads (or need to resort to ad blockers), censored for posting things that the platforms deem risky or not profitable (such as sexually explicit material or expressions about less mainstream parts of our identity), and at the same time are powerless to reliably get the platforms to remove content that is actively harmful.

To mainstream social media, we’re just marketing opportunities generating ad revenue. We stay, mostly, because these platforms have the critical mass of people with whom we’d like to connect. But what if we decided to go elsewhere?

OK, so I know that less mainstream or more niche platforms don’t have that critical mass, and as a result are less appealing. But I’d like people to consider them nonetheless, because that’s the only way we’ll actually get any sort of critical mass and have a hope of cultivating a social network on platforms where we have more freedom and agency.

I’ll explain what I mean by “decentralised” and “federated”, and go into some examples of each.

What is a Federated Platform?

A federated platform is one in which there is no single centralised authority or hub on which the system, platform, or network depends. The most prominent example of this is email. While most people these days have a Gmail address, we also have the option of instead using a Yahoo! or Hotmail address, or any other free or paid email service, or we could choose to host our email ourselves. (Incidentally, I personally pay for a Fastmail account because I’m the customer and not the product, and having worked for them in the past, I trust their security and values.) Regardless which email hosting provider you use, you aren’t siloed or restricted to communicating with others who use that email provider. A Gmail user can email a Yahoo! user, for example.

The key takeaway here is that while there are hubs through which communication and networking must occur, there are many of them, and you have a choice of which one you use, or whether you set up your own.

Federated Platforms and ActivityPub

Many federated platforms support ActivityPub. Without getting into too much technical detail, in the same way the SMTP protocol allows different email services (Fastmail, Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail) to talk to each other, ActivityPub allows some different social media platforms to talk to each other.

So, for example, if I was part of a Twitter-like social media site for people who love ponies, and a friend of mine was part of a Twitter-like social media site for people who hate pineapple on pizza, ActivityPub would still let me, on my pony-loving site, follow and interact with my friend on their pineapple-on-pizza-hating site, without each of us needing an account on each others’ community sites (which is a relief, because I’m definitely pro-pineapple-pizza!).

Not only that, but if I had a third friend (I know; I’m so popular!) who was on a Facebook-like site for people who want to try water-skiing, and both my Twitter-like site and their Facebook-like site support ActivityPub, I could even mutually follow and interact with them, even though the sites we’re using run different software and have different focuses. I’d see their Facebook-like posts as Tweet-like things in my timeline, and they’d see my Tweet-like things as Facebook-like posts on their timeline, and we’d be able to comment on each others’ updates from our respective websites. Pretty cool, huh?

Visual example of ponies/pineapple/ski explanation.
Federated social media example

Collectively, apps and sites that communicate with each other via ActivityPub are said to be part of the “Fediverse” (a portmanteau of “federated universe”). Each site (be it a pony site or a pineapple pizza site) is often referred to as a “server” or, more commonly, an “instance,” (as in, “an instance or server in which this particular software is installed”) such that in this context, these terms can all be used interchangeably.

Examples of Federated Platforms

Alright, without any further backstory, let’s dive into some examples. Many of the federated examples I’m listing below support ActivityPub (i.e. are part of the Fediverse), which means that if you join a site that runs any of those apps, you’ll be able to talk to people on any of the others (including me)!

Mastodon (Twitter alternative)

Screenshot of Mastodon's mobile web interface
Screenshot of Mastodon’s mobile web interface

Mastodon is a great alternative to Twitter. It has all the paradigms you know and love, with a few different names. Tweets are called Toots, and Retweets are called Boosts. Toots on Mastodon are usually limited to 500 characters, compared to Twitter’s 280 characters, and you can also include Content Warnings on your Toots, which will hide the Toot’s contents until the reader clicks on it (after they’ve read whatever content warning you provided), and will blur out any attached media by default too. There are even various services, such as Moa.party, which will let you post your Twitter Tweets to Mastodon, and vice-versa, if you wish.

