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resigning from freenode

My relationship with IRC began in the 90s, on efnet. In my early teens, IRC was my gateway to an anarchic world of information sharing and freedom, long before twitter, discord, or tiktok.

Later in my IRC journey, I fell into freenode through Infosec communities and FLOSS - it was simply the best place to go to get and share advice and collaborate. I don't remember why I first joined, but what I stuck around for in the early 2000s was simply the best 'meta-community' of spaces to collaborate, ask, share, and opine on.

An answer, a config, ideas, humour, code, friendship, self-expression were generally only a few keystrokes away.

One thing led to another, and after helping run both the ##security and ##windows channels on freenode, someone invited me "as a helpful person" to contribute more to the network. I became an op in #tapthru, a user-powered freenode help channel – helping others to use the network well and find what they wanted. Eventually I joined the freenode staff team proper in about 2007.

For about ten years, I threaded freenode around my life, and helped to administrate freenode's databases, mentor other volunteers, support users, resolve disruption, fundraise, and help communities grow themselves.

freenode’s volunteer team was always a microcosm of the network. Eccentric, chaotic, loud, loving, multi-talented, well-meaning, gruff, charming, and unpredictable. It was great. I have love and warm feelings for every freenode staffer I have ever worked with. Most have given thousands of hours of their lives to an anarchic set of spaces they believed in the power of, with no pay, reward, formal relationship or obligation.

I have probably learnt - and grown - more while volunteering alongside these beautiful people than in any job I have ever had, and I remain deeply grateful for the skills I built and the relationships I formed with the most amazing, chaotic team of believers in the power of a world in which people help each other using technology.

During the arab spring, I worked with communities of syrian and yemeni people to obtain and use uncensored communication for the first time; I helped at least one FLOSS project negotiate a painful forking of its project and organicly find new spaces and homes; I managed some tricky relationships with sponsors and disruptive users. I had a job interview on freenode, and I even officiated the marriage of someone I met there.

Everyone who has ever been on freenode will have a version of these stories.

Things Change

At some point, my personal and professional life changed, and I had less space and free time to spend on freenode. I still passed through from time to time, but my commitment dropped and I went from tens of hours a week to very few in 2017-2018.

So at the time freenode built a relationship with PIA I was approaching a quiet spot in my freenode journey; but what I heard directly and indirectly initially felt healthy. I understood then that a sponsor wanted to grow and help support other communities to scale. They were providing support and energy. They would join our existing stable of amazing third parties who contributed to this anarchic fabric, and help it continue to be useful.

At the time, I never saw paperwork, but it was never my understanding that freenode was "bought". I never understood that ‘our’ data had become the asset of a sponsor, that our infrastructure was theirs, and I remain unclear that what I had contributed to was even necessarily saleable, or could be a monolithic ‘thing’ owned by one person.

As a staffer with an active staff account until 2021, I never signed an agreement with PIA, understood that I volunteered for them or 'Freenode Ltd', or had any volunteer agreement or bilateral relationship with them. I have never talked to Andrew Lee. [Edit: I had never spoken to Andrew until I resigned - Andrew accepted my resignation after joining the freenode staff channel on 19/05/2021]

2021

By 2021, IRC’s home is a different one given the constellation of other tools available to collaborate – discord, slack, teams, matrix, signal, and xmpp to name just a few. But it retains a charm and a thriving user base, in spite of declining numbers.

It had felt like IRC might die a quiet death given this gradual decline. But my freenode life became more vivid again in the intense recent period of noise. One Head of Staff left, and the remaining freenode volunteers in turn began building a next step together, with inclusive governance and based on consensus.

From my perspective, back into this phase in freenode's life like a comet came a relationship with Andrew Lee. I believe he understands that through the divestiture of PIA's assets he is the owner of assets comprising freenode through his company Freenode Ltd – its systems, its data, its ways of working.

It is difficult for me to understand how true this is. I was never involved in his business transactions. But I have deep misgivings about it, and about how he has engaged with the freenode team. In style, in values, and in approach it is not “my” freenode.

What's Next

I am unclear how he intends to manage freenode, what governance he intends to impose, and what it is for. I am unclear how data will be used, how it will be funded, or how its character will change. I do not believe there has been any meaningful engagement with the staff or communities who have poured their souls into this community asset.

Here I reiterate that the freenode staff I have worked with, going back many years – including all of the staff team in May 2021, the head of staff included – are good people whom I respect and admire; even those with whom I have worked very little. I have watched them in recent days and over many years work hard for The Right Things.

I do not know Andrew. He and his team have not talked to me, and I have no relationship with them. I genuinely wish them well and hope their vision, and offer to our communities, transpire to be positive ones which benefit the communities they may aspire to serve. It is reassuring when those who have more, offer to those who have less.

But for me, what makes freenode special has never been owned. It is not property. It is a spirit and a fabric of open collaboration, for the community good, built on trust, communities, and care.

Like every staffer I have ever talked to, I believe deeply in the integrity and kindness with which we try to treat our users. And in freenode’s sometimes imperfect but optimistic values-based approach to community, to privacy, and to online freedom.

Moving On

And my misgivings about how freenode is changing and their involvement mean I am unclear that these remain, that freenode’s legacy is being respected, or that it is any more a safe place where I want to be.

So I will be hanging up my @freenode/staff/njan cloak for the last time, and moving away. Like many in the freenode diaspora I will be looking for a new home. I deeply respect the other humans who have built libera, so that might be it for me.

Anyone reading this letter needs to make their own decision about their collaboration, communication, and community.

But for now, if you want to find me, I will be on libera.chat. With love.

What other staff are saying