The problem with decentralized social networks

Most distributed social networks ultimately fail (in the sense of mainstream popularity and adoption, which is how success is measured for social networks) because the majority of people don’t want a decentralized, self-hosted network.

The entire internet is a decentralized network. We’ve had personal “profiles” in the form of personal websites, where the “user” has complete control, since the beginning. Anyone can set up their own site, entirely under their control (and many people have), with connections made through links. Streams are provided by RSS, with different extensions for different types of information — Flickr or a similar site for photos, YouTube or Vimeo for videos, Twitter for short updates, etc.

Facebook’s appeal is that it’s a single, unified platform for everything. Having a personal site and an RSS reader doesn’t make Facebook useless, even if there’s nothing that can’t be shared from a self-hosted site. Recreating Facebook without the centralization (and related simplicity) is removing the very aspect that makes it so popular.

The decentralized network already exists, and yet the centralized, tightly controlled network is the most popular destination. Decentralization, control and independence aren’t the most important factors for most people, only for us open source technology geeks.

As Mandy Brown says, “If iTunes has taught us anything, it’s that easy beats free.”1 Ease of use, simplicity, good design and the quality of the userbase2 are far more important for widespread adoption than user control, privacy and philosophy.

For any distributed social network to succeed, the centrally hosted server is as important, maybe more so, than the distributed aspect. Because for most people, the ability to host a server is just another feature they won’t use.

  1. Fortunately, Diaspora seems to have the right approach. Besides integrating with networks like Facebook and Twitter, their development mantra is this: “When building a new feature, first create the simplest thing that works.” Simplicity is key to attracting users. 

  2. In a related post, I lay out how a distributed network can replace current leaders: by being compatible with the networks it aims to replace, allowing a gradual and seamless transition to occur

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