Flox: Privately Hosted Social Networks Powered by WordPress and BuddyPress

Every day, millions of people mindlessly pump content into social networks that are owned by someone else. These massive data silos plaster your feed with advertising and blatantly disregard user privacy. It’s a symbiotic relationship wherein you are the product being sold, but you have no control.

Even Twitter, which many saw as the last vestige of social networking sanity, appears to be inching closer to filtered feeds, experimenting with an algorithmic approach to the timeline in order to deliver content they deem relevant to you. All the major social outlets are starting to pollute users’ feeds with content they don’t want to see; it’s the inevitable byproduct of mining user data for profit.

A growing dissatisfaction with this pollution is leading innovators to create new streams of social interaction, with more realistic business models that deliver an unpolluted experience as the product. Many are turning to private social networks as an alternative to the sprawling networks that invariably attempt to connect you to every passing acquaintance.

Flox Enters the Market to Provide Hosted Private Networks

flox

Flox is a brand new service will soon be launching hosted private networks powered by WordPress, BuddyPress, and Framework7. The platform will allow you to host your own social network, completely under your control, with the ability to send status updates, photos, messages, and more, in your own private place on the web. Flox users can be part of multiple networks or “flocks,” hence the platform’s sheep logo.

flox-logoFounded by BuddyPress project lead John James Jacoby, Flox is the first WordPress-powered application to jump into hosting full-featured social networks. Jacoby recently left his engineering position at 10up, to pursue his dream of creating hosted communities. Fortunately, Jake Goldman and the folks at 10up were behind him and opted to subsidize the project.

“Jake and I talked about the idea (again) and came to the conclusion it wasn’t something Jake saw 10up being responsible for in perpetuity, but was still valuable,” Jacoby told the Tavern. “Jake and the 10up execs were kind enough to invest a bit in helping bootstrap it. They’ll be my initial round of beta testers.”

The unique thing about Flox is that it’s designed to be a mobile-only network. At the moment, the only way you access it is via your mobile browser. There is no desktop version. Jacoby describes it as “a mobile experience that acts more like Twitter meets Slack powered by BuddyPress, than it does ‘large blogging network conglomerate.'” Essentially, it is the “WordPress.com for BuddyPress,” but he hopes that it will be much more than that.

The possiblity of hosted BuddyPress communities has been burning in Jacoby’s head since his earlier days at Automattic. “The idea goes way back to 2007/8, with the idea of BuddyPress on WordPress.com. When Matt eventually abandoned that idea, I couldn’t let go of the bigger idea of letting people roll their own WordPress.com’s,” he said.

Why is Flox mobile only? Jacoby believes this is the way of the future for online social interaction.

The idea to go Mobile-only was inspired by a few things: Jake Goldman really wanted a great mobile experience to communicate with 10uppers; I believe we’re entering an era where many people will use mobile devices as their only machines; my desire to funnel the most relevant and important people in my life into a convenient, easy-to-use, and own-my-own-data place in my pocket.

Jacoby is flying solo on the project for now but he hopes to add to his team as the platform gains momentum. “By the end of the year, my goal is to have at least one full-time employee on it besides myself,” he said. “Ideally many more down the line, but we’ll see what I’m able to pull off.”

The Technology Behind Flox

Conversations in Flox include all the native BuddyPress social features distilled into a UI that is highly optimized for mobile. Users have the option to create “channels” to further filter the activity stream.

flox-conversation

Flox is intended to be an application where its users never see the backend of WordPress. Jacoby hopes to preserve wp-admin to be used strictly as a UI for Flox staff to manage the installation. The idea is that administrators of their own networks will get a purposely crafted experience, without all of the maintenance associated with managing a WordPress site.

Under the hood, each flock is its own network on a multi-network installation of WordPress. “BuddiOS is the heart of the mobile experience, at least right now,” Jacoby said. “Currently, it’s a WordPress theme, though it might eventually turn into a plugin that auto-detects a mobile environment, and adjusts. We’ll see how that experience pans out in the long-term.”

Outside of WordPress and BuddyPress, Framework7 is the only other technology in the mix right now. “I started down the AngularJS road but it’s not really the right tool for this job,” Jacoby said. “I can see future versions using a restful API, but for what I need and how much work needs to go into that API, I wasn’t inclined to rush it.”

Why isn’t Flox launching with a native app? Jacoby wants to start out by refining the experience of the basic social features before delving further into integrating with native device features. “I built a ‘native app’ using a UIWebView that I’m using personally, but that alone isn’t enough to make it into the Apple App store,” he explained. “It will need to use something native to the phone first, which will likely be push notifications or settings integration.”

