This article uses a common format in Forbes where we follow an individual who just happens to have a product to sell. The story is lightly researched, and told in a way that seems to suggest that innovation comes from white guys.
Still, I’m sharing it because it’s a mainstream discussion of ActivityPub and Scuttlebutt, protocols that underpin federated social networks. Linking to places like planetary.social also normalises the true meaning of ‘community’ as an active verb rather than a passive noun, as well as the notion of co-operatives.
While the original, aborted version of a decentralized Twitter was built using the same messaging standard as Google Cloud Messaging and Facebook Chat, a number of technical innovations have recently surfaced, enabling an even more open and decentralized architecture. In January 2018, early blockchain-based social network Steemit exploded to its peak of about a $2 billion market value and Henshaw-Plath took his first job at a blockchain startup, seeking to learn from the inside about the technology that connects people without middlemen.
Though blockchains’ decentralized infrastructures might seem perfect for connecting friends on a social network, Henshaw-Plath was eventually turned off by their reliance on cryptocurrency. “Our feeling was that the primary social interaction should be based on intrinsic motivation,” says Henshaw-Plath. “If you integrate financial incentives into everything, then it can make it into a financial game. And then all of a sudden, people aren’t there because of their human connection and collaboration.” Users, it would seem, agree. Steemit fell 94% from its all-time high to about $107 million today.
Henshaw-Plath started looking for alternatives. “Eventually,” he says, “I discovered a protocol created by this guy who lives on a sailboat in New Zealand.”
That is Dominic Tarr, an eccentric, open-source developer who lives just off the coast of Auckland on a Wharram catamaran named Yes Let’s he found on the side of a road. Tired of being unable to send emails to his friends from his Pacific Ocean location, Tarr wrote software that uses technology similar to Apple’s Airdrop to create a protocol that lets anyone build social networks where information moves like gossip, directly from phone to phone—no internet service provider required.
Entrepreneurs using the protocol get to choose their own business models, their own designs and how their systems function. Users, meanwhile, can move freely from network to network. Tarr called the software Secure Scuttlebutt after the cask that stored water on old sailboats, which is also maritime slang for “gossip,” as in conversations held around a water cooler. “Modern capitalism believes that what people want is convenience,” says Tarr. “But I think what people actually want is a sense of control.”
Scuttlebutt itself isn’t supported by venture capital. Instead, taking a page from the way Tim Berners-Lee funded the creation of the World Wide Web, Scuttlebutt is backed by grants that helped jump-start the process. Similar to a distributed autonomous organization (DAO) that connects groups on a blockchain, there are now hundreds of users who personally donate to the cause and an estimated 30,000 people using one of at least six social networks on the protocol. An estimated 4 million more use the largest social protocol, Mastodon, which supports 60 niche social networks, with a rapidly growing pool of blockchain competitors in the works.