A creature rises from the dead to challenge the virtual world
About a month ago, a Mastodon raised its woolly head in India and trumpeted its unexpected appearance with a volley of “toots”. The sudden emergence of a species thought to be extinct was aided by a Supreme Court lawyer, Sanjay Hegde. Thousands of followers of the colossus started migrating to this new challenger, heralding its arrival.
Before you scratch your own woolly head in bewilderment, let me explain: Mastodon is a new social network which looks, feels and acts like Twitter, but is not Twitter. It is a new kind of social network, one which is decentralized. Tweets are called toots here, retweets are called boosts, a “like” is a “favourite”, 280 characters give way to 500, and there’s a profusion of privacy settings.
So, what’s the big deal? Several social networks have come, raised their heads and have been clubbed down, including those from leviathans like Google and Microsoft. Some of those, TikTok being a notable example, have prospered, but these are the rare diamonds in the rough. Is this then another passing fad?
Well, Mastodon is different: it is “federated”, unlike the highly centralized and controlled Twitter or Facebook. In it, you do not log on to one monolithic, centralized service, but into a specific “instance”—so it is a network of connected nodes, and the instances are the specific nodes your account lives in. Mastodon developer Eugen Rochko explained this federated concept in a Medium post, comparing it to email and Star Trek: “… users are spread throughout different, independent communities, yet remain unified in their ability to interact with each other. You can send an Outlook email user a message from your Gmail account, even though you’re not using the same service… So, it isn’t just a website, it is a federation—think Star Trek. Thousands of independent communities running Mastodon form a coherent network…”
“Mastodon has no money, no advertisements, no venture capital—and doesn’t plan on getting any. It has no board of directors, no VP of product, no Chief Financial Officer. Peter Thiel will never partly own Mastodon,” writes Sarah Leong in Vice.
This is a big deal. Mastodon is perhaps the first popular consumer application of what is called the Decentralized Web, or DWeb, which was born in late 2018 in the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco. First the backstory: The World Wide Web was envisaged as a peer-to-peer network of computers where you connect and talk directly with friends. But soon, we started talking via the massive, centralized services provided by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. We started living in the “walled gardens” created by them, and all our data, information and services started living in their massive clouds. The DWeb is about going back to the roots of it all to decentralizing things.
But why is that necessary when these companies provide you excellent services free? Well, there is nothing free on the internet. If it is, then you are the product. Large companies sell you to advertisers in the form of sliced and diced packets of your intimate data. Also, if something is centralized, it can easily be controlled by corporations or the government—witness China, or the recent shutdown in Iran, or the blacklisting of Sanjay Hegde by Twitter. The DWeb is built differently; “Your computer not only requests services but provides them,” writes Zoe Corbyn, in The Guardian. The data is stored across millions of decentralized computers or servers, making single-point control and access impossible.
One of the core technologies behind the DWeb is blockchain. Filecoin is an excellent example of decentralized storage, where you can store others’ data in the spare capacity of your computer and earn Filecoins in exchange. Many more such Distributed Apps (DApps) will get created. The distributed web is still being built, and will have its own problems. While decentralization prevents censorship, it also prevents control by the good guys, and privacy laws would get even tougher to implement. It is harder to engineer, and the “network effects” of your being there because all your friends are will take forever to kick in, though this is inevitable. Our world is rapidly getting centralized, be it technologically, socially, economically or geographically. A backlash against this concentration of power, money and data in the hands of a few is gaining momentum. Fossil evidence indicates that mastodons disappeared about 10,000 years ago, hunted to extinction by humans, perhaps. It’s time for their return.
Jaspreet Bindra is a digital transformation and technology expert, and the author of the book ‘The Tech Whisperer’