GNU Social and ActivityPub on Bullseye or Buster

30 Apr 2021 6-minute read

How to install GNU Social and ActivityPub on Debian 10 or 11.

Intro

GNU Social is a successor to the StatusNet project. The latter, with its then primary server identi.ca became one of the first widely-used micro-blogging social media solutions available as open source, somewhere between 2010 and 2013.

The Wikipedia entry on GNU Social is woefully out of date; the project is once again under active development. A team of developers at the University of Porto, with financial support from the European Commission, is adding lots of new energy into the project.

Their biggest achievement so far: GNU Social now includes ActivityPub, a W3C standard for federation of messages across other social media solutions.

After a lot of trial and error with several other open source solutions offering ActivityPub federation, I find GNU Social is by far the easiest to install.

Server host requirements

GNU Social

To get ActivityPub you must use the nightly. (The Master version CHANGELOG mentions support for ActivityPub, but that is by mistake.)

wget https://notabug.org/diogo/gnu-social/archive/nightly.tar.gz

and unpack it

tar zxf nightly.tar.gz

which places the code in a directory /home/$user/gnus-social

Then, as root, move gnus-social it to /var/www/gnu-social and change permissions:

chown -R www-data:www-data /var/www/gnu-social

To work around an error in a nightly, either check if these directories are there, or else create them.

mkdir /var/www/gnu-social/file/
mkdir /var/www/gnu-social/file/avatar

Apache

To prepare the Apache webserver, we configure a virtual host for GNU Social. We also create a LetsEncrypt certificate for our host: below we use host.example.org. We will give a hint on how to do the latter but nothing more than that, and you should not use it like this.

As user root:

cd /etc/apache2/sites-available/
cp /etc/apache2/sites-available/000-default.conf /etc/apache2/sites-available/gnusocial.conf

Edit the latter conf file to match your domain. A complete example of a virtual host file is provided below. The first section will redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS, all all the other settings go into the second section.

The DocumentRoot and Directory lines are important: for some domains, you'll have to include "/public", without the quote marks, and no trailing /.

The Directory AllowOveride All is also crucial, to allow the .htaccess file.

You should not forget to copy the sample httaccess file from GNU Social to your DocumentRoot. Don't put it in the wrong directory by mistake, because then GNU Social will be unable to find it.

In addition, when you copy this file as root, make sure it has the same owner and group file permissions as the other files in your Apache directory.

You must have mod rewrite, so check etc/apache2/mods-enabled. If it is not listed:

a2enmod rewrite

You can now add the GNU Social site:

a2ensite gnu-social

Please make sure you have PHP enabled

a2enmod php7.3

This will request

systemctl restart apache2

Apache virtual host configuration sample file:

<VirtualHost host.example.org:80>
	ServerName host.example.org
	Redirect "/"	"https://host.example.org"
 	LogLevel warn
</VirtualHost>


<IfModule mod_ssl.c>
<VirtualHost host.example.org:443>
	SSLEngine on
	ServerAdmin admin@example.org
	ServerName host.example.org
	DocumentRoot /var/www/gnu-social/public

	<Directory /var/www/gnu-social/public>
		AllowOverride All
	        Require all granted 
		Order Deny,Allow
	        Allow from all
	</Directory>

	ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/error.log
	CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/access.log combined

	SSLCertificateFile /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.org/fullchain.pem
	SSLCertificateKeyFile /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.org/privkey.pem
	Include /etc/letsencrypt/options-ssl-apache.conf
</VirtualHost>
</IfModule>

LetsEncrypt

Please make sure you have a valid HTTPS certificate for your domain. The below is merely a sample, don't use this as it is.

certbot --expand-d example.org,host.example.org

MariaDB

Ensure you have an up to date version of MariaDB. For some reason, a recent Raspberry Pi OS installed mariadb-server-10.0 which will not work with GNU Social. You want Mariadb-server-10.3 (on Buster) or MariaDB 10.5 (on Bullseye).

Initialise the database, as root:

mysql -u root -p
CREATE DATABASE gnusocial;
CREATE USER gnusocial;
GRANT ALL PRIVILEGES on gnusocial.* TO 'gnusocial'@'localhost' IDENTIFIED BY ****** ; 
FLUSH PRIVILEGES;
EXIT

PHP

You will need several PHP packages, but most importantly, you may not have PHP-Pear installed. You may not have it installed it as a dependency with other solutions. The GNU Social developers have included their own Pear version, and if you mix this with Debian PHP-Pear, GNU Social will not work.

Developers are planning to resolve this.

On Debian Buster and Bullseye, you'll need

php
php-bcmath
php-cli
php-curl
php-date
php-gd
php-gmp
php-intl
php-mbstring
php-mysql
php-net-url2
php-stomp
php-validate

This will bring three additional packages

php-common 
php-json
php-readline

Then, you will want, depending on your version of PHP, either php7.3-opcache or php7.4-opcache. You will also want: libapache2-mod-php*VERSION*

First run

Now take a browser and go to http://host.example.org

If all is well you see a message that you have not yet configured your site and that you should use the install.php file.

You can also directly go to: your.domain.name/public/install.php

Fill in the the webform: this initialises the database, add a first user to the project, and creates a config.php file.

When this is done, you are instructed to visit your GNU Social instance at: http://host.example.org

Themes

To change the theme, read the GNU Social documentation. Quick example, if you add

$config['site']['theme'] = 'neo-gnu';

to your config.php file, you change the default theme to Neo-GNU, which performs better on mobile devices.

Errors

  1. When I go to host.example.org, I see only a white screen.

Check the Apache Vhost, check your PHP installation.

  1. I see PHP code all over the browser window:

Most probably you have Debian PHP-Pear installed. Please remove it.

  1. I get "MDB syntax error"

Most likely that is because of an outdated version of Mariadb.

Upgrading

New nightly?

Here is how to do upgrade GNU-Social if you do not use Git. First we make a backup of the current instance, and then replace it with the new version. We need to copy over config file, the .htaccess, and avatar and thumbnails. (You can also copy over the logs, if you like.)

As $user, we do (like before):

wget https://notabug.org/diogo/gnu-social/archive/nightly.tar.gz

and unpack it

tar zxf nightly.tar.gz

As root:

cd /var/www/
mv gnu-social gnu-social-$today
cp -a /home/$user/gnu-social .
cp -a gnu-social-$today/file/ gnu-social/file
cp gnu-social-$today /config.php gnus-social/
cp gnu-social-$today/public/.htaccess gnu-social/public/
chown -R www-data:www-data gnu-social

If everything checks out, you can move the backup (gnu-social-$today) out of the way.

Debugging

You can try to debug GNU Social by adding one of these to the end of your config.php

$config['site']['logdebug'] = true  ;# spits the usual messages into
                                   # /var/log/debug.log
$config['db']['debug'] = 3 ; # spits out everything on the web page
                             # including passwords
$config['db']['debug'] = 1 ; # is less verbose, but is useful here.

Relevant links

This text is based in information on several other websites. I started with:

- https://notabug.org/diogo/gnu-social/

and:

- https://vorkbaard.nl/install-gnu-social-on-debian-8/

The mailing list is not super active (yet!), I'm told users should also try to contact the project on IRC (#GNU Social at libera.chat).

- https://lists.gnu.org/mailman/listinfo/social-discuss

The unofficial GNU Social manual here is, of course, also helpful:

- http://thomask.sdf.org/social/en/user/getting_started.html

And this is the new home for GNU Social:

- https://gnusocial.rocks/