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Matrix, Synapse, and Element – Secure, Decentralized communication

Privacy and censorship are essential items in the minds of spiritual people. We like to be empowered and not give away our freedom to this company or the other. 

We have found alternative email providers that promise to take care of our data, but what can we do about the instant chat applications? 

The privacy-oriented alternatives to Messenger and WhatsApp that most people know about are Signal and Telegram. Those apps are now experiencing a surge of new users. 

But there is still an inherent problem with both Signal and Telegram. We need to rely on their promise that they will not sell out to the highest bidder and that conversations are kept private. On top of that, since each one has a central server, they are super easy to ban and block. Their terms of use may prohibit users from talking about certain topics deemed “fake news” or “misinformation.”

[Matrix] – The Open Standard 

One solution is to use an open standard called [Matrix] for our instant communication. 

Being an open standard is very important. It means anyone can implement it, but more importantly, anyone can inspect it to make sure it keeps its promise of decentralization and data privacy. 

The best way to understand how the [Matrix] standard works is to think of how we use emails. We each have our own email providers that may be different, and we each have our email applications that can also be different. And yet, we can all email each other with no problem. Isn’t that beautiful? 

What if we can bring the same ideas to instant chat? The idea that you can use different servers and various apps and still talk to one another. [Matrix] does that. 

Because it is open and designed to be collaborative, anyone can start their own servers that will connect to each other, and anyone with the skills can create a chat application or improve the existing ones. This openness encourages innovation, collaboration, and transparency. 

Since you can start your own chat server, you don’t need to send your communication data to a company like Facebook or even Signal. It can all stay on your server where you decide what happens to it. 

So why isn’t everyone on Matrix yet?

In one word: convenience!

A centralized server, a unique application, and a big company financing the system are incredibly convenient for the user. Why? Because everything is polished and streamlined to cause as little friction as possible because the company needs your attention and your data. So it is convenient, but you pay with your privacy. 

A decentralized architecture is much more challenging to create, maintain, and understand. It is not easy to grasp the idea that you can reach your friends on a different server and in a separate app. It is also more difficult to create an account because of all these micro-decisions that you have to make: what server will I use, what application is best for me, what kind of data am I willing to share on this server, whom can I trust in this eco-system? Oh, it’s is so much easier to “just use WhatsApp!”

And when you bring in encryption, things get even more complicated! 

What are public and private keys? Why should I care? Why do I need a passphrase? How will I remember all this stuff? What do I do if I get locked out? 

To understand this challenge, let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

Here is what Facebook promises: “just give us your fingerprints, and use our app and we will take care of your security for you. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Everything will work at the touch of your finger. Let us be your BIG BROTHER.” 

Here is what [Matrix] promises: “we want to guarantee your privacy, and therefore we don’t want to know anything about you! So all the passwords, the keys, the personal identifiable data, it is yours to care about and store as securely as you know-how!”

Which one would you choose? Do you know how to store the password securely? Are you tech-aware enough to be confident in your decision? 

These are hard questions that you need to grapple with if you value your privacy and your ability to connect with your friends without a middle man.

The Open Standard – A blessing and a curse

Remember the talk about “email” from before? Do you know what made email so great? 

It was TRUST! 

When email was invented, the people that would use it would know each other and trust each other. This inherent trust allowed them to create something so open, so interoperable that it seems naive by today’s standards! 

The assumption was that every email user is a good person, and they will not abuse the system because abuse will make things worse for everyone.

Of course, we all know what happened soon after: spam, identity theft, and hacking. 

It really breaks my heart that an open standard based on trust is a honey pot for bad actors willing to abuse the system. It takes everything that makes the system beautiful and efficient and turns it against itself. Instead of focusing on innovation, you need to focus on security and locking things away.

The blessing of “anyone is welcome to use it” turns into a “someone will likely abuse it” curse.

We now live in an era where trust is at an all-time low. Especially on the Internet! All the open systems that we create today assume the exact opposite from the age of email: nobody can be trusted anymore

As sad as this may be, it is the reality we need to work with right now. And it is why tools focused on privacy are anything but easy, and flowing, and convenient. They can never achieve that goal because you will need to carry around, securely, your private key chains, your passwords, your passphrases. 

