Opensourcing My Social Life

A group of friends and I recently had the great idea of hanging out, but of course because of the whole deadly virus situation we couldn’t really do it in person. It’s literally illegal to go outside at night right now, so going out wasn’t possible. Also, we don’t really want to risk it. So the plan was to do it online. We had done that before, videocalling while playing a game, or using Teleparty/Netflix party to watch a movie together while chatting. This worked great.

Yesterday however, someone had the great idea of suggesting we use Microsoft Teams for the videocalling part of our activities. Wonderful. I spend the entirety of my free time trying to use free and open source software as much as I can, but this group of people is going to ruin that. So I suggested we use something else, something more free. Quickly I went ahead and looked up how to install BigBlueButton, I had heard a lot about it. It seemed too difficult to quickly install without any frustration to be usable tonight, and it also appeared to be too powerful for just a group of friends chatting, so I looked for another solution.

Along came Jitsi. The instructions seemed clear enough, the requirements small enough so I tried setting it up. I tried and succeeded. A server that was running two very seldomly used Minecraft servers was up to the task, I stopped the Minecraft services for the night so that the RAM would be available for Jitsi, we barely play on those servers anyway.And then it was time for testing. I installed the Jitsi Meet app on my phone, that worked, I could see myself. The browser didn’t work and my main workstation doesn’t have a webcam so I grabbed a laptop that has the same dual boot setup, Windows 10 for school/work (unfortunately) and Debian. Firefox didn’t work there either, but I figured it’s because that thing is locked down heavily. It’s not just Firefox, it’s full of add-ons that block ads, webRTC, all kinds of things. Running a different profile fixed everything, I could now see the bottom of my chin (being streamed from the phone on my desk) on my laptop screen. Wonderful.

Now it all sounds great right? Because at the moment it is. It works, I opened another Firefox profile on my desktop as well, still didn’t have a webcam but I could at least see two of myself. Wow. Later that afternoon I even asked a housemate to test their device on it, some crappy old laptop, and even though there was a massive delay, it worked. The delay was mainly because it’s a crappy old laptop. Still doing great, even after testing the screen sharing function that we’ll need.

Along came the evening. We were all set up with our drinks and snacks in 5 different locations, 4 different towns, ready to go. Everyone connected and we could all see each other. We could all see each other. yep. I could only hear two of my friends’ voices. Luckily, one of those voices belonged to my big-company-tech-support friend, and one of the others called him to find a solution for her microphone not working. Turned out they could hear us, but they couldn’t speak to us.

Of course that’s a total failure if you’re planning to hang out and talk to each other. I was so confident this would work, I tested it, I read about big groups of people using Jitsi Meet, and it failed on me. I even spent half an hour convincing one of them to let me run this instead of using Teams, and reluctantly she agreed. But it was all for nothing. I ended up having to reinstall Microsoft Teams on the Windows part of my laptop because it was still logged into a deactivated education account and joining the team that was made there, using that without issue all night long.

I tried to open source my life and my friends a little more, and it didn’t work. I might just have been a misconfiguration on their part, they’ve always used Teams and Skype and Zoom for videoconferencing so might have never used a microphone through their browser, but it’s supposed to work out the box, especially with Chrome. This means of course that for the next however many times we do something like this, I am stuck using a proprietary tool created by a spyware company.


PS. We had a whole lot of fun doing a stupid quiz related to our little group and the place we all worked once and playing a scribble game and just chilling.

PPS. The Jitsi server is still running so if anyone cares to help me figure out what went wrong or just want to help me determine in what situation everything but the microphone works, let me know on Mastodon @Vandrar.