Happy New Year!

christel on 2016-12-31

Another year comes to an end: 2016, a year many will be glad to see the back of. For many the year has been dominated by uncertainty, by fear, and by sadness—a year dominated, in no small part, by the political shift on both sides of the Atlantic.

And a year dominated by death. We have looked on in surprise as icon after icon has passed away throughout the course of the year. We have looked on in sadness as masses of people have succumbed to terror and war. We have looked on as people try to flee, in search of a better life, often not succeeding. And as a project based in the UK we look on as the government tries to do its best to put an end to our digital rights, to our privacy.

Some years ago, freenode experienced a sudden influx of Arabic-speaking users. They came out of nowhere and there were lots of them. Their arrival caused some distress to the existing communities on the network at the time; freenode predominantly caters to free and open source software developers and users and we were all somewhat perplexed when our network was overrun by teenagers wanting to chat about girls and football. They all seemed to be connecting from Syria.

When Aleppo comes up in the news, many of us find ourselves thinking about those kids and what happened to them. One of our volunteers invested a fair amount of time trying to figure out where they ended up. When discussing it recently, he shared his experience:

“After a few weeks of surreal crazy chaos we worked out that they were using a Java IRC client - and internet café PCs - to connect to our system. They didn't know what it was for or why it existed but they'd found real-time online communication for the first time and were enjoying the shit out of it.

I first used IRC in the 90s when an IRC client was given to me by a friend not very long after it was the medium for some of the first ever real-time citizen journalism during the 1991 Gulf War. In much the same way that someone threw some software at me in a computing lab in Oxford and showed me how to use it to chat, these kids were sharing and collaborating in the streets and using new tools to talk to the guy a computer or a block or a neighbourhood over with equal ease.

While we tried to shepherd a group of unruly teenagers into a corner where they would cause less trouble for everyone else, I got to know a couple of the better English-speakers quite well; they seemed mostly to be basically decent kids growing up much too quickly and experiencing my corner of the internet for the first time. They were mostly in Aleppo.

As the Arab Spring progressed they grew in number and it was genuinely cool watching them discover and explore. But as spring turned to summer and then autumn, they gradually dropped in number and started to vanish. After a while I realised they'd mostly gone, and I tried to track some of the stragglers down to find out what had happened to the ringleader or any of the kids I'd gotten to know.

The ringleader had been killed in shellfire, was the answer. I found his blog. It had been silent for a couple of months. Eventually it fell off the internet when the account was suspended.

When a year later they all seemed to have gone I made more of an effort to do some digital anthropology and figure out just what had happened to them in more depth. I talked to a Lebanese peer who ran some adult Arabic language discussion spaces and he speculated that by that point hey had all died or fled and crossed the border into other countries.”

As we reflect on the sobering condition of the world around us, it would be easy to forget about the positives.

We have the privilege of seeing thousands of people work on thousands of projects they love, and it's humbling and exciting to be allowed to play a small part in each of them. We're extremely grateful for that: we love learning about your projects; we love learning about the different ways in which people communicate and collaborate; we love learning about what you produce and why.

We have exceptionally generous sponsors who not only provide us with hardware and bandwidth but also with their continued time and expertise when required.

Thanks to one such sponsor we have also secured the majority of the requisite funding to put on a two-day live conference which will take place in the UK in August 2017. Further details and a formal announcement will follow early in the New Year. We are incredibly excited and hope that you will join us; we'd love for your project to exhibit or perhaps you could give a talk? Keep an eye out for our announcement!

With that, we would like to thank you all for using freenode and wish you the very best for 2017!