Centering Decentralization

Photo of seedlings (CC0 Maryna Bohucharska / Unsplash) filtered to add a network of lines tracing the leaves

This is the final piece in a series on the past, present, and future of the Internet; you can read Part 1: I Believe in the Internet and Part 2: De-platforming is censure not censorship.

"Oh great, another white dude from a western democracy going off about decentralization." I promise that I will not be hawking a crypto-currency or even talking about anything blockchain-related. Rather, I see the dramatic centralization of our online lives as a direct risk to an inclusive society, and want to talk about some of the real barriers we need to prioritize in untangling ourselves from this to anchor ourselves from drifting off into techno-solutionism.

Smaller, independent and even self-run platforms and communities don't magically solve all the problems, but I do believe that they can provide the best path forward. These decentralized and federated tools allow for (and actually require) community building, and in the (very) long run, they also have to align with human decency and empathy, if only because without that, they will slowly consume themselves. They allow for vibrant, localized community norms instead of overlaying "Silicon Values" (as Jillian again so eloquently puts it).

These communities will be inherently harder to find, harder to scale, and may even require some level of tradecraft to find and join. I'm … not sure that's not the solution? It's how a lot of us found our virtual communities on the Internet in the first place.

So let's work to build architectures that support smaller communities, and have some minimal faith in humanity that groups festering in hate may always be with us -- but we don't have to give them privileged status on major platforms, or provide support in building their own decentralized ones. Groups promoting equality and inclusion can become the norm and continue to help merge what may be marginalized communities today into a more equal future.

A more decentralized internet also enables different interactions; you don't have to be the same person everywhere, which is a pressure and at times and outright requirement via Real Name policies on major platforms. Meant to reduce fraud, it also undermines the ability for people to explore or present different aspects of themselves, maintain personal lives separate from their professional ones, use alternate personas to find safety or belonging in new communities while being otherwise constrained, or honestly even grow and change as humans. Maybe if we all got to explore different ways to present to the world more often, we'd have more empathy for different experiences.

What are the barriers?

  • cost -- by removing the surveillance / advertising subsidy, these require some financial engine to fund server bills, support software development, and deal with community infrastructure maintenance and security. Many of these costs thrive from centralization/agglomeration -- While inherently less viral, decentralized communities open up doors for ad revenue that can leverage the community's interests as opposed to increasingly invasive and malware-like tracking of individuals.
  • complexity -- centralized services just work (well, until they don't). Google or O365 outages are newsworthy because they are so exceedingly rare. Self-hosting similar services means both fewer people monitoring, providing preventative care and updates, and a significantly more threadbare safety net if something breaks (or perhaps no net at all). That said, from a user perspective we are at a breaking point of having too many walled gardens. Open standards and federated infrastructure could vastly reduce some complexity on both the system management side, and for the rest of us, remove the question of "did they send that to me over Signal? WhatsApp? Was it by email? A Slack DM? Or maybe Twitter?." We've had this before, but traded it for shinier tools - but we can have it again.
  • security -- this is another area where massively scaled, centralized infrastructures get huge benefits from their massive vantage points across their infrastructure. Security teams reviewing new attacks can respond better when they are larger, have more access to more information, and work directly with the platform provider and software development teams. This is relevant to managing everything from harassing spam to targeted attacks. Solving this is not easy or free, and most likely means setting up differently integrated systems.
  • usability -- Even in some hypothetical world where the "front end" of these alternative tools was competitive with massive multi-billion-dollar company offerings, the usability of maintaining the above points without multiple full time staff is critical. Are updates easy? A security updates automated? Backups? Is the app even translated into my language? Accessible in any meaningful way? How fragile are the systems, how easy to debug? How stable is the development of the software? Will it be abandoned? What's the cost to switch? Again, different slicing of the market where a smaller set of standards-driven clients where these efforts are focused can take the burden off of each community to build or manage their own.
  • time -- This is linked across most of the above, but worth noting separately. There is a lot of privilege built in to the presumption that anyone would have the time to manage self-hosting these tools, dealing with managing security updates which possibly break things and definitely don't coordinate schedules, and/or running the devices and having the bandwidth to do this. And that's not even touching on the much more full-contact-sport of community management.

For a good quick thread on how this all also relates to Section 230; check out this twitter thread

Where this is now

We should not expect to "fix" facebook. We're not going to convince google to constrain its ability to sell advertising (though its work to reduce individual tracking is promising!). With increasing public concern, EU regulation, and now anti-trust sabre rattling, we can hope for mega platforms to play a bit better, but maybe we'll see some divestment and splitting up of these giants, maybe we'll see them offering soft, unenforceable commitments to oversight or doing better, but the biggest hope I have is that we'll just move on.

But regardless, there's not a great alternative today. There are lots of explorations in this space, from swiss-army-knife meta tools like sandstorm and maadix; or specific, more specialized tools like rocket.chat or mattermost. There are federated platforms like matrix and mastodon, office suite tools from etherpad to sandstorm to cryptpad.

So, Let's build the tools for the world we want. Let's support these and many other tools to address accessibility, localization, usability, and sustainability, let's ensure they are listening to diverse voices with widely different threat models, and can work in a variety of bandwidth settings. Let's address the many barriers above with creative, open, resilient solutions.