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🌇 The summer of decentralized social.
Everything you want to know about decentralized social networks and the protocols that power them
Hello, citizens! Paul here. Welcome back to “status season.”
I’m honored to introduce you to my colleague Sam Liebeskind this week, but before we get into it I’d like to give you a heads-up about our next Digital Playground on Thursday, May 25 at 3pm ET / 12pm PT.
We’ll be joined by Bhavik Singh from soft networks, and it promises to be a cool and cozy time. Save your spot today.
If you’re reading this newsletter, you’ve almost surely heard of Mastodon and the ‘Fediverse’ it’s part of. Maybe you’ve poked around on Bluesky or heard people talking about Nostr or Farcaster or one of the other handful of emerging decentralized social networks and the protocols that underlie them. But unless you’re a developer or someone who’s deep in it, it can be hard to keep up and make sense of it all!
So here’s a quick primer on the basics of decentralized social networks and a look at some of the emerging projects in the space.
Decentralized social networks give people more control and more choices.
A decentralized social network is one that’s not owned and controlled by one private business or central entity. Instead of something like Twitter where one group of people is building the app, making all the moderation decisions, and hosting all of the data, a decentralized social network is made up of different services and apps that all use the same ‘protocol’ - aka speak the same language - so that they’re interoperable with one another. You can think about it more like how email or the internet itself works. A lot of buzz over the last several years has equated “decentralization” with Web3 or blockchains, but using blockchain technology is just one approach to decentralization — and many of the networks I’m most excited about don’t rely on blockchains whatsoever.
The biggest benefit of decentralized social networks is choice, and the protection from any one person or organization entirely dictating the dynamics of the network that comes with that choice. In decentralized social networks, people can be part of the same collective while using different apps that prioritize different things (e.g. maybe you want an app that has a bigger font size or more accessibility features). This approach also allows for more balance between safety and freedom. Instead of a single company or organization unilaterally deciding who and what is allowed, there’s more opportunity for different approaches to co-exist. Mike Masnick’s excellent piece from a few years back, Protocols, Not Platforms, is a great read on this.
Why now? People are tired of big tech CEO-Dictators.
While builders have been experimenting with decentralized social networks for more than a decade, the mainstream wave of discontent around big tech is reaching its peak — with Elon’s takeover of twitter pouring fuel on the fire of the movement. Many of us are waking up to the fact that our social networks shouldn’t be owned by singular for-profit corporations and controlled by the CEO-dictators who lead them.
Decentralized social networks are powered by “protocols.”
At the core of every decentralized social network is what’s called a “protocol” — an underlying “shared language” that allows all of the different apps and services within a network to talk with one another. Examples of protocols include ActivityPub, AT Protocol, Nostr, Farcaster, DSNP, Lens, and SSB. We’ll get into these a bit later.
It took me a little while to get my head around how all the different terms I was hearing fit together, but it clicked when I started comparing everything to email - a system most of us are fairly familiar with. You can think about it like this:
A protocol is a sort of shared “public good” — a bit of underlying infrastructure that can be built upon by other public and private entities. Around New_Public, we like to think about protocols as analogous to the system of roads and sidewalks that people use to go from the park to the supermarket, or from our houses to the library.
It is worth noting a few things here:
1) Not everything built on top of protocols is free and open.
While the protocols themselves are an open standard, private companies can and do build proprietary services and apps on top of protocols (think about how Gmail or Superhuman are privately-owned products built on top of open-source email protocols). What makes this system different from traditional centralized proprietary social media is the lack of lock-in and monopolization that occurs (at least in theory) because people can more freely choose between different apps and services.
2) It’s not total anarchy — each protocol is created & maintained by a group of people.
It’s easy to think that “decentralization” means no ones in control at all - but in these networks, there’s always a core team that’s focused on setting the standards, at least initially. Ideally, these groups are mission-driven non-profits that are inclusive and transparent, with an unbiased commitment to creating a healthy ecosystem and governance systems with good checks-and-balances.
Different protocols vary in how they store data and handle identity.
Different protocols are built with different values in mind and are designed to enable different kinds of end-user experiences. It’s all about tradeoffs.
The two biggest points of difference among social network protocols are: 1) where data lives and 2) how user identity is handled — both of which have implications for what kinds of apps get built, how easy or hard it is to switch between different services, and how moderation works.
Roughly speaking, there are 3 main types of decentralized social network protocols that vary mainly based on how/where the “data” (your posts, replies, likes, followers, etc.) is stored.
1. Federated protocols
There are “federated” protocols like ActivityPub (which powers Mastodon) and AT Protocol (which powers Bluesky) where everyone’s data lives on “servers” that can talk with other servers. The idea here is that any person or organization can run a server — but it takes some technical ability, so most people end up joining an existing one instead. Generally, the people who control the servers have the power and responsibility for moderation.
2. Blockchain-based protocols
There are “blockchain-based” protocols like Farcaster and Lens where at least some component of the network - generally the ‘identity’ layer - is stored on a blockchain. One common misconception with these is that every single post, reply, like, etc. gets stored on-chain, but that’s not generally the case.
3. Peer-to-peer approaches
There are “peer-to-peer” approaches like Scuttlebutt (often abbreviated to SSB) where there are no 3rd party servers at all - your own phone or computer acts as your own server / storage space. These are generally best for small-scale social networks or communities.
Here are eight protocols that we’re keeping an eye on...
You can check out the open research doc for more in-depth breakdowns, but here’s the TL;DR on some of the protocols / networks I’m keeping my eyes on these days…
ActivityPub (which powers Mastodon, Pixelfed, Peertube, Calckey, etc.) is the federated protocol that connects all the apps in what’s commonly called ‘the fediverse’. ActivityPub is sort of the OG in this space and was officially recognized as a standard by W3C in 2018. In this system, you pick one server to host your data, and servers can be run by anyone: independent people, news organizations, local governments, or app builders themselves. Server owners have a lot of control in this system, and your experience as a user very much depends on which server you chose to join.
AT Protocol (which powers Bluesky) is a new federated protocol that aims to combine the “convenience and scale of centralized services” with the “openness and resilience of decentralized protocols” to enable “big room”-style social platforms with UX like universal search and better ‘account portability’. This one is still new — work started in 2019, and it’s not even fully federated just yet — but it’s riding a big wave of momentum and has a massive waitlist. The protocol was initially funded by a grant from Twitter during the Jack Dorsey days, but operates as its own independent entity: a Public Benefit LLC.
Nostr, which stands for “Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted over Relays” and powers apps like Damus, is a protocol with some elements of federation and some elements of peer-to-peer networks. It’s designed with a strong emphasis on being ‘censorship-resistant’. Instead of your data living on one specific server like in ActivityPub, it gets spread around via a system of independent ‘relays’ that anyone can run. While not blockchain-related itself, the network has strong ties to the bitcoin-world, and has also received support from Jack Dorsey.
Farcaster is a self-described “sufficiently decentralized” social network where the “identity layer” lives on the Ethereum blockchain (so users need a wallet to create an account) but everything else is ‘off-chain’. It was started by two former Coinbase employees and has received funding from Andreesen Horowitz.
Lens is a blockchain-based protocol that uses NFTs as core building blocks for identity and content. Introduced in early 2022, it’s currently still in closed-beta but hundreds of apps have been built using the protocol. It ultimately aims to be an “open social graph” that any app can plug into and also offers some built in monetization elements for content creators.
DSNP is a soon-to-be released blockchain-oriented protocol focused on creating a universal public social graph, disconnected from financial incentives, where users control their own data and identity. Of all the protocols in this list, this one is the most ‘all-in’ on blockchain technology.
SSB is a peer-to-peer protocol where each person on the network stores their own content; it’s ideal for smaller or local social networks made up of people who actually know each other irl. The protocol has been around since 2014, but has remained fairly niche.
Spritely is a new peer-to-peer protocol for “contextual groups” being created by a few people with a long history in the space (including the original creator of ActivityPub). This one’s still in the ‘pre-developer’ phase, but the important thing to know here is: it’s intentionally designed for “small, contextual groups and communities” where each user doesn’t need to have access to everyone else - in other words, unlike ActivityPub, AT Protocol, and many others on this list, it’s not meant to be the foundation for a “big room” twitter-like product.
For decentralized social networks to really work, we’ll need to continue working through several big challenges.
Making it easier to participate
Instead of just replicating the UX of centralized systems, there’s a really exciting opportunity to create entirely new UX design patterns that lean into decentralized realities — making things like discovery, search, migration, and personal storage decisions make more intuitive sense. Pattern libraries like DOTS are a great start, and we at New_ Public are excited to help explore & convene UX designers and builders who are pushing these boundaries.
Finding the right balance of safety & freedom
This isn’t a solved problem on centralized platforms, nor is it on decentralized ones. Decentralized networks present a complicated set of new challenges, but also more of an opportunity for different approaches to be tried and for the best ones to emerge as patterns to be replicated. Things are generally moving more towards individual end-user control - but because asking every single person to do all of their own moderation puts way too much of a burden on people, there are new mechanisms emerging. Imagine being able to subscribe to a “block” list that’s run by some organization you personally trust (a non-profit, a government agency, a community, a group of your friends, etc.). Many of the protocol creators & communities are thinking along these lines - people like Blaine and Darius Kazemi have written about this, and this proposal from the Nostr world explores the idea of sharing moderator reports among peers.
Creating sustainable networks with fair value exchanges
One of the biggest challenges historically with decentralized social networks has been financial sustainability. I’m excited not only about the potential of government funding for protocol development, but also to see features built into platforms that make it easy for server owners and/or the folks providing safety & moderation services to charge for membership or accept donations directly within the experience (instead of needing people to jump over to some other platform like Patreon). I hope this can shift norms towards a culture where it’s as normal to pay for parts of our social media experience as it is to pay our taxes and phone bill, or buy a stamp to send a letter.
Hopefully this is just the start of many conversations about different tradeoffs between centralized and decentralized social platforms, and the different approaches within the latter camp too. Ultimately, as long as people are continuing to build a variety of healthy spaces where people can come together, build new connections, and have control over their own experience — I’m all for it. 🌳
In the spirit of co-creation and learning in public, we’ve decided to open up our full research google doc on decentralized social networks, which goes deeper into the topics and each of the protocols mentioned in this newsletter. You can check it out here —feel free to contribute comments or questions!
And that wraps up this week! We’re taking Memorial Day weekend off, so we’ll see you again in three weeks on Sunday, June 4. ‘Til then.
Runnin’ down the avenue,