The Best Platform is No Platform

The last few years though have disabused me of the notion that the internet is a public commodity. Large corporations dominate the tools and applications that we use now and these platforms have empirically proven that they're businesses first and will often choose profits over user experience.

The Best Platform is No Platform
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

The internet can be a pretty polarizing place, to say the least. As someone who tends to be chronically online (surely an occupational hazard I tell myself), I feel like I am exposed to the best and the worst of it (particularly when on social media). The internet is a place of very quick change though, and it has evolved over the years from being used primarily by hobbyists and online companies to hosting massive platforms and critical infrastructure for our everyday lives. Now, I'm a big fan of online infrastructure and when everything is going smoothly, the web and computers/technology can be really impressive. The last few years though have disabused me of the notion that the internet is a public commodity. Large corporations dominate the tools and applications that we use now and these platforms have empirically proven that they're businesses first and will often choose profits over user experience. Here are some examples. Now, I'm not arguing that a business shouldn't do what it needs to do to survive (though I think there is a wide margin between necessity and greed and/or ego in some of these cases); however, I do think it's important to recognize the power imbalance between end users and these large corporations who build many of the online platforms that we rely on today.

Rose-Tinted Glasses: ON

We won't be able to have perfect control over our digital lives, but I would argue that we should aim to have as much control as we can (and to know when we're giving it up). The obvious way to do this is to simply stop using any service made by another company. Easy right? Well, probably not. It's often impractical or outright impossible to divorce ourselves from many of the applications that we use on a day-to-day basis. Ok, well if we can't or don't want to stop using applications, then what can we do? The next obvious choice is to look for alternatives that are either not overtly controlled by some mega-corporation, or to look for entirely free/open-source alternatives. Open-source alternatives to existing tools can be fantastic. A good example of this is ActivityPub. ActivityPub is a framework for sharing and publishing media online and distributing across compatible servers. The most well-known ActivityPub application is Mastodon, an X (pronounced as Twitter), alternative that is distributed across many servers and whose source code is publically available. And, like email, individuals on different servers can interact and follow each other using the familiar USERNAME@SERVER.COM format that we're familiar with from email. I want to avoid technical details in this post, but what this means is that a single individual or other company cannot step in to purchase, shut down, or prevent access to Mastodon as a whole. ActivityPub is not limited to Mastodon though and alternatives exist for Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, and more! And this is just ActivityPub applications. I'm writing this post on Ghost, an open-source blogging engine, and it's being pointed to my personal domain which can be used as a digital nexus for my online presence. Sure, I pay Ghost to host the blog, but I can always choose to self-host from another provider or even off a local machine in my home (but I would rather avoid the hassle and security concerns associated with doing that). Hell, most of the internet runs on WordPress an extremely popular blogging engine. You can also host your own email, encrypted chat, media streaming service, and (on desktops and laptops) you can run an entirely open-source operating system and install/use primarily open-source software. In all of these cases, you get to maintain near-perfect digital sovereignty. You have control over your data (at least as much as you choose to make public) and more importantly, can prevent any of these services from being ripped out from under you. Does that sound great? If so, it's probably because it is great! Oh, and also because I didn't mention any downsides, of which there are a few....

Rose-Tinted Glasses: OFF

Ok, so the first issue is that, if you choose to become the captain of your digital life, a captain will go down with their ship when any problems arise. Depending on the service at play here (and how technical you want to be), problems when using free, openly available tools are potentially a lot harder to fix, and generally, you, dear reader, will be in charge of fixing them. Let's jump back to Mastdon again as our example. I love Mastodon, but it is a community-run project. Again, this isn't a bad thing, but it also means that there isn't much in the way of customer support. You don't pay to be there, there are no ads, and servers can be administrated by as few as a single person, so when something comes up, it's entirely up to a server admin's kindness to help out. Another possible issue is that, on platforms like Mastodon, servers can be expensive if they grow large enough. If you set up a server for yourself and a few others, this might not be an issue, but if many people join that server, you may need to scale up its computing resources making it more cost-intensive. Ok, so then don't self-host. There are tons of great servers out there! Except that, at any point in time, the server could shut down leaving you stranded. If you know the server is going to be shut down in advance, you can migrate to another server and persist your data. For what it is worth, if you join a large, official server like, it isn't likely that the server is going to shut down anytime soon (hopefully ever), but then of course, if everyone is on the same server, you start creating single points of failure.