If you head over to Mastodon’s home page and scroll down a bit, you can find a bunch of instances you can join to become part of the Fediverse, and communicate with anyone else who’s also connected. I personally am a member of Aus.social, a Mastodon server targeted at Australian folks. My friend, Aurynn, has also recently launched Cloud Island, which is targeted at New Zealenders, but is also open to Australians.

Cloud Island is a paid-for service (minimum $8USD/month, via Patreon), which helps to support the servers running the site, and the effort required to keep it going. It also has a well-defined and enforced code of conduct, meaning it’s well-moderated, and the site is entirely hosted in New Zealand, which means it’s pretty fast to access from Australia, and isn’t hosted with a big cloud provider like Amazon’s AWS (which I think is a Good Thing). You can find more information on the Cloud Island homepage, or the About section of its Patreon page.

There are iPhone and Android apps that support Mastodon too. On Android I use Tusky. I don’t have any recommendations for iPhone apps, but could probably hunt some down if asked.

A 2-minute Mastodon introduction video

Pixelfed (Instagram alternative)

Screenshot of Pixelfed's mobile web interface
Screenshot of Pixelfed’s mobile web interface

Pixelfed is also part of the Fediverse, and has a focus on photos and pictures, in the same way that Instagram does. I’ve not played around with it a whole lot, but it looks like they’re doing some really cool stuff. Head over to their list of instances if you’d like to join up and give it a shot.

Friendica (Facebook alternative)

Screenshot of Friendica's mobile web interface
Screenshot of Friendica’s mobile web interface

If you really want something that looks like Facebook, from what I’ve seen, Friendica is your best bet. You can check out their list of instances, or maybe try to come join me over on Nerdica. Friendica shows information in Facebook-style posts and comments (even if the conversation happened on another platform like Mastodon — yes, Friendica is part of the Fediverse too!), as well as supporting things like Events; one of the main things I keep Facebook around for.

PeerTube (YouTube alternative)

Screenshot of Peertube's mobile web interface
Screenshot of Peertube’s mobile web interface

If videos are your thing, give PeerTube a shot. You can filter their list of instances on various criteria, post videos, and watch other videos (from your instance or others). PeerTube has the added option that, while watching a video, you can share bits of the video (using a BitTorrent-style protocol) with anyone else also watching the same video, to reduce the load on the server hosting it! Furthermore, if you find someone who posts videos that you enjoy on PeerTube, and you’d like to subscribe to them, you can do this from any platform that supports ActivityPub, and see updates on your platform of choice whenever a new video is uploaded!

WriteFreely (Blogging/writing platform)

Screenshot of WriteFreely's mobile web interface
Screenshot of WriteFreely’s mobile web interface

WriteFreely is a really clean-looking blogging and writing platform that’s also part of the Fediverse. This means you can subscribe to WriteFreely authors from whatever Fediverse platform you’re a member of. If you want to give WriteFreely a shot, you could try out Write.As, from the folks who develop WriteFreely, or join another instance of your choice.

Riot.im and Matrix (Slack/Signal/IM alternative)

Screenshot of Riot's mobile app
Screenshot of Riot’s mobile app

Riot and Matrix work together to provide a chat service, both for one-on-one chats, and for group chat rooms. Matrix is the name of the server-side (the service you connect to in order to interact with others), and Riot.im is the name of the client side (the app you run on your computer or phone to connect to the network). There are other alternatives to Riot if you’d like to connect to Matrix with something different. FluffyChat is one of them. It’s pretty cute and friendly, but I don’t think it’s quite as featureful as Riot is just yet.

Screenshot of FluffyChat's mobile app
Screenshot of FluffyChat’s mobile app

If you want to give Riot/Matrix a shot, I highly recommend creating an account on matrix.org using their instance of the Riot web app.

Matrix are also doing some really cool stuff in an endeavour to support being decentralised, as well as federated. Check out their peer-to-peer Matrix blog post for more info.

Matrix is also great as an alternative to Signal, with the advantage that all the software is completely open source (while for Signal, you’re using the Signal servers, whose source code you can’t verify), and doesn’t require sharing your phone number with contacts. It does full end-to-end encryption, and has recently released a really simple verification tool with Riot 1.6, meaning that if you’ve verified the Matrix identity of a friend in-person, you can be certain that you’re talking to them, no matter what device they’re talking to you from. It’s a really smooth experience!

