Pitching the campsite of the future: decentralized social networks like Tent.io offer a way forward by mirroring the early internet

Introduction: place vs. thing

Facebook and Twitter are both centralized networks. In other words, every single Facebook post and tweet passes through these companies’ servers. Users find content by directly connecting to one of these networks. Thus, most people think of Facebook and Twitter as places.

There is another way to structure the relationship between users and services: a federated network. Email is an example of a federated network. It works because many servers communicate using the same protocol. Anyone can set up their own mail server or use a mail service like Gmail or Hotmail. Thus, most people think of email as a thing, not a place.

The differences between centralized and federated networks are much deeper than just semantics (“I go to Facebook, but I do not go to email”). The distinction between place and thing is an important one. A place has only one instance: it a single, specific part of the world. A thing can have multiple instances: it’s possible to imagine many of the same thing. If Facebook as a company disappears, so do Facebook messages. If Gmail disappears, email still exists because it Gmail is just one node on the federated network that makes up email. One single bad actor can destroy Facebook. One single bad actor cannot destroy email.[1]

Today, every major social networking site operates on a centralized network. Over the past several years, several attempts at creating a decentralized social networking service have failed. In the past month, a strong decentralized network has emerged in Tent.io. In this paper, I argue that decentralization in social networks is better than centralization and that Tent.io has better chance of succeeding than pervious decentralized social networks.

Centralized networks: the good, the bad, and the very bad

Centralized networks have advantages. Because all tweets happen on a limited number of controlled Twitter servers, it is possible for Twitter to log and record every single tweet. This makes services like search relatively fast and simple. Twitter generates significant value through this feature it calls it’s “firehose”. Twitter sells access to firehouse and prices it aggressively.[3]

Another advantage to centralized networks is speed. Because Twitter’s own servers handle all of the traffic, it is possible for Lady Gaga’s millions of followers to get her tweets seconds after she posts them. This type of speed is not feasible on decentralized networks.

However, they also have disadvantages. An important aspect of a successful technology is the ability of consumers to modify it to fit their own needs.[2] Customers who bought automobiles in the 1910s were able to use them to churn butter and plough fields, which were not the original intentions of the manufacturer. In fact, car manufacturers realized that they could do good business by catering to the specific needs of consumers directly. Compare this to centralized social networks today: Twitter has made it nearly impossible for new third-party Twitter clients to use their servers by changing their application programming interface, or API. An API defines the protocol by which outside services can access data in a particular network. The accessibility of an API for a credentialed service ranges from extremely limited to completely open.

It would be as if Ford Motor Company made a road network using spiked pavement. This road network is the best in the country and connects to any place of interest. But only cars made by Ford can use the road system because only they manufacture the special wheels necessary to use the road. Closed, centralized networks are like this, only Facebook’s official clients can access Facebook.

The fundamental problem with this kind of limitation is that it stunts creativity in the marketplace. There are many more ways to be social online than Facebook presents. In the early days of Twitter, the openness of its API allowed people to use Twitter in a way that was not intended. Fundamental properties of the current Twitter like hashtags and at-replies were created by third party services piggybacking on Twitter’s API.

The decentralized approach is analogous to the way a road network currently operates in the US. Different states all agree on the width of a lane and the maximum turning radius. The state then creates roads internally and connects them using a federated network. Individual cars or car companies are all allowed to use the network.

It is also possible to censor a centralized network. Facebook censors political dissidents, pictures breast-feeding women, and people using fake names. Centralized networks also control access to their networks.

A short history of federated social networks

To some extent, the closed/centralized nature of most social networks is a product of advancing web technology. In the early days of the Internet, information was presented on static web pages using HTML. All of the data on the page were accessible and searchable. But the structure of the web has changed. Today, proprietary social networks are built atop frameworks like Javascript, which allow the server to dynamically generate the page displayed to users. An example of a dynamically-generated page is a user’s list of friends. Every user’s list of friends is unique. While technical in nature, this property of proprietary social networks creates what Ching-man Au Yeung et all. call “data silos.”[2]

These data silos, intentionally or not, trap users by making their data inaccessible through other services. This is an example of “lock in” which stunts industry growth because users who want to switch to a new, better social network will be reluctant to do so because their data is trapped in the first service.

Tent’s approach to the problem

Tent is attempting to create a federated protocol that anyone can implement. If an individual wants to create a Tent server, she does not need the blessing or permission from anyone else to be on the same footing as any other server.

According to Tent’s FAQ, its protocol allows users to switch from one Tent server to another without losing followers or subscribers. This feature is sorely lacking in email’s implementation. If you change email servers, you have to send an email to your entire contact list and hope that everyone on your contact list update theirs.

Tent gives non-technical users an easy way to sign up for the service. From the official website:

We designed Tent so everyone could run their own server if they wanted to. We made Tent.is because not everyone wants to.

This single conceit — that most people do not want to run their own server — pushes Tent ahead of all other federated network attempts. The ease of profile creation and lack of commercialization might bring social networking off of places like Facebook and into a more universal, decentralized thing.

References

[1] Siracusa, John, and Dan Benjamin. Nobody Leaves Email. Hypercritical. Rec. 5 Oct. 2012. 5by5, 2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2012. <http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/88>.

[2] Kline, R., & Pinch, T. (1996). Users as Agents of Technological Change: The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States. Technology and Culture, 37(4), 763–795.

[3] Au Yeung, Ching-man, Ilaria Liccardi, Kanghao Lu, Oshani Seneviratne, and Tim Berners-Lee. “Decentralization: The Future of Online Social Networking.” W3C Workshop on the Future of Social Networking Position Papers (2009): n. pag. Web. 7 Oct. 2012. <http://www.w3.org/2008/09/msnws/papers/decentralization.pdf>.

[4] “How Do I Get Firehose Access?” Twitter Developers. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. <https://dev.twitter.com/discussions/2752>.

6,480 thoughts on “Pitching the campsite of the future: decentralized social networks like Tent.io offer a way forward by mirroring the early internet

  1. It seems like centralize social network is a big net; the spider is Facebook, and all of users become a small bug which be stuck on the net. But in the decentralized social network, users become a spider who can always keep there net from a tree to another flower. Isn’t it? Users obtain much more democratization and freedom to decide the platform provider they prefer to. But if we stand on the perspective of a platform runner, what he seek must be how to let users into his platform and never go out, correct? What the users worried is that if you go bankrupt, how can I get all my materials out. But the runner concerned is that what I can do for you so that you can always stay in my platform; you be, I be~ So, even we put those drawbacks of such mode aside, such running mode, to some extent, maybe is a kind of stunt to attract users. If all the providers of the internet realm could reach the agreement, the new media would lost a large part of influence in people’s daily life.

  2. I thought your explanation of a centralized network versus a federated one was very thorough. Tent sounds like an interesting concept and certainly has a lot of potential. Companies would like it because they could keep their own domain, instead of sending customers to an external site.

    One concern of mine is adoption. The majority of users are not going to be able to develop their own apps, let alone configure a server. I am fairly web savvy, but their documentation is confusing. If everyone creates an account on Tent.is but never migrates to his or her own server, then it will be like just another centralized network.

    In terms of how this protocol may influence digital culture, I think it could really bring about innovation. Customized apps would allow for new types of content integration, thus making the experience more exciting for your followers.

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