- Let's say someone builds a social network protocol (including messaging, photo sharing etc).
- Let's be generous and say this protocol becomes so successful it turns into a de facto standards.
- The market will rush to build the best client for the protocol. Facebook, Google, maybe an outsider will come up with the best client that has all the features and added goodies (magic emojis, special video effects, something new etc).
- People wanting to get on the networks will never google the protocol just like people who want to get an email client do not google "imap". They just google the most popular client such as gmail.
- Overtime, the most popular client will get a quasi-monopoly and will become incompatible with the rest of clients, no one will notice except for us nerds on HN.
- This already happened with xmpp (facebook messenger, google hangouts and others used to be on xmpp).
Now you might say, "but how about email"? Well, first of all, email is an oligopoly and it's practically impossible for individuals to set up their own servers and expect their emails to get delivered all of the time. So I wouldn't call email such a great success story. Another thing is that email is work oriented and so it makes sense to keep compatibility between businesses. Email also arrived very early and had time to spread slowly at the beginning of the internet among various small to big players, which explains why no company could take over it.
For all these reasons, I do not believe in a magical protocol that would save us from big tech. The protocol in itself would not be enough. A non-profit would need to be in charge of the most popular client such as Mozilla with Firefox, but even then this did not turned out as expected although Chromium is open source so yay.
> Overtime, the most popular client will get a quasi-monopoly and will become incompatible with the rest of clients, no one will notice except for us nerds on HN.
As soon as those popular clients get incompatible, they cross the line into a new protocol - and we force them by law to open-source license that too. Sure, the major platforms will still own 90% of the traffic since the public is mindless (for now, until its educated over generations), but third party options will again be possible.
So all this advocating for protocols is still very relevant, it's just probably not going to happen by itself or from some magic invention.
So regulators should prevent anticompetitive behaviors such as what happened with Google Talk. When Google Talk was a new product, it was a fantastic XMPP implementation. They even contributed the Jingle extension to implement VoIP.
Once they became a dominant force, XMPP federation was removed effectively making it impossible to communicate with Gmail accounts from other providers. Later on, with the transition to Google Hangouts, XMPP was replaced by a proprietary protocol making it impossible to use even a different client other than Google's.
Facebook could start using on open protocol today, then block anyone not signed in through facebook and the result is nothing at all would change.
Maybe you're thinking platforms will somehow also be required to accept and share content from anyone? If so, all platforms become like 8chan (or worse). If not, there's someone, somewhere deciding what can and can't be shared on each platform (like there is now).
I think the fundamental confusion here is the idea that some kind of protocols vs. platform dynamic even exists.
Social media platforms are trying to achieve a captivating user experience built off our social nature to monetize our attention. Protocols are used, but they are deeply buried implementation details.
> Facebook could start using an open protocol today
Richard Stallman would prefer you to use the term "free protocol", which I think is what we're all trying to say here ;)
The risk you’ve described isn’t as insurmountable: So far, bitcoin, ethereum, & BitTorrent serve as strong counter examples to the problem you state. They’ve remained clearly defined protocols that users seek out instead of a particular client and have proven hard for popular clients to fork.
Years ago there was a push to get government to make all public documents exist in a standard format so that nobody was locked into a particular vendor's (potentially for-pay) reader.
If some independent entity as large as the Public Sector supported an open standard, then it would provide a lot of friction toward efforts to balkanize the standard. Because if you weren't at least backward compatible with the standard, then people would notice.
You just have to make the protocol sticky enough and distributed enough so one corp doesn't wield Total Control.
That's a pretty low bar, unless you mean "all the time" as "every single time". :)
Before I gave up and moved to AWS Workmail this year, I'd run a personal mail server for about 20 years. Major issues were not too uncommon, and minor ones were constant:
"Why can everyone in the world get mail from my server except outlook.com users?" I can't remember if I ever resolved this.
"Why do more and more corporate servers ignore SMTP retry rules?" It was nice when only spammers did that and graylisting was effective.
"No, it's not my server that's sending those spam emails that spoof my domain; I checked. Yes, really." This happened more than a decade ago, and I assume it either stopped or was solved by the spread of TLS or something.
People thought I was crazy for unplugging from every Facebook service. No one would follow me over to my messenger of choice they said. I proved them wrong. And you can too. But it takes a little patience and a little persistence and little sticking to your ideals. Our basic internet freedoms are worth this.
My bodega owner is a customer. So are his kids that help him. And an old mexican lady who works in a hipster coffee shop because hipsters that own it cannot be bothered to get up at 6am to open at 7am.
They use email. None of them are interested in "setting up their own email server". They are interested in being able to send email and get email.
My bodega owner lost interest the moment you said "solution that gets out of your way".
He simply does not care to hear about it. He wants to click on an envelop icon and see his email. He wants to type his message, hit send and know that his message is delivered.
Until the OSS, Protocols not Platforms, "Use firefox and not chrome because its technology is better" advocates internalize that not a single argument other than "does it just work?" matters to users, SaaS, Platforms and Chrome will continue to clean the clock of OSS, Protocols and Firefox.
The most important thing for defending against these incumbents is to aggressively prevent and repeal regulation that would stifle competition. Nassim Taleb's view on incumbents is that as long as the mighty can fall (i.e. no bailouts, no protection), it gives disruptors a chance to rise to the top (so they can later fall).
- [^1]: https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2002/01/06/fire-and-motion/
(Also, it seem that in Ubuntu, when installing Exim there is an option to do specifically this.)
I do it and it works well. My advice is to try it before you dismiss it as impossible.
Regarding your overall point, this is partly a social/cultural problem. There's no inherent reason why people would not search for the protocol and not the monopolistic application nor why multiple "best" application could not co-exist. After all, not everyone has the same use case so different applications can specialize to catering for different use cases.
The idea of protocols needs to become more mainstream and ingrained into the minds of common people and this is why essays like these are important.
I don’t see it as an end-all, but do think it’s ridiculous that, say, iMessage only lets you iMessage other iPhones and falls to sms/mms for others. What if Gmail only let you send rich text to other Gmail users, falling back to plain text outside their bubble? There is zero that iMessage does that couldn’t be done in xmpp, or at least an open protocol. Similar with social media. It’s all the same thing: friends, posts, wall. Use ActivityPub or something similar and open it up. Won’t be perfect, but will be better than one platform holding all the cards.
Yes, but it doesn't have to be this way. It's possible to design systems that align all those predatory capitalist incentives of participants with keeping control decentralized. Bittorrent and bitcoin are prime examples of this. And it definitely can be done for more applications. There is one problem though, creating such systems is not lucrative, it can't make creators rich even if it changes the world.
It can still provide a comfortable living to those who offer a superior implementation with a paid service, like Proton Mail, or whatever IP telephony provider you respect.
Which is the case for everyone but the person who does.
Unfortunately, that person may have killed himself because of JStor.
Ultimately, you apply modalities not concepts which explains why you can't see it.
Email doesn't need to be email it only needs to provide equal or greater utility.
What the hell are you doing to your mail servers?
edit - also, can the client be in the protocol?
This is an anecdote until I can find a source.
That said, topics are a bit like tags and a bit like sub-channels and if you could combine these qualities, you might have a nice merger of the approaches.
It has already made its way up here on HN a few times already, this was the latest one: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19161171
The protocol underlying Aether is called Mim, and it’s close to what the article is asking for: https://getaether.net/docs/developers/
Still, I think "federated" is important in that different pieces of the system should be able to break off. If a mod can't leave a group, what use is it?
Also, "mod election" doesn't make sense. Mod should be (able to be) petty dictators - a member doesn't like a mod, they can easily go to another group and a majority means little-to-nothing online where a random number of socks or confederates can be easily recruited.
Decentralized systems also will help. However, I think ActivityPub and so on are too complicated; NNTP and IRC is good. Also, sometimes some federation with others might not be wanted, or only partially, or whatever reason; sometimes the policy also might not match what someone else has. That is one reason I write a specification of Unusenet, which specifies a format for newsgroup hierarchies which are not part of Usenet (it is possible for the same server to feed both Usenet and Unusenet, though). Perhaps I think even should set up a NNTP for Hacker News, too. (I also invented a Netsubscribe protocol, which could be a simpler alternative to ActivityPub/Mastodon.)
Let's Make Internet Great Again
No, it couldn't, and saying it more won't make it any more true. That is, sure, you can design a protocol that supports manpy of the same basic functions (and such protocols exist already), but centralized governance is ultimately part of what people want, or at least essential to stop a social network into degrading into what people don't want.
I would say that Mastodon is an example that supports the OP’s point. But in the real, practical world, a social network needs investment and marketing to catch on and extend to a useful amount of people. So in that sense, you’re correct as well.
(I'm on Mastodon, have been for two years, and love it. But it is no majick bullet.)
I would say Mastodon’s degree of success in replacing Facebook, etc., is an example which refutes OP’s point. (Also, Mastodon is more than just a protocol, but even if you ignore that...)
it certainly is technically feasable
It's technically feasible to build a protocol that supports the distributing social status updates group chat, direct messaging, etc.; many such things are around, some are, IIRC, older than Facebook.
The product Facebook, and why people use it, is more than just that technical underpinning, but involves active management. A protocol doesn't replace that, and a distributed protocol where nodes do their own active management, while possible, isn't a stable equilibrium. Which we've seen with open protocols in spaces related to what Facebook does many, many times already.
It seems to me the major differences between centralized and decentralized solutions are first-mover advantages, network effect advantages (big gets bigger), and advertising budget. I'm skeptical that the quality of the product is the defining reason for Facebook et al's success, or that it would save them against a viably-large decentralized solution.
I think a key ingredient is translators that move content out of the platform-bubbles into the world you control. You can move material between RSS, email, blog channel easily, if you choose. Harder but doable is to crack the walled gardens of social media.
These can fuel development of better forms of expression than the primitive nonsense so often used today.
Many people have major barriers; not interested in taking control, not going to build anything myself, fear of leaving the mob, will accept advertising, want somebody to tell me what to do, too rushed...
That's fine, they will continue. Those who want can, and are, going down the other road.
For whatever reference of best/worse you may have.
But most people don't.
In order for a protocol to be successful, it must bridge that gap.
That's what we've already done, gotten 15Million monthly active users onto GUN's network ( https://github.com/amark/gun ), by focusing on value add - whether people are idealistic or don't care, they're still using it.
This is how protocols will grow. Stay true to your values, but ship value add.
SMTP had a spam crisis. Early on providers were loathe to filter at the server. They didn't want the responsibility. Then there was the "love letter" virus that brought the net to its knees. Filtering became a requirement for survival but e-mail deliverability became a problem, first with AOL as a big provider, later with gmail, etc.
SMTP is nominally open but if gmail wants to trash the mail you send you may be helpless.
Any new protocol has to face spam not only as an annoyance but also a dos threat. Look at how unusable the web has becomes with multiple pop-up windows, sites that say mobile is the future but God forbid you try to close the ads on your tablet, 50mbps downloads to see 5000 bytes of text, ...
The protocol is built as a distributed proof-of-stake network, where people can earn a crypto token by contributing good content, or by running nodes of the blockchain. Users and node operators can take ownership in, and govern the network based on how much of the crypto token they own (or have earned).
I recently wrote about the architecture at https://blog.cosmos.network/building-a-decentralized-app-wit....
Users who have earned a certain amount of the token by being good citizens of the network will have to vote in new users. These users also moderate content, where offenders get some of their token taken away. Furthermore, network operators (validators) can vote to remove malicious content and users. And as with most crypto networks, a small fee (gas) is charged for usage.