Decentralized Online Communities

A rambling discussion of online communities, from Facebook and Discord to an ideal of the entire web as a community and the Fediverse as our burgeoning compromise

Companies like Facebook and Discord, who provide very centralized, siloed community-building services, might claim “decentralized community” is an oxymoron. They'd argue that centralization is necessary for a community, that the very definition of a community is a single place where people come together to share ideas and keep in touch.

Indeed, both websites have a rules page about their respective “communities”. (Facebook's here and Discord's here. Facebook proclaims on the first line: “Every day, people come to Facebook to share their stories, see the world through the eyes of others, and connect with friends and causes,” and this frames Facebook as a massive community (containing many smaller ones, also locked to the platform).

But I think it's a stretch to view such a massive platform as Facebook as a single, expansive community. Certainly it's a single place where people come to get together and communicate in separate cliques, but is the entire website a community? I tend to stay in my circle of family and friends. I know nothing about what happens in the millions of other corners of the website. I have the same question about Discord: with its many servers, which are indisputably communities, but no place to communicate that is both central to the platform and global, I'd hesitate describe the entire platform as a contiguous community. Both are centralized in terms of ownership and yet neither are centralized in terms of community (at least in the way they might suggest they are).

Still, looking at this broader sense of “community” these companies would like us to accept makes me more readily think of the entire Internet as a community. We log on the Internet to communicate, write thoughts, share with our peers, learn, and laugh.

The Internet was designed to be decentralized. When it was first conceptualized, it was as an experimental community of universities and academics. Because of this, while large parts of the Internet can go down (due to D.N.S. failures or shared hosting services), it's highly unlikely that the whole network could collapse at once.

But Facebook goes down. Facebook has some rights to everything posted. Facebook snoops on its users, taking their privacy and making them into products for advertisers.

I think we're using Facebook, a centralized, arguably evil corporation, primarily because it is already being used: our families and friends are there. My aunts and uncles don't have personal blogs or registered domain names.

Additionally, centralization (the server kind) makes communication very easy. If I only want to use Facebook to communicate, I only have one online ID. I only need to prove to Facebook's servers that I am who I say I am, and then my friends and family (and anyone else I communicate with) can at least generally trust that my account represents the same person across the website.

Facebook and other popular social media platforms have a discovery feed that allow users to not only see content from people they already follow, but content from people and companies the platform thinks users might want to see. The Internet as a whole has R.S.S. and Atom, but these aren't as universal as they should be, and there is no central discovery feed.

Lastly, I have no clue if somebody mentions my website or engages in conversation with the things I make unless they contact me directly (see pingback and Webmention). Conversation starts to feel more like screaming into the void when it relies on each party painstakingly seeking out the other's responses. Similarly, I can be certain of my response but not certain that it will be seen.

These are the primary things preventing us from using the web itself as a massive, decentralized community. Personally, I'd love to see that change.

The Fediverse starts to help us with this. Federated platforms like Mastodon, and indeed, are a step in the right direction. I don't need to personally prove my identity to every Mastodon instance I interact with. The Fediverse is gaining popularity among those of us interested in tech and democratization, so even though my aunts and uncles aren't there yet, I can count on some sort of community.

Federated content makes discovery easier; I don't always have to seek out what I want. Still, most of my discovery of people and blogs and accounts to follow happens via word-of-mouth, organically. If I publish something into the Fediverse, I have to trust that someone will see it and want to share it, because the Fediverse itself will not algorithmically promote my content. It's easier to consume content when you don't have to go looking for it. Please read this post for more on the discoverability issues in the decentralized web.

The Fediverse also takes care of mentions and follows very well with ActivityPub. I generally know when someone engages with my content, follows me, or mentions me.

While not totally decentralized (instances often have many users each), federation is a step toward a more decentralized, reliable, privacy-friendly Internet. It's unlikely that the entire Fediverse could go down, and no one instance has access to all my data.

The Fediverse is moving in the right direction. But to me, it sometimes feels like a high-level implementation of a low-level concept. What if we could just use domain names as identities, and somehow have a global way of proving our ownership of them? I just wish everyone on Facebook instead had a domain name, a blog, a mentions system, comments, R.S.S. feed readers... It's not too much to ask, is it? Imagine the decentralization.