There are two takeaways here:

1) don’t even hope that a truly private app will ever be as easy to use as Telegram or Signal. That is not possible. It is you who needs to be responsible for your own data, not big-brother. 

2) in an open system, there will be bad people. What this means is that not all [Matrix] servers are good ones. Not all users on the [Matrix] servers are good ones. And not all chat apps that work over the [Matrix] network will keep your data private and secure. [Matrix] empowers you by not “taking care of you.”

Is your head spinning yet?

I understand. I am a tech person, and it took me days to digest this information and try to present it in a way that most people would understand and use. It is normal if this feels “hard”. Press on! 🙂 

My idea of helping is to shoulder some of the responsibility with you. If you trust me enough, you can use my recommendations below to get into the [Matrix] network easier. 

As an app I recommend Element

For a server, it is best if you can start your own, but if that’s not your thing, you can request an account on mine

I would avoid creating an account on Matrix.org. As they also point out, it would make them a sort of “central point,” which is counter to their philosophy. (If you need a hand setting up your own server, let me know.)

I will end by giving thanks to my friend Tim for making me aware of this information and to all the people behind Matrix and Element that put a ton of effort into imagining and bringing this forward. 

New Paradigm Tools – Slack

What is Slack for?

You may be old enough to remember mIRC. If so, Slack is like that but for business.

If you have no clue what mIRC is, then Slack is a way to text chat with your team over the Internet, grouping the discussion into multiple channels. 

 

What is Slack NOT for?

Slack is not a project management tool. Instead is a remote communication tool. While you could use it to manage simple, short projects, you will miss the ability to create tasks, track progress, and reach your goals for more complex ones. 

 

Why use Slack? 

I have been working remotely for over ten years now. And I would communicate with my clients over email. This approach was generally OK if only two people were involved: the client and me. As soon as someone else wanted to join the conversation, it would get complicated very fast! Here is why:

  •  How could they read the context of the previous discussions – that are now buried in an old email that they don’t have access to?
  •  How could they filter the information if it is not organized into topics? 
  •  There is no guarantee of an email being delivered. When an email gets lost, a lot of awkward “didn’t you get the memo?!” situations ensue.

 

The Power of Slack

Slack does more than getting the information out of your email and into a team-accessible-space. 

It has a robust notification and ignore system. Taking the time to learn about and properly configure the notifications can make or break your Slack using experience. Suppose you choose to get notified about everything. In that case, your phone will constantly buzz at you, driving you crazy, which inevitably leads to shutting down notifications altogether, which means you’re shutting down slack and choose not to communicate. Not good!

The key is to fine-tune what you get notified about and create distraction-free time for you to do productive work. 

It’s tempting to think that everybody on the team is just a text chat away, but unless your purpose is to chat, you won’t be terribly productive. 

Some jobs may require you to monitor and respond to Slack constantly. Some brainstorming or research phase of a project may require that you keep your eye on Slack. But for the rest of the time, turn everything off except private messages from your boss and any emergency or announcement channels. When you’re done for the day, make sure you set slack on “Do Not Disturb” (you can automate this if you have fixed work-hours).

Slack Workspaces are another powerful concept, although super confusing when you first start. 

To clarify this for you, think of it this way: You don’t have a Slack account. What you have instead is an account inside a Slack Workspace. Why is this important and confusing? Because each workspace has its own password, even if you use the same email to access all of them. 

It’s like working for three companies, each has an access key card with the same picture of you but a different code on it, so you cannot use the same key everywhere. Similarly, each Slack Workspace has its own password and email. Why is this important? Because it enables you to use the same tool for multiple teams and projects and still keep everything separate within the same program. Pretty neat! 

Finally, because the conversations are grouped into channels, it is easier to focus only on what you care about and mute (or leave) the other channels. This feature is essential in long projects with large teams. 

 

The downsides of Slack

When I stumbled into Slack one year ago, I thought it was the answer to all of my professional and personal problems! I would use the SlackBot to remind me of important things; I would use channels to organize personal notes; I would use emojis to simulate a project management environment. Oh, the nerdiness!  