Riot also supports one-on-one video and voice calling, and, if integrated with Jitsi (mentioned below), can also do group video chats.

What is a Decentralised Platform?

A decentralised platform is one in which every participant is equal. There are no hubs that we need to interact through, and no contributor is more important than any other. The best example of this that I can think of is attending a social gathering in person. You might know some people there, and not know others. You find yourself in a group talking to some folks, one of whom is an astronomer. Later on in the event, you find yourself in a different group of people, chatting, and somebody mentions astronomy. At this point, you can mention that you were chatting to an astronomer earlier on, and potentially invite them over or connect them to this person later on.

In this example, no one person holds all the knowledge from all the conversations in the event space, or is arbitrating and dictating who can speak with whom. Every individual at the event is a free agent who can communicate with any other person, and can share information from other interactions they’ve had. This is what I mean by decentralised.

Examples of Decentralised Platforms

Decentralised platforms are still relatively new, and many of them aren’t particularly polished, but here are a few examples:

Secure ScuttleButt

Screenshot of Manyverse's mobile app
Screenshot of Manyverse’s mobile app

Secure ScuttleButt is probably one of the more predominant platforms right now. It uses what is known as the “gossip” protocol, in the same way that I described in my example of different conversations at a social event above. I hear information from my friends, and then I can “gossip” that information to my other friends as an intermediary, without each of my friends knowing each other directly. This has the advantage that there is no single point of failure, and anybody can pass on a message from one person to another, as long as they’re connected to both of those people. The disadvantage, though, is that anything posted to the ScuttleButt network is immutable (i.e. you can’t edit or delete what you), and, with the exception of private messages, all your posts are publicly visible. (Private messages can be passed on from one friend to another, but can only be decrypted by the intended recipient.)

The other upshot of this model of not having any central servers are that you can make updates (e.g. a social media post) to your ScuttleButt journal from anywhere, even if you don’t have an internet connection at the time, and then as soon as you’re in range of a friend who also uses ScuttleButt, your devices can communicate directly (without needing to go via the internet), to share the information you’ve published, and then your friend can pass it onto others via the internet, or directly. This all happens automatically and seamlessly.

Further to the above, if you receive updates from your friends, your device will download all of those, and you can read them offline at your leisure. This does mean that your cache of ScuttleButt content can grow quite large (gigabytes, in some cases), and you may need to set it up to delete old content once in a while, with the additional disadvantage that you then won’t be able to pass this content onto others, or access it yourself unless you retrieve it again from a friend.

To get started with ScuttleButt on your computer, I recommend downloading Patchwork and following the ScuttleButt Getting Started guide. To get started on your mobile device, give Manyverse a shot. It’s worth noting that due to how ScuttleButt works, you can’t have the same identity on both your phone and your computer, but you can easily cross-link unoffically by mentioning your phone’s identity in your computer’s profile bio, and vice-versa.

Aether (forum-style platform)

I haven’t really played with Aether much yet, but it’s a platform that allows you to create and subscribe to forums on various topics. Like ScuttleButt, because it’s decentralised, you basically download all the information to which you’re given access, and then you share that with others you interact with. In order to keep the amount of information you download relatively small, the platform only allows sharing text data (though this data can contain links to other media such as images elsewhere on the internet).

IPFS (Distributed world wide web)

IPFS, the InterPlanetary File System, is a peer-to-peer file storage system. Their homepage likely explains how it works better than I, but in short, you and others store files you’d like to publish via IPFS, and then everybody who downloads those files becomes capable of sharing them with others.

Briar (messaging app)

Briar is an Android-only messaging app that works via peer-to-peer access direct between phones, or over the internet via the Tor network. It’s not particularly polished, and doesn’t have a bunch of features yet, but is designed to be secure and private, and for basic messaging, it seems to work relatively well.

