246 – Building your own social network with the Friends plugin

Interview with Alex Kirk and Nathan Wrigley

So you love Facebook and you hate Facebook, you love Twitter and you hate Twitter. You love… You get the idea!

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If you’re anything like me you have at times questioned how much time you’ve spent trawling through social media. You may even be worried about how much data they’ve been gathering about you, or perhaps thinking about whether or not we’re even able to escape from it all.

On the podcast today we’ve got Alex Kirk, and he certainly has been thinking about all of this. So much so in fact that he’s built a social network plugin for WordPress.

It’s called Friends, and it does a lot more than just offering an alternative to Facebook et al.

At the start of the podcast we talk about where we’re both at with social networks. You can listen to hear Alex’s position, but for me, it’s something that I’m trying to walk back. I’m frequenting social media less and less and switching off notifications for all-the-things. It’s not that I don’t want to be there, it’s just that I want to be there less of the time and don’t want to be notified all of the time. This part of the podcast is about 20 minutes long, so for the WP Builds podcast, it’s quite a long introduction to the subject.

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We then move onto the plugin itself and Alex explains what is does and how it does it.

It’s really interesting as it connects with other installs, but also serves as a base for curating a list of your own RSS feeds. This means that it does not have to have other people signing in and participating for it to be useful. Can you imagine Twitter / Facebook if nobody else was using the platform, it would be pointless. Not so for Friends, you can set it up and run it as a silo of the things that you care about consuming online.

The point is that it’s yours and you can do with it what you like, without the feeling that it’s sucking information about you out, to then push towards advertisers, or goodness knows what!

It’s a great episode, and I would certainly recommend having a listen and seeing if this is something that you could use.

As a complete aside…

I have started a Mastodon instance which you can find over at wpbuilds.social should you wish for a more federated, Twitter-like, experience!

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Transcript (if available)

These transcripts are created using software, so apologies if there are errors in them.

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[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the WP Builds podcast, bringing you the latest news from the WordPress community. Welcome your hosts, David Waumsley, and Nathan Wrigley.

Hello there. And welcome once again to the WP Builds podcast. Nice to have you around. This is episode number 246. Entitled building your own social network with the friends plugin. It was published on Thursday, the 9th of September, 2021. My name's Nathan Wrigley, and I will be joined in a little while by Alex Cook so that we can chat about his friend's plugin and hopefully give you some useful information about whether it might be useful for you.

But before that a little bit of house. If you wouldn't mind sharing this podcast, if you get something out of it, if you enjoy it, please share it with anybody that you like, your friends, your colleagues, your pets, whatever fit, whatever platform fit. But if you are listening to it on a podcast player, something like apple podcasts, then please give us a star rating.

And obviously the more stars you give us the happier it makes sense. Another thing to suggest is going over to WP Builds.com. That's our website, where we keep everything. We've curated all of our content over there. That's podcast episodes. And this week WordPress episodes, which we do live every Monday.

You could subscribe to that stuff, go to WP, builts.com forward slash subscribe, and you'll be able to keep in touch. We'll send you an email each time we produce a bit of content. Another thing that I mentioned most weeks is WP Builds.com forward slash deals. It's our deals page, and it's a bit like black Friday, but every single day of the week, loads of money off with coupon codes, tons of WordPress products and services over on that page.

Go check it out. WP Builds.com forward slash deals and save yourself a bit of money. This one. Another one to mentioned is WP Builds.com forward slash advertise. If you would like to have your product or service in the WordPress space puts in front of a WordPress specific audience, we would love to help you with that.

Like we've helped AB split test. Do you want to set up your AB split tests in record time, then you AB split test plugin for WordPress. It'll have you up and running in a couple of minutes. You can use your existing pages and test anything against anything else that could be buttons, images. How does rose anything?

And the best part is it works with elemental, but you have a builder and the WordPress block editor, check it out. Get a free demo. AB split test.com. Also, I would like to say we're putting the page builder summit back on it's happening in October this year. And if you are keen to help us out with that event and become a sponsor, we would very much love to hear from you use the contact form on the WP Builds website.

And let me know, and I will get back to you right away. If you would like to sponsor the page builder summit. Okie dokie. That's all my housekeeping for this week. Now we will get onto the preamble for the podcast episode number 246. I'm talking today with Alex Kirk, and we're talking about his friends plugin.

We actually have a really long preamble in this episode, probably for about 20 minutes or so we talk about the possible pitfalls of being engrossed in social media. That's not just the time sock, but also the fact that it's consuming lots of data and who knows what's going to be done with all that data.

I'm sure you've had these concerns before. So we talk about that and then we talk about his alternative to all of that, which is his friend's plugin, which enables you to set up if you like your own social network, but a whole lot more. So if you're interested in having control over your social life online, this will probably be a good episode for you.

I hope that you enjoy. Hello there. Welcome to the WP bills podcast. This is going to be a really fascinating discussion or at least I hope it is. I'm joined today by Alex. Kirk. How are you, Alex?

[00:04:08] Alex Kirk: Hello? I'm fine. Thank you,

[00:04:09] Nathan Wrigley: Alex. Yeah, I'm good. Thanks Alex is joining us from Austria. I think that's right.

