I've had an interest in distributed computing for a while now, but the user experience is always less streamlined than centralized services. I've never been able to sell peers on the "freedom" aspect or the "no central control" aspect. Because of this, more and more of our everyday lives are taking place over networks that are owned by advertising companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter) whose only real advantage is convenience.

This came to a head this month as the advertising companies decided they didn't want to be a conduit for certain kinds of discussion. This is a completely obvious outcome, and could have been anticipated years ago by anyone with a passing knowledge of software and the business models of these companies. The fact that the U.S. government relies on these companies to communicate with citizens is just wild.

Moderation is a very tough problem for any centralized platform because it's hard to moderate well at scale because moderation isn't a one-size-fits-all problem. Some kinds of speech is fine in certain contexts, but totally inappropriate in others. Centralized moderation is bad at accounting for this, and tends to create moderation policies that lack nuance.

Planetary is a piece of software I've never used! But I am on Secure Scuttlebutt (ID @iOOGrbvjXS1YAQWkL/eBy2UOAzUhQGRRG3p5IBFcnLQ=.ed25519) and I love Planetary's mission: make Scuttlebutt more usable for non-technical users. I use a client called Patchwork and uses a Go version of Scuttlebutt called Go-SSB what client you use, you can interact with the network in very similar ways.

So what makes Secure Scuttlebutt different from pretty much everything else?

  • All your data (and data for people you follow) is collected on your device. This is essentially taking all the computation that would normally happen on servers in a data center at Twitter, Google or Facebook and puts it on your phone or laptop.
  • The side-effect of this is that you can read and post when your device is offline, and when it comes back online, it will sync with the rest of the network, sending posts that you wrote offline, and downloading posts others published during that time.
  • You are in charge of deciding who you follow and who you block. There's a lot of discussion on SSB right now about one user being able to inherit the list of blocks from other users if they want. This creates "trust networks" to make moderation more scalable.
  • It's all open source, so the community can drive development and create new features (e.g. playing Chess over SSB)
  • It's a great example of "protocol not product" meaning many products could be created from the protocol. The closest example of this that folks are familiar with is the web: some websites you visit might be applications, others are newspapers, and others are games, but they all use the same set of protocols (mostly HTTPS).
  • Because there is no company with growth metrics and engagement metrics, posts are sorted chronologically and there are no ads or "recommended" posts.
  • SSB is based on PKI (public key infrastructure), so private messages between users on SSB really are private: they are encrypted using elliptic-curve crypto using libsodium

If this sort of thing is interesting to you, give it a look!