Jitsi (Video conferencing platform)

Jitsi is one of the up-and-coming video platforms available these days as an alternative to Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc. It’s completely free to create a video chat on their website Meet.Jit.si, and you don’t even need an account for it! They’re also working hard on getting end-to-end encryption up-and-running, and already have a proof-of-concept working! Meanwhile, if you’re concerned that their server can decrypt your video messages, you can run your own instance of the server that you control! Jitsi can run completely in-browser, but also has desktop and mobile apps for all major platforms.

Big Blue Button (Video conferencing platform)

As if having a single video conferencing alternative wasn’t enough, Big Blue Button is another one! I’ve not played with this a whole lot, but it’s also completely free, and seems to offer some more seminar-like tools that Jitsi lacks, as well as a collaborative note-taking space shared by everyone within a given meeting. Like with Jitsi, Big Blue Button can be installed on your own servers, so that you can control who has access to your data.

Summary

There are so many more cool apps that I didn’t mention here. All of the ones I have mentioned are completely open source, so the code for them is completely available for anyone to read, or install on their own systems so they’re not reliant on servers controlled by anyone else.

Of the services listed above, here are those that support ActivityPub and are part of the Fediverse, along with any accounts I have on them. I’m inactive on most of them except aus.social, so whichever platform you choose, that’s the best account to follow:

If you’d like to make contact with me on any of the other services I’ve mentioned, here’s where you can find me:

  • Matrix: @mattcen:matrix.org
  • ScuttleButt: @qAAoOWTZ9ynC/huIf9TplQujL4ccNUMGvUvQLxUa9xY=.ed25519

I know that switching away from our current familiar social media platforms that have all our friends on them is a big ask. I also know that some people think that the benefit of being able to easily connect with their social circle outweighs the detriments of giving your data to a big company, or of expending energy switching to a more free and liberated alternative and then trying to convince your friends to do the same so you don’t feel so alone there. I’m here to tell you that getting started on some of these platforms really isn’t that hard, and you don’t need to give up Facebook or Twitter right away. It’s easy to create a Mastodon account on Mastodon.online or Aus.social, and then use that to follow friends on those or other Fediverse platforms, either from a computer or smartphone. It’s equally easy to install Riot.im on your smartphone (or their newer client, RiotX, if you’re on Android) or access its web interface on desktop, to create an account on Matrix.org and use it to chat with friends and meet new people.

All I’m asking is that you give it a chance and see how it works for you, and who knows, maybe we’ll be able to start such a trend that we create our own brand new community of pineapple-pizza-hating or pony-loving humans!

So, please join me. Let’s give some of these other freedom- and privacy-respecting social media tools a chance, and see if we can build a new friend network away from the Facebooks and Twitters of the world!

How did I get here?

Over the last few of years, I’ve undergone a lot of changes, and taken some pretty huge steps in personal development. This post is an attempt to tell the story of how this all unfolded. Some of the details are a little fuzzy, but the general narrative is sufficient.

Content note: Non-specific discussions about sex and BDSM; more detailed discussions of polyamory/non-monogamy, and bisexuality. Fairly specific mention of my realisation of bisexual/polyamorous/kinky identity and coming out. A pretty deep dive into my brain.

Backstory

As of the start of 2014, I had led what I deemed a pretty ordinary, uninteresting (not to say unfulfilled!) life. I’d gone through primary school and secondary school without many noteworthy blips, except perhaps for the one that helped me realise the self-destructive nature of secrets, and the freedom of honesty, even when it means admitting you messed up.

Being involved with Scouts since I was 8 taught me a lot of life skills, including teamwork, leadership, independence, event planning, and a slew of other awesome stuff. I took a break from Scouts when I turned 18.

I spent 2 years studying an Advanced Diploma of Computer Science at RMIT TAFE, and then in 2008 I articulated into RMIT’s Bachelor of Computer Science. That same year, I began my first ever job, lasting 7 years, and I re-joined the Scouts as a leader to get me away from my computer screen.

And for 6 years, this was basically how things stayed. I finished my degree, and my life was basically work, scouts, hanging out with a small handful of friends, and having my introvert down-time at home on the computer etc.

