Interest in open-source software and decentralization has been on the rise over the past decade with new innovations such as Bitcoin. Through the rise in popularity of Bitcoin came the idea that this blockchain technology could be generalized to create a variety of new, decentralized applications (DApps) that would give internet users alternatives to the centralized, corporate tech giants who run basically everything today. While there has been some increased interest in the use of dapps more recently, many of the most popular options are not directly based on blockchain technology.
Mastodon is mostly an open-source, federated Twitter clone that was released only two years ago; however, the social media platform has already garnered over a million users and plenty of attention in the media.
The way the system works is through a series of federated servers that all have their own moderation policies. Users are then able to join the Mastodon server that has the moderation policies that best fit their own views. The ability to communicate between different Mastodon servers, called “instances,” is also available.
One of the key selling points of Mastodon is this contrast with Twitter in terms of moderation. In the view of Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko, smaller, close-knit communities will be able to moderate themselves much better than Twitter can moderate the entire world.
Prominent members of a variety of niche online communities, such as the Bitcoin community, have joined Mastodon over the past year or two, but many of those who create accounts tend to not stick around for too long (or at least that’s been my experience on the platform). For now, it appears Mastodon is mostly useful as a backup option in case Twitter becomes much worse in the near future.
In terms of blockchain-based options, Memo and Peepeth are two of the most popular Twitter clones. Both platforms automatically store posts and other user activities on a blockchain – Memo uses BCH and Peepeth uses Ethereum in combination with IPFS.
The idea is the data is open and accessible for anyone to see on these public blockchains and is unable to be taken away from the user or deleted. Notably, this functionality is also available in a less user-friendly manner on Twitter through OTSProofBot.
One common criticism of this approach is that storing data in a decentralized blockchain is rather costly, and it’s unclear if people will be willing to pay to make social media posts. Peepeth has already started paying for their own users’ posts in an effort to combat this issue.
At the time of this writing, Memo has 4,189 registered users and Peepeth had an estimated 4 users in the past 24 hours.
Like Mastodon, PeerTube runs on a federated model; however, this platform is focused on video rather than simple text posts. It can be thought of as an open alternative to YouTube. Anyone can create their own PeerTube server with its own policies, and there is functionality for sharing videos between different servers.
Unlike Mastodon, users who are viewing videos on a server also host the videos in a P2P fashion using WebTorrent technology. There is also compatibility with Mastodon and other decentralized services. For example, Mastodon users are able to comment on PeerTube videos, and PeerTube videos can be embedded into posts on Mastodon.
While the PeerTube userbase is still rather limited (a beta release was only made available in March of this year), the platform gained some notoriety after the Blender Foundation set up their own instance in response to changes that were made regarding the monetization of YouTube videos.
When Can a Blockchain Be Useful?
There are other examples of decentralized or federated applications that don’t use a blockchain, but the key takeaway here is mostly that a high level of decentralization (like what’s found with a blockchain) is not necessary to create a useful alternative to the kind of web platforms created by Google, Facebook, and other large giant companies.
For example, ProtonMail has created an end-to-end encrypted alternative to Gmail through the use of centralized servers. The problems associated with Gmail (mainly that Google has the ability to read everyone’s messages) are removed through the use of a user-friendly PGP interface rather than decentralization. On the other hand, not many people are using the blockchain-based Bitmessage.
So where can a blockchain be useful? Obviously, bitcoin has proven that permissionless digital money is one area where a blockchain has value. Whenever a dapp has a need for value transfer, a permissionless protocol for money is a necessity; otherwise, censorship of payments would be possible. For example, it may one day be possible to pay PeerTube users for seeding content for a particular instance.
Identity is another area where the usefulness of blockchain has received a lot of hype, but the jury is still out as to whether users will adopt a decentralized, blockchain-based identity system. An example of this sort of functionality is Blockstack’s use of a digital identity system as the basis for their dapp ecosystem. Perhaps one day Mastodon users will be able to tie their accounts to some sort of greater blockchain-based identity.
In the end, a federated or even centralized approach may be decent enough to offer a viable alternative to free software advocates who simply don’t want to be tracked and want to have control over their own data. Making heavy use of a blockchain — especially when considering the costs — is unlikely to be the proper solution in creating usable alternatives to the Googles and Facebooks of today. Rather than being the basis for dapps, blockchains may simply offer additional features such as payments or timestamping.