The Case for a Decentralized Social Network
As I’m sure everyone is painfully aware, Facebook provides decent service at the extremely high cost of constantly disregarding user privacy, common decency, and laws around the world, and yet they still have billions of users.
How can this be possible? They have a monopoly.
Monopolies breed complacency, low quality, and high costs.
And Facebook has a monopoly over your friend network. You can’t leave because everyone is on Facebook. Switching to a new platform means every single one of your friends has to make a new account, download a new app, and you have to rebuild that whole network — if you can convince them at all.
It’s the same story for any platform (though most don’t charge such a high price), and it’s unavoidable. Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users, so it’s no wonder the network effect is one of the most powerful social phenomena.
There is, however, one social network that is larger even than Facebook: Email.
The structure isn’t quite the same, but it does facilitate communication between any two users of the platform, the basis of a social network. So why didn’t it go the same way? Competition.
No one controls the “email network”. Email protocols are a public good, and anyone can build an email server. Anyone can build an email client. When you decouple the network itself from the service you use to view and/or host it, then there’s suddenly a market with near perfect competition. That’s how you can use Gmail, Outlook, or Thunderbird to send mail, which all have different payment schema (data/ads, money, ugly UI) with more moderate costs.
Competition is the key. It drives costs down and quality up.
Email doesn’t go all the way, though. If you have an @gmail.com account, you’re stuck with Google and they can read all your mail even if you use Thunderbird. Such is the shortcoming of federated models, though they are a huge step forward from completely centralized.
But there’s no need to stop at federated, we can do better.
Imagine a world where no one but you controls anything. A world where everyone’s data is just ‘out there’, many copies floating around in encrypted blobs that anyone can host or download but only friends can decrypt. A world robust against censorship, internet outages, and would-be social monopolies.
When you’re offline, your friends could distribute your profile, and to keep it always online, you could pay for hosting with your data (let them decrypt it) or your money, host it yourself, or even get it through your school or workplace. You could use a free open source client, one that shows ads, or one which charges a premium — your choice. If your current client starts misbehaving, you can switch to any other with zero friction. Your friends won’t even notice. Perfect competition between hosts and between clients.
This world depends on a protocol that lets us have the conveniences we’re used to with centralized systems, but keeps the network open to anyone interfacing with it in whatever way they please.
47 years of innovation since email was invented plus a new marketplace forcing companies to compete to provide users with the best possible quality, we just might be able to solve this problem — at least for another 50 years.