The cost and complexity of using these applications are generally higher than what you might get out of the popular, free, corporate alternative. I might be biased as a computer scientist and software engineer, but I'm not so out of touch to think that my parents are going to try to set up a Mastodon server to view my posts and I don't think that is unique to myself (especially considering my parents are technically savy). Open-source tools have a bit of a problem. They're made by computer nerds who don't have to answer to a product design-, user experience-, or quality assurance-team. That isn't inherently a bad thing, but it means that what gets built might be a bit(lot) less polished for a long time. There is also a genuine problem with how open-source software in general is developed and thanklessly maintained for years, which can lead to burnout and other nasty side effects.

Rose-Tinted Monocole (I know I know, but I needed a middle-ground title)

OK, so what do we do now? I've talked about some awesome alternatives to probably some of your favorite (or at least commonly used) applications, but they're not intuitive on how to get started. Well, first things first, just try to use these tools and see if you get stuck. Most of them are more intuitive than you might think and have come a long way since they were created. Mastodon in particular has a pretty streamlined sign-up flow from the website that helps you choose a server. And if you've looked into Mastodon and decided it is not your thing, then maybe try Threads with ActivityPub support enabled (this will eventually allow you to interact with other ActivityPub servers from Threads), but do be aware that Threads is still prone to many of the pitfalls of other services run by large companies (and there is no account portability at the time of writing). Threads, to me, feels like a stop-gap measure between a truly decentralized service and old-form social media platforms. It might get better or it might get worse, so be self-aware before investing in it fully. Most other services I mentioned have something comparable. For those that do require some sort of self-hosting, I don't have a good immediate solution. I won't write this big long blog post about how UI and UX are important, only to turn around and say that it is easy to do these things. Off the top of my head, to fully self host these services you'd likely first need to figure out: how to acquire a custom domain, set up DNS records to point to self-hosted resources, configure those resources to be both functional secure, etc. This might not be hard for some of you, and once you know how to do it, it might not even take that long, but the learning curve for anyone unfamiliar with this type of stuff will be steep. That is not the answer. Unfortunately, I don't have a great solution to this problem. Balancing cost, complexity, ease of use, and digital sovereignty is a hell of a balancing act, but I would argue that it's probably worth it in the long haul.

Fortunately, I don't think I'm the only one who thinks so! There are other people like me advocating a similar approach like (checks notes)... Germany! I'm not joking. There has been a big push to remove big tech from the infrastructure of Germany and some other European nations which I think is ultimately a good thing. This means that there will be some separation of money and state, and it will require that some portion of the government have some understanding of technology and its capabilities, outside of what is marketed to them.

Sure, we can't individually be one of the largest economies in the world able to hire a bunch of people to manage their infrastructure (a guy can dream), but you can scale it down to what is manageable to you. So that's exactly what I would encourage. Take the applications I mentioned earlier and give them a try. Most don't require self-hosting or technical knowledge to get started, so experimenting is the best way to start (plus, most are still small so you can snag a cool username 😉). If I didn't cover an application type that you use, try simply searching online and there will probably be a high-quality alternative that exists. You could even ask ChatGPT or something similar for other alternatives using a prompt along the lines of:

I am aiming to control my digital sovereignty and ensure my data remains private and secure. The application named below is one I currently use. Please suggest a high-quality, open-source, and ideally decentralized alternative for me.

Application Name: FILL HERE

I know the prompt is a bit cheesy and I have a large list of grievances with "AI" assistants that I'll probably write another blog post about at some point, but they can be useful for this type of scenario. Especially if you wanted to ask follow-up questions about any specific application I mentioned or that you discovered on your own!

Annoyingly, Ghost doesn't support Mastodon social cards yet, so if you liked this story please subscribe to this blog or give me a follow on Mastodon (if you give it a try).