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Scaping the internet's walled gardens

·5 mins

A painting of a walled garden

The good old days (decentralized by default) #

The internet has come a long way since its early days, and one major shift that has occurred is the move from decentralization to centralization. From its inception in the 1960s to the early 2000s, things were naturally decentralized.

Early versions of bulletin board/Usenet were typically hosted by Universities. If you wanted to read someone’s opinions, or cake recipes, you would likely visit their self-hosted blog. What about e-mail? You were probably hosting your own, or using your University/ISP/Telecom SMTP servers. One of the most popular chat systems of the time, the IRC, also followed the same principles. You would either host a server or join an existing one.

Back then protocols ruled, not platforms, with many different networks and servers all connected and able to communicate with each other. This distributed structure allowed for an open and free flow of information, as well as a lot of competition and innovation.

Building walls (moving towards centralization) #

It was not all roses though. In addition to the learning curve of using these systems, very often the internet felt like the Wild West. Precisely for these reasons, we’ve started moving towards centralization during the early 2000s. Personal, self-hosted blogs gave way to blogging platforms (Blogger, LiveJournal, Blogspot, Fotolog, etc). Email platforms (AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, etc) became the norm. As IRC bled users, MSN Messenger, ICQ, and Skype all grew in popularity. Later MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit devoured the social networking market. WhatsApp became the de facto mobile communication software. The wall kept getting higher.

This move towards centralization meant that few major tech companies and platforms were now controlling much of the online space. This concentration of power and control has led to the creation of “walled gardens,” resulting in a less open and more controlled internet, with many users being restricted to accessing only the content and services provided by these major tech companies.

Take podcasting, for example. From its inception, it has been designed to be not that different from RSS feeds. You could listen to it on your software of choice, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, etc.. and your experience would have been the same. However, there is a trend of exclusive podcasts (only available on a specific platform), which not only limits how a podcast can be listed to, but also puts the control over what you can listen to on companies like Spotify or Stitcher.

Like it or not, social media has become an integral part of our daily lives. It connects us with friends and family, allows us to stay up to date with current events, and even helps us discover new products and services. However, the vast majority of social media activity takes place within a few large, centralized platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Putting lot of power in the hands of a few companies. These companies can censor content, manipulate algorithms, and collect user data for profit. It can also lead to a lack of transparency and accountability, as well as potential privacy violations. We have become hostages of the whims of inconsequential billionaires like Musk and Zuckerberg.

Not to mention that it can stifle competition and innovation, as smaller companies and projects may have a harder time getting noticed and gaining traction in a space dominated by a few major players. Centralization often leads to a lack of privacy, as users are required to give up personal information and data in order to access certain services or content.

Tearing down the walls (decentralization & federation) #

Fortunately, there are also efforts underway to move back towards decentralization. There are already several decentralized social media platforms available, such as Mastodon, Diaspora, and PixelFed. They form the Fediverse, a federated social network that uses the ActivityPub Protocol. These platforms offer many of the same features as traditional social media platforms, but with a greater emphasis on user control and privacy. There are also established players adding ActivityPub support, most notably Tumblr.

Decentralization brings about its own challenges. Servers often crashes, and because most instances are maintained by volunteers, there is no economic pressure to have a 99.99999% uptime, and that’s ok. Moderation is another major challenge on Mastodon servers. As each server is independently run and operated, there is no central authority responsible for enforcing rules and policies. This can make it nearly impossible to coordinate and enforce moderation efforts across different servers. It is still early to tell, but by working together and coordinating efforts, it is possible to create a safe and welcoming online space for all users.

As with everything that is new, there is noticeable resistance from people that became accustomed with the ease of use of centralized big-tech software. A common complaint is that you have to choose an “instance” to join Mastodon. But I believe that the framing is incorrect, we’ve been doing that since the beginning of the internet. It is that different from choosing to join Gmail or Outlook. While centralization may provide some convenience in the short term, it is ultimately a less sustainable and less beneficial model for both users and content creators.

If you’re concerned about the centralization of social media, consider exploring decentralized alternatives. Maybe It’s time to escape the internet’s walled gardens and embrace a more open future.