What is Decentralized Social Media?

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

Let’s talk about social media.

Since the world first became familiar with the name Edward Snowden, people have become more concerned about internet privacy. Now, along with concerns about government surveillance, a growing number of Americans are becoming concerned with companies tracking their movements on the web and filing away their data. Back in 2015 BusinessInsider.com’s Cadie Thompson wrote an article about how Facebook, Instagram, and Swarm track your location, and in 2018 Forbes’ Kalev Leetaru wrote an article intimidatingly titled “Social Media Companies Collect So Much Data Even They Can’t Remember All The Ways They Surveil Us” [link]. Now, there are so many articles covering user internet data it’s hard to go a week without hearing how some company or another is dealing (or not dealing) with the panic.

First: What is a Social Media site?

Before we get into more specifics, it’s important to understand what a social media site is. First, it isn’t just a website; it’s more accurately a browser-based software service that provides both hosting data and determining who sees it. When you create an account on a social media site you set up a space for storing your posts, pictures, and other content, and, depending on the service you use, the site will share access to that content with either specific friends and groups or the entire userbase (and anyone else). It is a service connecting people with each other’s data.

  1. Create a user account. This is so the service can determine what data is yours versus another user.
  2. Access a user’s data (usually by hosting/storing it). That data can be a microblog post, a picture, a funny gif, or even personal information.
  3. Share that data with other users. Most social media platforms provide multiple means of doing that, but to be considered “social media”, let’s specify this as sharing to a large group of users at once, to a feed or board.
  4. Allow users to interact with data they have seen. This can be with likes, shares, comments, or many other ways.

There are a lot of other features social media services currently offer, but these are the most basic things they have in common.

We Want Our Privacy Back

Now that we understand what a social media site is, let’s talk about the thing that many people are doing to take back control over their data: leaving Facebook.

Arguably the most discussed social media giant, Facebook is well known for having more features and storing more types of data than most users realize, including your physical location and your personal information. This is generally used to make features and ads more personable, and Facebook has been quick to defend its actions, even adding a good deal of blog posts and information on their official webpage, explaining what they track and why they do it. Their site even has a guide helping users learn what they can do to keep their data private. Even though this and other guides have helped calm many users’ concerns, a good many others still feel there is a need for a new social media hub, to compete with Facebook but also Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and all of the other big names, in the name of Decentralization.

What is Decentralization?

“Decentralization” is a popular term amongst people fed up with “big social media”. Its official definition is “the process by which the activities of an organization, particularly those regarding planning and decision making, are distributed or delegated away from a central, authoritative location or group.” In the case of politics, it generally means giving more power to smaller entities and taking it away from a single entity, but in social media, it means keeping your data out of the hands of one, central power.

Types of Decentralized Social Media

If we remember what we now understand about social media, these types of decentralized social media change up how data is stored and shared to minimalize control from any single entity. We’ll go into each type individually, explain what they are, share their pros and cons, and share some popular examples of available services.

Peer-to-Peer

An example of a network of “peers”.

This type of network turns every participating computer into a server for some of the data the software stores. In a “P2P” system, encryption and decryption are the main ways data is kept secure even as it is stored on various other computers. That said, your data technically being shared with everyone on the network, so even though it is decentralized it requires a lot of trust in the encryption system. Data on these systems are hard to lose though, since every computer is keeping it up in some way, so if you care about your data never getting lost Peer-to-Peer is definitely the way to go.

  • The most decentralized: a true peer-to-peer system is open-source, meaning no one entity owns it, everyone can alter it, and no one has all the data. If you aren’t a fan of organizations this is your best bet.
  • Almost entirely permanent: because information on a peer-to-peer system is stored in various places the likelihood of it being lost or accidentally deleted is very rare.
  • Not the most secure: while peer-to-peer systems do encrypt all of the data within it, your data is still being stored on someone else’s computer. This could mean that an expert hacker may be able to unencrypt your data, even if it’s unlikely to happen.
  • Fickle: Without the structure of a Blockchain, company, or Federation, a Peer-to-Peer system runs on a lot of trust that everyone in the system will keep everything running properly. Trust can go a long way, but there can be a lot of issues if people lose power to their servers, tamper with the code or data, or stop maintaining it. These are likely to be rare problems, but it does make the system less reliable.