It was fun for a month until it because evident that Slack is is to be used for effective communication, and that’s it :).

 

Some misuse of Slack by not understanding its purpose:

  •  project management – use Trello or Asana, or BaseCamp for this
  •  collaborative documents – use Google Drive, Or DropPox Paper (Yes, I know about Slack posts, but they are a far cry from a truly collaborative document platform)
  •  file-sharing – again, use DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive – yes, you can share files on Slack, but I think they added this feature just so to make it easier to fill up your free quota :). Sharing images, small spec files, and generally whatever is small enough to be an “email attachment” could be OK. But for anything larger, use a proper file sharing tool.

 

Misuse of Slack by not understanding team communication.

There is a reason Slack adds by default a “random” channel. It is the channel that allows that team member who always has something “fun” to say or share to be safely ignored while they can “express freely.” If you delete that channel or don’t clarify what it is for, expect your “announcement” or “emergency” channels to get spammed. 

Be mindful when sending a text and notifying everyone: will this boost the team’s productivity or just create a barrage of distractions. Nobody wants to wake up to 99+ slack notifications that have nothing to do with them doing their work that day. 

 

Misuse of Slack by not knowing the tool

This problem is probably the biggest and most annoying drawback, and it also prevents a team from adopting Slack. You need to learn the tool and follow the agreed protocols. 

It’s like driving on the streets: we need to trust that you know how to handle your car, and you understand that a red light means stop! Learning the tools and the rules is what makes for a smooth drive (or Slack experience).

Read an article or two about how to use Slack like a pro. It will take you 30 minutes, and you’ll ace it. It will make you feel super confident and become the Slack guru. But most of all, you will be able to create value for your team with clear and smooth communication.

 

Slack Video

I am adding this here because, so far, I have a poor experience with Slack video. The lag is so significant that it was impossible to have any meaningful conversations with my collaborators. I am sure this will improve in the future.

Slack Alternatives

A completely free alternative to Slack that works in the same way, is Discord. The name is unfortunate since discord is not what you want on your communication lines.

New Normal – Collaboration Tools – Trello

Trello – The playful and pretty way to manage a project

If you are a fan of using post-it notes to organize your projects, you will love this next tool!

This post is part of the “New Normal – Collaboration Tools” series, and we are going to look at Trello.

Trello is so simple that it can be explained with just the picture below:

The idea is to use cards, organized in lists, to keep track of what is going on in the project. And the most simple version is to have the three classic lists:

  • To do 
  • Working On In
  • Done 

As you have guessed, you choose a card from the “To Do” list and move it to “Working On It” and when you finish, you move the card to the “Done List.”

So why is this so powerful, and not just use sticky cards on a real board? 

This series is called “Collaboration” tools, so that is where the power is. The Trello boards can be shared with teams of people. Now everyone can see the lists and move the cards around. This way, you can easily coordinate. For example, two people cannot pick up the same card to start working on it. Everyone has a clear picture of the status of the project by looking at the board. 

And the goodies don’t stop here! 

Each card can have its own comments – keeping the discussion always linked to the correct context.

The cards can have checklists – those can be used in very creative ways. For example, you can fragment the work further in sub-tasks, you can have a list of prerequisites that you are waiting to be fulfilled, and so on.

And the cards also have attachments. Attachments allow you to link relevant files to the card so the team can easily find them and access them as needed.

You can assign the card to someone, and you can set a due date

The interface is very friendly, playful, and easy to grasp! But make no mistake, Trello is not a toy. If you have time to dig into it, you will discover that it is an amazingly powerful tool. 

How to choose between Trello and Asana? 

If you are just starting with project management online, go with Trello. The free tier will serve you well for a long time. Asana is more complex and not as easy to learn. The only reason I am using Asana over Trello is due to my own resistance to change :). 

The New Normal – Collaboration Tools – Google Docs

A new era of remote work and collaboration is upon us. And it is time to build a “new normal” as we have this excellent opportunity for a reset. 

I have mixed feelings about Google, but leaving that aside, for now, let us have a look at their Google Docs platforms and how to use it to collaborate with your team. 