An exception to this was that in 2012 I started attending Linux.conf.au , an annual conference on Open Source software. This was where I started making a few friends in the IT space, but I didn’t generally see many of them outside of conferences, because they were from all over the world.

Catalyst

And that brings us to January 23, 2014, and this tweet from a Linux.conf.au contact:

Not having heard of @OKFNau before, I did some digging:

This sounded right up my alley, so I went. Being shy and introverted around new people, I was relieved when a very energetic human intercepted me on entry and made me feel welcome, introducing me to many awesome people.

I had a ball, and kept attending Open Knowledge events.
Now: I overcommit and volunteer far too much. For this, I blame my Scout leader; a fantastic person and role model with a penchant for doing too much, and whose commitment I aspired match until I realised not all adults are involved with 3 or more organisations outside their full-time job, and that’s OK!
It was only 6 months before I was co-running Open Knowledge events.

Realisation

I’d hitherto not made time or space in my life for romantic, intimate, sexual, or otherwise non-platonic connections. I had not desperately needed or craved those types of connections. Sure, I’d been attracted to women before, but never enough to warrant overcoming the stress and anxiety of “making a move.”

I think Open Knowledge was the first time that I regularly interacted with people around my age, with similar values and interests. I realised I really enjoyed that sort of connection, and thought I was finally ready to also explore different, non-platonic connections.

I wasn’t necessarily attracted to anyone from  Open Knowledge, and in any case the idea of saying as much terrified me. So I turned to online dating. “There’s no stigma against this any more,” I reasoned. After some research, I created an OkCupid account.

OkCupid asked me questions that I’d never considered before:

  • What is your sexual orientation? (Straight/Gay/Bisexual)
  • What is your monogamy preferences? (Monogamous/Non-monogamous)

I’d assumed I was straight, because I was interested in women and femme-presenting folks, and bisexuality hadn’t occurred to me; nor had non-monogamy.

Brief consideration revealed that I had the capacity to be attracted to men and masc-presenting folks too. In the past I’d recognised that some men were attractive, but only in a general and objective sense, as opposed to a personal attraction to someone. I also did a little research and decided that just assuming that monogamy is the right choice for everybody is a ridiculous idea. Society tells us monogamy is the norm, but it makes sense to question this, and make an informed decision either for or against monogamy; I chose the latter.

Selecting “bisexual” and “non-monogamous,” I completed my sign-up, and started chatting to people.

Exploration

Before long I had a couple of dates lined up, with a man and a woman. I mentioned earlier about how high school strengthened my aversion to secrets. As a result of this, I decided to come out as “possibly bisexual” to my parents. I lived with them, but was financially independent, and didn’t really think they’d have a problem with this information, let alone a big enough objection that they’d do something as drastic as kick me out, like I’d heard other parents of queer people do.

Hey Mum. I’ve started online dating. Why? Because I want to meet people and am bad at doing it in person! Anyway, I’ve got a couple of dates lined up. One is with a woman, and… one is with a guy.

Their general response was along the lines of: “Oh. … OK.” which was pretty great as far as I was concerned. They’ve been really supportive!

Back to that energetic person I met that first night at Open Knowledge. At some point, I’d heard them mention polyamory (a term I’d encountered in my non-monogamy research), so I told them I was exploring this idea, and they gave me heaps of references, including Archer Magazine, The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and Polyamory Victoria (PolyVic) – a group which runs regular meetups to discuss Polyamory. I did lots of reading, and joined the PolyVic community, eventually going on to co-run that as well.

In addition to the above polyamory/non-monogamy books, I eventually read More Than Two (that’s the book; also see their website, but also see this article as a caveat), and 3 books on communication: Nonviolent Communication, Crucial Conversations, and Never Split The Difference.

Even if polyamory wasn’t for me, I knew the communication and introspection skills I’d learn from considering it would be universally valuable, so I had no qualms about giving it a shot, with great success!

