Social media plays a crucial role in the cultural, political, social, and economic aspects of our digitally-connected lives. Controversies like the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal – where personal data was used for political advertising – and censorship tactics used on popular sites like Twitter have forced users to look for better alternatives.
To bridge this gap, several decentralized social media platforms have emerged. These aim to empower users by granting them control over their data, removing advertisements, and banning social media addiction-inducing algorithms. Out of the lot, a protocol called Nostr has stood out, amassing thousands of users.
Is Nostr the answer to social network concerns? What about other alternative decentralized social media platforms like Bluesky and Mastodon?
In this article, we try to answer these questions.
What is Nostr?
Nostr (Notes and Other Stuff, Transmitted by Relays) is an open protocol on top of which developers can create censorship-resistant social media applications. The Nostr Manifesto was first published in November 2019 by its pseudonymous creator Fiatjaf.
Remember that Nostr is not a social media platform like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. It provides the infrastructure needed to create a decentralized social media network.
Iris, Damus, Nos, Amethyst, and Gossip are among the many social media applications built on Nostr. These are also called clients.
How does Nostr work?
Relays are the critical components in the Nostr protocol. They are backend servers that allow various social media platforms to send messages to one another. Relays can store user posts and messages, enabling seamless interaction across platforms.
Users can connect to multiple relays to save their account details, posts, and social interactions. Connecting to several relays ensures that a user always has access to their data in case a relay goes offline or gets censored. Nostr also allows users to run their own private relay to remove doubts about becoming censorable. At the time of writing, 218 Nostr relays were online.
Each user account on Nostr has a public-private key pair. You can think about public keys as usernames with which you can search for your friend’s Nostr profile. Your private key is your password.
Users can jump between various decentralized social applications built on Nostr using their public-private keys. If you get kicked out of platform ABC, then you can move all your posts, messages, and followers to another platform XYZ and carry out business as usual.
Although there are a lot of similarities between the Nostr protocol and blockchain protocols, Nostr is not a blockchain. It is simply a set of rules. Nostr, however, does draw inspiration from blockchain protocols like Bitcoin in championing decentralization and interoperability.
Just like the Bitcoin network, Nostr is not owned by any corporation. Changes to the protocol are pitched, discussed, and approved by the community in the form of Nostr Implementation Possibilities (NIPs) on GitHub.
According to Greg Heartsfield, “Nostr tries to solve the problem of publishing short notes (“and other stuff”) on the Internet.”
“Twitter solved this problem neatly, then complicated it through API and client restrictions, advertising, and a clumsy interface. Finally, they fully unsolved it by inserting themselves as the arbiters of what speech is allowed.”
The loss of trust in centralized platforms like Twitter and the increasing degree of censorship practised on social media platforms has prompted developers like Fiatjaf to create decentralized social media protocols. In the Nostr Manifesto, Fiatjaf noted several problems with Twitter, namely ads, algorithms, banning and shadow-banning users, and spamming.
Nostr has seen an influx of new users since 2022. This came during a turbulent time for Twitter which saw Elon Musk buy the microblogging platform for $44 billion. During Musk’s Twitter reign, the company has made a slew of changes that sparked the ire of some users. It implemented anti-free speech moves like censoring links to external websites, discontinuing free access to the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API), and suspending the Twitter accounts of prominent journalists.
so far, i’ve been able to confirm about half the accounts suspended posted links to the jet tracker thing in violation of the new doxx’ing policy. unclear just yet about the rest, but i think it’s safe to say the rule is for real. https://t.co/8MDCG19kNO
— Mike Solana (@micsolana) December 16, 2022
As the masses flocked to decentralized social platforms on Nostr, the total number of users on the protocol – measured by “profiles with bio and contact list” – skyrocketed from about 800 on 7 December 2022 to over 315,000 by the first week of June 2023.
Endorsements from Twitter co-founder and Block CEO Jack Dorsey have also helped increase Nostr’s reach and visibility. Dorsey not only tweets about Nostr on a frequent basis, but he has also donated 14 BTC – worth over $381,000 at the time of writing – to Nostr creator Fiatjaf.
— jack (@jack) December 15, 2022
Other famous names like Edward Snowden have also voiced their support for Nostr. The crypto community, in particular, has shown an affinity for Nostr, given similar principles of decentralization that the two communities uphold.
Furthermore, recent improvements on Nostr, allowing users to send BTC to each other via the Lightning Network, have attracted Bitcoiners to the protocol.
Social platforms based on Nostr are not the only decentralized options available out there.
- Lens Protocol: Unlike Nostr, Lens Protocol is powered by blockchain. It aims to solve the problem of “portability” experienced by users on Web2 platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Lens empowers users to seamlessly transfer their content and followers to different platforms. There are numerous applications built on the Lens Protocol across various categories, including social media, gaming, music, live streaming, and more.
- Mastodon: Mastodon is a decentralized social media platform that promises zero ads, zero algorithms, and full user control. The platform is a collection of social media websites. Users can join website communities based on their interests. For example, urusai.social is a community for anime and manga fans; defcon.social is a website geared towards technology enthusiasts, and neovibe.app is an LGBTQ+ friendly community with interests in pop culture.
- Bluesky: Bluesky is a decentralized social media project backed by Jack Dorsey. The project is building the AT Protocol, which is a networking technology on top of which social media applications can be built. Bluesky offers users the choice to connect with any app built on the AT Protocol, a choice on the algorithm, and portable accounts.
Decentralized social media apps are fairly new, and most of them are still a work in progress. User experience on Nostr socials is not at the same level as mature centralized platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
Lens Protocol only allows access to members based on their eligibility criteria.
Nostr users have to keep their private keys secure to ensure that their accounts are not hacked. Saving private keys on internet-connected devices opens up the risk of hacking, while private keys written on paper can be misplaced.
The same stands for crypto wallet owners who have to manage their private keys. Blockchain-based Lens Protocol requires crypto wallets for log-in.
Any project needs a steady income to keep the lights on. In the case of Nostr, there are no ad revenues for developers to bank on. Instead, its developers are currently dependent on philanthropic aid from supporters. Although, the protocol has seen upcoming server-hosting services that charge BTC fees.
According to Forbes, Nostr could have centralization risks. The article noted that creator Fiatjaf has given only seven people the power to add features to the Nostr Github repository.
While the idea of a decentralized social network is appealing, given the promises of account portability, zero ads, and zero algorithms, it is important to remember that we are still some time away from mainstream adoption.
Most of the decentralized socials available today are not feature-packed and user-friendly enough to provoke the migration of millions of Twitter and Instagram users for the sake of decentralization.
However, enthusiasm among developers and early adopters is encouraging.