You're in Vienna. I think you said, is that where you live or are you on vacation there? Born and raised here on and raised. Okay. We're going to have a really, I think probably a broad ranging conversation. The intention ultimately is to bring attention to Alex's plugin, which is called friends.

It's a kind of like a social network built inside of WordPress kind of idea. But before we get onto that and tell you how you can find it and so on and so forth, I thought might be quite interesting to get into the subject of social media the sort of addiction that many people seem to have to those kinds of platforms and why Alex has decided to build this kind of stuff.

So firstly, Alex, if it's all right with you, rather than talking about the plugin specifically, do you just want to, if it's possibly you able to paint a picture of what your desire was when you decided to build your plugin, what was it that you were trying to help people with?

[00:05:15] Alex Kirk: So. Um, I think everybody, almost everybody on the internet has some sort of urge to consume what other people are posting online.

It's like not only news or like information put on the internet by companies, but also by individuals. And for that, you usually have to use social platforms that enable people to post something online. And that also always means that there is somebody else involved. So there might be some service that they're using to write online what you're interested in or post photos online.

And when I basically, I suppose one of the turning points for me was when I had kids and I wanted to share my own private information, pictures of my kids who can't decide by themselves, if the. Their information online, Sheridan with people, relatives, and friends over the internet. And yeah it's kind hard to decide what to do with that.

How do you send somebody else a photo or how do you make it available for your friends and family and be sure that nobody else has access to that. And how can I get rid of the data again, if I wanted, and as soon as somebody else is involved, it's really hard to make the decision and to call what to do.

Um, yeah, I suppose this was the point where I, yeah, I figured I was a bit out of options. There was no really way to do it. There's you can send direct messages to people, but that doesn't really scale. And many of the, the features of of a social platform are interesting that comments can be can be submitted for something.

And there can be interactions between your peers among them. So there are benefits to social platforms, of course. And yeah, at the time, when I figured what to do I was already doing a lot with WordPress and that basically gave me the idea could we do all of this with just WordPress?

And that's basically how the work this started. Okay. Do you, are

[00:07:58] Nathan Wrigley: you a user of the social platforms, which we're all familiar with? When, when I'm talking about social platforms, I'm not just really. Talking about Walden trying to Hoover them all up into the same thing. So when I say social networks, I'm really talking about things like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all of them.

Really. You said that you are like a, a modest user of them. Do you find that there is utility in them? Do you use them and gain something worthwhile out of them? Or are you at the point where you're just trying to step away from it all?

[00:08:35] Alex Kirk: I suppose each platform has its own benefits. So talking about Twitter, for example, there's public interaction.

There's basically you can build an audience about like professional topics, for example. So I see Twitter more positive than Facebook. Where on Facebook. Like personally, I have friends and family who posts things there that I reluctantly check and interact with there. But inside Facebook, it's a silo.

You can't access the information from outside in any way, which we might talk about later with about login with Twitter it's available and it's more open. Um, but on the other hand, the audiences that I see on Twitter are more on the professional end and less on the personal space, which is by design.

And yeah, so there are some platforms that I feel are a bit more acceptable to be part of and others where there's a lot of reluctance and social lock-in that keeps people there. My,

[00:09:52] Nathan Wrigley: my sort of impression of social networks. Yeah. Basically one of decline, it's going, they're all going down in my estimation, which is just not something I would have imagined myself saying, but I'm becoming more skeptical about the use of them.

And as a result, I'm using them less. I feel that if we rewind the clock 20 years ago, to the point where the internet was just coming about the. The offer of the internet was really incredible. You could access an infinite amount almost of information, and it was really useful for that.

You people create websites and put their information on there. And all of a sudden you had access to information. So it almost felt like the internet at that point was a bit like a library, an online library that was just people putting stuff out there. Hopefully it was thoughtful, but it was certainly, you had to spend time and curate the stuff and almost be an editor.

And then of course you had news websites and so on. And so it went and then things like email crept into the internet and that all went online in a browser. So things like GMs. Came along and Hotmail and all that kind of stuff. And again, at that point, it was incredibly useful. Wow. Look at this. I've got something I don't need to have a particular computer to work from.

I can access my email, my correspondence from any computer. I just have to log in, and this is fabulous. This is another great use. And of course you fast forward and the social platforms come along and again, right at the outset. Incredible. This is so useful. Look, I can talk to people that I haven't spoken to in years, and I can communicate with people from what then became a mobile phone.

Just it's always in my pocket. This is absolutely wonderful. And then more recently I feel that promise has faded a bit for me. I feel that the trust that I want to put in the companies running all of these things. So the email, the social networks and everything really, I feel yeah. I feel that the balance is tipped to the point where I'm now surrendering so much of myself, that it feels, it almost feels I'm getting nervous about it.

There's bits of me, which think, wow, why do they need all of this? How am I giving it away for free? And I don't know if any of that sort of works for you or you understand where I'm coming from.

[00:12:27] Alex Kirk: I think it's really hard to judge whether there's the decline in social networks or not because we are in our own filter bubble.

There are many areas around the world where we don't have really big insight into what social networks are being used there. And whether they're being like used more or less, it's really hard to understand. For example, like when going to Asia here, you might be used to services like. And in Asia it's grab and many people never have heard of grab before.

So the same is true for social networks and they might be on the rise in Asian countries, where here we feel in our a bit, maybe more privacy focused bubble that their use is declining. So I think there's a lot of people who consume more than they posts. And there is usually this 1% rule of like 1% of people will actually post something.

So maybe that's part of why you might be seeing a decline, but in general, I think it's really, there might be some audiences where there is decline and more consciousness about privacy, especially in Europe. But I think there are other, yeah it's, it's, it's hard to generalize and. I hope that maybe audiences like ours or like people who are a bit more privacy aware and try out other ways of communicating in a more private or privacy aware way can lead to influencing people to think more about it.

But I think it's a big degree. There's, it's about convenience and they're still incredibly convenient and everything that's less, or that's more privacy aware is usually less convenient. And that's a bridge that we all, I think. Our interest or should be interested in working on. Yeah, I

[00:14:42] Nathan Wrigley: think that's a really nice point that privacy is inconvenient by definition, almost, but I am also completely aware of the irony of what I've just said, because obviously I am on the internet all the time.

Many people will see that I post things through our Facebook group onto Facebook. And so I can see that I am really not eating my own dog food if you like. And so I'm conflicted. I can totally see the utility of all of the things that I've just railed against. The fact that I can communicate with people ostensibly for free, as in free, as in beer, I can message anybody on the other side of the world and I can do video calls and I can use an online platform to be speaking with you right now.

I guess my concern is that it's becoming obvious to me over time that I'm surrendering a lot of things. And I simply don't know what's happening with them. And just sort slightly concerned that we're raising a generation. Of young people who are brought up in this environment where right from the word go from a very early age, they are posting pictures of themselves.

Everything goes online. The entire chat history of their life will be available. Should it need to be inspected by somebody? And those are the things that concern me. So I'm, I'm really hoping I'm not coming across as a Luddite because that's not the idea that I want to come across, but I am concerned increasingly that privacy is something that we've forgotten about because it's so much easier to forego your privacy and just to use all of these services with very little understanding of what the information that I'm supplying to them is being used for.

[00:16:42] Alex Kirk: I think there is a bit of a conflict of interest in what types of social activities we have. For you with a podcast, for example, you're trying to build an audience and for that social networks are really good. Yeah. But when you talk about things that are more private, that are meant for your family or close friends, then social networks are not very well suited.

And I think there is a lack of options to a certain degree. For example, if you want to post private pictures like photos of your kids, then you don't have too many options. You can either go on Facebook, whether it's privacy settings for that, or you could go the direct message way where you use signal or WhatsApp or something to send them to specific people that you selected.

And also. That comes with the inconvenience of that. There's like a predefined group of people. And then you have to think of adding people and removing people and whatever. And so for that, there's not as many social networks available that are useful for that when you try to build an audience.

And when you're talking about professional content, there's much more, many more options. Um, that's why I think there's these two fundamentally different goals that you have from your internet communication. One is sharing something with a limited audience. And the other one is like spreading continent, trying to actually increase an audience.

[00:18:25] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, I guess one of the biggest problem forums that I face with my internal conflict of use of social media is firstly, there's the thing of time, it is a real time sock. You can go down the rabbit hole of a social network and intend to just wander in for a couple of minutes.

And honestly, an hour later you could just be mindlessly scrolling through things, which in no way, shape or form. Did you have any desire to look at when you first glanced at Facebook? For example? So there's one thing time. And the other thing is I don't really. I don't really have a tangible reason to be.

So I'm skeptical. Yeah. In that Facebook has literally, I keep saying Facebook, I should say social network because that's what I actually mean. None of them have done me any harm. I can't point to a thing where I think actually, do you know what? That moment was a real crisis for me the social network has done me some damage because it's also benign, the, the, the thing, which we're all.

W which were moaning about is targeted advertising, for example, or just the hoovering up of data, which is sitting on a server somewhere, which could be used in the future. But I guess what I'm trying to say is I actually feel like I've been done no harm by these things. I'm just a little bit nervous that things could happen in the future.

And we're just letting the steam roller carry on and use more of our time and sock up more information from us and be given more data. There's more sharing between all of these platforms that know what we're up to all the time. And it's always on in our pocket. And so on. I suppose my fear is that something may happen in the future, which we didn't predict.

[00:20:18] Alex Kirk: Yeah. I think you've got a point there. There's so far, like they haven't turned us and, but the data is there and there's always. The chance that some entity will become interested in getting to that data. So on the one hand with big services does always the trance of a big data breach, where they might keep a server without access permissions, and then somebody will download anything they can get.

And, usually I think for most people, it's fair to say that nobody specifically after that, their private data, but there's always a chance that you're being caught up in the big fishing net of somebody's like getting everything that's available when there's a data breach. So there's a chance that accidentally stuff of you will get revealed because you're just one of many people in there.

