Decentralization is Not Enough
A conversation with Nolan Lawson
In his passion talk at Offline Camp Oregon in November of 2017, Nolan Lawson discussed the problems he’s noticed in the Offline First and decentralized web communities, where there’s often too much focus on tech and not enough on people. Nolan’s talk, titled “Decentralization is Not Enough,” explored the ways in which those with the most technical expertise are using their knowledge to build tools they’re passionate about, without successfully making the benefits clear to those around them. The result, he suggests, may be an exclusive safe haven for the technical elite, rather than a compelling movement to change the way technology works for everyone.
Nolan’s talk resonated strongly with my own experiences in the tech community. When I began co-organizing Offline Camp in 2016, I wasn’t yet a web developer, and I spent a lot of my time surrounded by folks who had brilliant technical skills but didn’t always have a knack for explaining technical concepts in an approachable way. With decentralization in particular, it was hard for me to find clear explanations of the benefits that would justify exploring unfamiliar tools. So a few months after Offline Camp Oregon, Nolan and I sat down together to talk about how best to bridge the communication gap he described in his passion talk. You can find his full 5-minute talk below, followed by an abridged transcript of our conversation.
Tech literacy creates a two-tiered society
TC: This was probably my favorite talk of Offline Camp passion talk history because it spoke to my role within the tech community. When I started planning Offline Camp, I was primarily an event planner, and at this point I’m actually a coder. Within Offline First, when we talk about it as a social movement, we have a few different ideas about what it means and where it’s going. It’s very easy for me to get on board with Offline First as a good user experience. It’s very easy to understand in that way, even without any coding skills. It’s very easy to understand the concept of helping people or democratizing access to data. We want to be able to support developing world healthcare and write data to our device, all of that. Where I get lost, and where I think the movement isn’t sustainable, is if we use this message that some people are saying, which is, “Yep, decentralization: that’s the end goal.” That concept doesn’t come across as accessible most of the time.
As I was just rewatching the video, I was like, two factor authentication, check! I get to be a nerd for that one. Password manager, check! And then as soon as we get into decentralization, well… if you hadn’t asked me if I wanted to be on Mastodon, I wouldn’t be on Mastodon. What the heck does federated mean? What’s a server instance? You’re right, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It sounds incredibly intimidating, in the same way it used to be, on a more simple level, to imagine someone building their own website from scratch, without Geocities or Squarespace. To an outsider, it feels like the difference between using systems that are in place and building your thing from scratch. And I hear people framing it in a way that makes me understand some of the issues they’re trying to address, but not in a way that makes me understand what I would do next and convinces me that I would actually be capable of doing such things, which makes me worried about the packaging for the movement if that’s presented as the goal.
NL: Yeah, I totally agree with that. You’re right that Offline First is an easier sell, because there’s user experience, there’s design, there are even business arguments for it. But there is also a lot of overlap, it seems, between people who are interested in Offline First and people who are interested in decentralization. And once you get into the topic of decentralization, I think there’s not a whole lot of effort to try to make that content accessible and to try to explain why it is a virtue to strive for in the first place. A lot of people just kind of treat it as a given: “Oh, obviously decentralization’s good. Obviously we want maximum decentralization. Now on to the next topic.” But for the average person, it’s like, “What is the point? What do I get out of this? What problem are you actually trying to solve?”
One thing I wanted to bring up in the talk was that a lot of the people advocating for this stuff are very tech literate and very tunnel-visioned on the tech problems, which are completely inaccessible to some people who are less technical. I don’t want to cast shade or anything, but I was looking at Hacker News yesterday and Scuttlebutt was on the front page. Scuttlebutt is a peer-to-peer decentralized social network, and there’s an instructional video explaining how to use it. And the first thing it says to do is download this native application, and it has a little picture of dragging the Mac app to the applications folder, which already is something that some people just don’t even understand. And then the second thing they say is to generate a public/private key pair, which at that point…
TC: No, you’ve lost a lost of people.
NL: You’ve lost me, frankly, because every time I struggle with that stuff, it’s a pain. So it’s clear to me how narrow-minded a lot of the people in this community are. Don’t get me wrong, many of them are technically brilliant, and their hearts are in the right place, but I see so much of this tunnel vision and it just bothers me. It actually bothers me more if the movement is successful than if it’s a failure, because if it’s successful, congratulations, you’ve built a little safe haven for nerds. You’ve built your little island or your little compound or your escape valve for people who are literate enough or wealthy enough or privileged enough to understand how to use this technology. Yeah, it’s a huge problem I see right now, making this stuff accessible.
