In 2018, for the arguably first time in history, decentralized social networks gained a noticeable momentum. While Mastodon has gained by far the most of it (with over half a million users active in the past month), other networks were slowly being written line by line and are ready to take the spotlight in 2019.
By the end of the year, Pleroma, PixelFed, PeerTube and Misskey have all received significant improvements. In the next year or two, I expect federated blogs and link aggregators to take the spotlight. There are multiple promising candidates in both categories, but no product yet has asserted its dominance. WordPress has two plugins that fill in the gaps (Pterotype for PHP v7.2.X and ActivityPub for PHP 5.6) and Ghost is toying around with the idea.
We can't overlook the financial side of things either. With the author of Mastodon now receiving a decent wage for his work, Micro.blog and Write.as becoming small indie businesses, and some neighborhood administators getting their costs reimbursed (Fosstodon donates the rest of the money to other open source projects), it is clear that in a recent few years a new market emerged: a market of people willing not only to use federated social networks, but to spend some money on the idea. It is a small market of course, but it never existed before.
Let's imagine taking all of this up a notch. Let's imagine a new shiny product that could rely on the fediverse and gain a significant amount of traction, the amount that would make Average Joe know what the fediverse is. Let's imagine a social network of the future.
The social network of the future
The product that could take over the social media landscape of the future could look like this:
I know it sounds like a silly statement to make, but hear me out.
A simple Raspberry Pi is capable of running some software that communicates with the fediverse, most notable of which is Pleroma (it even boasts about its compatiblity with Raspberry Pi on its homepage). Right now you can purchase some mini-computers already preconfigured to run Nextcloud, and Nextcloud has recently released Nextcloud Social. Just think about it! You can run your own social network right now on a small device hidden behind your TV and communicate with a network of half a million users active in the last month.
For a one-time fee of a hundred bucks max, you get no ads, permanent chronological timelines, and you don't even have to bother to know what social network the person you're communicating with is using.
For us enthusiasts, running Pleroma, Pi-Hole, and a VPN on a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ can give us a glimpse at a bridght future. A bit more powerful hardware can give us a personal cloud on top of all of that. There are free solutions like DuckDNS enabling us to use a domain regardless of our dynamic IP address at home.
Of course, if you decide to pack all of this into a single product with a few bells and whistles, it would still be far, far away from ready for the mainstream adoption. A few years down the line, /r/unixporn might become a lot more interesting, with people modifying their "social media hubs" (let's call them hubs for convenience) instead of desktops. Instead of modifying desktop interfaces, we could turn to modifying web apps that act as our gateway to the world of information. While HTML and its associated technologies certainly aren't perfect, they're more-or-less universal. Unless you aim for some cutting-edge APIs, your website will work more-or-less the same regardless of your client OS and browser.
But the limit will still be its functionality. Microblogging is on its own a really useful source of digestable information, but it can't replace all social networks. Sometimes you want to see an Instagram-like feed of photos, sometimes you're after news, sometimes you want to see videos on a certain topic, chat with someone, transfer some money to a friend, organize an event, and so on.
These are all the things that the hub of the future could do. I don't think it's a stretch to say that there could emerge a small enthusiastic team that could offer all of those within a single device. With a hardware purchase, you could also optionally get a domain for a year included. Once the device is delivered, you:
- open it up,
- hook it up with your TV,
- pair it up with your smartphone,
- select the features you want to use,
- tinker around with your router a bit (to allow incoming connections).
Voila! The device creates necessary subdomains, runs a few Docker containers, issues certificates using Let's Encrypt, and provides you with a web app. You get something like this as a product:
- Want to see just photos from your friends? There's a tab for that!
- Post to your blog? There's a tab for that!
- Consume news tagged with #poland? There's a tab for that!
- Message a friend? There's a tab for that!
- Reach your files? There's a tab for that!
- See the URLs you've bookmarked for later consumption? There's a tab for that!
- Email client? There's a tab for that!
- ...you get the idea.
If we take it up a notch over a few itterations, you could send a payment to a friend (cryptocurrencies might get their first actual use case and draw in a fair amount of audience), organize an event, tunnel through your home connection and block all the ads regardless of where you're located (with something like Pi-hole), control your smart home devices (with something like Home Assistant) directly from a hub on your home... The possibilities could truly be endless.
You can do most of the above mentioned things today, but a Raspberry Pi will hit its limit doing two or maybe three of above-mentioned features. There's yet no attempt at uniting them all into one truly useful tool. Our trust in social media is diminishing. In a survey with 400 participants, Facebook was the least-trusted brand. In a decade from now, I could imagine a positive scenario in which social media would be just another gadget that you buy in a tech store.
On the opposite side of WeChat, the world could have a gadget that's our own personal link to the web. We could customize it how we want it, add features to it, write apps for it, DDoS it, and so much more. While it is certainly possible that some bigger tech company might enthusiastically embark on a journey of creating such device (a Mac mini would be much more useful with the right software, Xiaomi could knock down the hardware price with some ads, Google and Amazon could both develop hardware and sell backup storage), I believe that a passionate indie team could create such a future. Alongside the web, we could have the fediverse.
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