Monetization v.s. Decentralization

Written in response to /u/robboywonder’s comment on /r/bitcoin expressing a wish for peer-to-peer social media. Reproduced here because it very nicely expresses my feelings on this subject at the moment. Please express your agreement or disagreement in the comments! I’d love to have a real debate over these notions bouncing around in my head.

There have been a lot of attempts at federated social media solutions. I think that approach is played out. As soon as I finish the paid work I’m currently doing, maybe even before then, I plan on beginning work on a true peer-to-peer social network. I’ve been reading and researching the subject for a few months now and feel I’ve just about got a good enough grip on things to take a decent swing at it.

The technology, as it turns out, isn’t all that complicated. Monetizing these endeavors is really the hard part. Most money-seeking endeavors rely on creating chokepoints, or points of centralization. A service that respects you as a consumer and that protects your privacy by making it impossible for the service’s stewards to do otherwise cannot engage in these tactics. Thus they rely on people consentually, voluntarily giving up some of their resources and currency to help the project.

Even blockchain-based projects rely on creating a chokepoint to monetize themselves. Access to the blockchain requires purchasing a token, which these days often comes directly from the developers via an “IPO.” The blockchain itself is decentralized, which puts it a step ahead of other money-seeking endeavors, but it still technically constitutes a point of centralization that can cause problems for people’s privacy if too much is entrusted to it. You can’t really have forward-secrecy, for example, if all the messages ever distributed in a system are recorded for all eternity in a blockchain. Or even if all the messages get distributed to all the nodes in the network, since an attacker can then keep a private record of those messages.

It’s certainly possible to achieve a degree of privacy on the blockchain, but for purposes of keeping messages secure, I have come to believe that the model is wholly insufficient in itself. For it to really work, it has to pair with some form of non-global messaging. Some form of side-channeling.

So monetization as it is traditionally done on the Internet and decentralization seem to be fundamentally set against each other. You can’t have one and the other. If I start a peer-to-peer project and it gains traction, the only chance it’ll have of continuing into the future is if I can monetize it via side channels. If I can make enough through donations, speaker’s fees, and selling swag, then I will be able to stay on it indefinitely. If not, I’ll eventually be forced to give up the reins to other volunteers (if I’ve managed to attract any by then) while I re-enter the workforce to replenish my reserves.

These are, of course, only my opinions as of this moment. I admit I haven’t dug yet into Bitmessage as much as I’d like to have, so I reserve the right to be proven wrong and to change my opinion on blockchains in particular. It feels weird that I feel like I need to say this, but the Internet is very good at preserving opinions forever and then resurrecting those opinions at the least possibly opportune times. Opinions change, and I would be quite happy to be proven wrong on anything I’ve written here.