Understanding Decentralized Social Networking

The Scope of the Problem

The Internet of this day and age is a social place, and you don’t have to work in IT or even be a geek to understand that. Every day, hundreds of millions of people are interacting with one another on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube. Let’s look at the following statistics:

  • Facebook: Over 1 billion user accounts.
  • YouTube: Over 800 million, over 4 billion hits per day.
  • Twitter: Over 500 million user accounts.
  • Google+: Over 400 million user accounts.

 Granted, these are large social networks that have the resources to scale up to accomodate having so many active users on a day-in, day-out basis, but I believe that this trend is problematic for a number of reasons. 

Personal Data, Meet Silo 

There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to what user data is, and what it can be used for. Most web applications make use of a database to store data and variables; social applications such as Facebook have large databases with exorbitant amounts of user data. Every post you make, every like every private message, every photo, every comment, and every social action you’ve done with Facebook is stored in their database. Played a song on Spotify? It’s in your Timeline somewhere, and that goes into the database, too.

After a while, this data piles up, and anyone with the means to read it can get a pretty good impression of what sort of person you are, what you like, and what you say privately to other people online. This data is then given to advertisers, who then pay to plaster their ads in Facebook’s stream, as well as in the sidebar. This feature is not unique to Facebook; in fact, most of the major social networks out there now have some semblance in which an advertiser pays for a promoted spot that every user can see.

With the rise in the use of context-sensitive data analytics on the social web, these advertisements are becoming more and more custom tailored to an individual person based on the data their social network practically handed out. Our social experience is reading more and more like the ad pages out of a newspaper, and the problem is that it has largely become the norm on the social web. The reality is that you can download all of your personal data out of most social networks, and close your account if you really wanted to. The problem is that there’s really nothing all that useful that you can do with it, unless you feel like cracking it open and reading JSON files. There aren’t really any tools to make use of this data.

Muting a Megaphone 

Another problem unique to networks of the scale of Facebook and YouTube is that they are run by multi-national corporations with a global presence. These companies typically have two underlying goals:

  1. Provide a service or set of services that everyone wants to use.
  2. Make money to fund further development 

These are fine goals to have if you’re a company, but a problem quickly becomes apparent when you think about the scope of these companies. As these networks come to have users from all over the world, the companies behind the network find themselves more and more in the position of maintaining a global presence, forcing them to deal with the governments of various different countries.

This is particularly problematic for activists that want to incite change against oppressive governments. Facebook has a habit of shutting down protest pages and YouTube has a history of pulling down protest videos to censor activists. These aren’t just isolated incidents; they’re the norm, and incidentally, they’re also the most popular platforms for their respective forms of communication. Everybody’s in the same boat, and similarly, everybody can be censored at the request of corrupt governing bodies. Whose interests are really being served here?

Decentralized social is a wildly different approach to social networking: rather than having central sites that millions of people get on, the network is made up of many websites with a much smaller amount of people on it. These multiple sites can be run by anybody: you, your friends, businesses, organizations, activists, and anyone else can set up their own social site and talk to other people seamlessly across the network.

There are several fundamental benefits to this design:

  1. No central authority can censor what you say.
  2. No social network has access to your private data. You have control over who sees what you post, including the social site that you’re on.
  3. Many decentralized social networks are Free Software, meaning you can look at the code and ensure that it’s not spying on you.

So, if I were running my own social site at DeadSuperHero.com, people would be able to follow my social account, see my public posts, like my things, and comment on anything I push out. If I choose to put my followers into a specific category of Contacts (in Diaspora, they’re called Aspects), then I can filter out who gets to see what kinds of posts I make. Maybe I have some colleagues at work that I don’t want to see my photos of a party, or maybe I have a group of local activists that I want to talk to that doesn’t concern anyone else. The point is, decentralized social is about having complete control over who gets to see the things you say and do online. 

One of the other interesting things to think about is customization. You’re running your own social site, so in essence, you’re free to customize how your profile works, and if you’re handy with some code, you can also customize how your social dashboard looks as well. Why constrain yourself to other social networks that make massive changes to how they are used when you can have that extra control over your own site’s functionality? 

An interesting development in decentralized social is the idea of being able to move from host to host, which is empowering for end users. The idea is that a user can pack up all of their social data and move to a different social site, they can. You’re not tied to the site you signed up on, and if you’re on a community-run pod and are unhappy with the person running it, you have the freedom to leave and take your valuables with you. All in all, decentralized social isn’t about “defeating” the existing social networks. It’s all about having control of your entire social experience online.

Sean is a guy from the middle of nowhere in Illinois who passionately supports Free Software, Free Culture, and decentralized communication systems. He serves as the editor of We Distribute, a publication dedicated to the development of the fediverse. In his spare time, Sean is a budding indie game dev, writer, web developer, and a musician.