Centralization versus decentralization

I stumbled upon an article by the author, Erik Hoel, and the first few paragraphs jumped out at me because centralization on the Web has concerned me for years. He writes:

If I compare my experience on the web now to that of 15 or 20 years ago, the obvious difference is centralization. Almost everything has been centralized, from where I consume entertainment to where I listen to music to how I get my news to how I interact with other web denizens. That the internet trends inexorably to centralization is neither a good or bad thing, more like a force of nature—one might as well argue with a hurricane.

Of course, there’s been a lot of bad from this tendency. Centralization is why spying on your privacy is such big business, centralization is what forces culture wars, and it is sometimes the creation of a strangling monopoly that can lead to stagnation. Over the past 15 years, centralization of the web has concentrated discourse into a small number of companies, who often abuse their power with impunity.

But centralization on the web has had some obvious positive effects as well—ease of use, the beautification of user-interfaces, the streamlining of communication, the streamlining of basically everything. There’s a really good reason why centralization happens, which is that it is, from a user’s experience, preferable. And decentralization has its downsides: it is terrible for throughput, for audience building, for reaching critical mass.

Erik is right. Centralize the Web—think Facebook or Google—and things are easier for the average person. Meanwhile, big companies are increasingly able to take advantage of us and make a lot of money in the process.

Decentralize the Web—think independent blogs or Mastodon—and things get complicated for people. For example, I’m a relatively tech-savvy person, yet I recently abandoned the IndieWeb because the advantages hardly outweigh the headaches of duct-taping together fifteen different tools and services to make it work. As another example, I launched an instance of Mastodon, but I have low expectations of pulling many people away from Facebook or Twitter.

I escaped the Apple ecosystem for the better part of a year to rely exclusively on open source tools. I even ditched my iPhone. I followed every pro-privacy recommendation from email aliases to VPNs to protect myself from big data companies. I quit Google and all social media. I published exclusively to my personal, IndieWeb site. I relied on email for online communication. I moved away from Netflix, Spotify, and pretty much every other prominent tech company.

Why? It was a matter of principle. I value privacy, independence, and decentralization.

What did I learn from the experiment? It’s inconvenient to the point of frustrating.

I somewhat reluctantly disagree with Erik’s claim that centralization is neither good nor bad. When Walmart moves into town, on the one hand, shopping is easier and less expensive for people. On the other hand, mom-and-pop specialty stores cease to exist along with the personal customer service they once offered. Then, what happens when Walmart is the only place to shop?

Which is ultimately better—principles or convenience? We all have to answer that question for ourselves, but it’s evident convenience wins most hearts. Those fighting for principles on the Web face a steep uphill battle.

Reply to hello@jeremysarber.com.