is the future of social media decentralized and peer to peer?

Coders and those fed up with major social media platforms are trying to create peer to peer alternatives to Twitter and Facebook. But can they really succeed in swaying users?
people recording on smartphones
Photo by Gian Cescon

Our relationship with social media today has changed from looking at it as a source of jokes and funny pictures and videos to a love-hate affair, and a whole lot of people either want to get off the major platforms or limit their presence there. Among these people are coders who gave a lot of thought to what ails social media today and think they’ve zeroed in on an answer. Since titans like Twitter and Facebook have between hundreds of millions and billions of users, they have tremendous power and the ability to abuse it by selling their users’ data and flooding their timelines with ads. And because they prioritize engagement, not just positive interactions, to boost shareholder returns, they have no incentive to fight trolls and disinformation.

Their solution? Create social media platform clones which exist not as monolithic services but as peer to peer, distributed instances. Because no one entity owns all the instances, users who create nodes can choose how to run it and whether to talk to other nodes, limiting growth and allowing for better moderation of the resulting networks. Each node can have as few as a dozen and as many as a few million people, forming communities that can decide on their own rules and policies as opposed to waiting for a cryptic non-answer from a self-emaciating guru, or a crude refusal to address a controversy from a sociopathic billionaire only worried only about a few key metrics. (Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg know who they are.)

Likewise, while many users are interested in governments weighing in on the mess happening on these large, monolithic platforms, many techies and social libertarians understand that the results could be horrific. In the best-case scenario, an administration interested in the free and open exchange of ideas, but vigilant against hoaxes, lies, and threats, would step in to help set rules for consistent moderation to clean up these platforms. But a much less noble one could demand they spread conspiracy theories demonizing political opponents and insist that any view they advocate failing to get what they see as adequate traction on these platforms must be getting censored to justify reviewing every moderator decision.

do decentralized social networks even have a chance?

While experiments like Mastodon, Diaspora, and Micro.blog can largely avoid the perils of vast social media empires and more easily and consistently police and moderate themselves, their advantage is also their fatal flaw. Because the size of each community is limited, so are user’s choices and reach. These networks become about the quality of existing connections because they can’t be used to promote something to a wide audience and limit new connections with people who may have never been interested in the topic on which your community focuses until they saw your posts. You’ll have to deliberately look for a community built around, say, space, find one that has enough members and content, and hope it will accept you.

Paradoxically, it’s easier to build communities and networks on a platform shared by millions and constantly alive with conversation. Going viral with a funny tweet about a popular topic can expose hundreds of thousands of people to you and your content. A well-performing tweet will garner a quarter million impressions, hundreds, if not thousands of times more than you’d get in a very active Mastodon community. It can also result in thousands of profile views and add hundreds of followers within hours. In other words, if you want exposure, you have to go to a major platform, and if you want a small coffee klatch that will hopefully accept you and show an interest in what you have to say, decentralized indie services are your best bet.

But even there, major services will have you beat by enabling group chat rooms through direct messaging, allowing your community to brainstorm how to better communicate with the world at large and giving you the flexibility to workshop with friends and peers, then run your ideas by millions if you so choose. Likewise, flying under the radar can lead to embarrassing problems as you try to expand and no way to combat them. For example, Mastodon has a big problem with hundreds of thousands of users sharing “lolicon,” or anime styled images sexualizing children, which is against the platform’s rules. On a centralized service, the policy could be enforced. On Mastodon, the nodes are independently run, turning its rules into mere suggestions.

what happens if a decentralized network succeeds?

Still, let’s say that against all odds, a decentralized social network succeeds. How should we measure that? The most straightforward metric would be the number of users, in which case we would be looking at a clone of Twitter or Facebook controlled by a confederation of vast communities rather than a single legal entity. Because each cluster of nodes in the platform would be independent, it would be less consistent and harder to moderate as clusters can do what they want to do rather than what they’re asked to, giving users only partial access to the whole platform and requiring multiple user names or special integrations with their own quirks as the clusters try to work together, if they’d even choose to integrate.

And if those clusters do decide to work in tandem, they’d need to create some sort of group with say in each cluster of independent nodes, functionally making it a single entity and, well, exactly what they sought to replace. Of course, size and engagement aren’t the only metrics, but others would be harder to define and depend on the goals of individual communities that can already exists as subsets of larger networks. Basically, no matter how we look at it, when we talk about social networks, reach and the ability to find an audience of peers and those interested in what you do where people already are, are pivotal, making a unified platform used by hundreds of millions far superior to a fractured one used by hundreds per node.

Certainly, those enormous networks are far from perfect and they have massive tentacles that wiggle into places we don’t want them to be — looking you Facebook — but for the time being, it’s likely that some version of them will remain with us. It’s just more likely that much of the activity on them will switch from being a constant stream of public posts into smaller groups with restricted settings, and more content shared privately and ephemerally instead of being meant to be preserved and shared forever. Social networks will evolve rather than undergo profound revolutions, and that’s ok. Just as long as we end up with a better, less noisy, less obnoxious place driven by id and poor impulse control we are today…

# tech // future / social media / social networking


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