Decentralisation, Our Past and Our Future

A look at the history of the internet and how decentralisation is more important than ever.

Decentralisation, Our Past and Our Future
This image is giving me Stranger Things vibes!

Hey Friends πŸ‘‹,

It is easy to forget that the internet is nothing more than an interconnected web of computers.

Many people think of "the cloud" as some sort of space age tech that they could never comprehend. In reality, it is just computers connected together with some massive hard drives.

The Original Decentralised Web

The first website I ever built was done using Microsoft Word.

There was an option to create a web page, which was essentially just a page without borders. Once you were done adding text and images you could publish it to HTML, and it would create your webpage and images in a separate folder.

Then it was just a case of getting an FTP client and uploading your files to the server. Most ISPs at the time gave you a small amount of webspace to host your own website. It was just part of the standard package along with email.

It is a shame that ISPs don't offer webspace any more. How different would the internet be today if everyone had their own space instead of contributing to social media channels that they don't really control?

The internet is built on protocols like HTTP and Email. Everyone can have their own email address hosted with any email provider they want. As with websites they can even host their own.

Protocols made the internet great, and it wasn't just limited to email and websites. We had IRC for chat and Usenet for discussions.

Anyone could host their own IRC server and join other servers anonymously.

You could pick your own client to use and pick which software to run on your server. As long as the software obeyed the rules of the protocol, everyone could interact.

Back then, the internet was truly decentralised, there wasn't a single company or server that everyone had to interact with.

The great thing about protocols and decentralisation is that they tend to stand the test of time.

This is why email is still going strong 40 years on from its inception.

In fact, you can still use IRC and Usenet as well today. Although admittedly, Usenet is mostly used for sharing pirated content and the lack of history in IRC channels make them less useful than alternatives.

Introducing Centralisation

Of course this all changed in the early 2000s, with social networks such as MySpace and later Facebook.

The internet was no longer about communities getting together to talk about like-minded topics.

Instead, it became a popularity contest.

Everyone flocked to which ever platform had the most users, so they could promote themselves in an effort to get the most likes and shares.

The one thing that these platforms had going for them was the ability to share content without needing to be computer-literate. If you wanted to share your own thoughts and photos you didn't need to build a website and work out how to host it. You just needed to type and click send.

These platforms have let millions of people share content but only within the confines of their own platform.

There are no common protocols that let Facebook users interact with Twitter users or Twitter users like Instagram posts. If you want people on other platforms to see your content then you have to post there as well.

These are centralised platforms that not only control how your content is used but also what content you see.

If you have scrolled through your Instagram feed recently you may have noticed that at least half the posts that you see are not from people you follow. Instead, the algorithm decides for you, based on your viewing habits, what content you see.

Decentralisation comeback

Luckily, thanks to Elon Musk making a mess of the Twitter takeover, people are looking for alternatives.

The best alternative to Twitter at the moment is Mastodon.

If you're wondering what sets Mastodon apart from Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media platforms, the answer is protocols.

Mastodon is based on the ActivityPub protocol. This is what Wikipedia says:

ActivityPub is an open, decentralized social networking protocol based on Pump.io's ActivityPump protocol. It provides a client/server API for creating, updating, and deleting content, as well as a federated server-to-server API for delivering notifications and content.

Mastodon is the software that is implementing the ActivityPub protocol.

ActivityPub has been around since 2018, but it is only in the last year that things have really started to take off.

As with email you are completely free to pick your own client and server or even host your own. You don't even have to use Mastodon as it works with all other platforms that use ActivityPub.

Whether you mostly write or share photos and videos there are options available. As they all use the ActivityPub protocol it doesn't matter which one you pick as everyone can see, like and follow people on other servers.

Some options however are more geared to certain types of content, in which case you may want to have separate accounts for each media type. There is nothing stopping you though from sharing your content on the other platforms.

These are the main options at the moment:

Twitter/ Facebook Alternatives

  • Mastodon - if you are looking for something that is just like Twitter then this is it. Just like Twitter you can also share photos and videos.
  • Plemora - This is more of a lightweight version of Mastodon with much of the same features.

Also, worth checking out Diaspora, Akkoma and Hometown.

YouTube Alternative

  • PeerTube - it is possible to share video on the platforms above but PeerTube is designed to be a decentralised clone of YouTube.

Instagram Alternative

  • PixelFed - If you are only interested in sharing photos then you might be interested in PixelFed. As PixelFed also uses ActivityPub you can also follow people on Mastodon and see their photos like you would on Instagram.

Reddit Alternatives

  • Lemmy - If you are looking for an alternative to Reddit then Lemmy is the main one. A lot of the communities on Reddit moved to Lemmy after Reddit introduced extortionate API pricing.
  • Kbin - Kbin is another alternative, and you will find a few communities using Kbin instead.
  • Prismo - Not as popular as Lemmy or Kbin but is an option.

WhatsApp / Discord / Messenger Alternative

  • Matrix - if you want private encrypted messaging as well as an alternative to Discord or Slack then Matrix is the main one.

Medium Alternative

  • WriteFreely - if you want a simple blogging platform with a clean design like Medium then check this out.

As all of these platforms are using ActivityPub they all work together. You can sign up for a Mastodon account and then follow someone on PeerTube or PixelFed and even like and comment. You can even follow your favourite Lemmy communities from Mastodon.

It doesn't matter what server they are on or what software they are using, everyone can communicate as one big worldwide community.

If you are building software that is going to be used by the public then it is worth thinking about how you can make it more decentralised or at least accessible using standard protocols.

My main account is on my self-hosted Mastodon server. The easiest way to follow me is to log in on which ever instance you are using and search for @alex@alexhyett.com.

I also recently joined PixelFed, so I can share my photos. At the moment I am on PixelFed.Social I will likely move to a self-hosted instance in the near future.

My plan is to have all of my social channels on self-hosted instances. That way everyone can tell it is me as they will all be hosted on alexhyett.com and there is no risk of them disappearing in the future.


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❀️ Picks of the Week

πŸ“ Article - Spacedrive is an open source cross-platform file explorer, powered by a virtual distributed filesystem written in Rust. Most of us have our data spread out across devices. Wouldn't it be useful to just have everything available everywhere. This is what Spacedrive tries to solve.

πŸ“ Article - Building a 42-inch E Ink Art Frame. Digital photo frames were all the rage a few years back, but I don't know about you, I don't like the idea of having a photo frame plugged in all the time. This looks really cool even it can't show colour.

πŸ“ Article - Announcing Cloud Spanner price-performance updates. I have not used Google Cloud spanner before, but I know from experience how expensive AWS DynamoDB can get. Apparently Cloud Spanner is now half the cost of DynamoDB!

πŸ“ Article - Roll Your Own All-Sky, Raspberry Pi Camera. I have always loved space, which is one of the reasons I took Physics at University. At the moment I live in an area with too much light pollution. If that changes I can see myself building something like this.... and getting a telescope!

πŸ“ Article - Can't Be F*cked: Underrated Cause of Tech Debt. I think we can all relate to this from time to time. Sometimes the effort of doing it the right way is just too much that day.

πŸ“š Book - Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (affiliate link) by Gabrielle Zevin - I started reading this book this week. In short, it is a love story about two friends who decided to build a game together. I am enjoying it so far.


πŸ’¬ Quote of the Week

We have an inherent drive towards safety in the sense of not being harmed. But when we default to a comfort zone, we may feel unsafe any time we step outside of it, when really we’re safe, just uncomfortable.

From Why Organizations Fail To Unleash Human Potential by Paul Millerd.