But on the other hand, if somebody, if something should happen where somebody. Wants to like, get the data that you've posted online. It's rather easy to go through the channels of existing platforms. So yeah it's, that's part of the difficulty about privacy and communicating privacy because most of the time it works and nothing happens.

[00:21:45] Nathan Wrigley: But what if

right? Yeah. Th the other thing that I'm also concerned about is that I wonder what the boundary is typically for people's reservations about what they put online. For example, for me there's some red lines, I wouldn't, it. Pictures of this situation. It might be something, that I want to keep private, like something that I'm doing with my family or what have you.

And I would choose not to post those. I may, of course, choose to modify my language to be slightly more, more polite so that any scraping of data in the future only soar a good version of myself. But I'm really interested as to why people's boundaries. There are, do people post pictures, completely blahzay to what it, where it is that they're putting it.

You know, pictures that they may live to regret. And this is a concern for me as well, is that we need to educate people that it is possible for this data to be breached. It is being held somewhere and as a result, somebody could access that stuff. And that's just another point, w w it feels like we're slowly but surely as a.

Species is probably a little bit grand of a word, but it feels like this experiment is rolling out and we're becoming less and less concerned. It's all right. No harm has come just post that picture or whatever. Say that thing. And that kind of bothers me as well

[00:23:21] Alex Kirk: in a way you have to say it's people's rights as well to know exactly.

But on the other hand, I feel that there should be options for people who do care and if there is not enough demand or people don't realize that they should care, then there would be no options. And I'm glad that we do live in a world where there is like open source and software available for people to trust in at least to the point where you can, if code well enough to check what's going on.

Which is something that I don't know about any of the third parties they're typically closed source. You don't, we don't know what code runs on Facebook, but really happens to something that you answered there. Like what behavioral data they might collect when you use their service. Does it make a difference if you stop scrolling when there's an ad, is that already enough?

Stuff like that is somebody else is watching you while you're on a service. So it's not only about the data that you share explicitly, but also implicitly. Um, behavioral data about sites that you that you visit because of Facebook's omnipresence and the cookies that might be shared with them, they might be seeing getting your browsing history, even if you don't want them to.

I fail.

[00:24:54] Nathan Wrigley: Certainly from my perspective, it would appear that people are becoming more concerned about their presence online and about the information that's being hoovered up. I'm not sure that is. Is true of the population as a whole. You and I are probably fairly unique in that we've got a position on this.

We've probably thought about it a little bit. But I'm not sure that would be the case across the whole population, but it does feel like new stories are cropping up on mainstream media. A little bit more people do seem to be a little bit more concerned about this. So w we'll see how things change in the future just before we get into your plugin for WordPress, which obviously tackles some of these aspects.

I'm just curious if you've got any tools that you use, which are not your plugin or WordPress that you recommend to people, should they have concerns about sharing their things? So it might be a SAS solution, which you believe to be maybe more privacy focused or it could be another WordPress plugin or something like that.

[00:25:58] Alex Kirk: For me, privacy starts in my browser and knowing what I consume and where, and there are many ways how to separate separate services from each other. So for example, I personally use Firefox with the multi account containers, which basically give you like a cognitive window for each service that you use.

And you can come back to the same window. And I think that's a pretty effective way of siloing in services that you might not trust so much. I did

[00:26:36] Nathan Wrigley: not even know that existed. So on the Firefox side, you can have an incognito window which maintains state. So if you shut the browser and close the computer down, when you restart the computer, you can be logged back in.

In in, in its own incognito state, which doesn't, it's sort sandbox from the other tabs in the browser.

[00:26:57] Alex Kirk: Yes. To the point where, for example, you can have multiple accounts on a site and use separate containers to use them in the same browser window.

[00:27:06] Nathan Wrigley: So good. Okay. That's brilliant. Okay. Thank you for that.

I'm going to download Firefox as soon as this podcast is over anyway, sorry. I interrupted do carry on.

[00:27:17] Alex Kirk: And of course, all the other services that can do ad blocking or at least tracker blocking I use conservative settings on my browser that doesn't accept third party cookies in the first place which causes some inconvenience in size.

And so like there is the option to white list services where necessary. Um, that's I suppose, the first line of defense that might be not like, as we said before, it's a little inconvenient because it's more privacy aware and services might not work. On my phone, I use Android. There's something similar called tracker checker, I think tracker controls, sorry.

Which has I don't know if a little snitch on the Mac, which basically tells you about what service will does this app want to contact and that's similar thing for Android that you can use that also causes inconvenienced. It makes apps break until you relax the settings for them, but at least, you know what they're doing.

And I do realize this is not for everyone. Not at all. It's for people who care and people who can live with being inconvenienced. And, um, to be honest, I'm not sure how much it really works or how much it really helps. And if it's how much it is it worth bothering and terrorists like side channels where the data might still be exchanged, but it at least gives you a bit of an introspective of, is this app living up to its promise of communicating with this certain service and not communicating with anybody else.


[00:29:14] Nathan Wrigley: You you have a few links that you posted in the show notes that we shared before we hit record. And I'm just curious about what a couple of them are because you've obviously felt the need to write them down. You've got this service it's on GitHub. It's called RSS bridge.

