Note: I wrote an earlier version of this essay for a zine handed out at Chillderburg 2023. I have re-written parts of this essay to make it more relevant to SN readers, and hopefully it is more clear than the first version.
In 1980, Usenet was created. It was the first social media on the internet. You could post articles (like tweets without a word limit) and respond to other's articles with your own articles. You could also post files (pictures, executables, etc). At the time, Usenet seemed to be the future of the internet, where anyone could say anything to anyone. Despite being revolutionary, Usenet began losing popularity sometime in the early 1990s. The reason was simple: the first web browser was made in 1989, and it could be used for anything. On the other hand, Usenet could only be used to post articles and files. Usenet utterly failed to be the killer app for the internet. Instead, it was the web browser that popularized the internet. Would you pay for an internet connection if the only part of the internet you could use was Twitter? No Wikipedia, no search engines, no email, no Amazon, no YouTube, no websites of any kind -- just Twitter.
It is perhaps odd to begin an essay on Nostr, a relatively new technology, by first discussing Usenet and web browsers, technologies created decades ago. But Nostr is going through a similar process to what the internet went through in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of Nostr users/developers believe that social media is the killer app that will popularize Nostr (it says as much in the original Nostr repo). The lesson that Usenet provides is that social media, in general, is not a killer app at all, because it is a technological and social dead-end. And the modern forms of social media, decentralized or not, magnify that lesson.
Technologically, social media has not significantly changed since at least 2010. Look up screenshots of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook from 2010 and compare those to today. Things are in different places and a few things have been added. But you still have feeds, posts, likes/dislikes, replies/comments, and profiles/channels. What little has been added to social media platforms since 2010 has been minor features that few people use (e.g. livestream videos). The last substantial change to social media occurred prior to 2010: the invention of social media apps for your smart phone that made it significantly more efficient for people to read and post rude comments while driving on the highway. Worse, alternatives like the Fediverse and many Nostr apps are little more than imitations of social media from 2010. The Fediverse is more decentralized, but it's mostly a Twitter clone. Nostr is even more decentralized, but the social media apps on Nostr are Twitter clones that let you send BTC to other users.
And what can you use social media for today that you couldn't in 2010? Since then, just about every celebrity has joined Twitter, so now you can try to harass them too. Network effects are supposed to improve a social media platform. But nowadays, your spicy comments are all buried by The Algorithm, if not by the volume of other groupies and haters, leaving your comments unseen. The exposure you hoped your comments would get are instead cut down by the social media platform and by the network effect it depends on. Ironically, the network effects and Algorithms that supposedly improve social media platforms actually lead to a reduction of the social aspect of social media itself.
But even without The Algorithm and network effects, social media remains just as anti-social as Usenet was. So-called flame wars were common on Usenet. Everyone with a keyboard could, and would, add their two cents to any article they saw. But often, people would post uncharacteristically rude responses to each other. Many people behaved like anti-social goblins on Usenet, but were perfectly polite in person. How much of that do we see on social media today? I know people who are rude to me on social media, but they are polite to my face. I know people who have come to hate each other because of how they treated each other on social media. I have friends on both side of such a split and it's very frustrating to see those adults behave like petulant children. And the same sort of destruction of friendships occurred as a result of posts on Usenet. For all it's claim of promoting social interactions, whether Usenet or modern social media, there's an enormous amount of genuinely harmful anti-social behavior on social media.
It is worth noting that "flame war", "spam", and "socketpuppet" are terms and behaviors that were invented on Usenet. These phenomena were serious problems on Usenet, and they remain serious problems on centralized social media, the Fediverse, and Nostr. There is simply something about social media that encourages such irrationality and anti-social behavior, because every form of social media has those same problems. Decades of effort to stop such behavior on social media have so far been failed. If adjusting every knob on a machine can't stop the machine from hurting people, then the machine is inherently harmful to people.
Nostr developers/users claim that Nostr is the future for social media, because it will further decentralize social media. But decentralization only addresses one problem on social media: censorship. As demonstrated, there are numerous other problems that social media causes. As Nostr gains due to network effects, the problems of anti-social behavior will grow, despite deliberate censorship being reduced. If, like the Fediverse, Nostr remains largely a social media protocol, it will become just another place to harass people. As a social media protocol, Nostr has no future.
But there is a tremendous opportunity for Nostr to revolutionize the internet, like web browsers did in the early 1990s.
One avenue of revolution is to build apps that don't need data centers. For instance, there is a prototype Nostr app called Bullrun, which mimics the Uber and Lyft apps, and it doesn't require millions of dollars per year just to pay for servers and maintenance staff. Imagine what sort of apps haven't been made simply because the servers would be too expensive.
Another avenue is to build Nostr browsers, which mimic web browsers. A Nostr website would be posted to multiple Nostr relays across the globe. For a nation-state to erase such a website, it would have to seize servers across the planet. And the website creator could simply re-post his website on other relays. (I have a draft NIP for this, if anyone is interested.)
Yet another avenue is to build markets on Nostr. Unlike darknet markets (e.g. Silk Road), markets on Nostr would be unstoppable. You could post a classified ad across a hundred Nostr relays, and no nation-state would be able to stop people from responding to your classified ad. Imagine how much international trade would improve if only people could sell goods outside the arbitrary restrictions of nation-states.
For all three of those avenues, there is much work to be done. Most importantly, we need a Signal-like secure messaging app that uses Nostr as the backend. That is a project that could be completed in half a year by a team of programmers with relevant experience.
But before anyone can begin working on any of those avenues, Nostr developers must first realize that social media isn't the future of Nostr, let alone the internet.
There is simply something about social media that encourages such irrationality and anti-social behavior, because every form of social media has those same problems.
This reminded me of gun debate, and IMHO, here too, the issue is with the individuals, and not the social media platforms. There's no technical fix to this.