In the midst of all this, I had had relationships of varying durations and types with people of different genders, starting to explore sex, intimacy, and romance. I also started to explore parts of the BDSM scene, which, despite not spending much time in, I definitely have an interest in, and I’ve enjoyed the experimentation I’ve done in that space thus far. I’ve also started clubbing and exploring events and venues associated with the “gay scene,” which has been a little daunting, but also fun.

Conclusion

I don’t currently want to go into too many details of my sex life on a public post, but suffice to say, that from 2014 to 2017, I had crammed in a lot of theoretical and practical experience around communication, introspection, non-platonic relationships, non-monogamy, the queer community, sex, kink and the alternative/hippy community (in the form of alternative lifestyle festivals).

I keep an open mind, and am regularly inquisitive of the status quo or unfounded assumptions that society should be a certain way; I think this was attitude was integral to my journey.

So these days, I’m still doing the endless self-development thing. I’m working better on my communication skills, and pushing my comfort zone, going to events on my own, trying to meet new people, and get better at talking to strangers, especially those who I’m interested in or attracted to. That’s hard, but looking back on how far I’ve come, I’m reassured that I might get there one day. Who knows what the future will hold for me?

References

Non-monogamy Books:

Communication books:

Websites:

The risk and reward of difficult conversations with friends

tl;dr at the end.

Sometimes, when I express a mindset that I’ve adopted, people are intrigued by it and find it a useful way of framing certain thoughts. When that happens enough times, I figure it’s time to document the mindset for wider dissemination; this is one of those.

A while ago, I was considering my relationship with a close friend. I realised I was interested in exploring a non-platonic (romantic, intimate, or sexual) relationship with them. I wasn’t hung up on this idea; I basically wanted to float it and see what they thought, and I was happy to leave things as they were if the other person wasn’t interested.

I hear stories sometimes of people who have tried to suggest changes (some may call them “escalations”, though I don’t like that mindset) like this to a relationship, and are concerned that just the mere suggestion of these changes could destroy the relationship. What if the friend doesn’t think of you the same after you suggest, say, that you’re interested in them romantically? What if this knowledge means they’re not comfortable continuing your existing platonic relationship, because they might think they’re teasing teasing you by staying around but denying you the relationship change you suggested, because your feelings are unrequited? What if they are offended or insulted by your suggestion, for some reason? Perhaps you suggest a sexual relationship and they think you’re just desperate for sex and trying to use them to get it?

Here’s the big question: do you really want to continue a relationship (be it friendship or otherwise) with somebody who would react like this to a calmly raised suggestion, when you have stated that it is a suggestion and nothing more, and that you’re happy with things as they are? If you can’t be completely honest with this person and have them be anything other than grateful for your honesty and vulnerability, what’s the point? Wouldn’t you rather know that’s the case than brush it under the carpet and never find out because you didn’t make the suggestion?

So here I am, a while ago, wrestling with these thoughts about a friend: I am interested in exploring romance, intimacy, or sex with them, but I don’t want this admission to be reacted to negatively and damage our existing friendship. I thought it through, and I came out with three distinct possible outcomes:

  1. My friend will be keen to explore these other things with me and we see where it goes.
  2. My friend will respectfully tell me that they’re happy with our relationship as it is, and be grateful for my vulnerability in making this suggestion.
  3. My friend will struggle to digest this new information, and, despite clear and empathetic discussions about it and my assertions that it’s fine if they want to keep things as they are, will think that my unrequited feelings are something they can’t deal with (maybe because they think it’d be unkind to “tempt” me by sticking around), and elect to end our friendship. If this happens, it would be a really unfortunately loss of a great long-term friendship, but I’d also be pleased to know that we were both out authentic selves and I didn’t hide my feelings out of fear.

I realised that all three of these outcomes are acceptable to me. If (3) occurs, that’s a shame, but that’s life, and the fact is that I’ve known this person for years, so the likelihood of this outcome is very small. If we hadn’t been friends for long, and I made this suggestion, then (a) there’s less at stake; I have invested less in the relationship, and (b), I still would be grateful to learn that the friend would react this way sooner rather than later, and we can either work through that now, or go our separate ways.

