Decentralization will fail if it’s a membership model

I’d like to get off the big players (decentralize) and have managed to shed Facebook and Twitter, but Google/Gmail etc stubbornly hangs on. I want my information to be mine (which is a subset of the decentralization argument) and be able to communicate with anyone anywhere. A year of looking and I’m still hunting for this rare beast.

The idea is that I want a system that’ll allow me to write a message, and the system pushes it to whichever system they’re using, be it Facebook, email, Twitter, Google Hangouts/Chat/whatever’s next (Google’s chat platforms are a total mess). It’s a platform agnostic approach to communication.

And I keep running into the same problem: Everything that’s even remotely close to this ideal has a membership model. The other person is forced to “join” to receive messages.

The IRL podcast covered this today and Tom Simonite of Wired magazine nailed it: It doesn’t matter if your system is better than Facebook or Twitter, it doesn’t matter if it’s easier to use than Google Docs or calendar, and all the rest. What matters is getting people to use it.

And they’re not going to use it if:

  • it’s hard to set up or punishes you if you lose your login/keychain/encrypted_widget_thing;
  • it involves Yet Another login account, software installation, communications system.

So something like Mastodon, a new Twitter competitor, is decentralized and you own your own data which is great, but it’s useless because you’ve got to get the other person to join. Like me, many have reached peak-membership; they really don’t want to sign-up and install Yet Another Application, have their data hoovered up or lost in a hack.

The closest thing I’ve seen in the past 20 years for messaging was Adium, which linked into Facebook, Twitter, etc. The bugger is when Facebook, to name a company with plenty of experience in the area, changes their API (Application Program Interface), and underlying code to PREVENT people communicating outside their walled garden. And they do this because they’ve got financial skin in the game, and want to monetize every damn thing.

Google is similar, they monetize with ads (and let’s be honest, they’ve become positively god-like with their knowledge of when we blow our noses, kiss our pets and what we’re talking about; and the predictive advertising and applications of this knowledge is pretty frightening and sometimes bizarre).

In fact, take a look at this page for an insight into the things they know about you:

However, where Google stands apart is their systems are for the most part, actually useful and user-friendly. If I want to say “yes” to a event invite, I can do it from the message. If I want to view things on phone, computer, whatever, I can see it. Anywhere, anytime.

This is where Apple has repeatedly fallen on its arse. The one thing that caused me consistent pain was synchronizing contacts and calendar entries between devices. It’s one of the reasons I abandoned their platform in favour of, you guessed it, Google. It just worked, which was an argument I used to bring up for Apple adoption, but which has gotten a bit tarnished since Steve Jobs died.

Google has basically nailed the user experience (with the exception of their endless re-runs of messenger apps, from Gchat to Duo, Allo, Hangouts and Meet; Just Make Up Your Minds!) and nothing comes close. Because while there’s plenty of competitors, they’re fragmented. So if you want to take control of your stuff, you can choose from calendars, email, tasks and chat, but your information is STILL held on someone else’s servers.

And if you want to setup your OWN system to take total control, sweet jesus with an icecream, you need a PHD in stoicism, profanity and server configuration, because they’re all astonishingly hard to set up.

Here’s the bottom line, the Too Long; Didn’t read (TL;DR):

Facebook and Twitter won the walled garden messaging war. It’s over. LinkedIn wishes it was big like them but it’s fooling itself. I hate to say it, but Mastodon will be a bit player. Facebook and Twitter laugh at their so-called “killers”.

Google (and let’s be honest, Microsoft with Office) won the email/contacts/calendar/documents/storage war. There are plenty of competitors for each of these separate services, but uniting them under one roof is never going to work and is just more of the same with the identical problems: the membership model and getting people to use them.

If you compete on their terms you’re going to lose. And if you cross-over with their world-view, they’ll just buy you then kill you (see also Instagram and Whatsapp).

The only way to win, as a supercomputer in the 1980s once said, is not to play.

Or rather, you play your own game.

What’s needed is a truly agnostic communications system, that doesn’t care what the person is a member of, it’ll talk to them regardless. Call it a Babel Fish, universal translator, whatever. It takes what you’re saying and translates it to what the other person can receive. It doesn’t care if the person only has SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Email or chat. It doesn’t care because you set up an addressbook with their different receivers and it’ll either pick the best one, or throw the message at all of them.

So get to it internet. I’m counting on you and I’m pretty sure I know people who’d put up the seed capital.