For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.
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The term “Scuttlebutt” comes from the original water-cooler gossip. Named for a water cask (a butt) that had been cut (or scuttled), early 19th-century sailors would dish dirt while drawing from it. Being a sailor, Tarr adopted the name thanks to its nautical provenance, an apt description of its behavior. On first blush, that might sound no different from Twitter and Facebook, where gossip reigns. Isn’t the internet decentralized already, for that matter: a network of servers distributed all around the globe?
Sort of. It has always been concentrated in some ways and dispersed in others. The internet’s precursor, ARPANET, was designed to withstand nuclear catastrophe. Geographically distributed servers could communicate with one another absent a central hub, thanks to the communication protocol TCP/IP. The ARPANET’s infrastructure was decentralized, but that design served a central authority: U.S. national defense.
When the web entered public use in the 1990s, it offered a publishing platform without intermediation, as commercial services like AOL had done for online access. And it worked, for a time, while the network and its user base were small. But the web quickly became unmanageable. Keeping a popular server running became too expensive for ordinary folk and too complicated for non-technical people. And so business dissolved the internet into commercial product offerings. Today, that authority rests in the hands of a handful of big companies that run services used by billions of people.
And those billions do indeed gossip online. But the services they use embrace gossip’s content rather than its form. Facebook and Twitter are only like water coolers if there were one, giant, global water cooler for all workplaces everywhere. That sounds empowering at first—people anywhere can see and spread news and ideas from anyone. But those users are entirely reliant on the service operator. Outages, bans, lack of connectivity, or state suppression might get in the way. More often, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google change their services’ behavior or the terms of their usage—especially the way customer data is gathered, stored, and used.
Proponents of decentralized services (which are sometimes abbreviated as “decents”) hope to overcome some of these limitations by scattering the software and data that run online services closer to their ultimate points of use. Tarr’s Secure Scuttlebutt isn’t a social network like Twitter or Facebook, nor is it an email client like Gmail. Instead, it’s a platform for encrypted, automated, and local replication of information. Atop this information, new, decentralized versions of services like Twitter—or anything else—can be built.