“You don't hold assemblies in a shopping mall.”

An interview with Florencio Cabello on the history of the alternative social networking sites n-1 and Lorea

Raimund Minichbauer: The Spanish social networking sites n-1/Lorea,1 which are currently not in operation anymore,2 have been considered some of the most advanced attempts at building alternative social networking sites. How did they begin?

Florencio Cabello: Lorea was born as a federation of free social networking sites (SNS) at a hackmeeting held in Madrid in October 2009. Two existing SNSs joined: Arte Libre Digital and n-1, the project that I was closer to, because we were cooperating with the two main creators, Javier Toret and Manje, in the context of Indymedia Estrecho. There, we tried to link Andalusia and northern Morocco, to build a territory that traverses a very strict border, the southern European Frontier, Estrecho – the Strait of Gibraltar.
n-1 was created on the basis of Elgg,3 the most renowned free software for social networking sites, and it was intended to be an alternative tool for the self-organization of social movements in Andalusia as well as across Spain.
As mentioned, Lorea (Basque for "flowers") was a federation. According to my latest information, around 14 alternative SNSs participated in that federation. There are different approaches to decentralized social networking sites; federation is just one of them. Unlike peer-to-peer (P2P) models, where you have your data and profile stored on your local computer, in a P2P file exchange system federation still relies on a client-server-model, but one which is directed towards interoperability. For example: When I logged in to my n-1 account, I could also visit the other SNSs which were federated in Lorea, without the need to have an account with all of them.

RM: Alternative social networking sites can follow different approaches: To create what is sometimes referred to as a 'Facebook alternative' – a general purpose social networking site for the general public that works on different principles than the commercial ones – or they can rather focus on creating a tool for specific audiences like activists or specific subcultures. n-1 focused on the latter, but were there also elements of the former approach within n-1 or other social networking sites that participated in Lorea?

FC: Maybe projects such as diaspora* were more focused on what we could call a free alternative to Facebook and Twitter. n-1 was not like that. It focused on the sphere of social movements. Maybe the idea could be described as building a kind of interoperable headquarters for social movements. And there you were supposed to do different things than you were doing in commercial SNSs. Sometimes these activists recognized that there was a need or desire for procrastination. n-1 was not supposed to fulfill that desire, but it was mainly focused on social networking with the aim of building a platform for discourse, political organization and political action (and to my knowledge it was basically the same for the other sites in Lorea). This is also the reason why it focused on strong encryption tools from the very beginning. And this also explains why Lorea developers didn't care too much about usability, or about fancy designs or even the possibility of building games or new modules more related to having fun or to 'leisure'; nor did the design support the usual preeminence of images. In fact, the use of pseudonyms and the absence of images in one's profile were more or less recommended. It was completely standard that nobody could easily identify a user in n-1, which is in clear opposition to what is typical e.g. on Facebook, where your main aim is normally to be identifiable, to build a Raimund, or to build a Floren. The idea behind the creation of n-1 was to learn from what people were already doing in political terms through Facebook and Twitter, to learn from it, and to build upon it in order to create an alternative with a more politically focused design, one that embodied these possibilities from its inception.

RM: The name “n-1” seems to refer rather explicitly to collective practices.

FC: It is taken from a quote by Deleuze and Guattari, a connection, which had mainly been developed by Javier Toret: “The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, four, five, etc. It is not a multiple derived from the One, or to which one is added (n+1). It is comprised not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. [...] It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plain of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n-1).”4 Though it definitely has to do with the question of how you build these recursive systems with the concept of multiplicities, etc., I am not always so sure about the connection between the quote and the concrete SNS. My own approach to these questions has rather derived from the free software description as recursive publics, as has been developed by Chris Kelty,5 and which could be also a possibility for bridging this gap.

RM: M15, the social protests and occupations across Spain in May 2011, appear to be something along the lines of the "political moment" from which n-1 was created. What was the role of n-1 in M15? Was it already important in the processes leading up to the protests in May 2011?

