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Social Networks and Forced Decentralization

Candidly, I rarely like to talk about the current contentious present. Everyone has their own opinions about the “now” and how things are done, should be done, should not be done, and the list goes on. With that in mind, I tend to focus my attention outward to the future and cater to an audience not bound by the present and the sensationalism associated with it. That said, in the topic of internet communication mediums I find an interesting overlap of both the present and future. With that in mind please note I intend to provide a overlook of a situation and am not here to speculate on the politics (at least that’s not the scope of this article in particular). With that in mind, let’s begin.

Social media been since its creation a weird canvas of the collective. Unlike forums or generally more isolated areas of conversing over the internet, social platforms derive their value from the fact they encompass all topics. There have been many large platforms over the years, but for the longest time there was a duopoly when it came to owning the “townhall of the internet”. Without giving any of them free name recognition, it will simply suffice to say you know the two platforms I am referencing. With them the rise of single platform solutions became the norm. Why host a forum when you could just make a guild or group chat? Everyone is on them anyway so no point in running your own webserver.

This line of thinking has created the social media desert we face today. Devoid of original posting and nothing but a mass wasteland of bots and trolls providing just enough information to ingest to make the dopamine reward sufficient to continue doing so. Algorithms have been altered for political gains and targeting, making platforms that once were under fear of governments and bankruptcy sufficiently malleable and profitable enough to continue. Data of consumers is sold freely if not already available through any number of hacks that have taken place. It’s remarkable how ignorant so many people are of the monster they have created when it comes to data and feeding algorithms.

Among all the issues here and many more unlisted, a buyout took place recently for one of the two big platforms. Almost instantly many people blissfully unaware of the fragility of their online existence were given a rude awakening. While now most people are busy attacking each other online about sides and benefits, allow me to enlighten you my esteemed reader as to what will really happen next. This rude awakening is not the end of aforementioned platform, but it is the beginning of the end of centralized social media for important use. What will happen now is the fragmentation of the social media landscape.

This is not, however, just the mass migration of users from one platform to another. It is the decentralization of the internet once more. Much like email, an open source protocol to publish social media status’ exists. The biggest one is ActivityPub, and it allows people (much like email) to spin up a server that is compatible with the protocol and share information. Anyone can run an instance (like email), though most won’t (like email), and will instead look for a larger provider of the service (yet again, email). What we are about to witness could be the beginning of this reintegration of decentralization. People will join instances they find to their political liking, and will block instances they don’t agree with. People in the middle will run their own instances so they can follow who they please or join neutral instances. Governments could run their own for ensuring verified origin of their information (as the European Union just did), as well as allowing politicians and government officials a voice on a neutral platform.

There are benefits as well as disadvantages to this new and probable reality. On the benefits side we have open protocols, free implementation, removal of company based centralization, decentralization, and clearer sources of relevant information such as governments hosting their own social media. The downsides are that companies can still create instances with ads, paid alternatives will exist, few people will run their own servers and instead will polarize to at the most a few dozen instances, blocking of dissenting opinion from instances, the protocol may become stagnant, and the privacy of users will still be unprotected in many cases.

Another lesser known alternative would include concepts such as posting social media on a blockchain using wallet sign in, but in the scope of this article I feel the technology is very underdeveloped and federation is much more likely to take root before anything related to a fully reunified blockchain based alternative. Still with these options in mind I put forth my subjective opinion on this matter as a whole: I do foresee a shift in social media coming. I have seen it coming for a long time but the events of the recent past have altered the time frame of that dramatically. Governments do not want their messaging (propaganda or fact regardless) impeded by private entities. In fact in many places worldwide there are either bans on certain social media outlets or heavy regulation to discourage companies from even entering the market. With the purchase of the centralized there has been bred uncertainty over how world governments will control narratives and control information flow, for better or for worse. I see federation as the only logical alternative people will find. It will satisfy governments and the private sector alike and will give people what they ultimately are seeking: places to be around people they agree with and can say what they want.

To conclude, while the future is as ever up to chance and choice in my mind this is the greatest probability of what will happen in the near future. We have seen, thanks to many societal factors, a level of balkanization rarely observed in countries not in civil war. That trend sadly I don’t think will reverse anytime soon. As dissenting voices are silenced and political factions separate and become ever more polarized the federation of social media would seem to be the least of the world’s problems. The underlaying problem is not free speech or even the social platforms themselves; it is the problem of people no longer being able to tolerate opinions they disagree with. I have met few people that admitted their bias in issues, and even fewer that would rationally entertain arguments contrary to their own. The number of these people is dwindling and is the real cause of Western nations’ decline. However, while there will always be those who pick camps, there will also always be those who will embrace logic and reason before making any choice. I implore you, my reader, to be the latter. As for me, who knows, maybe in the future I myself will run an federated instance like Mastodon to give the rational a home.