Longread: what will it take to re-decentralize the web?

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/08/23/late-stage-web-capitalism.html


*** Diaspora​, a federated social network**

What ever happened to the anti-f-book?


I think your typical consumer doesn’t care about or want a decentralized web. In fact, I think your consumer doesn’t really want a web.

TL;DR: What will it take? Something more compelling than Mastodon.

I jest, I jest. And I am full of admiration for the people who have built Mastodon and run Mastodon instances. But it’s full of odd little pain points that mean it has a long road ahead of it if it’s ever to replace Twitter. Chief among these, I think, is the fact that there’s no global namespace (or, rather, names in the global namespace are of the form ‘user@instance’, rather than ‘user’). This, I think, will be a problem in terms of identity and reputation: how is the average user to know that dorycoctorow@instance1 is the well-loved Internet savant and encourager of all things good in humanity, whereas dorycoctorow@instance2 is an evil right-wing troll?

Granted Twitter and Facebook aren’t immune to impersonation (understatement). But aside from the gross risks of abuse, Mastodon’s distributed nature makes for a steeper learning curve, with more little gotchas that may puzzle and confuse newbies accustomed to Facebook and Twitter’s more frictionless models.

Maybe that’s the most pernicious part of the stranglehold that the big companies have: we’ve now grown so accustomed to walled gardens that we can’t adjust easily to a wider world.


I’m an avid Mastodon user, and I like to explain it not as a direct replacement to Twitter, but as something new with familiar parts. Chiefly the decentralized nature of user addresses (user@instance) is like email - you can be user@domain there and send and receive email across all the email domains. Gmail hasn’t fully taken over yet, so users aren’t totally in the mindset that all email addresses have to be the same @gmail.com domain name, so hopefully by tying email to Mastodon I can get people out of the global namespace idea.

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Hi Cory,

I used to be really into incentive systems, partly due to your novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, but in Walkaway they go badly when actually implemented, and their main proponent renounces them moments before he is brutally murdered.

Did any of these systems strike you as ones the walkaways would use, ie are a good fit to humans?

One of these days, I’m going to take the time to have a good look at Ward Cunningham’s Federated Wiki:

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There are certainly nasty tricks with domain names(especially once they broke out the non-latin characters); but if people can’t handle user@domain; I’m not sure if we can do much but set it on fire and wander away muttering something about ‘nothing left for us here’.

It’s a pretty much exact duplicate of the structure of email addresses(as are most ‘federated’ arrangements); and not so conceptually dissimilar from given name - surname; which is an identifier people from a variety of cultures have been muddling through since sometime before we invented mud.

Doesn’t mean that Team Decentralized doesn’t have a substantial uphill battle(observe that email, architecturally all federated and historically decentralized, has centralized pretty substantially because running a mailserver is a pain, running one safely is a bigger pain; and the economies of scale are unbelievable); but if you can’t get someone to grasp the namespace concepts of federated systems you should probably just buy them a webTV and move on.

(edit: just in case this wasn’t clear: I don’t wish to imply that falling for one of the various phishing tricks, some of them very clever indeed, is necessarily a sign of hopelessness; especially if there’s bad software design to assist you you can pull off some quite convincing illusions; just the inability to comprehend the basic ‘username@domain’ is pretty hopeless(and it isn’t as though the so-afflicted are safe even in the walled gardens: “I’m X on Facebook and Y on Twitter and Z on Kik” is conceptually analogous and slightly less standardized). It’s vastly less messy than natural language namespaces, if those are even well formed enough to count as ‘spaces’.)


Slightly OT, but the summary page had an ad for Charmin, which is a Koch bros brand, and they’re one of the anti-net-neutrality forces (amidst other evils).

Why not a beloved left wing troll?

How can we have a decentralized search engine? Can Archie be revived? Would it scale? Is it possible to have something analogous to SetiAtHome?

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I have to say, I’ve read about it, seen it explained, but still have no idea what or who it is even really for.

It’s a little reductive to say “It’s like Twitter, but decentralized” – the Mastodon aficionados would say there’s more to it than that – but I believe that’s the essence of it. It’s a micro-messaging system like Twitter, but it’s not subject to the control of a single corporation.

As to who it’s for, I think it’s for anyone who feels uncomfortable with a corporation having final control over one particular channel. That’s a changeable demographic: today it might be limited to ideological purists and people whose opinions are toxic enough to get them banned by Twitter (for the record, I think 99.99% or more of Mastodon users are probably in the former category – people who like the idea of Mastodon for the same reason that they like the idea of open source – but I assume it would have some appeal to people who risk getting suspended by Twitter any time they tweet something). But if Twitter started to struggle to keep up with traffic, or injected increasingly intrusive advertising into streams, or started censoring things heavily (for their own purposes, or at the request of a government), you might see the potential Mastodon userbase grow sharply.

I don’t think the Mastodon network as a whole will ever offer entirely unrestricted communications: the maintainer of any individual instance might still kick off a user who proved too obnoxious, and while there’s always another instance (or you can run your own), some instances might choose not to federate content from certain users or sources. Still, by design there isn’t a ‘single point of failure’ in the same way that there is with Twitter.


Aha, and the penny drops. Thanks!

Easy, is the headline accurately supported by the content?

It’s also for anyone who wants to communicate with anybody already on the network. There’s lots of cool people that I’m having a super fun time with!

Being snarky there? If so I approve.

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