I set out and wrote a big lengthy message, discussing my thought process and dancing around the message’s point. I wanted to do this in text because I can better and more articulately express my thoughts without feeling rushed, and once the message is sent, I can convince myself that there is nothing I can do until they respond, so there’s no point in dwelling on it or fretting. Hope for the best, express for the worst, but don’t waste your energy stressing about it. The message exceeded 400 words, but, halfway down, I asked, basically, if this person was interested in going on a date with me.

Then I waited patiently for a response. I’ll do you the courtesy that my friend did for me, which was to get unambiguously to the point early in the message so as not to keep me in suspense: they were happy with our relationship as it was, and weren’t interested in anything romantic. They also expressed that they appreciated my honesty.

And that was that. We’re still great friends; perhaps better, because I know I can feel safe having these hard conversations, and assume they’ll react empathetically and within my best interests.

So seriously, if you have you have high stakes conversation you want to have with a friend, just do it! The worst that can happen is they’ll show their true colours and not react well to the conversation, in which case that is valuable information that you have learned about each other; perhaps they could do with some research on communications, or, depending on the severity of their response, some therapy; there’s no shame in that.

Take the plunge!

tl;dr: If you’re worried about having a hard but respectful conversation with a friend because you’re concerned it’ll jeopardise/end the friendship, ask yourself if you really want to be friends with somebody who won’t give you the benefit of the doubt and respond compassionately and empathetically regardless of the outcome? What have you got to lose?

“You’re awesome!” and giving good compliments

Tl;dr at the bottom.

I live in a social echo chamber in which giving compliments is quite common. Often in society we don’t know how to give or accept compliments and without feeling silly or embarrassed.

I receive quite a few compliments, and still struggle to receive them (showing gratitude but not shrugging them off due to embarrassment), but I try to give them fairly liberally. Recently, I received an unprompted compliment from somebody, reminding me that I was awesome. I really appreciate people taking time out of their day to say these things, and I expressed gratitude for it at the time, but I found myself thinking about it later, and I realised that I’d wanted to ask “what made you say this?” but had refrained from doing so because I don’t want to sound ungrateful or expect people to take more time to explain themselves.

To be completely clear, telling people you appreciate them, or that they’re awesome, is a great start, especially in this society where recognising people’s flaws is common, but recognise their achievements is rare. The trouble with this, is that telling everybody that they’re “awesome” or similar has the potential to devalue the term through overuse. “Awesome” is an unqualified judgement that can be nice, but ultimately not very useful. I am consequently endeavouring to take things a step further when giving compliments.

Recently I read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B Rosenberg. In it, the author notes that gratitude is less useful than its justification:

The Three Components of Appreciation NVC clearly distinguishes three components in the expression of appreciation:

  1. the actions that have contributed to our well-being
  2. the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  3. the pleasureful [sic] feelings engendered by the fulfillment [sic] of those needs

(That whole chapter on “Receiving Appreciation,” and indeed the entire book, is a fascinating read.)

So rather than a judgement of “you’re awesome,” perhaps instead one could say “I really appreciate this particular perspective you have on that topic; it’s great to have somebody to bond with over this opinion; it makes me happy.”

This approach both gives the recipient of the complement a better understanding of what they’re doing well so they can do more of it, and as a result, in my case at least, helps me to receive and appreciate the compliment more easily, because I feel I deserve it more.

I am not saying I expect anybody giving me a compliment to go to this effort. In certain situations, I might ask for clarification, but I appreciate that people are busy, and despite them taking the time to compliment me out of the blue, they may not have time to elaborate. All I’m saying is that I will endeavour to be more specific with my own compliments in future, and occasionally might respectfully request the same of others, when I deem it appropriate.

A respectful request might be phrased like this: “I appreciate you saying that nice thing, but would you mind taking the time to elaborate on why you think that? It would be far more valuable to me if you could give examples as to what I said or did, why it was valuable to you, and how it made you feel, so that I can (a) appreciate you’re compliment more fully, and (b) use it as an opportunity for growth, to do more of the things that prompted the compliment.” I realise this is very verbose, and depending on your relationship with the individual, it could be abbreviated as time goes on, but I think the above is one of the clearest ways to make this request without sounding self-indulgent or unappreciative.