Improving onboarding for decentralized networks and tools
TC: Yeah. I think you did a great job of identifying that problem in your talk. Do you have ideas for the solution?
NL: So that’s a good question. So, obviously I work on Mastodon and I’ve even contributed to the project. I’ve also just released a new Mastodon web client called Pinafore. I’m trying to basically redesign Mastodon to be even more accessible than it is right now and try to simplify the interface, make it a single column instead of multi column, and get rid of a lot of the fancy features. So obviously I’m partial to Mastodon and Mastodon’s approach. I think Mastodon has been the best at getting regular people to find it, and you see that in the community.
Honestly, my wife uses Mastodon everyday, she’s a way more hardcore user than me, and she just uses it to write jokes, and I look at her timeline and see her interacting with friends. And when I hang on Mastodon, I’ve honestly met so many trans people on Mastodon, which is shocking. The trans community is huge. I went to a Mastodon Meetup, and I swear I might’ve been the only straight white guy in the room. How unusual is that for a group in the tech industry, right? You can see it in the makeup of people who are actually interested in Mastodon.
I think part of the way they solved it is just making onboarding really, really easy. You know, they’ve got one URL you can go to called joinmastodon.org, and it looks nice and professional and clean, and it’s got a very simple flow. The hardest step is just choosing your instance server, which is one thing I identified in my talk as a source of friction. I think you have to make the onboarding easy. You can’t tell people to generate a public/private key pair. You can’t tell people to run a binary on the command line. You can’t even tell people to download an app and do the little thing where you drag it into the applications folder. Even that is boring to some people. It has to be web-based, or it has to be a mobile app on the app store or something that simple.
TC: So it’s been a while since I signed up for Mastodon, but I am definitely still confused about how different instances work with each other. Am I talking to all of the people using Mastodon, am I only talking to the small group of people, like what is happening?
NL: Yeah. Actually Eugen Rochko, who leads the Mastodon project, has been really, really good about trying to break down that barrier and explain that concept better. There’s a 3-minute YouTube video that’s got a really cute little mastodon on it.
TC: Which is important. Having cute cartoon characters is very helpful.
NL: Yeah. If you look up “What is Mastodon?” on YouTube, I think it should be the first thing that pops up, and he kind of explains this whole thing. But basically the way I would try to explain it is that it’s kind of like subreddits…
TC: Which again, we don’t all use Reddit.
NL: Yeah. I see Reddit as another nerd thing.
TC: It is.
NL: I guess it’s as if when you signed up for Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever, you have different accounts, and normally they are each like their own little kingdom, they can’t talk to each other. But imagine if when you signed up for Facebook, you could actually talk to people on Instagram, those messages could flow back and forth, and could do the same thing with Snapchat. Imagine if they could all talk to each other. It’s like that but then times 2,000, because there’s like 2,000, and each one has its own focus. You know, the one I run, toot.cafe, is mostly techie people. My wife runs one called freedom.horse, which is just silly as you can guess from the .horse. She designed it to be all pink and it’s got pink horses. And there’s pentacl.es, which is for people who are into Wicca, witches kind of stuff. There’s lots of little subcommunities, but they can all kind of talk to each other. That’s the 30-second spiel basically. And each one is independently owned and operated, which is the big draw.
TC: And if you were going to explain the big draw, basically explain “Why decentralization?” to someone, how would you do that for the commoner audience?
Decentralization as a reaction to censorship and defender of marginalized communities
NL: Actually, you can make a lot of different cases for this. One case you can make is actually censorship. I don’t know if you were following the news, but FOSTA and FESTA just recently got signed into law, which, long story short, makes it illegal to do sex work on the internet, to sell sexual services. I mean, it’s illegal in most parts of the world, but in many parts of the world it is decriminalized. Sex work is not illegal in Austria or Australia. But if the Internet is American, which it basically is, right… All the big tech companies are American. They’re housed in the US: Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and Twitter and Reddit and all these things… Google, YouTube, they’re all owned by US companies, right? So a lot of them have started evicting sex workers from their platform, just cutting them off entirely, banning their accounts, shadow banning their accounts, shutting down subreddits, which for many of these people is their only line of work. This is how they survive.
