Interviewed for Freethink

6 minute read


I was recently interviewed by Freethink about my thoughts on the “new” decentralized social media protocol called nostr.

Find the piece here.

Transcript of the original interview is as follows:

Question: Do you have any initial thoughts on Nostr and why you decided to try it out? How did you discover it?

Answer: I discovered Nostr through a Jack Dorsey tweet, and it looked new and interesting, so I decided to try it out. My first thoughts were that this would be super complicated for any layperson to even get started with. I don’t think I’ve figured it out completely either.

Question: Several of our essential internet services, such as email, are interportable, thanks to foundational standards like SMTP. Do you think it’s high time social networks could also use a similar approach (like Nostr) so that users have the option to switch platforms without the fear of losing their network and content?

Answer: In theory it would be great to have social media platforms that work like that, but I can think of two issues that such a standard might run into.

One, figuring out how to interface with multiple social media platforms, without each losing their “individuality”. For instance, say we could allow Twitter to import content from Facebook - what happens to posts that are longer than 280 characters? Truncate them? Import them as “Notes”? Then say, we sorted out these technical differences and made the various platforms interportable - what then would really distinguish a Facebook from a Twitter? It would be something like email again - where the “platform” doesn’t really matter.

Two, in the absence of any regulation, the platforms - which are (still) run by large corporations who often see each other as direct rivals would need some incentive to allow such interportability. Why would Meta want you to move your content from Facebook to Twitter at all?

So yes, while the vision of a standard protocol governing different social media platforms, allowing interportability between them sounds wonderful, there are key technical as well as business barriers down that road. Regulation would certainly go a long way - much like how porting of cellular numbers between carriers is required by law, even though it wasn’t in the early days of cell phones.

Question: Many volunteer-run web3 projects often don’t take off due to the lack of incentives. What would be an effective way to overcome this? Let a centralized company run it, which might beat the point, or establish open foundations that oversee operations like moderation?

Answer: Since the term web3 continues to be nebulous even today, let me first define the scope of what I mean by web3. By web3, I refer to a platform that is undergirded by a blockchain allowing users to trade and hoard tokens and make decisions about its governance. Allowing a centralized company to run a web3 project may work but only superficially. For example, would such ownership be codified, allowing a smart contract to “force” the company to instantly sell the project if the project users democratically voted to? Unlikely.

I think a key problem with incentives is that most users of most online platforms are happy being passive consumers or lurkers. This makes it easy for a handful of motivated folks to take over. Incentivizing participation on a platform, so that more people proactively keep up with the goings-on of the platform, stay well informed, engage in voting etc, is a problem we have seen elsewhere too (democracy, anyone?).

An associated problem of course, is that many feel that web3 isn’t quite ready to scale as yet. Traditional blockchains use a system of decentralized consensus called proof-of-work which is extremely slow, and while we are seeing more efficient alternatives such as proof-of-stake becoming more and more common, it is yet to be seen if such systems can truly scale while remaining true to their decentralized ideals.

Question: The internet is and was always supposed to be decentralized. It’s only after tech companies took over, many of the common services were centralized. Do you think web3 has the potential to restore decentralization and offer a competitive alternative? What would it take for web3 social media like Nostr to succeed?

Answer: I’m glad you asked this question, but I am not so certain about web3 achieving decentralization any more than previous attempts have. Many things were supposed to be decentralized, but decentralization invariably ends up creating and recreating hierarchies that replicate existing power structures in the real world. I don’t foresee web3 being any different. Research has shown how an ostensibly “decentralized” platform like Wikipedia that literally anyone can edit is essentially an oligopoly of a handful of power editors. Even blockchains - the poster boy of “decentralization” movements before web3 came along, devolve into systems where a few token holders pretty much control the fate of the blockchain. Web3 might challenge the power of existing elites, but it will mostly be because it will create new elites, not because it will fundamentally “decentralize” anything.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that I’m not fascinated by web3. It is by all accounts an exciting development that I am very curious to see evolve. But true decentralization? Not so sure about that.

Question: Content moderation is an even more complex problem to solve in web3. Do you think web3 makers can leave it up to officials to decide what stays and what doesn’t - similar to how problematic content on the internet, such as child pornography, is handled by governments?

Answer: To be honest, I don’t see the problem of content moderation being significantly better or worse on web3. I think there would need to be some government intervention. Otherwise, to go with your example, we could theoretically have self-governing child pornography web3 platforms where all users would want to keep such content. You would need legislation to keep these platforms from devolving into majoritarian cesspools of harmful content.