Decentralized Social Networks Sound Great.

Too Bad They Will Never Work

Last year Jillian York, a free expression activist, was temporarily booted off Facebook for sharing partially nude pictures. The offending photos were part of a German breast cancer awareness effort that featured, breasts. Facebook flagged the post for a breach of its own Community Standards, which strictly prohibits most kinds of female nudity . Although the account suspension lasted just 24 hours, it had a strong effect on York’s ability to get things done.



Chelsea Barabas ( @chels_bar ) is a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab and former leader of societal invention for the Digital Currency Initiative. Neha Narula ( @neha ) directs the Digital Currency Initiative in the MIT Media Lab. Ethan Zuckerman ( @ethanz ) is the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and associate professor of the practice in the MIT Media Lab.

Locked from Facebook, York was not able to finish her job or post comments on news sites using Facebook’s commenting tools. And without Facebook credentials, York couldn’t access programs like Spotify and Tinder. Tick off Facebook and you might not be able to work, date, or listen to music. York’s suspension highlights the ever-expanding ways that we now rely on big private platforms to ease our online activities.

During the past 13 years, Facebook has evolved from a lifestyle site for college kids into a cornerstone of civic life. It is among a handful of very large platforms which dominate our online world. As such platforms have gained traction, the web has changed from an open space for free expression into a corporate-owned gated community of personal platforms.

The ability of giant platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter contributes to problems which range from the danger of government-ordered censorship to more subtle, algorithmic biases in the curation of content users consume. Moreover, because these platforms extend their reach, the ripple effects of exclusion can have serious consequences for people’s private and professional lives, and users don’t have any obvious path to recourse. The platforms that sponsor and notify our networked public world are unelected, unaccountable, and frequently not possible to audit or manage.

In response, there’s a growing movement among free speech advocates to create new technology to address these concerns. Early web leaders such as Brewster Kahle have called for ways we may “lock the net open” with code, enabling peer-to-peer interactions instead of mediated private platforms. The point is to come back to the great old days of the ancient ’90’s net, when users printed content directly in a user friendly decentralized fashion, without the need for corporate intermediaries and their aspirational strategy.

It is an exciting idea. Rather than corporate-owned platforms, users can meet, flirt, argue, and discuss in user-run community forums. Several of those proposed platforms build on the notion of decentralization, which has grown increasingly popular with the growth of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

Very similar to bitcoin, decentralized platforms don’t have any single organization controlling the community. The decentralized net utilizes technology that eliminates these choke points in the technical infrastructure of the net. This has given rise to jobs like Mastodon , a federated social networking platform which resembles Twitter; Blockstack, a distributed system for online identity services; and Steemit, an internet community using digital tokens to encourage individuals to donate to a Reddit-like online community.

The three people researched several of the most promising attempts to “re-decentralize” the internet, to better understand their potential to shake up the dominance of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The projects we analyzed are pursuing profoundly exciting new ideas. But, we doubt that decentralized systems alone will handle the dangers to free expression brought on by the current mega-platforms, for several important reasons.

First, these tools will confront challenges getting users and gaining the interest of developers. Tools such as Diaspora and FreedomBox encountered problems bringing a permanent user base, and it is probably new programs will, too. Social networks, in particular, are difficult to bootstrap as a result of network effects–we combine them because our friends are there, not for ideological reasons like decentralization. And while existing social networks have perfected their ports based on feedback from millions of users, new social networks tend to be challenging for users to browse.

These programs also pose new security threats. Decentralized networks normally allow anyone to connect and do not connect accounts to real-world identities such as phone numbers. These programs frequently use public key cryptography to ensure account safety. But managing public keys is difficult for many users, and building applications which is both cryptographically protected and simple to use is hard.

Social networking platforms are curators, not only publishers. Platforms such as Facebook control not only what’s acceptable to print, but what articles we see, bringing the most interesting articles to somebody’s attention. Platforms tend to optimize for advertising revenue, prioritizing attention-grabbing or feel-good content. Designing strong reward mechanisms to curate content that keeps people informed instead of amused remains a problem. If distributed platforms could fix it, they can theoretically handle media challenges such as echo chambers and filter bubbles, but such issues still pose a significant challenge for new systems.

Ultimately, platforms benefit from economies of scale — it is more economical to acquire resources like bandwidth and storage in bulk. With network effects, which make bigger platforms more useful, you have a recipe for consolidation. In self-consciously decentralized systems such as Bitcoin, there’s been a pure consolidation toward super-participants like big mining pools and exchanges. Market consolidation can be driven by user-targeted advertising models, which promote hoarding of consumer opinions and information, discourage interoperability, and drive platforms to become larger.

Our study–a mixture of historical and technical analysis, and dozens of interviews with open internet urges–suggests that there isn’t any simple technical solution to the issue of platform monopolies . What’s more, it is not clear we can fix the nuanced issues of centralization by pushing for “re-decentralization” of publishing online. The truth is that most individuals don’t need to run their own servers or social networking nodes. They would like to engage with the net through platforms that are friendlier, and these platforms will be constrained by the very same forces that drive consolidation now.

A better strategy is to pursue policies which strengthen the environment for decentralized systems, such as information portability, interoperability, and options to advertising-based financing models. As an example, if users have more control of the information, such as the right to export and reuse content they have created and friends they follow, they will be more prepared to experiment with new platforms. Decentralized web advocates have great intentions, but there is no silver-bullet technical solution for the challenges which lie ahead.

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