The advantages —and drawbacks — of decentralized social networks
Jul 28, 2023

The advantages —and drawbacks — of decentralized social networks

Mastodon is an example of a decentralized social media platform — it doesn't rely on one single company and its server. But it comes with privacy and content moderation concerns.

It’s been just a few weeks since the new Threads app burst onto the scene, threatening to be the ultimate Twitter-Killer, or platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter-killer.

But it’s not just an alternative to the former bird app Threads has promised, but an alternative model of social media. One that is decentralized and interoperable.

So how is this model different than the classic flavor of social media most of us are used to? Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino asked Arvind Narayanan, a professor of computer science at Princeton. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Arvind Narayanan: In regular social media, or traditional social media, there is one app made by one company, and every user interacts through that app. And all of that data goes to that company’s servers. Decentralized social media can be set up in a few different ways. So one possible way, and I’ll mention how, let’s say, Mastodon works. That’s one decentralized social media system. What happens there is, there’s a group of developers that make the app, Mastodon, but it’s not one single company. And it’s open source software, anybody can download and set up their own Mastodon server. And everybody who is using the Mastodon software, even if it’s on different servers run by different companies, will all be able to talk to each other. They’re essentially on the same network.

Meghan McCarty Carino: Where did this idea sort of come from? Like, what was it in reaction to, and what are the intended benefits?

Narayanan: The idea of decentralization has always been around. The internet, back when it was designed in the ’60s and ’70s, was designed with a vision that’s very different from how it is today. The idea was that individuals and organizations, perhaps workplaces, would run their own servers. In that long history of 70-plus years, the centralized platforms, whether it’s email like Gmail, or TiKTok, all of that is a relatively recent development. And this dream of truly having decentralized social media where individuals have a lot more control, and aren’t reliant on the policies of a particular company, that dream never went away. And, in fact, I co-authored a paper more than a decade ago, where we looked at several dozen of these projects that had been launched with not a lot of success. But software developers have been extremely excited about this idea for really many decades. And the more that centralized platforms have dominated our online lives, the more of a motivation that they’ve had to create these alternatives.

McCarty Carino: You mentioned Mastodon, this is the biggest and probably the best known decentralized social media platform, which operates on protocol in an ecosystem called the fediverse. Can you explain what that is?

Narayanan: So what’s going on here is there is an open protocol called ActivityPub, and anybody can read the documentation of that and anyone can create a new app, which can talk to any other app, which also speaks this ActivityPub protocol, or language. And Mastodon is the best known app that speaks this protocol, but there are others as well. And so the way this works: imagine that somebody has a blog and the blogging platform supports this protocol called ActivityPub. So what that means is, if you’re a user of the Mastodon social network, you’re not limited to following other people on the same social network. You can also follow this blog, even though that blog doesn’t necessarily have an account on Mastodon. It’s often described as a little bit like email. I’m not sure how helpful that analogy is, but let me give it anyway: different people have different email providers, somebody might use a work email, another person might use Gmail. And in theory, most people don’t do this, you can run an email server off of your own personal device, that’s actually possible. And so any of these people can email each other. And they don’t really have to think about which app is the other person using. So that’s kind of what you get with social media, when you use Mastodon or one of the apps that speak this fediverse protocol.

McCarty Carino: Now, Meta, which is the biggest centralized social media company in the world, has said that it has plans to take its new Twitter competitor app Threads decentralized in the future, although it is not now. How would that work?

Narayanan: If they did this, what you would be able to do is kind of very similar to what I described earlier. So if Threads were to be decentralized, you could follow random blogs from across the internet, and they would all end up in your Threads feed. And you could follow other people on Mastodon, for instance.

McCarty Carino: What are some drawbacks of the decentralized model?

Narayanan: A weird one is privacy. And it’s weird, because privacy is often one of the things that people will say is a benefit of decentralized social media. But it’s also a drawback, because if people using other servers or whole other apps are going to be able to follow you — what that means is that when you post something on one of these decentralized apps, it could end up on dozens of different servers, perhaps hundreds of different servers. Once you’ve posted something you can’t remove it and hope for it to actually be deleted. Another issue is content moderation. I think you can’t really do that on decentralized platforms, both for for technical reasons and because of the business model. You can’t really pay for that assembly line of workers. And to an extent, you can’t really solve that problem, because if anybody can set up a server, and there’s no one centrally enforcing policies, ultimately, what are you going to do?

McCarty Carino: What would it mean for a giant player like Meta to become part of the decentralized ecosystem? Like, what kinds of effects could it have on that actual ecosystem?

Narayanan: I mean, in a way, it’s not that weird, because, again, the internet is such a decentralized medium. And the internet was not always the only game in town. And this is a little weird to say, because right now, we can’t even imagine anything else. But a couple of decades ago, you could get online without actually accessing the internet. There were centralized options, like AOL’s walled garden. All of that eventually went away. And the reason it went away was because the internet was so successful, because of its openness, and convincing lots of people to develop content for it, to put webpages out there. You didn’t have that with AOL. As a user of AOL, you would only be able to access the content that the content provider had specifically decided to put on AOL servers. And so this decentralized protocol, which initially attracted academics and hobbyists, and others who were putting content on there, eventually became the platform on which really, the big tech companies were built. You wouldn’t have big tech if it were not for the open protocol, the internet.

So you can imagine the same type of thing with social media: there is this open protocol and individuals can set up servers. But there are also big companies that offer not centralized services, but kind of polished apps, with hundreds of millions of users on top of this decentralized platform. So we do have a precedent for it. And that is the internet, except that it’s happening perhaps in the reverse order: you have already existing big platforms and companies are now trying to tentatively see if it’ll work for them. There have been a lot of concerns that Meta would create negative effects for this protocol because everybody would have to basically follow the rules that Meta made, or they would have become incompatible with Meta’s products. I think that’s a genuine concern. It doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers some people.

Other somewhat large platforms like WordPress, I believe, and Medium, if I’m remembering correctly, have also either announced or implemented support for the fediverse set of protocols. So it’s not like Meta is the only big player in town. And so if people are concerned about that, I think what they should be doing is instead of trying to push Meta away, they should be courting yet more big players to come and play on top of this open protocol.

McCarty Carino: At this point, does it look like this is a direction platforms are genuinely going in? Or is it kind of the cool thing to say?

Narayanan: It’s really hard to predict. It could be the combination of just the gradually growing user base of decentralized platforms, and notably, support from Meta or other large companies. So any, or all, of these things can change the situation. But that’s far from a certainty because there have been multiple waves of this before.

More on this

Threads notably surged to 100 million users in just its first few days, breaking the record formerly held by ChatGPT for the fastest accretion of users. As we discussed on the show earlier this month, that success was largely driven by the familiar-looking interface and built-in network effects that come courtesy of an already giant social media empire like Meta.

But that early buzz might have already started dying down. The web analytics firm Similarweb reports active users have dropped by about 60% since that big opening week.

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer