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Build your own invitation-only social network with RetroShare

28 January 2013, Mike Williams

Social networks are great, in theory. But then you run into problems with other users, advertising, spam, unexpected and unnecessary interface redesigns, security issues, privacy problems and the list goes on.

If you’re in the mood to try something different, then, you might be interested in RetroShare. It’s a cross-platform, open source tool which provides a rich set of features – instant messaging, voice chat, forums, channels, file sharing and more – but in a peer-to-peer form, so you only get to connect to people that you’ve specifically invited.

Unsurprisingly, getting this all set up requires a little work. RetroShare encrypts you connections with GPG (GNU Privacy Guard), for instance, so you’ll need to generate a key to establish your identity, then exchange keys with friends when authenticating your connection. This isn’t difficult (creating a key is just a matter of filling in a form, and you only need to exchange keys once), but it’s undeniably more complicated than signing up with Facebook.

RetroShare helps you chat and share files with whatever friends you choose to invite

And there may be issues in connecting from behind a firewall, too, although it all depends on your setup: if UPnP is working then all should be well, if not then there may be some further configuration necessary (the official documentation explains more).

Once everything is working, though, browsing the RetroShare toolbar will quickly reveal a very rich set of features. You get file sharing, for instance. Instant messaging. Chat rooms. An email-type system, forums, channels and more.

We’re not just talking some pre-built configuration, either. You can add as many forums as you or your friends would like to use, for instance. Each of them get your choice of custom name and description. Messages within them can be authenticated, or anonymous (so a network of work colleagues could allow anonymous messaging to encourage users to speak openly, for example). And if you’ve a lot of forums then you can even subscribe to your favourites, say, making it easier to find new messages to you at some later date.

The core file sharing mechanisms are just as versatile. You can attach files to individual messages, for instance, or share entire folders and allow others to browse them. A detailed Transfers window keeps you up-to-date with your own downloads and there are plenty of useful configuration options (you can set a maximum number of simultaneous transfers to avoid sapping your bandwidth, for example).

And of course all this is decentralised, peer-to-peer, so there’s no central server, no-one else monitoring things: it’s just you and the people you’ve invited.

RetroShare won’t be for everyone, then. And if you really just want a simple way to display last night’s photos to as many people as possible then maybe Facebook really is the best solution, after all.

But, if you’d like something more private, more secure, an environment which is just for you and those you invite, then the program could be the ideal choice. Just keep in mind that there will be quite an initial learning curve as you figure out how everything works.

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