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I thought this would be good to share, its an excerpt from an unpublished interview written in december 2020 about Lemmy’s origins and goals.


What is the story behind the creation of Lemmy? What role do you want it to serve for people online / why did you make it?

The idea to make Lemmy was a combination of factors.

Open source developers like myself have long watched the rise of the “Big Five”, the US tech giants that have managed to capture nearly all the world’s everyday communication into their hands. We’ve been asking ourselves why people have moved away from content-focused sites, and what we can do to subvert this trend, in a way that is easily accessible to a non-tech focused audience.

The barriers to entry on the web, are much lower than say in the physical world: all it takes is a computer and some coding knowhow… yet the predominating social media firms have been able to stave off competition for at least two reasons: their sites are easy to use, and they have huge numbers of users already (the “first mover” advantage). The latter is more important; if you’ve ever tried to get someone to use a different chat app, you’ll know what I mean.

Now I loved early reddit, not just for the way that it managed to put all the news for the communities and topics I wanted to see in a single place, but for the discussion trees behind every link posted. I still have many of these saved, and have gained so much more from the discussion behind the links, than I have from the links themselves. In my view, its the community-focused, tree-like discussions, as well as the ability to make, grow, and curate communities, that has made reddit the 5th most popular site in the US, and where so many people around the world get their news.

But that ship sailed years ago; the early innovative spirit of reddit left with Aaron Schwartz: its libertarian founders have allowed some of the most racist and sexist online communities to fester on reddit for years, only occasionally removing them only when community outcry reaches a fever pitch. Reddit closed its source code years ago, and the reddit redesign has become a bloated anti-privacy mess.

Its become absorbed into that silicon valley surveillance-capitalist machine that commidifies users to sell ads and paid flairs, and propagandizes pro-US interests above all. Software technology being one of the last monopoly exports the US has, it would be naive to think that one of the top 5 most popular social media sites, where so many people around the world get their news, would be anything other than a mouthpiece for the interests of those same US coastal tech firms.

Despite the conservative talking point that big tech is dominated by “leftist propaganda”, it is liberal, and pro-US, not left (leftism referring to the broad category of anti-capitalism). Reddit has banned its share of leftist users and communities, and the reddit admins via announcement posts repeatedly villify the US’s primary foreign-policy enemies as having “bot campaigns”, and “manipulating reddit”, yet the default reddit communities (/r/news, /r/pics, etc), who share a small number of moderators, push a line consistent with US foreign-policy interests. The aptly named /r/copaganda subreddit has exposed the pro-police propaganda that always seems to hit reddit’s front page in the wake of every tragedy involving US police killing the innocent (or showing police kissing puppies, even though US police kill ~ 30 dogs every day, which researchers have called a “noted statistical phenomenon”).

We’ve also seen a rise in anti-China posts that have hit reddit lately, and along with that comes anti-chinese racism, which reddit tacitly encourages. That western countries are seeing a rise in attacks against Asian-Americans, just as some of the perpetrators of several hate-crimes against women were found to be redditors active in mens-rights reddit communities, is not lost on us, and we know where these tech companies really stand when it comes to violence and hate speech. Leftists know that our position on these platforms is tenable at best; we’re currently tolerated, but that will not always be the case.

The idea for making a reddit alternative seemed pointless, until Mastodon (a federated twitter alternative), started becoming popular. Using activitypub (a protocol / common language that social media services can use to speak to each other), we finally have a solution to the “first mover” advantage: now someone can build or run a small site, but still be connected to a wider universe of users.

@nutomic@lemmy.ml and I originally made Lemmy to fill the role as a federated alternative to reddit, but as it grows, it has the potential become a main source of news and discussion, existing outside of the US’s jurisdictional domain and control.

Where does the name come from?

It was nameless for a long time, but I wanted to keep with the fediverse tradition of naming projects after animals. I was playing that old-school game Lemmings, and Lemmy (from motorhead) had passed away that week, and we held a few polls for names, and I went with that.

Do you have any interaction with the groups that use the open-source code?

We do, most of them are in a shared Lemmy developer chatroom, as well as interacting via github.

Are you familiar with the group running Chapo Chat at all, specifically?

Yes, we communicate with some of their developers regularly, both in tech-oriented, and admin-oriented chats. A few of their developers have made great contributions to Lemmy’s code, and we’ve been happy to work with them.

Were you aware that the group that used to run the anti-trans forum r/GenderCritical on Reddit thought about using Lemmy for their site? Did they contact you at all?

They have not contacted us, and of course our code of conduct which explicitly contains a section against anti-trans bigotry means we wouldn’t help them in any way. Many reddit alternatives have been happy to embrace “reddits rejects”, no matter how bigoted those communities are, in the name of “free speech”. We don’t agree with this view, or with those who have nostalgia for a non-existent reddit past where it was more “free” and bigoted than it is now.

Do you have a sense of how many sites are running the code?

Currently, less than 10, but this is also because the killer feature of Lemmy, federation, is still only in beta, and that was only released a few weeks ago. Its a slow burn, but we’re confident that it will grow organically as we turn federation on for the officially run instances, and more connect to them.

There’s also a 3rd-party iOS and Android app called lemmur, in development that we’re excited for, and will make using lemmy extremely easy to use on smartphones.

@nutomic
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I really like how you wrote the background story. Maybe we could integrate that into the joinlemmy page in some way?

Dessalines
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Sure, I can do that, I’m making some changes to joinlemmy anyway.

@Wild
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Maybe make an about page that has the background story and link to it on joinlemmy?

@joojmachine
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Always great to see those bits of history, hope to see the community grow even more without having to tolerate bigotry

@Raziel
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Is nice to know lemmy’s history but the problem is:

who defines what is bigotry and what is not?

when a post si too comunist/libertarian/left/right… to be alowed?

