If Social Media Follows the File-Sharing Development Blueprint, Where Could it Head Next?

With Mastodon’s rise along with decentralized social media, where could things go to from here if it continues to follow file-sharing’s footsteps?

Earlier this week, we talked about the benefits of a decentralized social media network. Specifically, as governments like Canada push through laws trying to control everything you see, who becomes successful and who fails, and more, how decentralization of the network can restore potential disruptions instituted by government.

Indeed, as Bill C-11 seems to teeter on becoming law with the explicit intent on regulating user generated content and Bill C-18 poised to basically destroy Canadian news outlets ability to promote their news online while effectively ending freedom of the press in this country, it’s nice to know that there is not only a legal challenge to these affronts to democracy, but also a technological challenge as well.

Mastodon, which is part of ActivityPub, reached 10 million users earlier this month. As that happened, more companies started shifting their business focus to that platform. Whether or not you believe the number of accounts are real, it is all but impossible to say that Mastodon, or decentralized platforms in general, are not here to stay. The popularity of Mastodon certainly proves that decentralized platforms are, indeed, viable and that users will be able to use such platforms after all – contrary to what critics had insisted.

Along the way, there are other efforts to actually compete with ActivityPub in creating a protocol to build social media off of. One such example is Jack Doresy’s own decentralized version of social media, BlueSky. There are, indeed, others out there and, without a doubt, there will be more efforts to come. Some out there might be surprised to learn that, as a user of Mastodon ourselves, we view this as a good thing.

The reason why having competitors to creating a decentralized social media platform and/or protocol is the fact that all the eggs will no longer be in one decentralized basket. If something were to catastrophically happen to ActivityPub, for instance, you don’t want the sole alternatives be centralized platforms. If we are to move forward and build a better social media experience, there has to be a healthy ecosystem of decentralized platforms creating features that make the experience better. Plus, multiple competitors in this space will only further solidify the viability of the concept of a decentralized social media platform.

The question is, how do I know all of this? Is it just some fanciful thinking on my part? Well, if you read my previous piece on the subject, the answer is “no”. In fact, I was comparing the technological advancements to file-sharing back in the early to mid-2000’s – specifically the advancement from centralized networks to decentralized networks. The eDonkey2000 network, to my knowledge, would be the best comparison to Mastodon as both specifically use a network of servers to hold the whole network together. In both instances (no pun intended), users on one server can communicate with another.

Likewise, I also happen to know that, at around that time, there were other decentralized file-sharing networks that popped up in that time as well. Examples include Gnutella (Limewire was a client to that) and Gnutella2 (Shareaza is a client to that). The fact that there were multiple networks with multiple clients worked well to bolster the strength of the concept of a decentralized file-sharing network. In fact, the concept of decentralization became the standard thanks in large part to multiple viable networks that existed at the time. The same will very likely be true as more decentralized social media networks come online and become more readily available and even more widely used by users. To put it simply, the idea of greater competition in this area is going to be healthy over the long haul.

Of course, as those who are familiar with file-sharing will note, you have a lot of file-sharing history left to go to work with, so if social media continues to follow the blueprint of file-sharing applications of old, where could things head? It’s worth pointing out that this is all very theoretical and there is a very real chance that social media development can very easily take a very different direction. However, should it follow the file-sharing path, we can take a few educated guesses at this.

Further Potential Decentralization

From a technological sense, we know what happened following the proliferation of file-sharing networks like eDonkey2000, Gnutella, and Gnutella2. That was the development of BitTorrent. BitTorrent changed things again by turning every individual file into its own miniature network (AKA a “swarm”). You have seeders with the whole file and leechers who are still downloading the file. All of this was governed by trackers sitting on servers, but the content was stored by individual users. Trackers were initially public including The Pirate Bay, SuprNova, MiniNova, and several other trackers that existed in the earlier BitTorrent days.

With that, it’s possible to see that a social media platform could more or less follow this concept. You would have users download messages from each other to form the complete picture of various conversations. This could all be governed by a central authority that can authenticate and even ban users, thus permitting the concept of moderation even though the contents of users messages are not stored on a specific server.

