Social network decentralization has become a trend, understand the core underlying technology choices and routes


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After more than a year, the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, once again announced the main progress of the decentralized social protocol standard bluesky he funded. He said that the team has exchanged ideas with many decentralized community talents since last February and published a copy The 61-page overview of the decentralized social ecology introduces the main existing protocols, applications and themes of the ecology.

Overview IPFS, Solid protocol for the Internet and block chain is no stranger to practitioners, but ActivityPub, Matrix, Ssb, Aether these agreements are relatively relatively small minority, but they are the key to the agreement of the social center of the field, It can be divided into federal and point to point protocol agreement on the structure.

In this article, Jay Graber, the founder of social platform Happening, clearly introduced the characteristics, representative agreements, advantages and disadvantages of these two types of protocols, so that readers who are not familiar with the field can get started.

Written by: Jay Graber, founder of social platform Happening Compiler: Zhan Juan

Decentralized social networks to work want to change the balance of power from the structure, allowing users to easily exchange services, by their own identity and control their own data. To describe a network as ” decentralized ” is just to define it in terms of what it is not-it does not depend on a single set of servers run by a company. As for what it actually is, there can be many different looks.

Federal protocols and peer-to-peer (P2P) protocols are different methods of designing a network. In terms of structure, users can be empowered.

Social network decentralization has become a trend, understand the core underlying technology choices and routesIt can also be called central, federated and point-to-point

The traditional social networking applications such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are based on client – server mode of operation. As a user, all your interactions go through a company’s server. In a federated network, users are still interacting with servers, but anyone can run a server and interact with other servers in the network, thus providing users with more supplier choices. In a P2P network, there is no difference between a client and a server. Each user device can act as both roles simultaneously, so that they are functionally equivalent to the peer.

This article will outline some of the most popular federated and peer-to-peer social network designs. I will discuss ActivityPub and ssb in depth, and introduce how their main implementation solves the problems of identity, audit and profitability. A brief comparison of Matrix and Aether will describe how some alternative methods work.

At the end of each section, I will list the main advantages and disadvantages of the federated model and the P2P model.

Blockchain-based social networks will be discussed in subsequent articles.

Federal Agreement

The federated network allows users to choose a server to register, so that they can access the entire network distributed on many different servers. This provides users with more choices in applications, strategies and community culture. On the Internet, one federal protocol that everyone uses is email. Gmail is a very popular email application, but even if you use another provider, you can still communicate with anyone with an email address.


ActivityPub is a federal protocol that defines a set of interoperable social network interactions through specific APIs. Any server that implements this protocol can communicate with other servers on the network.

Mastodon is built on ActivityPub, a popular federal alternative to Twitter, with approximately 2.2 million users .

Before Mastodon, projects like GNU social and Diaspora have tried to expand the scale of federal social networks, but they all failed. Mastodon’s success largely because it creates a user interface looks a lot like Twitter are used up, people feel very familiar with, which can make those disgruntled users easily settled here.

Social network decentralization has become a trend, understand the core underlying technology choices and routesHomepage feed on Mastodon


Users create accounts on the server (“instance”), but can communicate with users on other instances. The entire group of interoperable instances is called ” Feperse “. The full username is the handle of a user plus the name of the instance that the user belongs to, for example: @[email protected]

The account credentials are managed by the user’s instance, so if the user forgets the password, they can request a password reset.


Each instance set its own auditing policies, administrators can decide unilaterally, or by some form of collective vote. The administrator can ban entire instances, cutting off their visibility. If an instance is disabled by many other instances, its users can still talk to each other, but they will be isolated from other Feperse. This happened on , which established an instance.


The maintenance of the federal social network requires cost investment in both hosting and development. Each instance is funded by its own administrator and community. The development of Mastodon was funded through Patreon operated by the main developer. At present, this application platform can bring in annual revenue of 70,000 US dollars , which can support his full-time work in Mastodon, and also pay for the hosting fees of the instance and a review team.

Another federal agreement: Matrix

Matrix is a social network to chat rather than protocol design, but it is worth mentioning is that it implements federal chat experience through a good user experience, and improve regulation of identity and do valuable work.

The protocol currently has about 11 million users who use various clients. It was developed by New Vector , which raised US$8 million in Series A financing in 2019.

Compared with most decentralized protocols, Matrix’s identity solution is more flexible-users have a Matrix user ID , but third-party IDs can also be used. Matrix accounts can be linked to various IDs, such as email addresses, social accounts, and phone numbers. A global federated trusted identity server cluster is used to verify and replicate these mappings. The Matrix team is also intensively developing tools for management. Here is a detailed introduction, and plans to release a P2P implementation soon.

Pros and cons of federal agreements

Federal Network provides a familiar user experience because users do not have to bear full responsibility for their account credentials, and can interact with the way they are used in accordance with the content. Users can choose different services in the same network to better meet their needs without having to adapt to completely different ways of doing things.

However, federated servers also inherit some of the same shortcomings as centralized servers. The server relies on administrators, but administrators typically individuals or organizations with fewer resources than large social media companies. Server administrators may abuse their power or shut down services because they cannot keep up with costs. For centralized servers, someone can ask to block access or provide backdoors, and the same can be done for federated servers.