This is a great case of a marginalized community that deals in something that maybe like the average person doesn’t necessarily… There’s no huge lobby in Washington advocating for the rights of these people. They have no one to protect them. But there is a Mastodon instance for sex workers, and it’s actually grown by a lot in the last few weeks, called Switter, and it has like 6,000 users now. It’s like the sixth biggest Mastodon instance now. They actually are hosted in Austria and they used to be partially hosted in the US. They were using a CDN called Cloudflare, but Cloudfare shut them down after FOSTA and FESTA, so they just moved their DNS to somewhere in Europe.
So the fact that it’s independently owned and operated means that this thing can transcend laws, customs, places. If the US became a dictatorship tomorrow — you know, not saying that’s gonna happen, but if it did — and suddenly YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and all these companies decided that they were just going to shut down X or Y community because of risk aversion, or because of US-specific laws, if it’s decentralized then someone can always spin up another independently operated server somewhere. So the censorship argument is one thing.
Decentralization for privacy
NL: The second argument you can make is advertising. You’re not being tracked. When you use Mastodon, your data is not being shared or sold or used for any nefarious purposes. It all goes into the gutter, it goes into the trash. Mastodon actually by default throws away things like image metadata, and even if your data were compromised, it’s spread out. Say you joined toot.cafe, which has a thousand users. That’s a tiny slice of the entire fediverse. Even if I was an idiot and my server got compromised, got hacked or something, and someone got access to the database, hey, that’s only a tiny percentage of the entire social network that got compromised. So it reduces the attack surface. Plus, if you come into this platform there’s zero ads, zero tracking. Your data’s not being used for various purposes that you don’t know about.
TC: Who’s paying for it to exist without the ads?
NL: Mostly it’s enthusiasts like myself. I just take the costs on for myself. Most instances have a Patreon account set up, so it’s usually crowdfunded by the users themselves. And those are the the first two big arguments I can make off the top of my head.
I think that kind of goes back to the question of how you actually make the argument for this stuff without getting people’s eyes to glaze over. I think what you have to do is address a problem that they actually have, right? So talking about the censorship thing, sex workers’ issues may not even be the first thing to go with because it’s a small community and maybe not everyone can identify with that. But I think everyone can identify with the feeling of being tracked online or the feeling of being constantly subjected to ads or being subjected to content where you’re not quite sure if it’s an ad or not. You know, like Instagram celebrities, where they take a selfie and they’ve got an artfully placed bottle of lotion or something, and maybe it’s not clear that it’s an ad. There’s none of that on Mastodon, or on Scuttlebutt for that matter.
TC: Is there any risk that the law-avoiding benefit becomes a detriment? Or do we just not pick that version of Mastodon if we don’t like it? Is this going to drive more wedges between groups of people by not having them interact with each other or is that not really a concern?
NL: Those are two very genuine concerns. For the first point, if there is one part of the network that is doing something grossly illegal, like selling hard drugs, the government could shut down that instance. Any other instances could block that instance proactively, which would basically mean they would just ignore any comments. It would be as if it didn’t exist. Lots of instances already block one another for various reasons, usually political differences, but sometimes differences in what they find acceptable content.
Self-selecting echo chambers
NL: That’s the first thing, but then the second thing you might say is, “Well, that’s great, but then doesn’t that just lead to more filter bubbles, more echo chambers?” I think that’s a good argument to have, but what I would say is that people already live in echo chambers and filter bubbles and they seek them out themselves. When you go to a local sports club, a local meetup, or to a local church or even school, people pick this stuff based on the kinds of people they want to hang out with. Even with neighborhoods, people already kind of self-segregate. And I think if you try to completely eliminate filter bubbles and echo chambers, you’re essentially going against what the consumer wants. The consumer wants filter bubbles. The consumer wants to be with people that agree with them, for the most part. I would say that the way to break that filter bubble is just to have separate accounts on different instances. But I don’t think it’s a problem you can solve without going against human nature.
Barriers to entry, barriers to understanding, and lack of a clear value proposition
NL: Let me ask you a question, because you kind of identify as not so much on the super steeped-in-tech side of things. What do you find not compelling about it? That’s what I want to know, because my goal, and I think the goal of most people advocating for decentralization, is to make it compelling for people who aren’t nerds and don’t just take it for granted and say, “Oh, obviously this thing is good.” I’m wondering what your perspective is.