What's that about?

[00:29:34] Alex Kirk: Probably it's important to, to mention that part of what makes the friends plugin work and the technology behind it, this RSS, which probably is well known as a way to receive content from websites that offer ours as feeds. Um, into the problem, when the service he wants to follow doesn't offer an RSS feed and RSS bridge is a project that tries to gap the bridge between the service that doesn't provide RSS to getting an RSS feed of what you would like.

Um, it's, it's a product. Fairly active, but also prone to break a lot because sometimes inadvertently sometimes consciously services break, whatever makes the RSS bridge for a certain service work. Honestly the code sometimes questionable because it's, lay people so to speak who work on this because they basically have their own need of wanting to consume some thing by our RSS and build, just build it themselves.

And yet again, it's the beauty of open source. They can share a solution that works for them with the whole world. And so this oftentimes it's even even if something is broken, it's a starting point for getting something. Getting something converted to ours. Yeah. Okay.

[00:31:17] Nathan Wrigley: That's really interesting.

There's also another website, which you've linked to called fraidy cat as with all as is always the case. I will post some links in the show notes so that people don't have to go and Google the irony, Google things. You'll be able to just click on a link in the show notes, but what's fraidy cat.

[00:31:35] Alex Kirk: It's a bit of a similar situation here.

So fraidy cat itself is a browser extension that also follows a somewhat similar goal as the friends plugin, as it tries to allow you to follow follow up services or like people in services or maybe, uh, news outlets and services Either if the offer RSS or if they don't often offer us as they have their own way of still getting the content out, so to speak.

So they have implemented their own. It could, I suppose it can. It's based on conf configuration files that contain rules for what to do when a certain URL comes along and. To get data from there. So it's a flexible way of fetching content from services that strictly speaking don't offer RSS feeds.

Nice. Okay.

[00:32:44] Nathan Wrigley: Thank you. Another one, which I've come across anecdotally, I feel like I should have put more time into this particular website in the past, but I never have for reasons that I don't quite understand, but you've linked to indie web.org, which is probably a whole podcast in of itself.

But do you just want to briefly say what the sort of motive of this website is? What it's intending, what its directive is?

[00:33:09] Alex Kirk: Yeah. So indie web is an initiative that tries to promote, so they self labeled them as a people-focused alternative to the corporate web. Essentially what they're trying to say.

You should try and own your content to the point that you know, where it goes and you'll be able to delete it if you want. And you're should be able to move your content where you want and the easiest. And I suppose to the point of how convenient it can get to do that is to have your own website and to own your own domain and by having your own domain while it costs money, which web services are you like many search networks out just for free, but it also means that you can use this, the main name across services.

So this puts you more into controlling. Have your domain name, you will have to pay the registration fee, but then you can connect to that domain name, whatever you want. Like you can have your own purpose site. You can have some other form of web service that provides a website, but you can also use your domain for your own email address.

You can set up whatever servers you want. You can have an IRC server or your own Denis server. If you want to, whatever, that's like the main name liberates you from lots of the restrictions that come with having an account somewhere. Like even if you have your own username that you use everywhere, and then you come to a new web service lates, your user name is taking.

So what do you do that doesn't really happen with the domain name because you've registered it and it's yours. Yeah, the indie web tries to promote through certain they have a set of technologists that they have invented or are trying to promote that enable you to own your data in certain ways.

Um, there's, authentication, there is web mentioned, which is a way to notify other websites of things that you've been doing that might be interesting for them. There are ways to subscribe and publish in a generic way to websites so that you have a set of tools that you can use with your indie web compatible website.

It's something that I want to touch on later, maybe as well, is that usually with a website service, you have the convenience of using their own app. Facebook has their app. Twitter has step and they're very convenient. But if you have, if you opt for doing your own thing, then usually there is no app for that.

And you have to go through the website and having standards around enables you to use any web compatible apps with your own servers. It,

[00:36:18] Nathan Wrigley: it feels like it's a real vibrant community within the website. There's videos of, whole summits and people gathering in the real world. So I highly recommend if you're curious about what what Alex has just described, that you go to indie web.org and check it out.

It may very well be something that that you you could really take the plunge and immerse yourself in. It looks absolutely fascinating. I'll come back to that. After we finished the podcast a bit like downloading Firefox, I'm going to properly explore indie web as well. Okay. Let's move on.

Cause I realized that we've probably used up quite a bit of your time already talking about social networks and so on. Let's get on to. Really the reason that we're having this chat today, which is a WordPress blog in which you're behind, you can find it at WP friends dot a T. I'm not entirely sure what the 80, but you can probably tell me about that in a minute, but it's WP, friends dot 80 on the internet.

And what is it?

[00:37:22] Alex Kirk: So just briefly eighties for Austria. I'm so sorry, Australia. No worries. Interestingly, it's also used like in fraidy cat, which doesn't have affiliation for Austria, but they use the old, if you can remember delicious with the sprinkled dots in the name and make it a real domain. So sometimes the dot 80 is also used for that.

