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You are here: Home Blogs Licensing The Licensing and Compliance Lab interviews Matt Lee of GNU social

The Licensing and Compliance Lab interviews Matt Lee of GNU social

by Joshua Gay Contributions Published on Mar 31, 2016 12:50 PM
This is the latest installment of our Licensing and Compliance Lab's series on free software developers who choose GNU licenses for their works. In this edition, we conducted an email-based interview with Matt Lee of GNU social.
GNU social logo

Tell us a bit about yourself

I'm Matt Lee, I live in Austin, Texas where I'm the Technical Lead at Creative Commons. Away from Creative Commons and free software, I'm making a movie -- Orang-U: An Ape Goes To College -- edited with free software and released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

What inspired the creation of GNU social?

GNU social was created as a companion to my earlier project, GNU FM, which we created to build the social music platform, After only a few short months, had over 20,000 users and I realized I didn't want to be another social media silo like MySpace or Facebook, so I came up with this vague idea called GNU social. A few prototypes were built, and eventually we started making GNU social as a series of plugins for Evan Prodromou's StatusNet project, with some help from Ian Denhardt, Craig Andrews and Steven DuBois. Later, StatusNet, GNU social and Free&Social (a fork of StatusNet) would merge into a single project called GNU social. If that sounds confusing and convoluted, it is.

How are people using it?

People are using GNU social in three distinct ways:

  • Running a private community that shares messages within the site itself, but not outside the site. Businesses are using it this way too, running internal communications tools.

  • Running as a way to distribute messages to a wider circle, including sites like Twitter and Facebook.

  • Running as part of a global federated social network that is primarily focused on internal free software community discussion, but has wider discussions too.

Most people are using it in a variety of ways. I believe the FSF uses it to do many of those jobs.

What features do you think really sets GNU social apart from similar software?

I'm always keen to emphasize that I see GNU social as a social media framework, rather than a network itself. That's why I write social in lowercase -- we're not a product, we're a tool, like GNU Bash or Grep. The networks that form are a result of the communities' usages of the tool, and people are free to run their own federated networks and not talk to the existing users of the free software community network.

Why did you choose the AGPLv3 as the license for your code?

We chose the GNU Affero GPL because it was the license we were using for GNU FM, and it was the license StatusNet was using, and I'd used it before in a previous social networking project called MyExperiment that I'd worked on at the University of Manchester back in 2007. In fact, you can see that the very first group on the site is a GNU group.

How can users (technical or otherwise) help contribute to GNU social?

One great way to contribute to GNU social is to install it and run it. You can get some cheap hosting from a variety of places and run your own GNU social server. You just need PHP and MySQL, which is a very minimal requirement for running a Web site. It's important to me that free software projects are easy to set up and install, even by curious new users. WordPress is an example of a project that gets this right, and sadly virtually every other free software Web application gets this wrong. GNU social gets this mostly right, but certainly helping to improve the installer would be a great way to get involved in helping with code. Documentation is also lacking in a lot of areas.

What's the next big thing for GNU social?

The next big thing for GNU social would be a release. I'd like to see a release, there's some work being done from the first GNU social camp in Europe and I have some interesting art related ideas for GNU social in the near future. My own attention, for the rest of the year, is focused on editing and releasing a monkey movie.

If you're interested in GNU social, please visit -- install it, send bugs to us to fix, talk to people in the community once you have your GNU social site installed, or if you have any questions for me, email is always welcome.

Enjoy this interview? Check out our previous entry in this series, featuring Michael Zahniser of Endless Sky.

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