TC: To be fair, I haven’t done a ton of research and maybe my concerns would be addressed if I did more. The things I’m probably most familiar with by exposure to other Offline Camp people would be Beaker Browser or Mastodon or whatever else. And when I hear them explained, it’s just that it always jumps into, “Host your own thing.” I don’t know how to host a thing. Clearly there’s a different word that goes where I’m using the word thing, because I can’t manage the vocabulary. It’s not familiar. It doesn’t sound like an easy thing to get started with, but it very well may be with the right changes in vocabulary, the right metaphors.
When other folks on my dev advocacy team are practicing a talk, my feedback almost always is, “Had you included a really easy-to-understand example at the beginning, I could have followed your entire talk, but you waited until the end to give the example. Therefore, I was completely lost about everything that I otherwise could have followed.” So it’s about having that idea to latch onto that makes sense to the layperson, the right metaphor, the right whatever. It’s definitely an accessibility issue and a vocabulary issue. I mean, I’m a smart person, I’ve picked up a lot of tech skills, and I’m sure these are things I could do, but it’s a mix of like making it sound easy and normal and maybe putting more emphasis on why is this better than the normally accepted convention.
NL: Do you think those two things are separate or are they related problems? The problem of “What are you talking about?” and the question of “What’s in it for me? What is the point?” Which one of those things is more important, or are they kind of the same thing?
TC: I don’t think they’re quite the same thing as each other, but I think I think they balance out. Maybe if you explained it as being so incredibly easy, I wouldn’t care that I don’t understand what the point is, and I’d be like, “Okay, what the heck?” Or if you explained it as being super important, then I might be like, “Oh man, this is going to be a beast to try to understand and get started with, but it’s really important. I guess I’ll take the time to learn.” It’s some balance of the two. So they could both be medium levels of explanation or one can be amazing. Ideally, both would be amazing.
NL: And arguably it has both problems, right? There’s a high barrier to entry, barrier to understanding, and the value proposition isn’t obvious. So that’s interesting. Well I guess maybe the starting point should really be instead of talking about the tech or how it’s all built or this complicated tech jargon, maybe instead what the problems are with the alternative: centralization.
Usability of centralized versus decentralized systems
TC: Right, I think so. And usually I don’t need to care about how it works, right? With a good product, I don’t need to care how it works. It works. I love that it just works and it just does what I need it to do. I shouldn’t need to care about the business model of it. Now maybe, once you identify that problem for me, you can help me understand why the problem is caused by the business model and then maybe I’ll care about it, but usually that’s invisible to the user.
NL: So maybe that’s actually the core problem, right? There’s a book by Tim Wu called “The Master Switch” where he talks about how radio and TV and movies and all these industries basically went through a period where it started off and it was chaotic and it was a lot of indie people doing stuff locally or for their own little communities, like farmers setting up little radio networks just for their local farm communities. And then eventually it got more and more aggregated and concentrated and then eventually you have one, two, or maybe five companies running the whole show. And the argument is basically that the internet is going that same direction.
And I remember reading an interview with Evan Williams, who founded Twitter, on Medium, and he talked about this and said that he thinks that the usability is greater with centralized systems, that fewer companies controlling more and more things is actually just in the service of users, right? Because it’s easier if you just go to google.com because whatever, Google is search, or you go to facebook.com because Facebook is social, and I don’t want to have to pick between 100 different competitors. I just want one thing that does my thing and I sign in. It’s really easy and I sign in and I use the same sign-in on every single website, and it’s super simple. And so he almost called it a law of nature. So maybe that actually is the core problem, that the thing that decentralization is trying to do is inherently kind of user-hostile. Like maybe that’s overstating it, but…
NL: Which is interesting, I hadn’t actually considered that.
TC: Well, and you also have the problem of, if, say, a startup wants to compete with one of these big companies. They have to have money to do it. They have to put their product in front of people. And with one of these decentralized alternatives, where’s the money coming from? You know, you’re specifically avoiding ads and weird influences, and the only place that I hear about it is at Offline Camp when I’m hanging out with nerdier nerds than I am. I only know about it because of my work with camp. I don’t think I would have any exposure to these things otherwise, you know, so you have to be in the right place at the right time to know that these things are happening. Or it may be that they’re being surfaced in more prominent tech journals or blogs or whatever, but if you’re my mom, not me, you’re not going to be in any of those places. And let’s face it, we all have people in our lives that are coming to us for tech support on things that we would think would be much easier to understand than this, right? So it’s not being surfaced next to the big guys, certainly.
