Towards a world without Facebook


Dear block chain people: this is your hour. Abandon your transparently greedy get-rich-quick schemes, turn away from your casinos of de-facto modern-day penny stocks, and focus your decentralized attention on what the world needs. Save us, O blockchainers, from the scourge that is Facebook! Decentralize all the things!

Every year, it seems, a new “new Facebook” arises, swells, deflates, and vanishes, generally in a matter of weeks. Remember Diaspora? Ello? Mastodon? Vero? I imagine them as gangs of bandits charging The Wall in Game of Thrones, prompting the Night’s Watch of Menlo Park to … ignore them completely until they go away. The critical mass of everyone you know, plus the cost and complexity of an infrastructure that provides a broad panoply of valuable features to two billion people — those are Facebook’s 700-foot-high barrier of enchanted ice.

And yet. It is whispered in dark corners, at conventions with names like Consensus and TokenFest, that there is a secret tunnel in that wall, a fundamental flaw. That Facebook’s advantage of massive scale could melt away if faced by the dark magic of decentralization, wherein users own their own data, encrypted by them, stored in the location of their choice, shared only as and when they explicitly approve, while they connect peer-to-peer with interactions mediated and paid for via a tokenized protocol, across an armada of nodes running — yep, you guessed it — some sort of blockchain.

This is essentially nonsense. For now. Its fundamental flaw is the fundamental flaw of most grandiose decentralized blockchain notions; they are too much, too large, too megalomaniacal, too soon. They want to supplant the entire existing order, whether it be money, the entire financial sector, democratic governance, social media … or, really, pick a field of human endeavour, there’s probably some white paper outlining a token-based decentralized wholesale replacement for the way things are done now.

Dear blockchain people: stop it. I like big thinking as much as anyone, but in practice you don’t change things by overthrowing them. You won’t blow out a torch that’s been burning for many years with your new Big Bang. Instead, in practice, you start small, with a tiny cohort of enthusiasts, and you iterate — sometimes for a very long time — before you get any traction that the wider world notices at all. You do not, repeat not, gather a band of adventurers together in an inn to immediately form up and charge The Wall.

Especially stop it with consumer applications. I stand by my statement that “blockchains are the new Linux, not the new Internet” more strongly with each passing month. Blockchain enthusiasts may enjoy perusing their wallets and counting how many different kinds of ERC20 tokens which generally still have no actual utility, beyond that of a penny stock are contained within. Ordinary users, however, do not.

Better token UX won’t fix their fundamental problem. Online micro payments didn’t fail again and again because decentralized tokens weren’t a thing yet; they failed because their cognitive load was far too great to sustain their use. Tokens don’t change that one iota. If your consumer decentralized app involves ordinary users knowingly accumulating, spending, or transferring custom tokens, your consumer decentralized app will fail.

[Read More]