Depending on the implementation, the user identity may be bound to the server, which means that the user will lose connection and data during migration. Privacy vary –Mastodon not currently on the content encryption, all messages, including private messaging, server administrators are likely to be visible.

P2P protocol

P2P protocols to communicate directly with each other so that the user, since all devices in the network are peers, both data request, it may respond to the request. Some nodes may have a special role, such as public to help guide the new user node connected to the network, but each node on the function is still equivalent. This design gives the user the most control, but also the most responsibility.

### Ssb

Ssb, namely secure-scuttlebutt, gossip protocol that is distributed to social sharing and design. Each node has a partial view of the network, so it is difficult to count the total number of users, but according to the results of a developer running a web crawler in November 2019, there are approximately 16,000 nodes on ssb. Users are distributed on several different client applications, running on desktop (Patchwork) and mobile (Manyverse, Planetary).

Social network decentralization has become a trend, understand the core underlying technology choices and routesPatchwork, a desktop client for ssb

Each user has a public / private key pair for the signature of the post, verify its authenticity. Each post is appended to the very end, are sequentially ordered from the beginning of the post in only one additional log. Because each post is connected to the last post, it is currently not possible to delete or edit posts. When you follow a user, you will start storing and syncing their posts. When you use ssb application, it will continue to share data with other nodes in the background.


In ssb, users are identified by public keys. My public key is:


Users can choose a human-readable nickname associated with their keys, but the nickname is not unique, because there is no global registry. Others can use my nickname @arcalinea to refer to me, but others can also use the same name.

Key management is one of the biggest challenges, because users will inevitably lose and forget their passwords. Users have complete control over their own identity. This means that if they lose their password, they will permanently lose access to their account. The key is currently also stored on the device, so there is no way to log in to an account across multiple devices-and this is a basic function in the minds of social network users.

In order to solve the key management problem, the Dark Crystal project in the ssb ecosystem implemented a social key recovery system. It divides the keys into pieces and stores them in trusted family and friends, through which they can help rebuild the lost keys.


At the ssb protocol layer, there is a ” flag ” function to send strong negative signals about bad actors. There is no global review and no dedicated moderator. Applications built on top of ssb allow users to ” block ” and ” ignore “. The shielding function in ssb is stronger than the shielding function in the centralized network, because it means that the data of the blocked users no longer passes through these nodes. If enough people block one or a group of users, the part of the network they are on will be cut off from other parts.


P2P networks defenders without having to pay hosting fees, because there is no server, and as new users join the network capacity will naturally increase. If developers want to do more volunteer work, they need to find funds on their own. ssb ecosystem through various funding, donations, income from part-time programs and counseling, and some have been raising funds to build applications on ssb company to support.

Another P2P protocol: Aether

Aether is a P2P social network similar to Reddit . Its data structure is a DAG (directed acyclic graph), rather than just a additional log; and it would appear the time limit posts, you can edit and delete posts, after a period of inactivity time posts will be automatically Delete , unlike ssb will store every post.

The P2P version is supported by funds from the built-in Aether Pro version. It can provide multi-device login-you can store and synchronize encryption keys from a remote background. Each community has its own sub-moderator, the moderator may be generated by community elections, they can impeach their own.

Pros and cons of P2P

P2P networks allow users complete control of their data and identity. The data layer is functionally separated from the application view, so users can seamlessly switch between applications while retaining all accumulated posts and connections. The capacity of the P2P network will naturally expand with demand, because new users will add resources to the network, not just consume it.

P2P networks with maximum flexibility and censorship-resistant ability. Since the P2P network does not require a server, as long as there is a local connection between two devices on the network, the application can continue to work even if other parts of the Internet are paralyzed. Accounts have encryption key pairs, so private messages are easily supported-ssb provides end-to-end encrypted private messages.

However, the other side is responsible for control. There is no single service that can help recover lost or stolen passwords. Audit relies on bottom-up methods, these methods have not been extensively tested, which makes these networks with centralized site, as will appear similar abuse. P2P functions that store data in the background or run rumor protocols consume a disproportionate amount of resources on user devices. P2P networks do not have a global “like” or “share” count, and some do not allow users to edit or delete posts.

This approach may be surprising, but also illustrates the copy function and performance of the user accustomed to the fact that deep challenges in P2P networks. The bigger technical challenge is that the network is also built around the assumptions of the client-server model, so trying to become a fully P2P network must enter the very bottom layer and deal with issues such as NAT penetration.

Some shortcomings of the Federal Agreement and the P2P Agreement may be overcome in the future. Research and development of key areas, such as key management, identity and auditing, will help to significantly improve usability. One obstacle is that the current implementation still lacks resources-all the projects listed above have raised some funds through donations, funds or venture capital, but none of the projects have developed a sustainable business model.

Another obstacle is that the pace of development to the center of the protocol is inherently slower than the center of the application, because the update protocol and that all customers will require community involvement coordinator. Standards bodies like W3C often appear to coordinate updates. Otherwise, over time, the incompatibility between different implementations will split the network.

On the current situation, the central applications easier to build, iterate faster, easier and profitable, but a passionate community has been committed to the center of the alternatives, because these technical architecture can change between users and platforms relations, in order to bring more choices.