I have worked for many years as a person who understands problems, evaluates them, and recommends solutions to address them. My domain of experience is the internet, and my customers were undertaking some type of endeavor on the web. During these years I have come to learn a simple thing about solutions: they have advantages and disadvantages for each context. A solution might be good enough for a specific problem in a certain context, and not good at all for an identical problem in a different context.
What is a decentralized service?
Many of the people I follow online are searching for solutions. They think that the web has become very centralized, and they are trying to decentralize it. In this debate, I think many people are confusing two different concepts. There are alternative solutions, and there are decentralized solutions, and it is important for everybody in this debate to understand the difference between them. A decentralized solution is something that works like an email service. You acquire access to the email service by acquiring an email account from a service provider, and you use that provider to exchange email messages with other people who use the same service from other providers. You can always choose a different service provider. In such case, you get a new email account, and you can continue using the service in the same way, you can email people and people can email you and the new service provider will relay the messages.
In the email network, there are no special email providers. Each mail server has the same rights and uses the same protocols as the other parts of the network. In addition to that, Anybody can create a new mail server and start hosting their mail on it, and possibly offering email accounts to other people. When somebody changes a service provider, other people do not need to change their service providers as well to keep communicating with each other.
Another example of a decentralized service is the web hosting service. You host your website on a server, and you can change the hosting server as you wish. Other people who use the web can reach you without changing their hosting provider or even their internet connection provider. If you get a web address from the hosting provider then you might need to change it when you move to a new provider, and people can follow you on the new address, but if you own your address and link it to the hosting service, then a change in service provider can be seamless so that other people do not feel it.
I have designed a very simple test for the decentralization of a service. To check how decentralized a certain service, I usually ask myself these questions:
Can I influence the decisions of my service provider?
Can I start a new server and keep using the same service on my server?
Will other users on the service be able to reach me on a new provider without changing their provider?
A negative answer to any question increases the probability that the service I am using is a non-decentralized service.
Let’s say you are fed up with the behavior of the service provider of a non-decentralized service, and you want to leave. Here you can opt to use a decentralized service or an alternative non-decentralized service. That is a personal decision and as I said above, each solution has advantages and disadvantages depending on the context.
Recognizing people’s freedom to choose a service does not contradict analysing the advantages and disadvantages of the services for a different context. To put it simply, let’s say that you are in 2007, and you are looking for a decentralized alternative to MySpace. What would you say if somebody you trust recommends Facebook to you?
Migrating to a non-decentralized alternative service in 2021 is the equivalent of migrating from MySpace to Facebook in 2007. I do not want to impose my opinion on anybody, and I respect people’s freedom to choose, yet I want to invite you, my audience, to conduct an objective analysis of the services you are migrating to, and learn from your own mistakes in the past when you make your new decisions.
I listened today to two tech CEOs talking about alternative social networks. Both CEOs did not claim that their services are decentralized, and I have no comment on anything they said, but I felt like listening to Facebook and Twitter CEOs in 2007.
My comment is on the invitation to switch from centralized social networks to alternative centralized social networks while ignoring existing alternative decentralized social networks. The whole program looks to me like a Problem-Reaction-Solution process. A censorship problem is created, people have some reaction and look for solutions, then ready-made solutions that enforce the existing paradigm are presented and promoted, while real revolutionary solutions are suppressed and ignored.
This series is neither about promoting a specific service, nor about criticizing a specific person or event or service. I understand that people prefer easy and ready-made solutions, and they are free to choose the solutions that suit them. However, Due to the importance of the current debate about decentralization, I think that while proposing solutions is a great contribution to the debate, critically analyzing every proposed solution is also a great contribution.
The entire decentralization debate requires a context to reach meaningful results. It depends on you and what you want to achieve in your decentralization endeavor. This is a discussion you need to have for every service you want to decentralize. When a service provider proposes a feature, let’s say ease of use for example, you need to add it to the balance of advantages vs disadvantages in your context, and that enriches your discussion and enables you to make a better-informed decision about the service provider.
Let’s be specific?
While everybody likes to talk about advantages, highlighting disadvantages is a reason for bing labeled a naysayer or a pessimist. That is fine with me. I have never considered conforming or being liked an asset. On the contrary, I am a realist and a skeptic, and as I try to identify success scenarios to follow in a certain context, I also look for failure scenarios and try to avoid them.
This is the first article in a series about decentralized web solutions. In the next articles, there will be proposed solutions for specific contexts and a balance of advantages and disadvantages. I hope those will enable you, my audience, to make a better decision about the services you use.
The Unweb Developer