FC: As far as I know, the M15 demonstrations on that Sunday in 2011 were mainly organized via Facebook in an attempt to open up to new subjectivities and to try to reach people where they were normally, to combine this focus on procrastination and leisure with the growing political awareness which was expressed via these networks, where people increasingly shared posts on the crisis, on corruption, etc. But once M15 became a big movement, a kind of political atmosphere that affected most of the people in most of the cities, and once we began to question almost everything in our social and political environment, n-1 became important. Marta G. Franco6 told me that in an assembly in Madrid the question arose: Why are we discussing all the proposals, calls for actions, etc. through a social network that is opposed to our values? And someone said: “You don't hold assemblies in a shopping mall!” The general idea was that plenty of things could be discussed via Facebook, but that there were some modes of political organization that required technological platforms which were coherent with them. One reason was privacy, but M15 activists also thought that platforms like n-1 – which was the SNS selected to complement the other platforms were more prone to collective work. I fully agree; n-1 was a weapon, a space which was very cleverly designed to facilitate collective work. If you could do without forms of amusement like sharing photographs and you would focus on collective work, n-1 was everything you needed. It was the perfect kit for that.
One example of a tool for promoting self-organization and co-operative dynamics was the integration of Etherpad – one could call it the free and interoperable alternative to Google Docs – into n-1. Thanks to the advice of Marga Padilla and Ana Méndez de Andés, and the technical support of Gabriel Lucas, in early 2010 my students and I were already using Etherpad for Traducciones Procomún (Commons Translations), a “commons-based peer translation” project (paraphrasing Benkler’s “commons-based peer production”) that I started in 2008 with the aim of translating relevant books on free culture and free software into Spanish. The objective for us has been to attempt to work on the translations in a recursive way, in a way which is coherent with the content – to study co-operation by co-operating – and building upon it. Then in Fall 2010 I invited Alex Haché and Marta G. Franco to hold a workshop on n-1 at my Faculty and I used the opportunity to suggest the integration of Etherpad into n-1. They replied that there had been several people suggesting that by then and that n-1 developers were already contemplating that integration. In any case, the confirmation of how positively the n-1 crew reacted to that sort of suggestion was shown just a few weeks later when I found out that it was already possible to open documents with Etherpad in n-1. We then moved our whole translation project to n-1, because it had everything we needed for our co-operation: We could work on the text, discuss it, organize upcoming meetings, distribute tasks and schedule their fulfillment, etc.
After May 2011, there was a very rapid growth of n-1, reaching 40,000 users and 5,000 groups in just a few months or even a few weeks. There were many virtual assemblies moving to n-1, as a way of avoiding the risks resulting from the lack of privacy, and/or for increasing their potential for co-operation. And the use of n-1 was widespread – not just in Madrid and Barcelona, but, for example, also here in Málaga.

RM: Protection of privacy was one of the main aspects of the platform. How was it implemented?

FC: Caring for one's privacy and for the management of one's identity/ies was not just a possibility, it was explicitly suggested. There was the will to build a forum, where expression could flow without the risk of being identified, thus promoting free speech and the diversification of identities.

The emphasis on encryption was very important. n-1 is the only SNS I have used where you could import your GPG keys – the set of private/public keys you generate for e-mail encryption. I imported my GPG keys to n-1 and as a result every time someone wrote a direct message to me, a message in a group of which I was part, or a message on a forum that I was supposed to read I received that message in an encrypted form via e-mail. If the message was supposed to be sent outside of n-1, it would do this in a strongly encrypted format, and that's just great.
Only a few weeks before M15 there was an incident which also raised the awareness concerning privacy issues among activists. It was a feminist protest at Universidad Complutense in Madrid against the presence of a Catholic chapel – inherited from the Franco regime – at the campus that is at the heart of an institution supposedly representing intellectual curiosity and an absence of dogmatic ideas. The protesters marched into the chapel. Some of the women took off their shirts, and they chanted slogans against the repression of the female body encouraged by the Catholic Church. Photos from the protest were posted on Facebook with the result of being downloaded by the police, who started prosecuting activists who could be identified in the photos.

RM: Would it theoretically be possible to interoperate with Facebook, and would it make sense, or is it better to have things separated?

