The Web is a key space for civic debate and the current battleground for protecting freedom of expression. However, since its development, the Web has steadily evolved into an ecosystem of large, corporate-controlled mega-platforms which intermediate speech online. In many ways this has been a positive development; these platforms improved usability and enabled billions of people to publish and discover content without having to become experts on the Web’s intricate protocols. But in other ways this development is alarming. Just a few large platforms drive most traffic to online news sources in the U.S., and thus have enormous influence over what sources of information the public consumes on a daily basis. The existence of these consolidated points of control is troubling for many reasons. A small number of stakeholders end up having outsized influence over the content the public can create and consume. This leads to problems ranging from censorship at the behest of national governments to more subtle, perhaps even unintentional, bias in the curation of content users see based on opaque, unaudited curation algorithms. The platforms that host our networked public sphere and inform us about the world are unelected, unaccountable, and often impossible to audit or oversee. At the same time, there is growing excitement around the area of decentralized systems, which have grown in prominence over the past decade thanks to the popularity of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a payment system that has no central points of control, and uses a novel peer-to-peer network protocol to agree on a distributed ledger of transactions, the blockchain. Bitcoin paints a picture of a world where untrusted networks of computers can coordinate to provide important infrastructure, like verifiable identity and distributed storage. Advocates of these decentralized systems propose related technology as the way forward to “re-decentralize” the Web, by shifting publishing and discovery out of the hands of a few corporations, and back into the hands of users. These types of code-based, structural interventions are appealing because in theory, they are less corruptible and resistant to corporate or political regulation. Surprisingly, low-level, decentralized systems don’t necessarily translate into decreased market consolidation around user-facing mega-platforms. In this report, we explore two important ways structurally decentralized systems could help address the risks of mega-platform consolidation: First, these systems can help users directly publish and discover content directly, without intermediaries, and thus without censorship. All of the systems we evaluate advertise censorship-resistance as a major benefit. Second, these systems could indirectly enable greater competition and user choice, by lowering the barrier to entry for new platforms. As it stands, it is difficult for users to switch between platforms (they must recreate all their data when moving to a new service) and most mega-platforms do not interoperate, so switching means leaving behind your social network. Some systems we evaluate directly address the issues of data portability and interoperability in an effort to support greater competition.
Most distributed publishing tools are simply too complex for most users to adopt. Mastodon may have overcome that problem, borrowing design ideas from a successful commercial product. But the example of lolicon may challenge our theories in two directions. One, if you’re unable to share content on the sites you’re used to using – Twitter, in this case – you may be more willing to adopt a new tool, even if its interface is initially unfamiliar. Second, an additional barrier to adoption for decentralized publishing may be that its first large userbase is a population that cannot use centralized social networks. Any stigma associated with this community may make it harder for users with other interests to adopt these new tools.
Like many others, I can see many more and stronger reasons for a decentralized web than not. This article takes a look at a little bit of the downside of the model. (Though to be honest, I think the downside for this is even bigger in the siloed model.) Naturally the long term effects are far more complex than described here, but this is also very interesting during a week when there’s a continuing resurgence of neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other white supremacists in America as well as a growing list of major companies that aren’t allowing them a safe harbor.
The US Government subpoena to DreamHost this week for visitors of an anti-Trump website and backbone internet companies like CloudFlare kicking off “The Daily Stormer” are particularly intriguing in the larger ecosystem as well.
I think there’s a lot here that’s both interesting to the IndieWeb community and from which we can all learn.
As I’m thinking about it, I wonder a bit what happens to the role of “community manager” in a larger decentralized and independent web? I hope it’s tummelers like Tantek Çelik, Kevin Marks, Jeremy Keith, Martijn van der Ven and others who continue to blaze the trail.
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We launched this blog less than three months ago to explore the latest in Open Web technologies. Things like the IndieWeb movement, blockchain apps, API platforms, Open AI, and more. AltPlatform has always been an experiment, as I made clear in our introductory post. However, from a publishing point of view the experiment hasn’t worked out as we had hoped. To put it plainly, the page views haven’t eventuated – at least in a sustained way. So it’s time to try something new. We’re going to pivot into something a bit different…soon.
I’m a bit saddened by this, but it’s always fun to try out new things. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
I love ricmac’s conceptualization of blogging and hope it comes back the way he–and I–envision it.Syndicated copies to:
At its inception, the internet was a beautifully idealistic and equal place. But the world sucks and we’ve continuously made it more and more centralized, taking power away from users and handing it over to big companies. And the worst thing is that we can’t fix it — we can only make it slightly less awful. That was pretty much the core of Pirate Bay’s co-founder, Peter Sunde‘s talk at tech festival Brain Bar Budapest. TNW sat down with the pessimistic activist and controversial figure to discuss how screwed we actually are when it comes to decentralizing the internet.
