Recent developments on the web make me hopeful for the future of the internet.
I’ve always been sceptical of systems that work like so many have before; collect users, prevent them from leaving and be the only provider for the service… At least if you do not want to lose existing contacts. Email always did it right by never becoming a centralised system with lock-in (and that is probably why it is still around after around 54 years, even though there are many other ways to reach people, you can pretty much assume anyone to be reachable that way and it is sort of the lowest common denominator of communication… phones are not because it costs to call and especially if you want to reach people in other countries, but I digress) this all means you do not have a reason to forever stay with one provider. If another email provider works better for you, you can just move and not lose your contacts (okay, you need to set up an auto-responder and change the address for all the accounts you use, yada yada yada) and this is where we are in a peculiar situation. Why should this be any different with social networks and messengers?
What we are currently seeing is the beginning of a fundamental change in how people interact on the web as platforms start only start, not yet more — to fade away while users leave.
It just is not a good idea to have one single large company be able to control your communications with many people, because this essentially means that you will put up with a lot of things just to be able to stay in contact with said people. It can also mean that users suddenly find themselves in an unpleasant situation (do I have to say more than Twitter?) and they can not really leave because they do not want to lose contact with all those people.
This time it is different, though. With Mastodon there is an alternative. As millions of people are fed up with recent developments at Twitter and flock to Mastodon en masse, they move to something that no longer binds them like The One Ring. Suddenly huge crowds find themselves on sites (not platforms, mind you) that no longer try to keep them in at all costs. People can freely move if they dislike a policy, there are thousands of available providers. You can easily export a list of people you follow and import it somewhere else entirely. You can set up a redirect to another profile, if you like. There is absolutely no reason to not go somewhere else if you do not like what your provider does (other than a few clicks and creating a new account of course) and so the system is not only decentralised, but it also does not force you to stay at one place forever either.
This is how the internet was always meant to be from its early days. The internet was always meant to be decentralised to have better resilience. In the beginning it was a military network after all. Now it is a huge network that is part of all our lives, so it should still be resilient. Even more so. Having large single points of failure in an essential tool for communication is just not a good idea.
Remember that time last year when Facebook was down (No? Congratulations on not being their product.) because of a small error in a configuration somewhere? That is a single point of failure that took down the whole communication tool. Facebook has a billion users. Those people suddenly no longer could communicate with each over.
That cannot happen due to the way Mastodon works. If your server is down, you cannot talk to anyone, but you can still choose another provider and continue. If another server is down, then you can still talk to all the users from all the other servers. Mastodon is resilient. No one single entity can control it (and I wonder how it will affect pro democracy protests in China in the near future) which is great. We do not want to have what happened to Twitter repeat.
The same resiliency we have had for nearly two decades with RSS. This three letter protocol that is often referred to as Really Simple Syndication allows you to follow news from many sources with one RSS feed reader. You can follow news sites and blogs (mine as well) and even Mastodon accounts (this is the feed for Stephen Fry’s Mastodon account for example) and this allows you to curate your own news for yourself. This is also federation. This is what podcasts use for distribution as well.
Then there is also Matrix, an instant messenger protocol. It allows you to talk to everyone using it as well. Matrix is decentralised, just like Mastodon and RSS and Email. And more and more people start using it. Like Mozilla (you know, the people who brought you Firefox and Thunderbird, among other software), the Debian project, some EU institutions, German regional parliaments, French government stuff, German army, German healthcare system, many German administration offices and government agencies…
There are also bridges to other networks which allow you to communicate with people that have not yet started to use Matrix. This is one reason why Matrix grows this much; you are not bound to only be able to communicate with people using the same system as you. This allows to bridge gaps and add people that use IRC to the same room. Many hackerspaces use that feature to move to Matrix without losing people.
The Matrix network is getting huge. I know my communication nowadays is mostly via Matrix. There are chat rooms for pretty much every topic, from IT and Star Trek and amateur radio to cute animals and psychology and much more. I run a few bridges to reach some people that do not use it yet, but more and more of the people I communicate with are moving towards Matrix. And once all contacts have all moved away and off a particular network, I can turn off that bridge. People start to get more critical of monopolistic networks. And we will probably at one point see a reverse network effect, just like we see now with the Twitter to Mastodon migration.
Just think about this: A world where no large company — or entity for that matter — controls communication. You can go wherever you want. Now longer putting up with whatever an annoying billionaire throws at you. You are no longer a product, you are really a user this time.
I see this to be the trend I havve been waiting for, for years. A trend that, this time luckily, because of the network effect, will be hard to stop. How are we communicating in five years?
A lot more decentralised, I bet. The people are taking back control from large entities. Servers with thousands of users that can easily move are obviously a better choice than one large closed system with a billion users. And that makes me hopeful for basic freedoms, such as being able to freely communicate without censorship, but also for the future of the internet.
What do you think?