At this point, unless there is some grand re-imagining about how computers communicate with each other, it’s unlikely that this trend would ever continue because BitTorrent also had serverless file-sharing. You need that governance for communication because you need to keep networks secure from malicious actors. So, the idea that social media would eventually become a fully serverless ecosystem seems to be quite the stretch. Sure, you can have private servers such as Discord because that still has a level of governance, but a completely serverless system without any kind of moderation authority seems to be a stretch for the time being.

Government Action Will Inspire Innovations

With governments getting a taste of attempting to control social media, it is unlikely that they will simply settle with old centralized platforms as new platforms continue to rise. They will want to control those platforms as well. These efforts might include the blocking of web portals used to create accounts, ISP level blocking should they go that rout, scaremongering campaigns trying to play up threats of using such networks, and more.

History also has examples of how social media could theoretically respond to these threats. One example is a The Pirate Bay project known as The Hydra Bay. Governments attempted to block access to the website, so, in response, the website simply took out a whole pile of domains in an effort to mirror the website and make it impossible to block everything. As one set of domains got blocked, other domains simply sprung up and took its place. This made it all but impossible for governments to keep the website offline. A simile maze of domain mirrors could be employed by social media platforms to keep the registration portals open.

Another example of innovation is protocol obfuscation. ISPs have attempted to throttle or outright block data packets flowing through their networks that belonged to BitTorrent. One way is through analyzing headers and blocking anything that matched BitTorrent. So, in response, filesharing apps like eMule and various BitTorrent clients implemented features known as protocol obfuscation. Essentially, this hides the nature of those packets being sent from one user to another. One packet could suggest the usage of a video game. Another packet could suggest the usage of a web browser. It all ends up being a massive scramble. All ISPs can determine in that situation is that something is going on, but they won’t be able to figure out what that activity is specifically outside of, at most, educated guesses. Either way, they aren’t going to be automatically blocking something like that.

Finally, government messaging attempts will be made to scare people out of using such applications. While millions could be spent poured into saying things like decentralized social media will do anything from destroy your self esteem to stealing your credit card or whatever else the government can dream up, the efforts will likely fall flat. After all, years of messaging from organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America and governments didn’t deter an entire generation from using file-sharing apps in the past. If organizations and governments felt behind the ball on file-sharing, that will be nothing compared to the use of social media which has been normalized for much longer than file-sharing back in the day.

Users Will Be in the Driver Seat of Change

At the end of the day, users will be in the drivers seat in all of this. There have been plenty of instances where people create what they believe is the next big innovation in file-sharing. Two examples are EXeem and AntsP2P. EXeem envisioned trackerless BitTorrent file-sharing which became normalized through the regular BitTorrent clients. As a result, EXeem would eventually become defunct. AntsP2P was the concept of completely anonymous file-sharing where users would not know what kind of content they were sharing, but they would know what they were downloading. The problem was with not knowing what was being shared and the idea that a user could unknowingly share something that was obviously illegal. As a result of that and other reasons, it never really took off.

Similarly, users will be in the drivers seat of which platforms succeed and fail. A platform could emerge that is technologically superior to everything else, but without support from the users, it will likely die off eventually. Such a thing wouldn’t be unprecedented in the world of internet and technology (BetaMax being a great example of this). A part of this will be what the needs of the users will be and whether a network will satisfy those needs or not. Users do not like being moved to something completely new, so for those hoping to create the next best thing, overcoming the hurdle of compelling large moves of users will be a huge one to overcome.

Final Thoughts

Of course, this is all presuming that social media will continue following the blueprint of the developments of file-sharing of back in the day. You have evidence so far that social media is following the file-sharing path pretty closely so far, so it isn’t impossible that a similar story could happen with social media. At the same time, this is simply one possibility the future social media could take. The above scenario would probably take years to materialize, let alone play out. No one really knows for sure how it will play out in the end. What we can say is that if history repeats itself, here is one possible chain of events that could unfold.

At this point in time, though, we are just seeing the emergence of a popular decentralized social media experience. These are extremely early days on that front as the popularity of only one network has been particularly noteworthy over the course of months, not years.

For me, the hope is that social media will become more resilient in light of pressure from the government. With government trying harder and harder to control what we see and who gets to hear what we say, there needs to be a response to this somewhere along the line. A technological response would be a terrific pushback to government intervention.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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