FC: Sometimes – as stated by Tim Berners Lee himself – there is confusion between interoperability and a loss of privacy. People think: "Oh, my data will not just be exposed in one SNS, but it will flow everywhere." But we put it the other way around: What we think is that if you embrace interoperability, you will facilitate data portability, because it will be coupled with all the security/privacy features that will allow you to very precisely select which elements you want to share with whom, and where, and for how long, etc. n-1 even had a very funny feature in its user profile management. At the end of it, you would find the option “Suicide,” which guaranteed the complete erasure of every trace of your identity once you selected that option. n-1 and similar projects have a very strong awareness of both privacy and interoperability, and we should defend both at the same time. Through this combination, you should not be afraid of having such leaks or be worried that when you post photos of your protest, they will flow freely to Facebook. The choice would be piece by piece, content by content, picture by picture. That was another great feature of n-1. Every time you published something, they asked you: Do you want to share it – with the world? With your group? With all the groups on n-1? The mere presence of these choices raised awareness.
The simple answer to your question is: Interoperability is as desirable for social networking sites as it is for e-mail providers. The goal is that if you want to communicate with someone, you don't have to worry about this other person sharing the same tools you use. If you want to send me an e-mail, you don't have to care about which provider I am using or which e-mail client, or if I am in Spain or in Austria. Who cares whether you have Gmail or Yahoo Mail or University of Málaga e-mail? Everything you write in this text box, which e-mail protocol provides us, will be readable no matter where, no matter how. We defend the same principles for SNSs. If I want to share a picture with you and I don't use Facebook, but you do, why shouldn't we be allowed to share it? Imagine you would have to register in twenty different e-mail service providers in order to be able to exchange e-mails with all your friends. That is unthinkable. It is absolutely grotesque. But in Facebook, Twitter and the like we assume this feature, which is why Tim Berners Lee talks about "walled gardens" in the social web.

RM: But it is not realistic that they interoperate, because they are building their business models on separations.

FC: Of course. As you know, there is this W3C incubator group on the federated social web.7 As far as I know, there were commercial platforms involved in the group for building federating standards for social networking sites. But it is difficult to see how these web 2.0 business models could integrate the idea of federation as they are based on accumulating personal data and managing them in an exclusive way. They need to capitalize on data, and sharing is just the opposite. Technically it is not difficult to build interoperability; it would be possible right now.
There have been some smaller projects, some smaller concessions to interoperability, e.g. in Twitter, or even to encryption, as in WhatsApp adopting Open Whisper Systems’ Signal protocol. But at the end of the day, their business model is about accumulating data. The more they allow you to go outside Facebook or Twitter, the more data they release. So their main concern is to give you every tool you may need as their business model relies heavily on keeping you inside of their walled garden for as long as they can.

RM: It is interesting that Indymedia was involved in the foundation of Lorea. Indymedia basically followed a different paradigm, and maybe it disappeared because it adhered to it. You were part of Indymedia Estrecho, how do you see this connection?

FC: There is a connection, because two important actors within Indymedia, Javier Toret and Manje, were also involved in the foundation of n-1. But there was no link between the projects. It was just a coincidence that the same people were involved. Toret and Manje had the social, political and technical background to imagine – I had never thought about it this way before – maybe an Indymedia for social networks.
An issue that was constantly on the agenda in our discussions around free SNSs was that with Indymedia – going back to 1999 – we felt that we had the initiative. Indymedia was without a doubt the predecessor of all of the blog explosions. It created the distributed publication systems that allowed you to upload text, pictures and even video. With SNSs we felt the opposite: “We are losing pace. It is Facebook, Twitter, the Silicon Valley companies that are laying the groundwork for what has become these social networking platforms. We shouldn't fall behind.” It was a different perspective. Indymedia meant experimenting, advancing things, even laying the foundations for what was yet to come. With SNS it was a kind of anxiety. Naturally, little by little, we were entering these commercial spaces that form our social experiences, that put our privacy at risk, that even facilitate governmental control. That is why there was this feeling spreading: “This time we are not leading, but we have to try to invent something to at least counteract these platforms.”

RM: How important was the transnational level of the political movements? E.g. the relation to Morocco, was it important? Or the Occupy Movements?

FC: Like I said, this dimension of relating to Morocco was central in Indymedia Estrecho, but I don't think it worked similarly in n-1. n-1 was started in Spain and after a short period of time it was used naturally in other parts of Europe. E.g. the main developers of n-1 and Lorea were based in Amsterdam for a while. It was mainly Europe, parts of Europe, the Netherlands and some people from the UK, but the idea of a transborder space/device was not present.
During M15, there were very active international relations groups and commissions, for instance, when the worldwide demonstrations were organized on October 15th. But I don't remember any references to people discussing n-1 in the US.

RM: Your text was published in 2013. I found quite some material on alternative social networking sites since then, and it was always mentioned how the projects were just starting out and how they would be further developed, but then, all of a sudden, after 2013, it was almost impossible to find any traces of them anymore. And that does not seem to just be related to the developments of political movements which the alternative social networking sites were connected to, it also applies to e.g. the W3C incubator groups.