So yeah, the friends plugin is a bit of a scratch, my own pain. It comes from, as I mentioned before, feeling that there were no options for having an experience like Facebook, for example, where you can share private, private information with others without involving a third party. And another aspect of it was that I felt it was hard to follow some friends across different logs that they might have, or blog and Twitter and whatever other services they might use.

So part of this is also to be able to subscribe to things that your friends are doing and put them into one bucket, so to speak. So these are the two main motivations for creating this. So

[00:38:47] Nathan Wrigley: getting into how it works, then you've just described it sort of purpose. I can. Hopefully distribute messages and you could hopefully receive them and vice versa, but how does it actually work?

Let's let's go right back to the beginning. So we go, we download the plugin from there, run us through what the configuration options are, what, what is it that you can set up or enable or disable and yeah, just give us an overview of how it actually works in principle.

[00:39:17] Alex Kirk: So, um, one thing that's important to me for plugins is that I'm trying to make use of the infrastructure that WordPress provides and not reinvent the wheel a lot.

So the particular plugin, it doesn't use any custom tables. It just uses what WordPress has available and uses them in a way that made sense to me, as I implemented that, I think there are a few aspects to it that really. How it's actually a good fit to WordPress. And so when you, when you install the plugin, it will first allow you to subscribe to people.

So basically it will ask you for a website address of your friend, or you can put a service way. That like for easy first starts that, that has an artist RSS feed and you input the address and it will show you a list of feeds that are available. Usually it's one RSS feed that you wanted to use, and then you can click subscribe.

And what that does is it actually creates a user WordPress user for this new site and downloads the RSS feed and creates new posts for this year. For you to consume in front-end UI, that's just slash friends to your blog URL, and that's only for you. So using this, you can at first just build up your own feed of, um, of content that you're interested in.

And you could start with just news and you could use it as a very normal RSS reader that has some added features like uh, rules, for example. So you can customize an incoming RSS feed and stop everything that you're not interested in. And where it gets interesting when it comes to the private posting is when you actually connect to somebody else who also has the friend's plugin installed.

So how it actually works is that it can set up a communication between two WordPress. And through that communication, you can expect change private posts. So if we go back to the example from before, you would enter a URL of your friend where you know that they have a friend's plugin installed, then your WordPress will reach out to their WordPress and tell them we would like to become friends.

On the other side, they will, the WordPress will create a new user with a purpose role called pending friend root has a no friend request. And on your end, you will get a user with their domain name called pending friend request. So this resembles. A normal friend request flow that you could see on something like Facebook.

And as soon as they approve the friend requests, both users switch their roles to friend. So that means that he can then actually visit their site and be logged in with your user at their end and vice versa. So this enables you both to consume content that they create, even if it's private and you can actually, there's two different types of roles.

We can also call them just acquaintance and they will not have access to the private posts, but the additional benefit is that you can, then when you go through the friends, use interface and click on their link, you will be logged into their site and can comment with an already created user. And therefore this eliminates, the needs to.

Like except spam comments, so to speak. So you can actually turn off comments for logged out users and just accept comments from login users and all your friends will be logged in users. Um, this allows you to so this connection is the backbone of um, of this whole setup of creating a network between sites, right?

And recently I've also implemented direct messages. So you can send the message to your friend versus just creating new posts or private posts and For me personally, it has turned into a tool that's a very convenient way of consuming the web. There are lots of are, I don't know. I think we're at six plugins at the moment that are plugins for the friends plugin itself.

And so you can extend it to your liking. One thing is for example, post collections, where you can save posts that arrive in your feed and collect them for later use, or you can collect them into a new feed that you could call shared posts and make that feed available via RSS to friends again.

So what I'm trying to build here is all the convenient features of social network services. Built in your own WordPress through technology that's widely used it. So if you want to share something like a retweet or re blog, you can put this into a shared posts feed, and your friends can subscribe to that as well.

So it's

[00:45:09] Nathan Wrigley: possible to have a sort of public facing version of your friend website, where feeds that you're consuming are shown. Have I understood that correctly?

[00:45:20] Alex Kirk: Yes. There is also in, in the UI, it's called your public friend's page and it's just a regular WordPress page that you can modify it to your liking.

So this would be the equivalent of a of a profile page on a social network. So you can, if you decide to you can. Gutenberg block that lists your friends. You can use the Gutenberg block that allows people to join your network by providing a form where they can enter their own address. The friends plugin also provides the ability to set the visibility for each block.

So you can do things on your own profile page, like show a personal message to your friends and mark that block in Gutenberg as for friends only, and then have a message for your not friends and tell them how you could become friends or tell them more about you that you want the world to know.

[00:46:20] Nathan Wrigley: How has the traction for the plugin gone?

Peculiarly, this is a plugin. Obviously the bigger the user base, the more utilitarian it becomes, if you were to design a plugin, which was something utterly different, like a forms plugin, then your user base is simply using the plugin more and more forms are being sent out with your plugin.

But in this case, the more people that use it, the more interesting it becomes because there's just more people in that network in the same way that Facebook became interesting because there were loads of people on Facebook. How's the traction going? Have you seen people installing this and adopting it and using it?

