1. Just say hi using whatever
  2. Jitsi
  3. Mumble
  4. Live streaming
  5. Text chat
  6. Whiteboards and screensharing
  7. Common recommendations
  8. Other ideas

As a technologist, I've been wondering how I can help people with the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic. With the world entering the "exponential stage" (e.g. Canada, the USA and basically all of Europe), everyone should take precautions and limit practice Social Distancing (and not dumbfuckery). But this doesn't mean we should dig ourselves in a hole in our basement: we can still talk to each other on the internet, and there are great, and free, tools available to do this. As part of my work as a sysadmin, I've had to answer questions about this a few times and I figured it was useful to share this more publicly.

Just say hi using whatever

First off, feel free to use the normal tools you normally use: Signal, Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and Discord can be fine to connect with your folks, and since it doesn't take much to make someone's day please do use those tools to call your close ones and say "hi". People, especially your older folks, will feel alone and maybe scared in those crazy times. Every little bit you can do will help, even if it's just a normal phone call, an impromptu balcony fanfare, a remote workout class, or just a sing-along from your balcony, anything goes.

But if those tools don't work well for some reason, or you want to try something new, or someone doesn't have an iPad, or it's too dang cold to go on your balcony, you should know there are other alternatives that you can use.

Jitsi

We've been suggesting our folks use a tool called "Jitsi". Jitsi is a free software platform to host audio/video conferences. It has a web app which means anyone with a web browser can join a session. It can also do "screen sharing" if you need to work together on a project.

There are many "instances", but here's a subset I know about:

You can connect to those with your web browser directly. If your web browser doesn't work, try switching to another (e.g. if Firefox doesn't work, try Chrome and vice-versa). There are also apps for desktop and mobile apps (F-Droid, Google Play, Apple Store) that will work better than just using your browser.

Jitsi should scale for small meetings up to a dozen people.

Mumble

... but beyond that, you might have trouble doing a full video-conference with a lot of people anyways. If you need to have a large conference with a lot of people, or if you have bandwidth and reliability problems with Jitsi, you can also try Mumble.

Mumble is an audio-only conferencing service, similar to Discord or Teamspeak, but made with free software. It requires users to install an app but there are clients for every platform out there (F-Droid, Google Play, Apple Store). Mumble is harder to setup, but is much more efficient in terms of bandwidth and latency. In other words, it will just scale and sound better.

Mumble ships with a list of known servers, but you can also connect to those trusted ones:

Live streaming

If for some reason those tools still don't scale, you might have a bigger problem on your hands. If your audience is over 100 people, you will not be able to all join in the same conference together. And besides, maybe you just want to broadcast some news and do not need audio or video feedback from the audience. In this case, you need "live streaming".

Here, proprietary services are Twitch, Livestream.com and Youtube. But the community also provides alternatives to those. This is more complicated to setup, but just to get you started, I'll link to:

For either of those tools, you need an app on your desktop. The Mayfirst instructions use OBS Studio for this, but it might be possible to hotwire VLC to stream video from your computer as well.

Text chat

When all else fails, text should go through. Slack, Twitter and Facebook are the best known alternatives here, obviously. I would warn against spending too much time on those, as they can foment harmful rumors and can spread bullshit like a virus on any given day. The situation does not make that any better. But it can be a good way to keep in touch with your loved ones.

But if you want to have a large meetings with a crazy number of people, text can actually accomplish wonders. Internet Relay Chat also known as "IRC" (and which oldies might have experienced for a bit as mIRC) is, incredibly, still alive at the venerable age of 30 years old. It is mainly used by free software projects, but can be used by anyone. Here are some networks you can try:

Those are all web interface to the IRC networks, but there are also a plenitude of IRC apps you can install on your desktop if you want the full experience.

Whiteboards and screensharing

I decided to add this section later on because it's a frequently mentioned "oh but you forgot..." comment I get from this post.

I'll also mention that collaborative editors, in general, like Etherpad are just great for taking minutes because you don't have that single person with the load of writing down what people are saying and is too busy to talk. Google Docs and Nextcloud have similar functionality, of course.

Update, public Big Blue Button instances:

BBB requires one user to register to start the conference, but once that's done, anyone with the secret URL can join.

Common recommendations

Regardless of the tools you pick, audio and video streaming is a technical challenge. A lot of things happen under the hood when you pick up your phone and dial a number, and sometimes using a desktop, it can be difficult to get everything "just right".

Some advice:

  1. get a good microphone and headset: good audio really makes a difference in how pleasing the experience will be, both for you and your peers. good hardware will reduce echo, feedback and other audio problems. (see also my audio docs)

  2. check your audio/video setup before joining the meeting, ideally with another participant on the same platform you will use

  3. find a quiet place to meet: even a good microphone will pick up noises from the environment, if you reduce this up front, everything will sound better. if you do live streaming and want high quality recording, considering setting up a smaller room to do recording. (tip: i heard of at least one journalist hiding in a closer full of clothes to make recordings, as it dampens the sound!)

  4. mute your microphone when you are not speaking (spacebar in Jitsi, follow the "audio wizard" in Mumble)

If you have questions or need help, feel free to ask! Comment on this blog or just drop me an email (see contact), I'd be happy to answer your questions.

Other ideas

Inevitably, when I write a post like this, someone writes something like "I can't believe you did not mention APL!" Here's a list of tools I have not mentioned here, deliberately or because I forgot:

Also, all the tools I recommend above are made of free software, which means they can be self-hosted. If things go bad and all those services stop existing, it should be possible for you to run your own instance.

Let me know if I forgot anything, but in a friendly way. And stay safe out there.

Update: a similar article from the good folks at systemli also recommends Mastodon, Ticker, Wikis and Etherpad.

Update 2: same, at SFC, which also mentions Firefox Send and Etherpad (and now I wish I did).

An alternative
We (family, friends and work colleagues) use Wire. It's FLOSS and available for Windows, macOS and Linux desktops, IOS and Android mobiles and also just a browser app. There are free and pro versions available but even the free version does text chat, file transfers, audio and/or video calling and groups. It's end-to-end encrypted and Swiss based. Apologies if this sounds like an advert but I'm just a happy user.
Comment by Mr B
Another alternative
GNU Jami: multiplatform, E2EE (TLS), P2P, audio/video calls, conferencing and screen sharing, GPLv3
Comment by Anonyme
GNU Jami

I just come here to inform about the GNU Jami. Here are the links: https://jami.net/ https://git.jami.net/savoirfairelinux/ring-project/wikis/technical/Build-instructions

I have not yet tested it exhaustively. But it may be a good replacement for Whatsapp or Skype or Duo. It's an well maintained project now.

Comment by Ram
Riot/Matrix & BigBlueButton

This is all great advice, as always. I'm surprised that you didn't mention Riot/Matrix, given that you're the one that told me about it. (I'll admit I typically don't mention it either for UX reasons; I'm assuming that's why you didn't.)

In somewhat related news, some folks were talking about BigBlueButton (also FLOSS), which differs from Jitsi in that it does server-side encryption instead of of client-side. While that's worse from a security perspective, it won't start failing after a small number of users. I had never heard of it before so I'm assuming you haven't either. There's a demo site available too.

Comment by Colan Schwartz
My opinion on Wire has changed

In a comment above I recommended Wire as an alternative. I have just discovered that they have been sold or moved to the USA. I shall now be checking out the alternatives suggested by others.

ThinkPrivacy article about Wire: https://www.thinkprivacy.ch/cutting-the-wire

Comment by Mr B
Created . Edited .