Jacoby plans to put the BuddiOS WordPress theme up for sale to start, in order to help further subsidize BuddyPress/Flox development. Now that he is focusing on Flox, he has a greater ability to contribute to the open source BuddyPress project, which is entirely volunteer driven. This can only mean good things for the future of BuddyPress.

Pricing and Launch Information

Flox is emerging as a fresh alternative to the massive social networks where you have limited control over the content presented to you. Online social networking, in its purest form, is the ability to have authentic interactions with the people you choose. Flox is aiming to restore the simplicity and power of small, focused networks but is also built to scale to accommodate large businesses that require social networking for employees.

Users can create several networks, each with their own members. The platform is designed to make it easy to switch between your various private social networks and pricing is flexible based on the number of users. Personal networks are free and limited to 5 users in 5 networks. The Business pricing option rings in at $3/user per month and is limited to 25 users. Pro social networks do not have a user limit and receive access to priority support at $10/user per month.

The platform is a promising option for those who want the power of mobile BuddyPress social networking without the hassle of managing their own installations. It also appeals to those who are looking to leave traditional social networks in favor of creating their own.

At the moment, Flox is in its early beta period and signups are limited to a few testers. The service will be launching soon, putting private social networks in the pockets of users around the world.

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29 Comments


  1. Been tinkering with buddypress myself, but I wonder why there won’t be a desktop version and you are essentially accessing it via the web, should he have built a native app then? or simply a responsive site? Looking good though, wish him all the best.

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    1. All good questions and suggestions. Regarding native applications, the short answer is I couldn’t create and support native applications by myself, especially high-calibur ones that we’ve all come to expect. And… the WordPress REST API is still moving around a bit, and there’s so much work to do to fill in the BuddyPress endpoints, I wasn’t comfortable taking that on alone.

      Accessing Flox via a web UI is, maybe ironically, what I envision as the easiest part of the build (at least for my skill-set personally.) I imagine it as a very simple WordPress Theme with full BuddyPress support and enough network administration functionality baked in to keep people out of wp-admin.

      The mobile-only version just answers the most immediate needs of what I could produce in a few months time. The other pieces will, hopefully, come soon after.

      Thanks for the well wishes. :)

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      1. I helped build what started off as a php/wml mobile forum (for old mobiles) many years ago. It’s now a well selfishly guarded full on mobile FB. it was know a unrealx, then wappyCULT, then ravingWAP and finally or last time I looked LavaLair. Buddypress and WP would get ripped apart by skiddies IMO with some serious work. Sorry.

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  2. So this is why bbPress died…

    Sarcasm aside, sounds like a cool project. Best of luck!

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    1. LOL… yeah, I’ll leave that alone

      the website design is very cool, I really like the clean layout

      on the pricing side of things, it seems a bit off, unless the per user fee refers to “active” users, however you want to define that.

      Most social networks have a core of active users and a bunch of lurkers or non-users. IOW people that may have signed up or been active users at some point but who left or have no intention of being a part of the network any more.

      the same dynamic is seen on blogs and forums, many more read than comment, many more comment than those that comment regularly.

      because of this, charging $3 or $5 per user can become exorbitant as a network grows.

      for example: 400 users of which maybe 210 are active or semi-active users would be $1200 to $2000 a month. having a self-hosted and managed network would probably cost half that in monthly expenses or less:

      fully managed SSD VPS hosting $70/month
      occasional troubleshoot/maintenance $350/month

      just my 2 c worth

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      1. Those are interesting observations. I wonder if Flox might be an exception though, to the general social networks that have “lurkers” since it is intended to house private, focused networks – the kind that you would create for your family or for your small business/employees.

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      2. the dynamic that I described is observed in all networks. even your gym!

        how many sign up? how many actually go? how many actually go once a month? how many once a week? how many more than once a week?

        the point of a user based fee is to match resource usage with costs. that’s smart but it doesn’t work that simply when you have a network

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      3. You make great points, and may end up being absolutely right about everything. If that’s the case, the pricing structure could make or break us if we can’t get it dialed in to provide the best value for the smallest cost.

        I’m betting that there’s an audience out there that believes:
        * Owning their own data is important
        * In archiving their most interesting and relevant moments
        * Privacy & security aren’t just features of large social networks

        It’s those people that I’m hoping find a comfortable home at Flox. And if, say, Subaru wants to create a members-only network for BRZ owners to share their photos and experiences with each other, that would be pretty neat, too.