[00:46:59] Alex Kirk: The interesting aspect is I'm not tracking it. There is no tracking at all. Um, all I know is the, or press plugin where pistol or plugin stats that have downloads per day. But I don't really I don't. Care too much, because there is a personal aspect to me for that as well. Like I know that it is a tool that can help people build up their community, but I personally I'm connected to my friends through the plugin, but whatever, how many other people are using it I can only use indicators for that.

So one indicator is for example pull requests for the plugin, but that only concerns people who are who feel, fit enough to actually contribute something. So I had a few contributions, but first and foremost, it's something that just makes sense for using yourself. You can use the friends plugin, even though it's called friends by yourself and just subscribe to people and use the features that allow you to yeah.

Get everything from your friend into one feed. One aspect of that is also that it makes use of something that you might have heard in a while post formats which is the feature that has been in WordPress for a long time, but it's under utilized. It allows you to basically tag your posts as being of a certain content.

So there's uh, audios, audio image status, and the plugin makes use of the post formats to categorize the content. So for example, I've got this friend who posts like normal posts to their blog, but they have a Twitter feed. So I subscribed to that with the messages and they go into. There, their friends page on my WordPress, but with a status for, with a post format status, or they have a podcast.

So everything from there comes in the audio post format, and that allows you to also see your content filtered based on that. So I could just see what podcast episodes have been published by all of my friends or podcasts set up subscribed through that. So that's a pretty convenient way of segmenting yeah.

Content you want to consume. Yeah, that's

[00:49:36] Nathan Wrigley: really nice. I really do appreciate the fact that you don't have any statistics because you're not tracking anything. That's just such a great answer. The. If you are going to take the leap and you wish to explore this, one of the things which you would hope is that you would, it would be relatively straightforward to, to find other people who have installed the plugin and are, are keen to communicate with one another.

How do, how does the plugin help you with that? Maybe it doesn't help you with that. Maybe you have to find people in the real world and in some way connect, or is there some sort of indicator that somebody got up a public friend's URL over here? You know, in other words, you're offering friends suggestions, perhaps.

[00:50:19] Alex Kirk: Yeah. So there's nothing to that. You're basically at the moment you have to find people who also have it installed or ask your friend who, they have a WordPress blog. Why don't you install the plugin and we can become friends and exchange messages through that. But it does advertise the friends plugged into the outside world by basically in your HTML.

It's adds, a link HTML tag that you could search. I think it's not a very viable way of crawling the whole web and trying to find the needle in haystack for the few people who properly probably have the plugin installed. But I've actually also created a browser extension. That allows you something that I'm always curious about is what feeds does the site offer?

And many WordPress sites offer by standard uh, feed for the posts and the feed for the comments. But if, if you use post formats there might be separate feeds for all the status messages that they have or all the image posts that they do. So this small browser extension that I've created is it's all local.

So it will just. Alongside, as you browse the web, it will parse the HTML and check. What, what feeds does this site have and we'll list them out and you can view them, but you can also enter your own blog address. And then it will add additional options for adding this site as your friend.

And that's a way how to see that the friends plugin is installed on a page, but in practice, maybe it doesn't really matter in the beginning. If they have it installed. Initially you want to follow probably the person with what they're up to and make use of some of the features in the friends plugging, like you're interested about this tiny thing that they're working on or big thing that they're working on, but it might not be so interested in the personal photos that they're posting.

So you could just filter those out.

[00:52:36] Nathan Wrigley: Right. Um, another question is around how your using it personally, I'm just curious as to see what amount of use your giving it, as opposed to the traditional traditional social networks at that's. Is that even a phrase, the ones that we all know of are you finding yourself dipping into this more and more?

Is it becoming something where you are getting benefits out of it? And it's become, it's taking over the role that the other social networks once had,

[00:53:11] Alex Kirk: I think like I use it a lot for consuming also because there's not a there's a couple of friends who've installed it. Like I've got, I think, 13 friends connected at the moment where we exchange posts.

But in general it can also act as a tool for consuming content and two big things that I haven't really seen elsewhere that I'm using a lot are notifications via email, where basically I can have a fine grain selection of blogs or news outlets that are interesting to me where I can get basically like a personal newsletter based on the content that comes in.

So I've throughout the day I receive a couple of emails with full text posts of what I'd be interested in and. Some blogs that are, am especially interested in that right. Form posts that are usually interesting for me to read. I've got this plugin that will actually send that posts directly to my Irina, where I can then consume it whenever I have time to and peace to, to consume the content.

Um, it will connect the incoming RSS feed item to an EPUB. Kindle. If you have one Kindle, like the Kindle format mobi, and then send it to the device. So I could draw off opening up my Irina and having three new long form blog posts, articles there for me to read when I have the piece to do that's absolutely brilliant. I use my E reader a lot and I could, imagine that that would be something that I would be really interested in because it's such a nice experience reading on that device. And you know, it's just a preferable way of doing it. And a lot of the long form content, I find it is hard to keep staring at the screen.

[00:55:17] Nathan Wrigley: So I think that's marvelous. Yeah. Um, the website again is WP friends dot a T. I think that I've asked all of the questions that I was hoping to, to ask about. Is there any. Is there anything that you feel that we missed any feature that you wanted to raise that we didn't manage to get to?