The best of federates soclal network for me is that you can be in touch with you want to and be far away from those you don’t want, but without the need to ask for your opposing group to be silenced, that just make the convivence online more pleasing

@ksynwa
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The administrators do.

@Raziel
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I mean, in the broad sense of the term

Dessalines
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Anyone can run their own instance at any time, we’ll even help you set one up.

@Raziel
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That is why I love the fediverse in general! But when nutomic talks about the ex redditors from r/GenderCritical says

“Many reddit alternatives have been happy to embrace “reddits rejects”, no matter how bigoted those communities are, in the name of “free speech”. We don’t agree with this view, or with those who have nostalgia for a non-existent reddit past where it was more “free” and bigoted than it is now.”

Is he talking about the instance in particular or refearing to lemmy in general? Maybe I misunderstood that

@nutomic
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The answers were all written by dessalines. The definition of “to embrace” in this context is “to take up especially readily or gladly”. Our position on that wont change and also applies to Lemmy in general. But realistically there is not much we can do to prevent anyone from using Lemmy, as its open source.

@Raziel
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So, you mean that don’t “gladly recieve” that kind of user but you don’t ban them from using lemmy from their own instance, and even of you wantted to, you can’t.

That sound really healthy in a broad sense , I mean for everyone even of it sound counterintuitive. For a moment I thought you can ban people from using Lemmy in general (not only from using your instance).

I think that FOSS in general has a good chance in the long run, and non-algoritmic feeds probably will help so low down the polarization or at least won’t make ot wors (I hope).

@nutomic
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Correct. Lemmy and most other fediverse software are licensed under AGPL, which states among other things that anyone can use the software for any purpose. Obviously its in much more complicated, legal terms. We can only set the rules on lemmy.ml and other spaces we control (eg github issues, joinlemmy site).

For example, there was a lot of drama about Gab, but no one could prevent them from using the Mastodon code (at least not in legal terms).

@seahorse
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How much influence does NLnet have in moderation here? Development?

Dessalines
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We give them our main milestones, what we hope to accomplish in the way of federation and features, and pay per milestone completed. NLNet is focused on lemmy’s codebase, not this or any other instance. They’re a really wonderful organization, and the projects they support speaks for itself as to their positive influence on open source: https://nlnet.nl/project/current.html

@seahorse
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Yeah, I was browsing their project list and was impressed by all the cool stuff they’re involved with. Did they start what now is Lemmy or did you reach out to them with your idea?

Dessalines
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We had been working on lemmy for a year before seeking funding.

Tmpod
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I’m excited about Lemmy, looks like a really nice project. It has a pretty good interface, which is an absolute must for alternatives such as this to even have a remote chance of success. Also curious to see how federation will perform. Finally, lemmur is cool, but it runs awfully bad on my phone, but so do all Flutter apps. Scrolling is hyper sluggish, animations are not fluid, buttons have input delay, etc. It’s a shame, because the app looks and works well otherwise. There’s certainly work to do in UI/UX (I’m in love with Slide for reddit lol) but it has come a long way already.

Big congrats to all involved! I might chip in some translations when I get some time.

@nutomic
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Also curious to see how federation will perform.

Federation is already working perfectly well. Except for a few minor features, everything works seamlessly across different instances.

Tmpod
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Nice to hear!

@TheAnonymouseJoker
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I will tell you, apart from that police dog paragraph, I knew it all in hindsight. I am not acting superficial when I say that.

I thank Skeleton for bringing me here, and whoever likes me here, should thank them too. I do not see much people like OP in this day and age, where everyone wants to go the corrupt and mainstream way just for societal compliance and clout. And that makes me give a little smirk.

@roastpotatothief
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Very interesting. It shows that Lemmy was always a political project. It was always meant to advocate certain politics and discourage others.

IMO this is not what new users expect. So we keep seeing these posts of people realising, and being shocked, and sometimes rage-quitting.

Only a certain portion of people will stay with Lemmy after that realisation, and the others will flee. Is that what you want? (again just IMO)

If not, is there a way to make this political vision more evident, to try to stop this effect?


TBH I’m against the politics of Lemmy. But (IMO again) despite that it’s still a valuable project, and maybe a historically important one.

@4815162342
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nutomic talked about some of this earlier today in a different thread: https://lemmy.ml/post/70280

@ajz
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@roastpotatothief
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Yes!

That’s what’s really convincing about Lemmy. In fact I think this has already happened. There is lenny, and gab, and the weird my little pony porn one.

The thing I’d really like to see - a fork which experiments with different voting/moderation strategies. IIRC the devs said they will not ever do that - it’s not their politics - but they would not try to hinder it either.

@Reaton
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[…] the weird my little pony porn one

@soloninja
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I just like it as a real alternative to reddit. I disagree with the developers politics. Atleast you can state a opinion on here freely without being banned. Making your own server is refreshing. Decentralization is key.

@nutomic
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The thing I’d really like to see - a fork which experiments with different voting/moderation strategies. IIRC the devs said they will not ever do that - it’s not their politics

I dont think we said that. The only somewhat related thing we said is that we wont remove the slur filter. Experimenting with voting and moderation sounds very interesting to me. Only problem is that we dont really have time to work on that ourselves.

@roastpotatothief
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Oh right, there have been so many discussions about this, I might have gotten two things mixed up.

@Nerd_516
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Helix
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You are free to start your own instance

I hate the FOSS community for always suggesting people should do everything themselves. It’s elitist to think everyone can set up an instance.

@ajz
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@Nerd_516
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@Nerd_516
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Everything about Lemmy; bugs, gripes, praises, and advocacy.

For discussion about the lemmy.ml instance, go to !meta@lemmy.ml.

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