Welcome everyone to AltPlatform, a non-profit tech blog devoted to Open Web technologies. What do we mean by “Open Web”? Firstly, we want to experiment with open source (like this WordPress.org blog) and open standards (like RSS). We’re also using the word open to signify a wider, boundary-less view of the Web. In other words, we want to look for opportunities beyond the Walled Gardens – proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter where you don’t own your own data, you have little control over your news feeds, and you have to live by certain rules.
Mastodon.social is the cool new social platform, and certainly prettier than many of the other federated GNU social instances. My Twitter feed is full of mastodon mentions right now with many people saying “I’m on mastodon.social now as _____, come follow me.”–a phrase I haven’t seen since the last social boom in 2009 before the new class of multi-billion dollar corporations began monetizing their users.
I like the cute mastodon imagery and the concept of a “toot”, but isn’t this yet another social media silo that’s going to own all my content and have control over how I interact with it? What happens when everyone gets tired of it? What happens weeks, months, years from now when it decides to shut down or gets bought out like so many others?
Federated and Decentralized
The buzzwords of the week seem to be “federated” and “decentralized”. I’m glad that tens of thousands of people are being introduced to these concepts this week, but they’re definitely not new, and they’re far from perfected.
If we want openness, federation, identity, flexibility, and control why not just have our own website? They can do pretty much everything that most of the social networks can do now, but with much greater freedom. They’d probably be even stronger if people hadn’t ceded their lives and all their thoughts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. Many people in the Indieweb community are already leveraging their own sites and some simple code to do just this.
My Website is an Example
My site is mine. I own the domain name and all the data that gets posted to it. I can write as much or as little as I want about anything I like. No one is artificially limiting me for length. I can post photos. I can post audio, even video. I can write a comment on my own site about something on another site and I don’t have to hope it won’t be moderated out of existence. If I don’t like it, I can edit it (I’m looking at you Twitter) or delete it at any time and know it’s gone (I’m looking at you Facebook).
I support the W3C Webmention recommendation so you can write something on your site and send me the equivalent of an @mention (one which will work across website boundaries instead of being stuck inside them like Twitter, Medium, and Facebook all do). Your mention will then allow your post to show up on my site as a comment! Yes, you hear that correctly. You can use one website to comment on another that’s completely unrelated to the first.
If you don’t have webmention set up yet (via a plugin or other implementation), just add the permalink of my post to your reply on your own site and then put your post’s permalink into the URL labeled box below and click “Ping Me”. Shazam! I have a copy of your comment, but you still own what you wrote to me. Now that’s true website to website federation because it uses open standards that aren’t controlled by third party corporations.
Incidentally I also syndicate many of my posts to the walled gardens like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ (where people apparently really love ads served within their content) so I’m not completely cut off from my social graph. Comments and reactions from those silos come back to live with my original posts so everything lives here on my site–future-proofed against their possible disappearance. It also means the conversation doesn’t need to be fragmented across multiple platforms anymore. Are you reading this on or from one of them? Go back, click like, favorite, or write a reply/response/comment where you saw it and it will magically be transported back to me–with the ability for me to moderate it away if you’re rude.
Dig a few layers deeper
So if we’re going to be excited about federating and decentralizing this week, why don’t we take it one or two layers further?!
Domains can be as inexpensive as $1 with most in the $10-15 a year range and simple web hosting (usually with one-button website installations) costing from $5-20 a month at the lower ends. You can do it yourself–I promise. And if you think you can’t, try a quick web search for the answer or start with http://indieweb.org/getting_started. It’ll give you something to do while signups for the Mastodon.social server are turned off due to overload. Why try to be one of the trendy kids when you can easily go “old-school” and do it yourself with more control? (And heck, if you really can’t do it yourself, I can either help you or you can try it out on an instance of WithKnown that I spun up just to let people try the concept out: http://known.boffosocko.com/.
What are you waiting for? Your own follow button? You can have that too if you really want:
But you can at least allow people a choice in how and where you’re followed and read. Prefer to follow me via Email, Newsletter, Social Media, RSS, or even Push Notification? View all subscription methods here.
WithKnown is a fantastic, free, and opensource content management service that supports some of the most bleeding edge technology on the internet. I’ve been playing with it for over two years and love it!
And today, there’s another reason to love it even more…
This is also a great reminder that developers can have a lasting and useful impact on the world around them–even in the political arena.Syndicated copies to: