People need a place to share and debate things without fear of prosecution: An Interview with Kyle Farwell and Keefer Rourke of

by Julie Snyder-Yuly

Why is creating a totally anonymous blogging site important? Why would someone want to be involved in a site like this? I had the opportunity to interview Kyle Farwell and Keefer Rourke, the two high school student creators of Tokumei, an anonymous microblogging platform (see it in the S-MAP).  In this interview, they talk about their background and interest in software and websites, the importance of anonymity, and explain what is.

JSY: Your website says that Tokumei is run by two broke high school students. Are you still in high school? Also, who is your partner, and how long you have been working together?

Kyle: We’re still in high school. We’ll be studying computer science university next year. I’m building Tokumei with Keefer Rourke. We met in elementary school. Keefer’s been helping out with design and usability decisions since shortly after I started working on Tokumei in November. He’ll be contributing front-end code starting after exams in a couple weeks.

JSY: Tell me a little bit about yourselves and what got you interested in writing and maintaining software and websites.

Kyle: My dad introduced me to video games when I was way too young, and it all went downhill from there. I started learning Logo and Scratch when I was 8 or so, took Visual Basic and Java game development classes at 10-14, and have substituted socialization and real hobbies for programming throughout my spare time ever since. I don’t like playing games much anymore, but I still write some. I started doing web development at some point, probably thanks to VB and Java turning me off from everything else. Thankfully I discovered werc and have been working with it lately to bring sanity to the web.

Keefer: I’ve been fascinated with computers for as long as I can remember, when I was little I would always tinker with things but later discovered I didn’t have the hardware resources to do. I turned to software, figured out how text could have so much more meaning. I started with Python as most young programmers do, switched to web development, followed up with C/C++, and then discovered a large interest in mathematics. Over the last few years I’ve written stuff varying from funny scripts to intense algorithms work.

JSY: What is Tokumei, and how does it work?

Keefer: Tokumei is a simple, anonymous microblogging platform. You visit the site, you read posts, maybe follow some tags so you can keep up with your interests. Posting is easy, you hit a button, type stuff, tag it, and leave it for others. We don’t record your IP address or any other personal information with your post, so you can speak freely without fear of your post being linked back to you.

JSY: What was your motivation behind creating Tokumei?

Kyle: I’ve enjoyed anonymous discussion on sites like 8chan and my own werc-based message board werchan, but comparing them one day to popular social networks it occurred to me that anonymous discussion platforms have gone largely unchanged since 1999 and 2channel. 2ch needs a massive posting guide, and even I screw up formatting syntax on my own message board to this day. I decided to make the real discussion and honesty that anonymity provides accessible.

That, and Twitter pissed me off by requiring a phone number to register.

JSY: Why is creating an anonymous blogging site important to you, and why do you think that anonymity is so important to many social media users?

Kyle: There are two benefits of anonymity. The first is obvious but important: people need a place to share and debate things without fear of prosecution or of being fired for holding unpopular opinions. Edward Snowden wouldn’t have been able to disclose information about the NSA’s illegal spying programs safely with the anonymity provided by Tor.

The second advantage of anonymity is that it allows real discussion. In traditional social networks, people who are famous in real life and who have used the site for a long time amass the most followers. When all information is treated equally, only an interesting post or an accurate argument works.

The second advantage of anonymity is that it allows real discussion. In traditional social networks, people who are famous in real life and who have used the site for a long time amass the most followers. When all information is treated equally, only an interesting post or an accurate argument works.

The first benefit of anonymity can be provided by Tor paired with a simple pseudonym on most social media sites (except some like Facebook and Twitter which demand real identities), but Tokumei is almost alone in delivering the second with forced anonymity for every post. In other words, a pseudonym separates a user from their real identity, but true anonymity separates a user’s posts from each other.

2channel founder Hiroyuki Nishimura explained anonymous posting well in an interview with Japan Media Review. When asked why he used perfect anonymity for 2channel, Nishimura said:

Because delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.