Examples of Peer-to-Peer Social Media Networks:

  • Iris: a new Twitter alternative that doesn’t require making an account
  • Planetary: an Instagram alternative with user-friendly UI
  • Manyverse: a new (in Beta) Facebook alternative from Scuttlebutt
  • DTube: a familiar-looking Youtube alternative that is primarily peer-to-peer but hosts its comment section on the Steem blockchain.
  • Aether: a Reddit alternative with a nice dark-themed application
Not actually a diagram of how blockchain works.

No doubt you have heard this term bouncing around this last decade, but what does it mean? Well, to keep it simple, a blockchain is basically a type of ledger; one that uses encryption to make it immutable. This ledger stores data, code, transactions (ever heard of cryptocurrency?), or anything else that could be recorded, and it is kept on a peer-to-peer network to maintain permanence.

Think of sending data to a blockchain like whispering information to a person and then that person shouting it to a room full of people, only they shout the information in complete gibberish. Now, technically, everyone in the room knows what you said, but they only know it in gibberish. If everyone then writes that gibberish down on a piece of paper and hangs onto it, that piece of paper (collectively) is the blockchain.

In this way, a blockchain is both centralized (being one ledger) and decentralized (living on multiple computers). As a social media platform, the ledger in question is your data, encrypted and immutable. This makes it somewhat more secure than Peer-to-Peer while keeping the permanence but has the problem with being not exactly decentralized since only the data is secure and not the actual software, which is still run and managed by a company.

  1. Dependable: like peer-to-peer, a blockchain’s ledger is being maintained by many different computers, but in a blockchain, each of those computers is storing the same thing. That means if one “link” in the chain goes down, it doesn’t affect the system or data.
  2. Secure: Blockchains are designed to constantly monitor each version of the ledger in existence so that nothing can be altered. This means that it’s significantly harder to hack without being caught, so users can store data outside of their computer with a greater sense of security.
  1. Not exactly “decentralized”: while a blockchain system is “distributed”, the blockchain only contains data. The software that runs that data, however, may still be run by an organization or business and may not be open-source.
  2. Not exactly “private”: A big issue with putting data on a blockchain is it’s hard to take it back. While systems can be made to allow users to delete data, the blockchain will always have a record that data was entered and then deleted, which may be something people want to avoid.

Examples of Blockchain Social Media Networks:

  • Minds: a user-friendly Facebook alternative with lots of features.
  • Steemit: Twitter alternative where your popularity earns cryptocurrency.
  • SocialX: an upcoming Facebook alternative where you can earn cryptocurrency.
  • All.me: an ambitious marketplace and social network that is visually similar to Instagram
  • Peepeth: a cute Twitter alternative
  • Odysee: a fun Youtube alternative run by LBRY
Image by Tobias

The easiest way you can control your data and who gets to see it is to host it on your own computer and the easiest way to make sure your information doesn’t leave your group is to only move that information between that group’s computers. But, if you want to socialize with people outside that group, you risk sharing with someone who would misuse that data.

A Federation, then, is a bunch of self-hosting platforms whose users and providers are held to a certain standard to take the small group concept and make it much, much bigger. Service providers in a Federation make their services compatible with each other so users can easily pop in and out of groups, sharing whatever amounts of data they choose along the way, at will. This means the Federation’s content is never truly public, but it has a large enough user base that it provides the feeling of connecting with the rest of the world.

There is a lot more that could and should be said about Federations before they really make sense, but those are the basics. If you want a much better explanation, check out Shivang’s Ultimate Guide to Federated Architecture & Decentralized Social Networks on 8bitmen.