[00:55:41] Alex Kirk: I don't think from the feature perspective there's a few features that I'm currently working on that will be coming to the plugin soon.

One thing is, for example, automatic status posts, where if you, so that the plugin has this option to actually use emoji reactions on posts. So you could give a poster, thumbs up or thumbs down or whatever emojis you choose, you want to give it. And one of the nice things about Facebook that it does is it tells you like your friend is up to this or that.

And this is a SIM link feature of that. So it will create a new draft post saying like I have given thumbs up to this post and that could be interesting to a friend who's interested in. What interesting posts have I been reading? So that will be an option soon where you can choose like what, it will basically create a bit of a feed based on your actions.

But in a privacy sensitive way. So it will create draft posts first, and then there will be a UI we can just either white list, certain posts or like manually publish those drafts. That's yeah, that's

[00:57:01] Nathan Wrigley: nice. Sorry. I think I interrupted you. Carry on this. Go ahead more.

[00:57:07] Alex Kirk: And the other, the other aspect that I just want to mention is that uh, the, the blog to blog messaging is it's basically a way of using direct messages, but.

I've actually started to use Gutenberg for that. So you can send messages to your friends using embeds or whatever Gutenberg offers to you formatted messages. So you can send that back and forth in a formatted way. So that's also something that I could see as being pretty interesting.

[00:57:44] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. So the, like I said, the plugin you can find at WP friends dot 80, there was, it just occurred to me one other question that I hope you don't mind, and that is, I'm curious to know what kind of infrastructure do you need to put this on? I'm thinking about obviously if you connect a lot of things and it's consuming a lot of information that you know, how the database starts to look after six months and so on, I'm just wondering what kind of level of hosting do you need, how big does the database get?

What would you, what would your thoughts on that be?

[00:58:16] Alex Kirk: On the one hand for each of your feeds, you can actually Set, like put in place settings for, I only want to keep so many posts there. So you can say like only keep the last 14 days or only the last 20 posts. So that way you can limit high volume feeds.

Two smaller ones. I personally have it stolen on SRO wireless, like lots of disc space. So I don't really care that much. I think like I've started working on the plugin in 2018 and I think I'm at one gigabyte or something. But for me, it's also a bit of a personal archive because it means as soon as you have your posts in there, you can search them of course, because it's in a WordPress database.

And if I remember I've read about this or that I can just search the database. So that's my personal way of archiving things that I found. Interesting. But you can also use it in the slim way by just Turning up those toggles that will keep the database small. Yeah.

[00:59:25] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. That's good.

That's good to know. Okay. Thank you for that. Traditionally, at the end of the podcast I asked people to leave well, to tell us where they can be found on the internet, which typically involves like a Facebook page or a Twitter handle or something. I am going to ask the same question, but I'm curious to see what your response will be.

What's the best way of getting in touch with you? Should we wish to,

[00:59:49] Alex Kirk: I, I suppose my blog is the best one on Alexander dot Kirk dot 80 yet again, 84 Austria. And it has all the ways how you can contact me. I've got a form there, but you can also send me a friend request. And then we could send messages through that.

But I am on Twitter and on Twitter, men at a Kirk. But yeah, the blog has all the information on it. Do you address where you can find me?

[01:00:19] Nathan Wrigley: Okey-doke thank you very much, Alex, a really interesting project. And I really appreciate you spending some time with us today and telling us all about the friends plugin.

Thank you. Thanks so much for having


[01:00:32] Nathan Wrigley: I certainly hope that you enjoyed that episode. It was lovely chatting to Alex all about the problems of using social networks. And of course his WordPress plugin friends, the solution, possibly to all of that, have a look in the show notes. There's a boatload of links in there.

Some of the stuff that we mentioned in the podcast and some of it, we actually didn't, but loads of links to resources that Alex feels would be useful. The WEP build's podcast was brought to you today by AB splits. Do you want to set up your AB split test in record time, then you AB split test plugin for WordPress.

We'll have you up and running in a couple of minutes. Use your existing pages and test anything against anything else. Buttons, images, headers, rows, anything. And the best part is it works with element or beaver builder in the WordPress block editor. And you can check it out and get yourself a free [email protected].

Okay. We will be back next week. Perhaps it will be a chat with David Walmsley and myself. We tend to flip and flop between interviews like we had today and discussions where I chat with David Wamsley. So very likely next week it'll be a chat with him. We also do our, this week in WordPress episode, that goes out to live 2:00 PM.

UK time. WP Builds.com forward slash live, and then we push it out on a Tuesday. And if you subscribe, like I suggested at the beginning of the podcast then you'll be kept up to date in your email inbox about all of that. Enjoy the week. I hope you stay safe. I'm going to fade in some cheesy music and say, bye bye for now.

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Nathan Wrigley
Nathan Wrigley

Nathan writes posts and creates audio about WordPress on WP Builds and WP Tavern. He can also be found in the WP Builds Facebook group, and on Mastodon at wpbuilds.social. Feel free to donate to WP Builds to keep the lights on as well!

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