Brain dump: What does a decentralized Internet community look like?

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 24, 2021, 11:08 PM | comments: 0

My last post got me to thinking about how things were in the early aughts, as far as Internet communities go. Before I get into the technology itself, there's an important take-away for me to consider. No modern social media platform has created a network of people that I've connected with like the communities I started in 1998 and 2000. Whether it was a bunch of people celebrating at a wedding, vacationing with friends or having a friend who actually builds roller coasters give a tour for my son, those networks from the "old" days have been exponentially more valuable than those made via the major platforms. That's not a humble brag, it's just the truth. Even the people I do interact with on the platforms came from those sites or real life communities like work or school.

How did Internet communities work in those days? It was a mess of stuff that barely worked together, but it did work. Forums were all the rage back then, and I learned during the pandemic how surprisingly enduring those communities can be. Individuals often had blogs, which we vaguely referred to as online journals or diaries in the early days. They all had comment systems, which would allow for "track back" links in comments when you referred to them in your own posts. In place of notifications, you usually had an email tell you that there was activity to go back and look at. Most people didn't own their own stuff, but things like Live Journal (which still exists), Tumblr (in 2007-ish) and various open source things made it possible to have these interactions across services that were not centrally owned like Facebook or the Twitter, with harmful algorithms designed to artificially keep you engaged. Everything had an RSS feed, so you could use any one of a ton of RSS readers to keep track of what was going on. It was chaotic, and it didn't work that well, but it was glorious.

The long-term problem that eventually reared its ugly head was that the Internet isn't free. Someone has to pay for hosting and bandwidth. I've always understood this, because I've been writing the checks for almost as long as the commercial Internet has been a thing. Depending on your age and experience, you still might not understand it. But it was shocking to me last year when people were losing their shit after watching The Social Dilemma. If you aren't paying for something, then you are the product. The early aughts led people to believe that everything is free, none of it has value, and the market responded by making you the product. Today we have Facebook, Twitter and YouTube because of it.

So to make things potentially decentralized, at the very least, you have to expect that people will either be willing to pay for something, or be exposed to advertising, hopefully in a less evil way than what the algorithmic social platforms do. I've never been that bothered by Google's ad targeting, because Google isn't also trying to get me to doom-scroll for hours down rabbit holes to show me more ads (but I do hate that they're essentially an advertising monopoly). Will people pay for something like this? I naively believe they will, but that's because I ask for people to give me money to help pay for CoasterBuzz, and some do. It's also what I do, and I happily give the New York Times money every month, and annually give cash to Vimeo even though I barely upload any video there.

How can you be decentralized but find your tribe? I don't know. My sites I suppose are "centralized," but they have always been niche communities for very specific interests. Having your own blog with comments on, and the track-backs, was like a big messy kind of social network. The problem is that the general pool of users today can't seem to do anything without an "app" even if you don't need an app. I know, I'm raging again about how the browser should be the app. I'm actually more optimistic about this than you'd think. If you are a professional white collar worker, you probably spend most of your day in a browser running Google or Microsoft apps. If we can get those same people to understand that's possible in the mobile world, that could be a good thing.

Then there's the issue of privacy. All of that chaos back in the day was cool, but there was no assumption of privacy. It's funny how Facebook has solved this problem, but because of their shitty algorithms, the people you actually want to see your stuff never do (enjoy these conspiracy theories instead). Giving permission to users to see certain things is hard enough of a problem to solve in a closed platform where you control everything, so I'm not even sure if it's possible in a decentralized way. Actually, I have some ideas about the way I would technically design it, but they all end up being computationally expensive and insanely redundant.

Would people spend $20 a year to have a somewhat constrained, private social network? I believe they would, but it's only valuable if the people that you care about are also there, and that's the hard part. If this fantasy alternative existed today, I'm not sure I'd go there without the network I have. The network itself, though, is not portable.

End brain dump. Thinking about where we were, where we are, and where we might go doesn't lead to any clear solutions. But it's fun to think about.


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