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      4. This may sound harsh but IMO you will get your code stolen for fun. Charging for open source?? Or did I miss something? Seen it happen many a time. My advice is keep your ideas to yourself until they are secure, not trying to be mean but I can see big chunks of code that took me months of months of my work in so,me mobile scripts that sell for $$$$$$ now. Good luck.

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  3. Sounds pretty cool, can’t wait to try it out

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  4. Very keen in getting involved with this. I know WP pretty well on the 4.1 alphas right now. BuddyPress 2.1 beta just past and about to try and break 2.2 beta1. Been coding a long time. I feel it will be insecure with out a lot of care and attention though. You got my email and one of my test sites, come say hello. Sorry in a mad rush to get some wine. Greetz :)

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  5. Now that he is focusing on Flox, he has a greater ability to contribute to the open source BuddyPress project, which is entirely volunteer driven. This can only mean good things for the future of BuddyPress.

    I read this and the first thing I thought of was and bad things for bbPress. Probably won’t be the case but we’ll see. Good luck to JJJ on following his dream vision.

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    1. bbPress is sat in the trunk just not zipped up….. but I see your point. If they give up on that I may have a bash. Too easy IMO. Simple forum script.

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    2. I’ll never give up on bbPress. It will power the Flox support forums, and I’m always still lurking around bbpress.org.

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      1. Ahh see, that was not mentioned :) but with all things considered, with most of your time and effort going into Flox, it seems like you’ll have less *free time* to devote to bbPress. bbPress is not dead by any means although a ton of people may argue otherwise :P that’s a different topic for another day.

        Anywho, awesome to see a project that utilizes all the bb’s so in effect, it may pay for your development time on them, plus Flox.

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      2. I don’t know that I’ve ever had this “free time” you speak of, but I’ve always felt my best and longest stretches of contributions to the bb’s came during times when I was using the software for something myself. I only had that for a stint at Automattic, and less-so at 10up, so Flox is equal parts me selfishly going back to what I enjoy doing the most, while also providing a private and secure conversation-place for intimate groups of people using free and open-source software at the heart.

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  6. ^^bbPress 2.6 sorry. I left them a message asking to help earlier.

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  7. JJJ, please don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all trying to criticise you or this project rather I wish you well.

    Having said that, it is baffling that you point out those 3 things because having a self-hosted solution would be the obvious solution to them since:

    * you would own your own data – literally on your own server which you pay for and to which the host manages for you so if you wanted to, you could do whatever you wanted with it
    * archiving – ditto
    * privacy and security – again, instead of a third party, it is you and your host who control and own it, no middleman as they say

    these are basically the same reason why some prefer to host their own mailserver with something like roundcube instead of using gmail or have their own backup solution with owncloud instead of using dropbox

    hopefully you’ll get feedback from your clients going forward about the pricing and who knows! maybe what I said will turn out to be completely wrong! :)

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    1. Robin you are correct in saying that having a self-hosted solution would satisfy the 3 points JJJ outlined, BUT you are missing at least two big user cases.

      1. Users who are not technically able to self-host.

      I think that speaks for itself. Some users struggle to install vanilla WordPress. A Flox-type thing would be a big ask for those users – think of all the configuration etc. Not to mention the hosting aspect of it.

      2. Customers who are technically able to self-host but it is more cost effective to buy in a solution.

      This is where I think Flox has a shot at success. Companies or groups, that choose to buy in a solution. Not because they are unable to build something similar self-hosted (it would take time) but because a monthly fee for an off the shelf product makes more business sense. Putting the development/setup of a self hosted solution aside, think of the time maintenance / support / updates / security takes up.

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      1. Hi Tom,
        re #1 that’s why I wrote “fully managed SSD VPS” – you don’t need to know anything about servers, they’ll take care of it all. Installation, security, monitoring, maintenance, updates, etc.

        And the budget of $70/month I gave is a generous package of +3GB RAM with a superb provider – which I didn’t and won’t name, that offers unparalleled service and knowhow.

        #2 of course, the point is that this type of client has the most reason to have a self-hosted solution because they are more likely to have a large network. A company with say 300 employees will have to decide if it is smart to use flox at a cost of $36,000 when they could set it up themselves for a small fraction of that. Whereas a small client, say one with 25 users may decide that paying $75/month is a good option.

        as I wrote to JJJ, the best response is that from clients, if they are happy to pay then great :)

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  8. Kudos JJJ. And all the best, obviously.