  1. You control your data. You can download and host your own group or pick a group you enjoy and only participate there, or you can branch out to another group you trust, but your information never becomes available to any person outside of those spaces.
  2. Options Galore. Because a federation is about providing integration between trusted services you can pick your favorite service and still interact with colleagues who chose a different service, keeping the world nice and big without letting in the weirdos.

Cons

  1. Pushes the definition of “Social Media”. Simply stated, a federation’s combined data is never public. You will never be able to post “Hello world!” and have the whole world be able to access it. Instead, you are speaking to a very large group of people who are all from different cliques. It can feel the same and even have similar effects, but it isn’t the same thing.
  2. Confusing. Most federated services focus too much on explaining the options to users and less on just letting them, and this is in part because they have to. The software service is really mostly just for developers; the actual platform people are logging into is one of the “nodes” or “instances” or “pods” some else made. You may not actually know the hosts or creators of that server, and if that bothers you then you have to either find someone you do know that runs a server or go through the trouble of running your own. That can be a huge bar for entry for people without much technical experience.

Examples of Federated Social Media Networks

  1. CTZN: The absolute easiest and safest Facebook alternative to join. Joining the main community is little different than joining Facebook and it guides you through making your own.
  2. Mastodon: Twitter alternative whose communities have been rapidly growing in popularity.
  3. Friendica: the most user-friendly Facebook alternative with lots of colorful servers.
  4. Pleroma: a network of Facebook-like instances. Make it even more user-friendly by adding Soapbox.
  5. Diaspora: a Facebook-like system that has been around a long time and has many active pods.
  6. Funkwhale: a SoundCloud-like social network for sharing and enjoying music that also uses pods.
  7. Plume: a social network for blog posts. (See the public instance)
  8. PeerTube: a network of YouTube-like instances. (Personal favorite is the educational TILvids instance)
  9. Pixelfed: a network of Instagram-like instances.
  10. Hubzilla: arguably the most feature-rich Facebook alternative with lots of different hubs.

What is the Best Decentralized Social Media System?

Determining the best decentralized social media system is difficult because, in the end, all data transference has some level of risk. Here are some simple suggestions for you depending on what you want to get out of your social data transferring:

If you never want anyone you don’t know to see your information: just use a chat app with good encryption. I recommend Telegram or Signal for simple messaging or Element for something more robust.

If you feel comfortable sharing between some friends and maybe friends of friends: run a private server with one of the many available open-source social media software systems on it.

If you really want to have that worldwide connection and socialization social media provides but don’t want it to be 100% public: your safest bet is joining a federated network like the Fediverse.

If you really want to have a public presence or if you want the things you say to last forever: go for a blockchain or peer-to-peer system

Final Thoughts

Decentralized social media systems very much could be the future of social media, but the likelihood that any of these will kill off Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram in the near future is very low. For people who care a lot about privacy, customization, or decentralization in general, and for people who just like social media, there are a lot of options and even more promising technology in the future. It really is incredible that so many people are willing to support freedom in technology.

I hope this article will help clear up a lot of confusion about these new social media concepts and guide prospecting users to the platforms that will best suit them. There is a lot here and a lot more coming so I may come back to this topic in a future article. In the meantime, good luck and stay safe on the web!

Other Interesting Information

As a political ideology, decentralization has been popular since it spiked in 2004, and it, along with the idea of decentralized social media, spiked again this April. Many suggest this piqued interest is due to Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube’s intense censoring and flagging efforts in an attempt to crush fake news spreading on their platforms, which some say were politically biased. This, and Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump, has led many of Trump’s followers to look for decentralized social media options. Many of these alternative social media options are seen as “right-wing-biased” because of this influx, which has kept a lot of liberal entities in the mainstream networks despite their usual inclination to embrace new technological trends.

Another good review of decentralized social networks: https://medium.com/decentralized-web/decentralized-social-networks-e5a7a2603f53

More about social media collecting user data:
https://blog.malwarebytes.com/privacy-2/2020/04/how-social-media-mine-data-sell-personal-information-for-profit/

I’m a writer, researcher, and UX designer. My main interests are software tech, sociology, philosophy, and futurology.

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