Explaining the value proposition
NL: How do you make this stuff accessible for your mom? I guess that was the other point I was trying to make in my talk.
TC: Well, clearly the first thing you do is try to make your brother explain it instead. You always try to pawn it off on somebody else. That’s clearly the best approach because, with some of these things, the more simple it seems to you, the more frustrating it is that you have to explain it to someone else. I don’t know if the decentralized community feels like this or not, but sometimes it’s just like, “Oh my goodness, why aren’t you getting this?” Seriously, though, I don’t know. Connecting to some other piece of experience being like, “Hey, you know how on your iPhone you do this? On your computer, you do it in a similar way.” Pick something that the new user does understand and make the connection to it, draw the line between. Maybe also highlight what the benefit is. If it is inherently difficult to pick up on, then the benefit has to be huge.
NL: Right. And right now the benefit is also a kind of intangible, right? It’s like, “Oh, come to this other platform where your data isn’t being tracked.” People don’t understand how their data’s being used or why that’s bad or why it should bother them. Should it bother them? There was this whole brouhaha recently about Facebook and this Cambridge Analytica scandal, and I’m not convinced that the average Facebook user really cares or understands what’s going on. If even in the worst case scenario, like your CEO testifying before Congress — that’s bad, right? — if even in that worst case scenario, people aren’t really moved to seek out alternatives, then clearly the value proposition either isn’t big enough or hasn’t been explained well enough.
Are decentralized networks scalable or destined to be a niche for nerds?
TC: Not from the perspective that there would be more people to talk about it to other people, but just from the basic standpoint, does it help decentralized networks to have more people using them, or are they not inherently scalable? Is it all going to fall apart when we have more people, or are they perfect to have? If we convince the whole world to use them, is this going to be good?
NL: That’s actually a great question. I feel like that question is unanswered. I feel like the technical problems are fixable with both the peer-to-peer networks and the decentralized, federated systems. That’s the least interesting question. The most interesting question to me is, say you win and everyone switches from Facebook to Scuttlebutt or to Mastodon, let’s just say that happens…. How are you going to ensure that you don’t have problems like spam? How are you going to ensure you don’t have problems like harassment? How do you ensure that you don’t have problems with abuse or identity theft or whatever, or security, like someone tricking someone else into giving them their credentials? You have to solve all those problems when you reach scale because before you reach scale, the attackers aren’t interested in you.
TC: This is like saying we don’t need antivirus on our Macs because they only attack Windows computers.
NL: That’s actually a great analogy. Yeah, yeah, true. Or Linux, right? Nobody’s out there trying to create worms for Linux because there’s no money in it. It’s not worth it. No one’s out there trying to create bots or spam on Mastodon because it’s not worth it yet, or Scuttlebutt, because it’s not worth it yet. As soon as it becomes worth it, then that becomes a problem you have to solve, and I’m actually not convinced that there’s been a lot of thought put into that. I’ve put a little thought into it, but one of the things I wonder is whether, inherently because of the lack of usability of these kind of platforms, and some of these inherent scaling issues, maybe it’s just always going to be a niche thing.
You know, maybe it’s just always going to be a thing for nerds, in which case I’m less enthusiastic about it, because like I said, I don’t want an escape rocket. That doesn’t satisfy me. That doesn’t satisfy me from the perspective of civil rights because you’re just saying, “Okay, great. You know, here you, the great mass of the population, you can go on YouTube and Facebook and whatever and have all your data harvested, have zero privacy, be subjected to weird algorithmic content on YouTube, be subjected to ads and all this kind of stuff and we’ll just be safe off in our own little kingdom.” I don’t want that.
TC: I think about this kind of thing in the context of crazy political debates right now, which sometimes feels pretty regional. Like, should we just have liberal New England be its own place? That’s going to be great for me, but what about the liberals who happen to be living in the heart of the places where I think that their civil rights are being violated? Do we have an obligation to other people to stay with them and help them where they are? Or are all of the techie people, who are just going to leave for decentralized channels, platforms, whatever, then not invested in fixing the mainstream things, whether fixing them with tech or politically pushing to fix whatever those problems are? Or is there an alternative? Is there a way to just fix the things that people already know how to use, or do we have to teach them how to use different things?
Should we just improve centralized networks instead?
NL: That is the tack that a lot of people are taking. I have a lot of respect for Tim Wu who wrote “The Master Switch” and “The Attention Merchants,” which are my two favorite books about recent tech trends, and he says Facebook should be nationalized. He says this is like 100 years ago when there were independent water companies and independent telephone companies and eventually they got too big and they became natural monopolies because of network effects. When something is a natural monopoly and it’s unshakable, there is no chance that a competitor is going to come in and replace it, and if it’s abusing its monopoly powers, then what can you do except nationalize it or heavily regulate it? That’s an argument that a lot of people have been making, him and I think Zeynep Tufekci who had a really interesting Ted Talk you might have seen called “We’re Building a Dystopia Just to Make People Click on Ads.” Do you know this one?
NL: It’s a great Ted Talk. She’s a really interesting thinker. That’s their perspective. Their perspective is not, “Hey, let’s build something new off in the corner that’s decentralized.” Their perspective is, “Okay, fine, just take these centralized things and fix them through government regulation.” There’s a good argument to made for that. Maybe we’re just on the wrong path, you know?
TC: Well we also have a government that doesn’t necessarily do things, or do things that all of us agree are the things that should be done. I could imagine some things where there’d be a conflict between freedom of speech versus whatever else, whatever other issue you’re looking at. I can envision having a lot of battles there and not being able to get a government to decide what should be regulated.
NL: Yeah, and that’s already happening with the sex worker issue for instance. If you look at that, there’s a national law making it illegal to do something that’s legal in Nevada. Or we have the same thing; I live in Washington state and weed is totally legal — you know, it’s 4/20 today — totally legal, except not actually legal because it’s illegal at the federal level. I can take a flight from Seattle to Boulder, Colorado, from one place where weed is fully legal to another place where weed is fully legal, and it would be illegal for me to carry weed on my person because flight is governed by a federal agency.
Yeah, and maybe the true decentralization nerds would say that the solution to your New England problem is just full decentralization. You know, if Phoenix, Arizona, is more liberal than surrounding Phoenix, or Austin, Texas, they should just be their own little city states, like we go back to like 16th century Italy and everything is just city states.
TC: So anyone who doesn’t have enough money to move to a place that supports their values is screwed.
NL: Yeah. Excellent point.
TC: I mean, that’s the thing.
NL: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point.
Decentralization is inherently political
NL: This stuff is kind of inherently political, which is another reason it’s hard to talk about, you know?
NL: You’re making a political statement when you talk about decentralized systems, whereas you’re not necessarily making a political statement when you talk about Offline First. You could just keep it in the little domain of, hey, it’s user friendly, or for slow cell networks in West Africa or whatever. Zero politics involved.
TC: Someone at the last Offline Camp was talking about blockchain or decentralized things, talking about nation states. I think that’s what they were talking about. I’m like, really? We’re talking about bucking nation states. It just sounds very adversarial, not the usual “Let’s help everyone. Let’s make everyone have a great user experience.” It just feels like you have to get on board with hating the status quo to support it, you know what I mean? Depending on who’s presenting it.
NL: You’re right, there’s a lot of techno utopianism in there, of people who are like, “Hey, I figured out the perfect model for all human interaction in the world and I want to apply it everywhere.” Which makes it even more hazy and intangible. And maybe that’s another problem, actually, is that people are just abandoning the status quo, you know? A common reaction among a lot of tech enthusiasts is to say, “Whatever the status quo is, let’s just disrupt it and whatever, it’s old, it’s crufty, it doesn’t function well, so throw it away. Throw away government, throw away nation states, throw away Facebook, throw away Twitter, you know, throw away Google. They’re too powerful. They’re too big. They don’t operate the way we want them to. So we’re going to build our brand new thing. We’re going to take our ball and play over here.” Right? Instead of actually trying to understand the existing systems, fix them. I mean there’s a reasonable argument you could make that that is not really a reasonable strategy and that you have to work within the existing system, and it’s boring and it’s cumbersome and it’s tedious, but that’s how you make real change. I could totally get behind that argument, but again, that goes back to this question of whether you fix the existing system or you take your ball and play somewhere else.
NL: I honestly don’t know.
Messaging of Offline First versus decentralized networks
NL: Why do you think it is? You’ve been in this space longer than I have. Why do you think it is that we started this Offline Camp concept around Offline First and suddenly all the decentralized nerds and the blockchain nerds and the federation nerds and the decentralized social media nerds showed up? How did that happen?
