Since 2010, I’ve been working on a digital publishing platform. It’s called Substance and aims to be open and free (as in freedom of expression). Unlike most publishing platforms today (including Medium, Twitter and Facebook), Substance works decentralised. In this post, I’d like to examine the differences between centralised and decentralised systems and emphasise the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
Hosted vs. Unhosted
Centralised, hosted platforms are convenient. For me this is the main reason why people moved to Google Services instead of running their own infrastructure. A couple of years back, I switched to Google to host my emails. Wonderful — I no longer had to spend hours to configure spam filters myself, and gone were the worries the server could go down over-night. However, as I realised, with that smart move, I also gave up a fair bit of freedom. By outsourcing my email to Google and my file backup to Dropbox, I no longer have direct control over my data. I can only access it through the interfaces Google or Dropbox provide.
Decentralised, unhosted platforms however, let you decide where your content goes, when it becomes public and when it gets removed. This requires some manual intervention but gives you full freedom and control over your data. By the way, the internet was originally designed as a decentralised system, so anyone can host their website on a home-computer. However, there is no doubt that those unhosted platforms need to become easier to use.
It’s easier to reach your audience using a platform that has a huge community, such as Medium. It’s more likely your article gets read by new people on an established platform, than your self-hosted version that nobody knows about. However, the freedom argument kicks in here too. By hosting publications yourself, you can decide how you want to promote them. You can still use Twitter, Facebook or Medium to get the word out. You can, but you don’t have to.
As soon as you are using a centralised service you give up your privacy, almost entirely. What’s more shocking than the NSA surveillance scandal is that we willingly keep giving away details about our personal lives. And I don’t see this changing in the near future. I can’t rule myself out, as I’m still using a hosted service for email, simply because there are no comparable (equally convenient) solutions. However, you have to keep in mind, every keystroke you make is potentially tracked by the system you are using. So if you are writing a story, even the bits you removed are potentially visible to the platform provider. They need to track this information to provide undo/redo functionality for instance. Which is convenient, but not exactly private. It’s not only the fact that platform providers may abuse such data, it’s the fact that it may be stored at all. If we want this to change, content authoring needs to happen on our desktops again.
Centralised, hosted platforms have an advantage here. For services like Medium it’s relatively easy to upgrade existing documents to a new format and change the look and feel for all existing articles. Additionally, Medium, in particular, does a great job of having a consistent presentation across devices that is constantly improving.
With a decentralised system, people would have to upgrade their articles manually to have them match in style. However, is this something we really need or want? If you are viewing a web-page written in 1995, it looks the way it looked back then. Isn’t that just fine? Would you ever reprint a newspaper issue in order to match in style with newer issues? If you wanted to upgrade your article (and fix some typos along the way) you can always start the authoring tool and republish the updated document, reflecting the new style. Less convenience, full control.
Lock-ins are all around us. Not just for commercial proprietary software. They also affect open formats like ODT. One quite big lock-in is the TCP/IP protocol. Now try to change that. Lock-ins happen once a lot of people are relying on a particular format or protocol. From that time on, it’s hard to change that specification, since it will break existing documents and systems. That’s the main reason why so much legacy software still exists.
That said it’s potentially easier to advance a software system in a hosted/closed environment. But that advantage primarily plays out for the platform providers, not the users. However, what we need in the future are well-designed open systems, which are aware of the fact that things are going to change. The trick is making the transition from one format to another easier, so lock-ins aren’t hurting us that much.
Providers of hosted services may impose restrictions on the content they are hosting. They may reject an article you submit for good or not so good reasons. If that’s unacceptable to you as an independent writer, a decentralised system combined with self-hosting is the only way out.
Centralising is not bad by definition
Central hubs are essential for us. We need central communication to collaborate. There’s no way around it. What’s important here is that products should allow integration with central hubs as an option, but never force people to use them. The probably best example for good centralisation is Github. They add value to a decentralised system (Git) by providing a hub for collaboration. Software developers are privileged here. Writers need a Git + Github too.
I wanted to avoid promotion completely in this article. However, I can’t resist telling you about a few decisions we’ve made for the Substance platform in order to tackle the problems described above. First, Substance documents are just zip archives stored with an .sdf.zip file extension. So it’s easy to peek at the contents and manipulate them either by hand or using automatic processing.
Editing in the Substance Composer happens offline, and nothing goes over the wire until you hit the Publish button to trigger the integrated Github-powered workflow. Don’t get distracted by the fact that the alpha is running in a web browser. No data is sent anywhere. Soon the Composer will be available as a native application for all platforms. For publishing you are encouraged, to use the less convenient self-hosting option. All you have to do is to extract the Substance zip file and put its contents on a web-server. It will show up to your readers immediately and look like this.
Conquer back our privacy and freedom
For me it boils down to the question of how much freedom we want to give up to earn convenience. As for myself, I want both. I want convenient freedom. Neither do I want to spend a lot of time on repetitive manual tasks, nor do I want to give up control.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we could transition to a fair and easy way of self publishing. Authors need a valid alternative to big publishers and media corporations to get their word out. It’s in the interest of writers and readers to escape from the strict DRM-systems software vendors are imposing on us to secure their monopolies.
In fact, there already is an alternative. The internet’s design allows us to do things completely self-directed. That said, authors could rent their own webspace (like it’s 1990), register a domain and put their publications up there. It’s such a wonderful idea, that everyone can have their own personal space for expression on the web. Let’s just take this idea further instead of centralising everything into proprietary hosted platforms.
The challenge is developing and promoting open systems supported by high-quality tools that implement that mindset. What will be needed is a Personal Cloud (see ownCloud) tailored for self-publishers. It would enable individuals and organisations to set up their own collaboration hub and self-controlled paywall to sell their work. The purpose of such a system is hiding the technical details from authors, so they can publish with a single click, but never loose control about their content. Also, your privacy is guaranteed until you hit the publish button.
We need to work together to lower the efforts of self-publishing in general, so it can compete with existing hosted solutions. In my opinion, it’s the right time for that shift (backwards?) to happen.
Let’s reclaim the internet. It’s ours, not theirs.