Tl;dr: give more compliments; we don’t do this enough! In doing so, try to be specific as to what you’re complimenting, and why it’s worthwhile to you. This helps avoid judgements (which when used regularly can have diminished value). This can help the recipient receive the compliment more authentically.

On being offended

“Offence is taken, not given.”

There’s a school of thought that says that you can’t control whether or not somebody will take offence to your words or actions. In this world of “political correctness,” or, as I often prefer to call it, “not being an arsehole,” there are those that think language policing is going too far: that people should be less sensitive, get a thicker skin, and just deal with it.

Examples such as “women should just accept that when I say ‘guys’ I intend it to be gender neutral.” “When I say something is ‘gay’ I don’t mean to imply that gay people are bad.”

The flipside of this argument is that “intent is not magic.” Regardless of what you intend, you may hurt somebody’s feelings.

My question is: where does one draw the line? I, personally, am of the opinion that if making a small change to my language will have a smaller chance of me hurting or alienating a person or community, then I’ll take it as an opportunity for self-improvement, and just make the change. I occasionally find myself in discussions, though with those who think that they should not be responsible for others’ feelings, or who will change some of their language, but reach a point where they deem they’ve done “enough” to be inclusive. I want to be receptive to these perspectives, but also have a reasonable counter-argument.

So I ask you, internet: what is your stance on being empathetic to those who don’t want to put in additional effort to make some people more comfortable or included (on the basis that “you can’t please everybody”), while trying to explain that in general, it’s really not that hard?

Edit (2017-10-23): I just came across this cartoon I’d shared on Facebook a year ago about offence.

Communicating and living authentically

NB: This post is dealing primarily with communicating feelings and emotions with partners/friends etc., rather than communicating/teaching  objective information.

I have difficulties with communication. It’s true of all of us, I think. We sometimes can’t adequately find the language to articulate our thoughts, or, worse, we’re afraid to do so, because we don’t want to admit how we feel (either to ourselves, because it’s too painful to think about, or to others, because we’re not sure how they’ll react or respond).

Communication tends to be most difficult precisely when it’s most important. […]
“If you’re afraid to say it, that means you need to say it.”

–Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, More Than Two, quoting Marcia Baczynksi

The above is a mantra that I attempt to adhere to, but it’s hard. I think it gets less hard, slowly, with practice, but I am not sure if it ever becomes easy. There is, however, often an amazing sense of relief, a weight lifted from your shoulders, after saying something you’ve been afraid to say, regardless of the outcome. Yet, despite knowing, objectively, that it’s better for somebody to accept or reject you for being authentic, than for them to accept an inauthentic representation of yourself, fear of rejection is still a hard hurdle to overcome.

mcfly-rejection.jpg
Pictured: George McFly (Back to the Future) looking horrified. Text: “I just can’t take that kind of rejection”

A big part of my struggle is communicating my wants and needs, and acknowledging that I am entitled to have wants and needs, and that I have a right to ask others for these, just as they have a right to set boundaries around what they are and aren’t prepared to offer. These wants and needs could be from anything as simple as “I need hugs”, to slightly more complicated requests like “I want to see you more often”, or “I would like you to occasionally be available to listen to me vent/rant/mope.”

These may seem straightforward, but I really hate the thought that I’m a burden on others, even though if I received such a request myself, I’d usually be happy to oblige, or respectfully say that I didn’t feel capable of meeting that need right now, and maybe negotiate something else, all despite the fact that I tend to keep pretty busy. I make time for those I care about, and it shouldn’t feel greedy or selfish to expect others to do the same for me, but it sometimes does.

This post, and indeed, this blog, is an attempt on my part to live more authentically, by sharing my thoughts, explaining who I am, and how I feel, without necessarily expecting anybody to read or do anything about it. So if you’re reading this, thanks for taking the time. I welcome constructive feedback, but reserve the right to ignore it.

Anyway, basically, brains are weird, and feels are hard.