The World Wide Web was designed with decentralization in mind. One of the core ideas was that every user, organization, project should have their own site or page located anywhere in the Internet and linked with other pages using hyperlinks. The term home page came to us from these ancient times. But the period when users created their own home pages and filled them with their own content was very short. Soon, they began to use centralized services for this purpose: forums, portals, blogging platforms and so on. Comparing to the handcrafted home pages, the platforms have many advantages.
Ease of use. No more tricky HTML/CSS formatting and server programming. You enter the text - and it becomes published, in a second. You can concentrate on the content and leave programming to programmers.
Uniform design. No more wild colors, non-readable text and confusing navigation. Simple and straightforward, the design allows to quickly reach the information you need.
Free of charge. You don’t need to pay for the service. Just register and start using it. The platform makes profit from selling advertising and optional services.
Feedback. Comments, likes, reposts, polls, private messages etc.
Single sign on. You don’t need to register on every personal page to leave a comment - your username and password need to be entered once and used everywhere. And nowadays you can even login to a third-party site with your Google/Facebook/Twitter credentials.
Find friends. Locate them by their username, real name, phone number etc.
Link friends. Tag them on photos and mention in comments.
Newsfeed. You can subscribe to your friends’ updates and see everything they publish on one page.
Notifications. Never miss a comment or a birthday.
Groups, events, tags. Everything related to a single topic in one place. Create local communities with rules and moderation. Invite your friends to a barbecue.
Security. Give view and editing rights for your posts to various groups of users. Block spam and unpleasant persons.
But everything has a price. And placing all your content (very valuable for you) on a centralized platform has many drawbacks that are inherent to centralized systems.
Censorship. Even if the platform wants to preserve the freedom of speech, it is vulnerable to pressure from governments, organized groups of users (that threaten to leave the platform), advertisers and its own employees. The platforms begins to provide rules of conduct and censorship that seems reasonable at the beginning, but quckly goes out of control. Theoretical ability to filter the content becomes responsibility and refusal is punished. The worst is that it is practically impossible to censor tens of millions of active users. It requires hiring of the large number of human censors or using the “intellectual” software with a lot of false positives. This leads to banning innocent people, fade of humour and sarcasm, manifestation of political bias and mob rule. The platform becomes boring and frustrating.
End of life. The owner may decide to close the platform at any moment, if it does not produce enough revenue. And often there are no alternatives in the market to migrate to. Even if the service is very important to you, you will not be able to prolong its life, even for payment.
Vendor lock-in. There is no easy way to migrate your data from the platform, if it does not fit your needs, even if alternatives are available.
Limited access. Your data is a profitable resource for the platform, it does not want to share it with anybody else. Display of your data in other websites and applications is explicitly prohibited by platform’s rules meaning you cannot create an alternative viewer that better suits your needs. Automated access to your data via APIs is very limited. You cannot get a link to an image from your gallery and insert it into your blog - these links are temporary. Your public content is not indexed by search engines and not viewable by anybody who isn’t logged in. If you already have a website, you cannot make your content accessible from within the platform (i.e. by implementing some API) - you need to copy all your data to the platform and synchronize all updates. You cannot merge comments at the platform with comments outside it.
Lack of features. Why big centralized platforms lack many useful features, updates are rare and mostly cosmetic? In centralized systems all innovations happen in the center. To be implemented, the feature must be scalable to millions of users, must be understood and acceptable by any audience, must have potential to increase profits. Every change in a large-scale system takes thousands of man-hours of programmers, testers and designers. A feature that is needed only by several hundreds of thousands of users has zero chance to be implemented.
Annoying ads. If the platform makes profit from advertising, you will see ads and sponsored posts everywhere. It will exploit any chance to grab your attention and will block any measures to filter ads out. Your attention is what they sell.
No control what to read. Your friends usually write more posts than you can read. So “smart friend feed” with filtering, grouping and even AI-driven feed composition is a good thing. But without possibility to tune the composition algorithm manually the user gets the feed filled with the posts from few most popular friends, children and cat photos and endless political flamewars, that always get a lot of likes and comments. More than that, the platform administrators may tweak the algorithm in the way they prefer - to show more ads, to punish posts of competitors and posts with links that bring users out of the platform, to rise attention to particular topic or political opinion. Somebody, not you decide what you should read.
No control how to read. The platform, its web UI and mobile application are coupled together. You cannot create an application with simplified or richer interface, or presenting the same data in a different way. Why you need to repost you Instagram photos to Facebook, why not just create an application that presents your Facebook albums in Instagram way? Why you cannot use the same account as Dropbox-like file storage? Why you are forced to update and use a new redesigned application, if you like the old one more?
No privacy. Social networks try to collect a maximum amount of data on you, even if you didn’t plan to share it with anyone. Your contact list, geolocation, private messages and much more are collected and stored for selling them to advertisers or to… who knows. You are forced to use your real name for the account and cannot use more than one account. You cannot be anonymous and cannot even read someone’s public posts anonymously. Your virtual life must be intertwined with your real life, even if you don’t want to. If you regret about your online behavior after a decade, you will not be able to throw everything away and to start with a clean slate.
Is it possible to create a decentralized social network that will not have the problems of centralization, but will preserve its good qualities? We will try to find a solution on the following pages. I call it Moera.