Achtung! Decentralize, decentralize, decentralize!

Published 2018-03-24 on Drew DeVault's blog

I can hardly believe it, but the media is finally putting Facebook’s feet to the fire! No longer is it just the weird paranoid kids shouting at everyone to stop giving all of their information to these companies. We need to take this bull by the horns and drive it in a productive direction, and for that reason, it’s time to talk about decentralization, federation, and open source.

This article has been translated into Russian by Get Colorings.

It’s important to remember that Facebook is not the only villain on this stage. Did you know that Google keeps a map of everywhere you’ve been? That Twitter is analyzing your tweets just like Facebook does, and sells it to advertisers just like Facebook does? Virtually all internet companies - Snapchat, Tinder, Uber & Lift, and even more - are spying on you and selling it to advertisers. It’s so lucrative and easy to do this that it’s become an industry standard practice.

The solution to the Facebook problem is not jumping ship to another centralized commercial platform. They will be exactly the same. The commercial model for internet services is inherently flawed. Companies like Facebook, publicly traded, have a legal obligation to maximize profits for their shareholders. Private companies with investors are similarly obligated. Nowhere in the equation does it say that they’re obligated to do anything for you - the only role you serve is to be a vehicle for exploitation.

You need to find services whose incentives are aligned with yours. What asks do you have from your social media platforms? It probably starts with basic things:

  • I want to keep up with my family and friends
  • I want my family and friends to be able to keep up with me

But if you’re smart, you might have some deeper asks:

  • I don’t want my personal information sold to others
  • I don’t want to be manipulated into spending my money

We might even have some asks as a society, too:

  • We don’t want to be manipulated into hating our countrymen
  • We don’t want to have our people’s opinions radicalized

Each company I’ve mentioned, and many more, may offer you some subset of these promises. But in every case, they will have conditions:

  • We’ll help you keep up with family and friends, or at least the subset of them that we think makes you more profitable.
  • We’ll help your family and friends keep up with you, so long as your posts are engaging enough to keep them looking at our ads.
  • Your personal information won’t be sold to others, unless we can get away with it.
  • You won’t be manipulated into spending your money, unless we can manipulate you into spending it on us.
  • We won’t manipulate you into hating your countrymen, unless it makes you spend more time using our platform to express your hatred.
  • We won’t radicalize your opinions, at least not the ones that don’t get you angry enough to spend more time looking at our ads.

I’m not just being cynical here. There is no promise that a company can make to its users that outweighs the fiduciary duty that obligates them to maximize profits by any means. The only defense of this is legislation and consumer choice. We must pass laws that defend users and we must choose not to engage with companies that behave like this.

We must do both of these things, but for now I’m going to focus on the consumer choice. We must throw our lot in with the alternative to these corporations - decentralized, federated, open source platforms.

What do each of these terms mean?

Decentralized means that the platform is, well, not centralized. Rather than the control being in the hands of one company (or a single interested party, to generalize it a bit), control is in the hands of many independent operators.

Federated refers to a means by which several service operators can communicate with each other in standard ways. This approach prevents platform lock-in. Email is a federated system - you can send an email from your gmail account to your mother’s old AOL account. Contrast this to Facebook, where you can’t follow your friend’s Twitter account.

Finally, open source1 is a term used by the technology community to refer to the free distribution of the secret sauce that makes our services tick. The technology engineering community collectively works on these projects and freely shares this work with everyone else.

The combination of all of these ideas in one piece of software is the golden ticket to internet freedom. This is the approach to social networking taken most famously by Mastodon. Mastodon is a decentralized, federated, and open source platform. The computing infrastructure the platform runs on is operated by thousands of independent volunteers (decentralized), which all communicate with each other and other software using standard protocols (federated), and the source code is freely available for anyone to use and improve (open source)2.

The incentives of the operators are aligned with the incentives of the users on Mastodon. The operator of each instance is a human being who can be easily reached to give feedback and thanks, rather than a billionaire egomaniac who buys an entire neighborhood so no one can bother him. Because the costs of maintaining this social network are distributed across thousands of operators, each one has a very low cost of operation, which is usually easily covered by donations from the users who they support. There are no investors to please. Just the users.

Mastodon fills a Twitter-like niche. There are other platforms attempting to fill other niches - diaspora* is easily compared to Facebook, for example. PeerTube is under development to fulfill a YouTube-like niche, too. These platforms need our support.

Commercial platforms don’t respect you. You may have grown used to skimming over ads and content you don’t want to see on Facebook and other platforms. It’s an annoyance that you’ve internalized because, well, what else can you do? There are no ads on Mastodon. It doesn’t need them, and you deserve better than them.

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Remember, Facebook is not the only evil. It’s time to discard proprietary platforms like the manipulative trash they are. Take the anger you’ve felt at Facebook these past couple of weeks and use it to embrace decentralization, federation, and open source.

I know it seems a monumental task to untangle your life from these companies, but you don’t have to do it all at once. If this article moved you, make a todo list right now. List each way in which you’re tied to some platform - you use Facebook to talk to your friends, or use gmail for your email address, your contacts are stored on Google, you use Facebook’s calendar for social events, you have a Twitter account you haven’t moved… then take on each task one at a time. Take as much time as you need. As you research these options, if you find the open options lacking, let the people involved know what your needs are. If there’s no open option at all, please email me about it.

We can do this. We can be free.

  1. There is some debate about the use of the term “open source” as opposed to another term, “free software”. There is a time and a place for this discussion, but it’s not here, and our message weakens if we expose the general public to our bickering. 

  2. There are actually several competing and compatible softwares that federate with the same social network Mastodon uses. This is very similar to how several different email providers are compatible with each other and compete to innovate together.