Does there exist a good chat service? (alternatively: Discord Withdrawal Symptoms)

How do I get the feds out of my walls, lol?

by spitemim, 2022-10-04


Since my last post, I have given up on email. It’s not secure, and while *technically* it’s self-hostable, your chances of permanently ending up on a spam list are pretty high. The only other option is to trust some provider with your emails. In my opinion, email is just a relic of the past that refuses to die. It’s deprecated boomerware, and not the good kind. The only people who shill it are Luke Smith copycats who think it’s good because Luke Smith tells them it’s good. Luke smith shills email because he’s autistically obsessed with plaintext, among other things. Cringe!

So, why does email suck so bad? Well, it’s not built with security or modularity in mind. Instant messaging systems are a more recent invention, and along with being more appealing to my zoomer brain, many are built with privacy, security, anonymity, and all that good stuff in mind. What many IM systems sacrifice, however, is the decentralized nature of email. Before big tech ruined everything, anyone could run their own email server on their own computer and send/recieve letters. Federation is important, but personally I’m willing to make exceptions if contenders win in other regards.

This leads one to the question: DOES THERE EXIST A DECENT CHAT SERVICE?

Criteria for a decent chat service

One important factor is whether or not people actually use it. Most IRC channels seem to have a policy of total radio-silence. The only public IRC channel I’ve ever been in that was somewhat active was #archlinux-offtopic, which I’m banned from. If you spend enough time looking for likeminded individuals on any semi-popular platform, you’re bound to find them, but more popular services are more likely to have niche groups focused on certain hobbies or interests.

I like federation and self-hostability, but they aren’t necessarily requirements. One really big requirement is that these services don’t have dystopian rules against “self-botting”. I want control over my account and the data on it. I should be able to mass-delete my messages, or automate sending out “happy birthday” texts to friends, or anything else I want to do. It’s my account.

Here are my criteria:

  1. People use it
  2. Good clients exist
  3. Strong encryption
  4. Not compromised
  5. Safe to share handle with others
  6. (Optional) Decent support for calls

With that said, I’m gonna share my thoughts on the following chat services:


Discord

I have a confession to make: I *just* stopped using Discord. I know, I know, using Discord is the epitome of cringe. I won’t make the typical excuses: my friends were on it, I met some really cool/based people on there, etc. Excuses, excuses. If you care about freedom, you need to stop using shitty services like Discord. I can hear someone about to pull out the classic cope: “oh, they already have so much data on me, it’s no use! wahh!” Better to cap it at 1/2/5/10/X years of data on you than your whole life’s worth. People change drastically over time. They may know way too much about present-day you, but once you fall off their radar, they won’t be able to collect data from 1-month-from-now-you, or 1-year-from-now-you, or anyone that comes in between or afterwards.

About the networking effect thing: I have some STUBBORN normie friends that refuse to stop using Discord, so I have to open the app every once in a while to nag them to install something else. It sucks when you fall out of contact with someone because they’re too scared to try anything new. However, you shouldn’t let those kinds of people stop you from achieving freedom. Be uncompromising.

When it comes to my criteria, Discord fails almost all of them. The exception being the first one, although finding communities on Discord that aren’t absolute cringe with 1984 moderation is difficult.

Using an alternative or even slightly customized Discord client is bannable. Encryption doesn’t exist, not even in private DMs. If you think Discord doesn’t have federal hands down its pants, you wouldn’t know federal hands if they fisted you in the ass. They also have communist hands down their pants (tencent.)

More anti-Discord propaganda:

0 / 10: Proprietary Cringeware

IRC

I really wish I could use IRC. Sometimes I peruse humorous chat logs on bash.org and wish there were still IRC channels where enough conversation happened for humorous moments to take place. But alas, I have spent a fair amount of time lurking in Libera.chat and other IRC servers, and have only found 2 active channels: #archlinux and #archlinux-offtopic. #archlinux is for support and Arch-centric discussion only, and I’m banned from #archlinux-offtopic.

IRC fails the first criteria on my list: people don’t use it. If you know of an extremely active public IRC channel, preferably on a server with cloaking or tor support, LET ME KNOW!

Outside of that, IRC is a decent protocol. You have immense freedom of choice when it comes to clients. Personally, I’m a fan of irssi.

It’s unlikely that the feds care about the 10 people that still use IRC. Even if they did, they can’t backdoor every IRC server. Also, public rooms on any service are pretty much compromised by default, since if anyone can join and read messages, federal agents can make use of that privilege as well.

One thing IRC lacks is encryption, but I don’t think anyone really uses IRC to private-message people anyway.

It also lacks voice, but that’s not really what IRC is for. You can connect to a public Mumble server or use Jitsi if you really want to talk to someone from IRC over the phone.

4 / 10: Where is everybody?

Mumble

Mumble is one of those protocols like IRC that I really like. It’s not federated, instead going for a client-server model similar to IRC. It’s simple. You are a client. You choose a nick and you connect to a server. This probably makes it difficult to moderate a public Mumble server, but it also makes the barrier to entry very low. You don’t need to set up any accounts or remember passwords. You only need a Mumble client to get started with Mumble. It’s mostly centered around voice chat, but it also has support for text-based communications. This is something I would feel comfortable setting up for some normie/gamer friends if I wanted to play some Minecraft. Also, here’s a really cool website bashing Discord in favor of Mumble.

I don’t know how widely used Mumble is, but since it’s centered around voice chat, it’s not one of those things you would use for passively existing in a text channel. For that purpose, it’s pretty trash.

One of the biggest pros of Mumble is the choices of clients you have. There are so many lightweight Mumble clients because the protocol is so simple. Mumble clients put Discord electron bloat to shame.

