By Ev Bogue - July 20th 2016
The title is ripped from my favorite album, The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of Niggy Tardust. Thank you, Saul Williams.
Four years ago I began to realize something was wrong with centralized social networking. I was heavily dependent on Google+ (which was semi-hip) at the time.
I discovered a technology called Bitcoin, and being a person involved in the tech industry I started writing about it. Almost immediately my engagement on the network fell to zero. No one '+1'ed my posts, no one commented on them either.
Were my posts not reaching anyone or were people simply not interested in Bitcoin?
Having been raised in a scientific household, I devised a simple experiment: I looked over Gwen's shoulder and found out that my posts about Bitcoin were not showing up in her feed. After a bit of investigation I realized that several prominent Bitcoin experts who were also on Google+ were not showing up in my feed when they wrote about Bitcoin either.
We were all being keyword censored out of existence, about an emerging technology that now is worth around $660 USD. At the time a Bitcoin was worth $4.
Four years later, Bitcoin is obviously a hugely important technology that everyone knows about. Bitcoin gives people an easy way to exchange value across borders and without a centralized authority. I used Bitcoin to pay Namecheap to register domains for me, and I use Bitcoin to pay my VPS bills. I accept Bitcoin when I sell copies of The Art of Being Minimalist.
I'm not an investor, and don't have many Bitcoins. However, I find it to be a novel way to exchange value without having to deal with banks or meet in person to exchange cash.
Why was I being keyword censored? I have no idea. Since Google has no customer support, there was no one to ask why.
I deleted all of my files and emails from Google's servers (no doubt they retain copies) and stopped being a customer.
I was heavily dependent on Google+, my business dried up to almost nothing overnight by leaving the social network. I was alone on the Internet, with only a domain name to write to. It took me almost a year to recover from leaving centalized social networks. I even shut up about Bitcoin for awhile, for fears of being squashed some more.
The sad thing about getting censored for innocent things is many people over the years have thought I stopped communicating because I did something wrong. As an American who believes in the constitution, I firmly believe that saying 'Bitcoin' on a social network has never been a crime worth being sorted out of the stream for.
Instead I believe Google was threatened by the idea of Bitcoin, and decided to crack down on the keyword.
A year passed, and I found myself in New York trying to get my business off the ground again. Since I didn't have the option of centralized social networking, I decided to build a list with Tinyletter (owned by Mailchimp) and email subscribers about things I was interested in. By this time Bitcoin was hitting $37, and I figured my readers would enjoy hearing about the technology. I'd built up a list of around 1,000 people who wanted to hear from me, trying to get my technical writing business of the ground.
I crafted an email about my interest in Bitcoin in Tinyletter and pushed publish.
Moments later I got an email back from Mailchimp saying that they wouldn't deliver the email. Since Mailchimp did have customer service, I reached out to customer service. I hear back from "Kaitlyn" at Tinyletter moments later, and she told me that I couldn't send the email because a word in my email was on the world wide blocklist. I asked 'what word?' she wouldn't tell me. I asked if I could have a look at this blocklist, she replied that the blocklist was top secret.
Ok. So it turns out that over the course of one year I discovered that I couldn't write about Bitcoin on centralized social networking NOR over email. Holy shit. I was mad, and broke as fuck.
Around this time I got very interested in distributed technologies. If they're being censored, they must be awesome. I started learning to program in Node.js, and I wrote a book about Node.js as I was learning it, and occasionally I was able to sell a book for Bitcoin. I tried a whole bunch of stabs at distributed social networking, but none of them seemed to work very well. Eventually I began to relay on legacy distributed technologies such as running my own website, and sending my own emails.
This began the long journey to right now, the week where I began running my own distributed social network on my website.
By 'my own social network', I mean that I own nothing except my own posts on the network. Scuttlebot is simple: a public/private key with an append only log.
On July 4th 2013 I wrote a piece on a recently launched site called 'Medium' called "Distributed Everything". In the piece I railed against centralized media in all forms, for lots of reasons. G posted the piece on Hacker News, and it shot to the top for two days. During this time I had a lot of exposure, and I made enough money to move to Oakland. I figured maybe I'd get a job at a valley company or something, coding on distributed technologies.
I was interviewed a few times, but none of them went well. Many people I talked to were scared shitless of Bitcoin and all of the associated implications of distributed technologies. It was obvious that The Valley was fucked. A few weeks later I bounced down to Mexico City.
But while I was in Oakland, I got to meet Dominic Tarr, a programmer in the Node.js world who had recently written a piece on a technology called Cyphernet. One night we sat down at a local cafe, ordered a pitcher of Stout, and installed Arch Linux on Dominic's Macbook Air. Well, he installed it, because I have no idea how to type on a Dvorak keyboard.
After Oakland GB and I bounced to Mexico City, which turned out to be an amazing decision because Mexico is so cheap and so awesome. From 2013-2015 I worked on books, restarted my business as best I could without having access to a social network.
During this time many people accused me of being anti-social for not being part of 'the system'. But the way I saw it, I was rebelling against companies trying to crack down on even the most basic of rights to freedom of speech. Now we're seeing that culture of authoritarianism falling apart.
The way I see it, you can't hurt anyone with words. Everyone in the world has a right to speak their mind.
It's never fair to crack down on someone (or in the case of Google and Mailchimp lots of someones) without a real reason.
Two more years passed, and I found myself sitting in a parking lot in Fayetteville NC in the dead of January waiting for G to get off work at 3am after a long shift working as a bartender. I was running food to tables, and often got cut at 11pm or midnight. I was surfing programming projects, and trying not to fall asleep in the Olds. And I stumbled across a project called 'Secure Scuttlebot'. Sbot claimed to be a distributed social network, and it was written by Dominic Tarr and a few other brilliant coders. Then my laptop battery died.
The next day I got Scuttlebot's desktop client, Patchwork, running my computer. For the first time since 2012, I had access to a working social network.
But this time it was different. This time it was distributed.
Fast-forward to now, I'm looking out the window at the slight smog of Mexico City waiting for a tropical storm to roll in. And I still can't quite believe that I have a distributed social network running on my own website. Weird. Crazy. Insane.
Now it's early days for distributed social networks. No doubt Sbot will break fourteen times in the next year. No doubt there will be scaling issues and other problems associated with sorting through the inevitable amount of stuff that will be posted to this network.
However, I'm confident that we've finally seen the first real distributed social network.