    This pretty much confirms my presumption of about a year ago. That is, BuddyPress has arrived – in a full, proper and market viable sense.

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but hopefully one or two others will follow your lead and help to grow the market.

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  9. As someone who 1) does not use my phone for email or communications of any sort beyond phone calls and text messages, and 2) who has experience in urban areas where people who are using smartphones constantly are intentionally targeted for snatch & grabs, excluding fossils like myself who don’t want to carry every bit of sensitive data about themselves in their pockets where it could eventually be stolen is just hurtful ;)

    I’m working on systems seemingly 18 hours a day, so I really don’t want to have to have that infiltrate my phone as well! LOL

    Seriously, I hope things go well enough that you’ll roll out that desktop version pretty quickly!

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  10. This is actually exciting and I’m thrilled to see JJJ the one doing it. If anyone can make this work he can. As one of the powerbuilders of BP, he’s intimately aware of what it can and can’t do – this is a natural progression. With all the talk about WordPress-as-platform – this is proof in the pudding, so to speak. No one actually said it, but this is WP/BP as Saas. This is a use that doesn’t happen much (think HappyTables), and is usually only undertaken at great risk. The brand of Flox is not WP, it is Flox. This is JJJ continuing to be a standard bearer for the community.

    Praise aside, this has been attempted before (to a degree) and on the operational side of things, it would be important to do some case studies (and I’ll be happy to help out with this). Diaspora did the same thing (https://joindiaspora.com/), just different technology and methods. The concept is private social networks, though its implementation probably has more in common with BP deployments than it does with Flox (which is a full service, not a deployable software) There is also comparisons to be made that this is a consumer-grade version of Yammer (private social networks for business). The comparison to Slack is solid, however, though Slack is organization-oriented, I like the idea of a consumer/social-oriented private network.

    There is more to this than JJJ using BP, and the project itself is a profound continuing statement on the use of WP. I’m thrilled that Jake Goldman & Co. are incubating this, it shows progressive thinking about WP/BP as a service platform and represents the kind of thinking that 10up competitor had when they supported Happy Tables. This kind of innovative thinking is the kind that really makes working in the WordPress space exciting.

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  11. Ooh, it’ll be great for bbPress and am selfishly very excited! I agree with JJJ – the more I use something myself, the more I see what I could do and the more fun doing it is. This should have good results all round.

    I think there’s a solid market for businesses who want their own social network in addition to Facebook, Twitter, etc but want to outsource the technical aspects or make an add-on to the site and simply use current in house community managers / pr to run it. The Audi example is perfect.

    Price-wise, it’s not something I could use for the site I run with a mid size forum (70k registered users, not sure how many actively post at any given time) but the advantage to starting small is working all of that out. It’s definitely a surmountable problem. If it helps, at my size and with the traffic, I’d be ok paying £500 – £1000 a month, depending on how good support is, how flexible the platform etc. This is about what hosting costs me (managed WP host) with a bit extra on top because dev costs could go down. To be completely honest though, I am somewhat cheap, so take that with a grain of salt.

    I’m really excited, I’ve been thinking about how I would do it all morning, and will love to see how this works out. Good luck with it!

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  12. Here is an article on Engadet about another Facebook alternative http://www.engadget.com/2014/09/26/ello/

    It makes for interesting reading, Ello is a social network service that sounds good, but I from reading the article, BuddyPress already has it beat out of the box and is a more mature system. Worth reading as a case study into what people are doing in this space, it can help inform how to move with Flox.

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  13. This is cool and I’m excited to see more and more applications and services use WordPress as a platform.

    A few alternatives have been mentioned in the comments, but no one mentioned Ning. They’ve been around a long time. The obvious conceptual difference is Ning isn’t self hosted. I think Ning has changed hands a time or two. Their current pricing is insanely cheap, and likely not sustainable, but possibly something to consider… or not. :) There are some nice features there worth consideration.

    Good luck with this, JJJ.

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    1. I completely forgot about Ning. It was an early BuddyPress competitor that failed in many ways. I find it surprising that the brand is still out there. In times past, there were Ning-to-BP importers so admins can migrate over. Ning is closer to BuddyPress than as it appears to Flox. While Flox uses BuddyPress, I can see that JJJ is tuning it to remove the admin concepts of it to make it more user-oriented even from the admin aspect of things.

      Good point there, and it reminds me of all the hard work that JJJ, Paul Gibbs and the others have done on BP over the years. In my opinion, BP killed beat Ning long ago (this is an entirely debatable stance, however).

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