I don’t think Mumble chats are E2EE, but I don’t consider this a huge downside for the same reason I don’t consider it a downside for IRC. Since most people are self-hosting Mumble anyway, and are probably just using it as a server to communicate with a few friends, I don’t think E2EE is super important.

You can’t backdoor every Mumble server. Everyone hosts their own, so you’d have to backdoor every computer.

6 / 10: chat for gaymers (and I ain’t gay)

Matrix

Matrix is a self-hostable, federated, encrypted chat protocol. It’s one of the more popular freedom-centered protocols out there. It does have its problems though. Firstly, a large number of popular Matrix chatrooms are just Discord bridges. The alphabet boys definitely have their hands down Discord’s pants, and so do the Chinese alphabet boys, probably, because of the Tencent stuff. Very bad for security and privacy.

There are also problems with its federation. It’s relatively easy to set up a server, (I’ll get to that) but the vast majority of Matrix users have an account with the matrix.org homeserver. This effectively means that the operators of matrix.org have access to every unencrypted room on the entire Matrix network, since any remotely popular room will have at least 1 user with a matrix.org homeserver. Pretty spooky, but at least direct messages are safely encrypted.

My biggest complaints with Matrix are related to self hosting. The Matrix synapse server SUCKS. It’s written in Python, and running it on my puny server caused even SSH connections to lag. Dendrite is a thing, but it’s pretty new and I don’t think it’s ready for real use. I also found Conduit, a Matrix server written in Rust that’s also in beta but has most things working already, and after looking further into it, I decided to go with Conduit. The installation process is stupid easy. After configuring it, everything works pretty good, except I hate how the database takes up so much damn disk space. I’ve started to leave the Conduit server disabled at all times, unless I’m explicitly using it, just to save storage space on my server.

There are many Matrix clients, but the one that has a near-monopoly is Element, which is a bloated webapp just like Discord. The fact that the reference Matrix client implementation is a webapp is pretty disappointing.

Matrix has pretty good encryption for private chats, and from what I’ve heard, decent voice chat support. It’s also considered pretty safe to share your Matrix handle/address so people can message you.

8 / 10: it’s decent, but- hey, where did my disk space go?

XMPP

XMPP is another self-hostable federated chat protocol like Matrix. It’s main differences include: XMPP is an established internet protocol that was created in 1999, while Matrix was created in 2014. XMPP has far less features enabled by default, and many features like voice chat/message sync are XEPs/XMPP extensions. You can use PGP or OMEMO for encrypted DMs. There are far more options when it comes to XMPP client/server software compared to Matrix. I use the Prosody server for XMPP, and can’t complain. It was extremely easy to set up, and is highly configurable and light on system resources.

I haven’t looked too deep into the protocol, but from my experience setting up an XMPP server and using it for a while, it’s a really nice protocol. It’s not too active, but I’ve joined a few rooms with occasional activity and friendly members.

I think it has voice support, but I haven’t used it.

The feds may have sunk their teeth into the more popular homeservers, but this doesn’t matter if you’re using OMEMO or PGP encrypted chats. It’s also safe to distribute your XMPP address so others can contact you. See my contact page for mine.

9.5 / 10: a very /comfy/ messaging protocol

Signal

Signal is a messaging app built with security as its first priority. All messages and calls are securely encrypted. The app is also really easy to use, so it’s relatively easy for your normie friends to start using. It does have a few downsides: Signal is centralized, which means it’s extremely difficult/impossible to run your own Signal server. The encryption is strong, but when it comes to metadata like login/sync times, you have to trust the maintainers of the official servers. (Signal has done their best to prove their trustworthiness by giving notoriously little information when faced with subpoenas, but it’s still a risk to place your trust in anyone.)

Another really annoying thing is that your account is tied directly to your phone number. This means you need to have a mobile phone in order to use Signal, and the people you contact need to know your phone number. Thus, I can’t ever use this app for communicating with strangers, because I’m not going to give out my phone number.

The voice chat support is excellent, and I don’t Signal will ever be compromised by feds in any meaningful way, because of the nature of its encryption.

8 / 10: a good choice for close friends and family

Revolt

Revolt is a self-hostable messaging service similar to Discord. It does not support federation (nor do the maintainers have plans to implement it) and has no security, since private messages and group chats are left unencrypted.

The official Revolt server (using the term ‘server’ as in ‘Discord server’, not ‘XMPP server’; all Revolt ‘servers’ are hosted on the main Revolt instance) is highly active, so it’s useful for the passive chat-window thing.

Theoretically, the feds (or British/European fed-equivalents) could compromise Revolt quite easily, and the effects would be devastating because of the complete lack of encryption. Right now, the lead developer and maintainer is pretty active in the official Revolt server, which is a little uncanny. I think he would warn us if the British alphabet boys compromised his service, but he may not be able to for legal reasons in the event this did happen. The only things that make it marginally safer than Discord are the fact that it’s not remotely as popular as Discord, the lead developers seem chill, and the software is open source. Not great.

The voice support is decent, but there’s no support for video or screensharing.

I would never use Revolt for anything sensitive, but for (PG-13) trolling on the internet, I think it’s fine for now.

6 / 10: a Discord ripoff (including its flaws!)

Conclusion

I really like Signal because of its strong encryption, but I can only use that with close friends and family because of the phone number stipulation. Outside of that, I mainly use XMPP and Matrix because the federation and encryption are pretty nice. I log onto Revolt very occasionally to check on some friends there, and that’s about it.

For anyone debating whether they should leave Discord: just do it. If your friends are really your friends, they’ll install Signal or something like that to keep in contact. By using Discord, you’re encouraging others to harm their freedom and privacy by also using Discord.

If you wanna contact me using one of these chat services, see my contact page for my public ones.