Federation is not a silver bullet

So Byte has finally launched. It’s one of the few social networks I was looking forward to as it has promise to be a nice place and a positive medium for creators. Vine itself was a boon for creativity due to its constraints, and Dom has definitely put in a lot of care into Byte and it shows. [1]

But on my local Mastodon I noticed a toot that mentioned that, while Byte is a nice app, it isn’t federated so the particular user won’t seemingly be using it. I understand the sentiment but it rubbed me the wrong way so I felt like I need to write a bit of a rebuttal.

We, the tech geeks, have a particular giddy for using stuff that is technologically superior as compared to what’s mainstream. [2] This includes OSes, messaging services, and yes, social networks. [3] But not everything should be federated, especially if it isn’t built into the network from day one.

The main reason, and I know it isn’t technical per se and hence will seem void for many, is that federated networks thus far haven’t been able to present a compelling user story. Federation will always suffer the problem of having the extra step of choosing the server where you want to host your content, which doesn’t fit well into the modern app paradigm of “open it and you’re done.” While sure, you could use a default server or just follow a friend and join the server of their choice, it’s still more cumbersome than what larger social networks offer now.

The thing is, few of the things tech geeks use have particularly great UX. Mastodon might be close to being an exception, but after having used Byte for just a couple of minutes, its UX is great, the onboarding was stellar. As mentioned before, Byte’s creators have really put in a lot of care to make an app that’s not just great to use, but pleasant and frictionless. Most technologies that geeks use actually introduce more friction as opposed to most other solutions, which goes the exact opposite way. [4]

Byte is also intending to create a system for rewarding creators for their content and that definitely seems much easier to do with a centralized service than a federated one.

Also, federated networks, due to the inherent limitations present in federation, [5] can’t have discovery tools that are as good as those of centralized platforms. The main way centralized platforms can provide good recommendations [6] is datamining, which is against the ethos of many federated open-source platforms, outside of their abilities and often impossible due to not having a centralized way to process enough data.

Federated networks do have their solutions to discovery (namely, Mastodon attempts to widen the sphere of availability to all the instances that the current one federates with, and even presents an unified timeline firehose of all available toots), but their quality is far from being as good.

So there’s my two cents. I doubt I’ll become a Byte addict but I’ll check in occasionally, notwithstanding the fact that it’s centralized. It’s a nice space on the Internet and I hope it remains that way, no matter what the nerds say.