FC: The social web incubator community groups still exist. At least there were calls by the end of last year. Maybe there is a kind of decline in the importance of the incubator groups and their outputs. And as I said, the basic interoperability protocols are already there. In my view, the work of these incubator groups was great. Even on a theoretical level it was inspiring and very challenging.
Concerning n-1/Lorea, we simply have to recognize what you pointed out as a shortcoming of our movement. In my opinion, two reflections should be made: 1) Maybe we, including the developers, were initially very highly motivated in general. After M15 there was a kind of enthusiasm and great illusions about the possibilities of these platforms and the coupling of these emerging social political movements with their technological layers. The n-1 project preceded the M15 movement, it was constructed to combine perfectly with that movement, but we did not think about sustainability – personal, financial, technical. I remember that some people in those groups were even fantasizing about launching their own satellite. So we were very enthusiastic, but there was a lack of consideration of practical questions in relation to sustainability. 2) I think we lack the awareness of recursivity. My own experience with our translation project is that when we had problems with the SNS, we went to the developers for help, but we found them very overwhelmed. We donated part of the money that was granted to us by the university – it was a very small amount, but at least they could maintain the server for one year. In general, we took the platforms for granted. We even took the very sophisticated features they provided us for granted, and we didn't care about them. We were not sophisticated in our caring for those people. It was the same with another platform, Kune.8 I was talking to one of the founders, a great hacker, and he told me: “It is very precarious, we don't even have money for the servers.” So, maybe we still act as customers with regard to these services. As Facebook and Google provide us with free tools, more or less sophisticated working tools, maybe we have the expectation that it would be the same with our activist platforms: They would be free, and every time we would find a bug or a problem, it would be easily and quickly resolved. But that is not the case. So we should gain a clearer awareness of recursivity, of caring about the other layers that allow us to develop political, social and cultural production. Every time we receive money, resources or some kind of income for our projects, we should always consider sharing part of our cake with the people maintaining it. This would be my answer. It is a very serious self-criticism we have to assume.

RM: Is it possible that social networking sites as such are not that important anymore? In 2010/11 they were among the most advanced phenomena on the Internet, but in the meantime, several new layers have emerged.

FC: I would not say that – at least concerning the Spanish context. Facebook, for example, has grown very much in the last few years and it is still a very important tool for political and social organization. On the contrary, for me it is a problem when even we at social centers like La Invisible here in Málaga tend to say: “It is enough to have Facebook. We have our program of activities and our calls there.” We assume that everybody has Facebook, up to the point that it appears equivalent to the Web itself. But of course it is not. You have to care about your web page, to care about other things – mailing lists, etc., all these interoperable universal tools that Tim Berners Lee and all the Internet developers have donated to us. We have to value them and not assume that Facebook overlaps with the Internet and is universal – it is the other way around.

Málaga, 27 March 2017
Language editing: Lina Dokuzovic


Florencio Cabello has a PhD in Communication Studies and is a lecturer at the University of Málaga. His teaching and research focuses on ways of forming cooperatives inspired by the free software and culture movements, under the perspective of constructing a commons in communicative and cultural domains. He is the coordinator of Traducciones Procomún (Commons Translation), a project integrated in the Laboratorio del Procomún (Commons Lab) at Medialab-Prado (Madrid). So far this project has translated, discussed and published Spanish editions of Lawrence Lessig’s Code v.2 and Remix, as well as of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.



1 This interview departs from a text which was co-authored by Florencio Cabello: Florencio Cabello, Marta G. Franco, Alex Haché, "The Social Web beyond 'Walled Gardens': Interoperability, Federation and the Case of Lorea/n-1", in: PsychNology Journal, 2013, Volume 11, Number 1, pp. 43–65.

2 The Sites are currently not just no longer in operation, but also offline. For a documentation of screenshots, see: https://www.socialmediaalternatives.org/archive/items/browse?collection=29.

4 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, London / New York: continuum 2004, p. 23. See also: Gerald Raunig, “n-1. Making Multiplicity. A Philosophical Manifesto“, in: transversal web-journal, http://transversal.at/transversal/1011/raunig2/en.

5 See Christopher M. Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, Durham / London: Duke University Press, 2008.

6 She also co-authored the text on n-1/Lorea from which the present interview departed; see footnote 1.