JSY: Who is your target audience for Tokumei, and why do you target them? Do you have any idea of how many users you have for this site?

Kyle: There are some groups that need anonymity like activists and whistleblowers, but I think it does good for everyone. The Tor Project maintains a good list of some people who benefit from anonymity.

Since we don’t store any logs, we have no idea how many users we have. All we know is that there are currently 321 posts and 512 replies.

JSY: You are a member of the Free Software Foundation. What is it and how did you become involved?

Kyle: The FSF is a nonprofit started by Richard Stallman with the goal of promoting software freedom. Free Software is software that can be used, modified, and redistributed freely. Users can share Free Software, study its source code, and make improvements freely. When software is not free, it can hide malware and create vendor lock-in.

Tokumei is Free Software (under the ISC license), so anyone can host their own site with their own rules and improvements.

I learned about the Free Software Foundation through the GNU project’s relentless insistence that it’s “GAHNOO SLASH LOONIX”, not “Linux”.

Keefer: I found out about it from Kyle.

All software sucks, be it open-source [or] proprietary. The only question is what can be done with particular instance of suckage, and that’s where having the source matters.”        — viro

JSY:  Have you had much success in your request for code or donations? What are your plans for the code and donations?

Kyle: No, so far we haven’t received any contributions. For now this isn’t a big deal; the two of us can handle code (slowly) and we have some free credit for hosting through DigitalOcean’s and Amazon’s student programs. The current server is somewhat slow and if we see an increase in traffic we may need donations to cover an upgrade.

Our plans are pretty straightforward: code contributions will be reviewed and merged; and monetary donations will go to hosting and (if they exceed what is needed for hosting) advertising.

JSY: What are the biggest challenges you face in maintaining this site?

Kyle: One time Hacker News drove our CPU load up to like 3500% and most requests timed out for a while, but adding caching fixed it and made the site about seven times faster.

JSY: Your rules for the site are very simple — nothing that violates local or Canadian law. Have you had any problems enforcing this?

Kyle: We have a simple system in place for people to report illegal content in posts, but so far no one has used it to report anything. Should we ever receive a request, the plan is simply to verify that the post it refers to is illegal in Canada and delete it. We don’t store any information about posters so we can’t help law enforcement identify users. Our rules say you can’t post things that violate local law (law where the poster lives) but since we don’t track users’ locations we won’t typically be able to enforce it unless Canada has a similar law.

Our location is the biggest barrier to offering a good platform for free speech. Unfortunately, Canada has harsh limitations on free speech, and service providers (us) are responsible for user-generated content so we have to delete potentially illegal content as soon as possible after seeing it rather than waiting for a court order.

Rules offend me, so our rules are as simple as possible. It’s absurd that most social networks disallow things like offensive comments. I love being offended; makes me think. See this video for more.

“I like offending people, because I think people who get offended should be offended”        — Linus Torvalds

JSY: What are your future plans or goals with Tokumei? Do you see it growing or developing in any particular direction?

Kyle: To start, world domination.

Keefer: That was a joke (I hope).

Kyle: I have no idea whether or not Tokumei will grow at all. I like it personally, but I’m a bit biased. 2channel has been very successful as an anonymous forum in Japan, and 4chan to an extent in the west. As their traffic drops and Internet users become unable to navigate forms with more than two fields or think up messages longer than 140 characters, maybe Tokumei is what people want. Or maybe with increasing surveillance and political correctness, anonymity is dead.

Keefer: Direction-wise, social networks are doing some interesting things lately. Polls, livestreams, current event summaries, and so on. My tech teacher almost solely relies on Twitter for his news. The trouble is that most of these fancy things actually hand-pick news they think is important to determine what you should see and censor what you shouldn’t. Their usefulness is subjective to an audience that is content with being told what to do, what to see, what to act on. Hopefully Tokumei has a place in reducing algorithmic bias in politics and news.