My idea here is to share with you what is possible so you can make an informed decision if this is something you can use to support your project and your people. If you do like these features, there are plenty of YouTube tutorials on how to use them. 

As you go through this keep in mind the “sunk costs” of using old technology (MS Word… I am looking at you!):

– I am used to it, and it works just fine

– I don’t have time to learn something new

– This is too confusing…

Note that this is your brain resisting change. When you evaluate a new tool, honestly consider the question: “if I were a master as this would this help my project and my team?” and try to ignore the “I don’t want change” mind chatter. 

Back to business! 

To get the most out of this tool, you will need a Google Account. It’s free to get one – free as in you pay with your attention and your privacy. If that is fine with you, then let’s proceed. 

Top collaboration features:

1. Multiple Live Editors of the document

This is ideal when you work with your team over a Zoom or Skype call. It allows everyone to open the document on their device and start working on it. The changes will be visible to everyone nearly instantly. No more sharing of Word Documents around! 

Tip: it may be a good idea, for some projects, that each editor uses their own color, so you can know later on what you wrote and what others wrote. (This is just a simple solution to this the advanced way is “version control” explained last)

2. Make suggestions instead of edits!

This is based on (or similar to) the MS Word “Track Changes” feature. You need to change your editing mode to “Suggestions,” and now, all the changes you make will have your name attached to them, and they will be next to the old text (instead of overwriting the old text). This feature allows anyone to chime in when doing brainstorm and review. At the end, the author of the document can review all the suggestions and approve or reject them. This is such a powerful tool because you can instantly see on the side of the document if there are changes that you need to review, and you have the name of the person who suggested the change. On top of this, each change gets a comment section where you can ask for clarifications, or you can explain why your suggestion should be accepted. 

This is, by far, my favorite tool to use when working on a document that requires the team’s input.

3. Comments

This feature is similar to the previous one. But instead of editing the document in “Suggestions” mode, you select a piece of text and make a comment on it. 

This comment will create a discussion box around it. This feature is useful in some cases, but it lacks the quick “accept/reject change” buttons that a suggestion has. So any editing suggestion you make as a comment has to be manually typed into the document later. 

Comments are great to give feedback on the text regarding legibility or clarity because you are not suggesting a change, you just need the author to make some clarifications. 

4. Assigning Tasks

This tool does not replace a proper project management tool (like Asana or Trello) but, for small teams, it can work wonders! Using the comments or suggestion features, when the discussion box is open, you can notify someone (prefix their name with @), or you can assign that item to someone (prefix their name with +). 

The beauty of this is that they get an email notification, so they will know their input is required. And if you have assigned the item to someone, in their google drive view, next to the document name, they will see a number of pending issues that they need to resolve. 

I hope it is obvious how this can be used to keep track of what needs to be done in a small project, so you don’t have tasks being forgotten or now knowing who is supposed to work on them. 

5. Version History

This is the least used feature, but one of the most powerful. I am a big fan of backups. It allows me to move quickly and to make mistakes, knowing that I have a solid safety net. If I screw up, I can restore the old version, and everything is good again! 

For large documents and documents that need to go through many revisions, sometimes it is helpful to see a “history” of how the document grew, what was changed, why, and by whom. Google Docs allows you to do that out of the box because the document has in it a history of the changes. This is tracked automatically, you don’t need to do anything. 

You can, however, at some point, label one of the versions as, say, “Final Draft” or “Version 1 – Published” and later one “Version 1.1” and so on. These labels that you create make it easier for you and the team when you go back to look at the timeline to make sense of what are the important edit points. 

In software development, this tool is used a lot, and I know how powerful it is. If you are new to this “version control” thing, you may not see the power of it right away, but give it a go in a big project, and you’ll not regret it. You will no longer be afraid you make a mistake, or that someone in the team got in and accidentally destroyed the document with large copy/paste operation. You can always “go back in time,” to when things were in good shape! And when you are no longer concerned with making mistakes, you can allow your creativity to shine!

In conclusion 

I’ve stormed through these features. If there is one in particular that you like, look for YouTube tutorials about it and put it to good use! 

Go create something amazing!