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Jan Dvorak
Jan Dvorak

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Decentralization Open Source and few of its many problems

On October 26th, Rumble acquired Locals. Companies with the same purpose in different areas (Rumble being YouTube competitor and Locals being Patreon competitor) joined forces. Given that these are alternatives/competitors to major sites the news did not garner much media attention except for a discussion on the TimCast podcast, where one of the hosts, Ian, flipped out. Many fair points were said on that show and on other iterations like the Joe Rogan podcast (around 57th minute). With many points I agree, with other I disagree. What I want to address is what Tim and Ian are going on about when it comes to owning your data and content.

They are correct that theoretically at any time that any service can decide to shut you down and you can loose access to your customers, income and content. Now practically it is rare, but it still happens. They believe that the solution is decentralization and each creator should maintain their own website and everything needed so that they are censorship resistant. Compare to other people who complain about centralized services they claim that they are working on Open Source software to make this happen via The On Foundation (though I was not able to find website or any other details beyond their mentions on the shows, if anyone knows where to find it, please let me know), but we still don't have anything concrete from them at the time of this writing.

The idea is that there is going to be some sort of an Open Source CMS that will make a subscription website for anyone that wants it. Tim doesn't want to profit of people getting censored so that is why it is going to be Open Source. First of all kudos to be in a position where he can afford to hire people to create software to give out for free. Compare to other Open Source projects this one is going to have a significant marketing push just from it being repeatedly mentioned on Tim's shows. But I'm very doubtful that it will take hold beyond the enthusiasts in the decentralization area. Let me break this down.

First of the problem here is that any service can just pull the plug. If you keep on going on this train of though then that also includes hosting providers, payment gates, registrars and everything else you need to host a website. So then you come to the conclusion that you pretty much need to build your own infrastructure from the Internet to payment processing. It is possible, but then you are pretty much limiting your audience (at least for the foreseeable future) only to enthusiast in the field. But I think we don't need to go into such extremes and can assume that things are still going to be fine with us using regular hosting services and pay gates.

Second problem and the reason why I'm writing this article is technical. Tim mentions that you will be just able to put it on your server and with one click have a subscription website. Great, you can save thousands of hours developing the website, that is if you even know how to upload it to your server. Here is the core problem, most people are not technically knowledgeable to be easily capable of doing it. I think developers of all kind can attest that once they made their fist steps into coding and probably well before that they became the tech support guy for their family. I hope that reminding everyone about this experience we can conclude that most people can easily struggle even with absolute basic usage of their devices. In this case we have a creator who is an expert in creating videos, pictures or other creative thing, but if you try to take them and have them manage their own server that is not going to go well unless they can invest enough time to master at least the basics. Tim and Ian are prolific creators who are also tech savvy. That is not the case for an average creator. Yes, other creators could also take the time to master the basics to get things setup, but then they have to weight in if it is worth the time, which can cut into their creative time and hence income, or if it is faster to just find a platform that will take care of that for a monthly fee or a cut from their profit.

Third problem is what if there are any problems? Open Source is given as is. You might ask for help from the community, but who knows if that is going to be enough. Also what if the fix is a technical thing that the user can't handle because of hosting restriction or their lack of knowledge? Again when you are part of a platform there is usually someone to take care of this. This is a benefit of smaller and mid sized platforms like Locals that they can take better care of their users (at least theoretically) then the super-big platforms where it just is near impossible due to the numbers involved. And again as in previous problem how much is the actual cost of solving the issue yourself (lost revenue, time, etc.).

Fourth problem that I see is that Open Source like this might be free for the software, but you are still going to pay for thing elsewhere and potentially much more than on a platform. Hosting itself might be cheaper at the very beginning and at a larger scale on your own. But you still have to think about a lot of technical stuff like making sure that your site runs fast on the other end of the world as it does near where you host your servers and many other technical issues. Sure many of them can be taken care of by the software and free services to some extent, but you have to know about it. This can be taken care of by having guides on how to set things up, but once again... time. In this aspect SaaS services like Locals could be characterized as pooling together resources to always have someone ready to fix the issue once for everyone instead of having to do it again and again for each individual and their independent services.

Final problem is non-technical and that of an audience and care. The benefits of platforms is that they have an audience that can easily find you and that they can send your way (or not). So getting discovered is not a simple thing. Peering like Mastodon for the free content and being able to log into all website in the network is a possible solution and something like that I think will be implemented (from the hints I got). Lastly most people just don't care about owning their own data. I had this discussion many times with people on the big platforms. They don't care about the abuses of their data (at least till it affects them in a negative way), the convenience of the services and lack of knowledge about the problems is an ongoing issue that prevents any mass adoption of any of the decentralized technologies.

The reason why centralized services exists and why SaaS charge for their services and offer a high value is that they take care of all the annoying technical details and offer added value than if you would be doing it yourself. Given that everyone here on has a technical background as does Tim and Ian I think it is important that we are the exception. Most people don't have any clue about these things and they don't want to be bothered with it. They want to (in this case) do their creative thing and put it out there with as little hassle as possible and get some income from it. That is why whatever the Tim's team is building is not going to put Locals, Patreon, etc. out of business. At least not if they won't provide their own hosting or some sort of service to make the deployment possible with no tech skills, but at that point they will partially re-create what they are against.

Don't get me wrong I'm all for decentralization technology and I'm looking forward to what they are going to build, but I think that it is important to point out these issues as it is super easy to think that decentralization is going to beat the SaaS companies and solve all of our issues with centralization (which is another topic altogether).

My main point here is to highlight these problems and remind everyone that SaaS platforms exists because people don't want to be bothered with the technical stuff behind the platform of running it on their own. This is also a major obstacle in reducing the power of platforms that have gotten too big or influential. Still I like that Tim and co. are at least trying to provide a possible solution to the problem they are seeing instead of just endlessly complaining about it.

So what do you think about the issues of decentralization, owning your own data? Do you think these issues can be overcome and mass adoption can be reached?

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