If you are part of a group that feels able to foster an online community that values free speech, then you can do this in a very practical way by providing reliable and secure hosting to groups and individuals who share your aims.

Although WordPress in built on free software, the installation of it at WordPress.com can be seen as a centralized network service. The "Open Web" is built on a decentralized approach to hosting and as such has inbuilt resilience to censorship. Reliance on huge network services as the arbiters of free speech is a very weak position. Such services come under daily pressures from authorities for disclosure. As such, they often opt for an easy life by handing over personal details and suspending accounts, websites and blogs with little in the way of an appeal process.

cc flickr miuenski

Even if you are running a small network of 20 church websites, if you and a couple of others want to get together to run a WordPress network instead of using WordPress.com you are helping the resilience of the Open Web. If you run this network well, then its users will be able to interact without using more centralized services like Facebook. 

Part of this chapter is adapted from a chapter in a book about the Open Web, which goes into more depth on these issues: http://new.flossmanuals.net/an-open-web/

Technical considerations of running a network

WordPress is free software: you can download it and install it on your own server. As such, you are not bound by the take-down and privacy policies of WordPress.com. If you have website creation skills, it is relatively easy to install a WordPress network. This allows you to host many blogs, install extra functionality for them and makes it easy to keep the software updated. WordPress blogs are a great entry point into the social media maze as they have RSS feeds, publicly vetted APIs and useful plugins to allow cross posting. With the BuddyPress functionallity you can also create a very usable social network.

You can anonymize blogs and services by not logging IP addresses. The process of not logging IP addresses on a server using Apache is relatively simple. Use the removeip Apache module. Rather than trying to remove all logs of IP addresses it replaces them with an arbitrary IP number.

Avoid the cloud

Hosting your blogs or networks in the "cloud" may offer technical advantages, but at the cost of reducing your control over your resources. If possible, choose a smaller provider who can offer more support and options. If they receive a take down order, they may be able to discuss this with you to help develop a joint approach to the problem and may help you fight your corner.

Don't over reach yourself. If you are an individual or a small group setting up a network to help people escape from services like Facebook, try out a limited service first with a small number of essential plugins and well tested themes. You can always add more later when users request them.

Be responsible. With the best will in the world, setting up a network of hundreds of sites as an individual is putting yourself and the users of those sites in a very weak position. You may lose interest, get a full time job, go a bit mad or have new personal commitments.

Social considerations of running a WordPress network

Here are some tips for running a hosting collective as part of your project.

Acceptable Usage Policy

Take time as a group to make sure you are agreed on what/who you are prepared to host or not. Then make this agreement public as your AUP (Acceptable Usage Policy). You may want to support free speech but that does not mean that you have to support everyone. The internet is a big place and they will find a home somewhere else.   

Create a clear (and perhaps automated) process for applying for a website or blog where people have to agree to these terms. You should also develop a clear and fair way of taking down websites that you no longer feel you can support and suggest alternative hosting options for users you have to disconnect

Create good help resources

You should to try to ensure that when your users have signed up for their site that they get a welcome message which directs them towards place they can get help on using the site. You can create a help page on your network which sign-posts people to existing help and adds any help specific to the set up of your network. This may point people towards forums and email lists. 

There is a lot of good help that you can link to that is already out there and much that is written in an open licence which means that you can adapt it for your site. There are also video tutorials that help people who best learn in this way. Seek them out and put them on the support pages of your network.

For an example of a help page for a network you can see one here: https://network23.org/help-and-faq

Encourage interaction between network sites

One of things about social networking that makes it hard to beat is the immediate response from a community that users can quickly build up. In Facebook they work hard to make it easy to make links with people and to share information with them and for people to comment on each others content. This is something that is not as intuitive in a WordPress network but there are things that can be done.

BuddyPress is a plugin which is specifically set up to try to achieve this aim. See the later chapter on how to set up and use BuddyPress.