TC: I don’t know, because I don’t think it’s particularly highlighted on the website. I would have to go back and look at the language, but I don’t think we’re calling it out, and we’re certainly not intending it for it to be mostly that way. I haven’t, when I’ve been looking at applicants, thinking it should be mostly that way. I think of it as being one aspect of, or one way to think about, Offline First, and we also have our CouchDB / PouchDB people and whoever else that come, or our really socially motivated folks, our healthcare people or whoever. So I was really kind of taken aback when in that discussion — I think it was in Berlin that we were talking about Offline First as a social movement — I started hearing people say the goal of the Offline First movement is decentralization. And I was thinking, hang on, I didn’t know I was signing up for that, because I can’t even explain to you what it is, and it sounds very antagonistic the way some of you are describing it. So I don’t think it’s a message you can get everyone behind as it’s phrased right now.
Friction with current business models
NL: Well, yeah, it’s an inherently political message. And it’s also an inherently opinionated business model message. Maybe that’s where it comes from, actually.
I can remember there was a post on the Offline First GitHub… about how Offline First is an opinionated business model, because if you’re a company that’s monetizing your users through access to your services, your services are provided through the cloud. Well, arguably your incentive is to have people round trip through the cloud as much as possible so you can make sure that you’re properly monetizing and properly understanding people’s usages and charging appropriately for it. Or if your business model is advertising-based, again, you want people to keep round tripping through your cloud, so that you can track them and you can do something with that data, you know, build an advertising profile. And those are opinionated business models.
But then with Offline First you’re saying, well we’re going to try to limit our exposure to the cloud as much as possible. We’re going to try to limit the number of round trips we’re making to the cloud. And when you talk about that, as soon as you veer from the UX benefits, you start getting into this territory where you’re kind of talking about the business model and you’re talking whether your boss really wants your users to be out there using an offline app that is locked, let’s say, and never coming back to the cloud. It just downloads the app once and just stays forever. I don’t know if my boss wants me to build an app that does that. That’s where it gets fuzzy.
TC: If somebody asked me about the business benefit of Offline First I would say it’s performance, that we’re going to pick your app over somebody else’s because it’s faster or because it works for them in more circumstances. They’re going to use it more because they have access to it more. And I don’t understand why a business would support decentralized solutions. I may be missing something. But we need more business support, more financial support than we have to keep the Offline First community going, and if we message it as decentralization, do we lose the companies that care about CouchDB, for example?
NL: Yeah, I think you’re actually right. I think Offline First has some friction with the business model. I mean, there are solutions to this, like if you’re not round tripping to the cloud so much, you can still track people just as much as you did before, still monetize just as much as before, just store the data locally and then send it up to the cloud in batches when you’re online. There’s friction, but it’s solvable. So Offline First has friction with the business model.
I think decentralization is a completely hostile model and even antagonistic as you said. And to some people that’s a benefit, you know, because they want to just take their ball somewhere else. They want to just tear down the status quo, tear down all the companies that have accumulated power, and they want that power to be dispersed as widely as possible, and that is inherently hostile.
You are not going to get a company with a centralized business model to sponsor that when you frame it that way, you know, so that’s a good point. So I think from the perspective of Offline Camp, you probably want to keep it focused on offline as much as you can and not focus on the decentralization stuff, if for no other reason than how you’re going to pay for this thing.
NL: I think my takeaway is that Offline First has a clear benefit to the user that can be clearly articulated. Decentralization does not. Decentralization has a philosophical, intangible benefit, which is really hard to sell to anyone: developers, users, whatever. And so if that movement wants to make any progress, they’ve gotta crack that nut. I don’t think that anyone has really successfully done that yet. I think you, if I read you correctly, are not terribly compelled by these decentralized options, you aren’t chomping at the bit to go off and use Scuttlebutt or Mastodon. And I can’t blame you. But what is the value proposition?
TC: If it sounded super easy to try them, I might go and try them and see if I…
NL: Try before you buy.
TC: There are plenty of things I’m using now that I wasn’t even two years ago, and now I get it. Now I understand why these things exist.
NL: But, anyway, it goes back to my point. We just need better onboarding. We need free samples. You go to the 31 Flavors and you get a free sample of the ice cream We need an easier way to do that without having to run something on the command line.
Author’s Note: At the time of our conversation in April of 2018, Nolan was working at Microsoft and I was at IBM. Nolan has since moved to Salesforce, and I recently joined Protocol Labs, where I’m working to make decentralization feel more accessible.