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P2P Alternatives to Social Media Apps Are Importantby@uriv
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P2P Alternatives to Social Media Apps Are Important

by Uri ValevskiJanuary 10th, 2023
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A psychologist friend had recently complained to me - I hate it that whatsapp shares my online status with my patients. To which I replied - "yeah this will only be solved when we have a p2p whatsapp". To which they replied "what is p2p?" A second event was at a twitter space where I mentioned bluesky (Jack Dorsey's company attempting to build a p2p twitter), and got asked - "how would p2p twitter be different from what we have now?" So I began to think maybe not enough people realize why open protocols and p2p replacement services to whatsapp and twitter are so important.

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A psychologist friend had recently complained to me - I hate it that whatsapp shares my online status with my patients. To which I replied - "yeah this will only be solved when we have a p2p whatsapp". To which they replied "what is p2p?"


A second event was at a twitter space where I mentioned bluesky (Jack Dorsey's company attempting to build a p2p twitter), and got asked - "how would p2p twitter be different from what we have now?"

So I began to think maybe not enough people realize why open protocols and p2p replacement services to whatsapp and twitter are so important.

Before I go on, a short explanation about p2p (courtesy of ChatGPT):


Peer-to-peer (P2P) refers to a decentralized communication model in which two or more parties can communicate and exchange data directly with each other without the need for a central server or authority. In a P2P network, each party (also known as a "peer") acts as both a client and a server, allowing them to communicate and share resources directly with each other.


What are some examples we know as consumers for applications built over p2p networks?


  1. blockchain (e.g. bitcoin)
  2. stuff like popcorn time or strem.io that use bittorrent


We don't yet have true p2p social commonly used and hopefully by the time you end this short essay you will think as I do that it's really important that we do.


So why should you care?


tdlr; human rights, no-ads and innovation. Let me expand a bit on each.


Human rights

The most discussed reason is that it's harder to track and censor users in a p2p network. This is pretty dramatic if you live under non-democratic rule, but it doesn't quite drive the point for your typical westerner. I mean I could go on and discuss that owning your own data is nice, but de-facto we begrudgingly just trust the big companies and our government to keep them in check.


Ads

My instagram feed today is almost 50% ads. This is crazy. If you had told me years ago I'd be fine with scrolling through sponsored / organic posts at this ratio I would have laughed, but it came to that and that sucks. I can't even blame them. This is what companies have to do to stay on the green side. The growth game compels it.

In p2p technologies, this problem just doesn't exist. p2p social networks don't need to generate revenue. This means no ads. The operating costs are handled in a distributed way, e.g. your pc pitches in a bit, and it's enough. You did buy that machine and you are paying your internet provider, so it's no magic.


But then you might wonder - what is the incentive for developers to improve these services, why would anyone invest their time? Well, once an infrastructure simply exists and enables monetizable services on top of it, there is enough motivation to maintain and improve it, even if the network itself doesn't directly generate revenue. Take linux for example, a completely free to use operating system that is so fundamental to tech now to the point that the question doesn't even make sense. So bottom line no one has to pay 100,000 salaries engineers to run a p2p network.

Innovation

Last but no least, p2p paves the way to innovation. Social media monopolies have no incentive to innovate. Any attempt to do so presents a risk which often isn't worth it. This is why so little changes on twitter, facebook, instagram and so slowly. But when you remove the tight coupling between the network itself and the client side application, you allow for competition and customization.


One example is feed algorithmics. Different people want different feed logic. Some may really want to focus and remove anything that is distracting (e.g. cat videos) while others are more casual users. Some may want to see tweets only from users they follow while others want suggestions. As long as twitter owns the feed algorithms it cannot cater to the needs of all users. Sometimes these needs even go against their own business model - which is to keep you spending time on the platform so you can watch ads.


The result is we get the least common denominator. We can do much better. It is also quite possible that the best minds to design the feed algorithm are just not in twitter, but in some ML oriented company, or they are digital wellbeing evangelists. Let's have them participate.


So whether you are a consumer, a developer or a human rights enthusiast, you should care about this.


Also published here.