Editor’s Note: This is the text from my talk at the #Nostraisa HK event. I didn’t prepare a PowerPoint presentation in advance; instead, I wrote this article to share my thoughts on social networks. There is also a Chinese version of this post.
My name is Digi Monkey, the author of the Nostr client flycat.club. Flycat is a Nostr client that supports JoyId sign-in, Metamask sign-in, and more. Today, I’d like to discuss Nostr from my perspective and why it is crucial in cyberspace.
I’d like to start with a quote:
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”
Some of you may recognize this quote from the _“Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” _It is from an article written by John Perry Barlow on February 8, 1996, published on the internet. In 1996, the internet was still a relatively new concept, and for reference, the Netscape browser was released in 1994. So, the idea of the internet, or cyberspace, was somewhat vague to people at the time. However, as we can see from the Declaration, it depicted an idealized utopian vision of internet communities with a sense of certainty.
In the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, two fundamental ideas were advocated:
- Cyberspace and the physical world are separate and entirely independent of each other. Cyberspace has no borders, no discrimination, and is immaterial.
- Cyberspace does not require governance from the real world. It is not subject to the constraints of mandatory laws but forms its own order and social norms through unwritten “code” (morality, ethics, self-interest, common welfare).
Today, we are discussing social networks in a broader sense, referring to this cyberspace, a new digital land where life happens online, a large community where people exchange information and services.
This is essentially the same concept as what was discussed in the Declaration. We can read the original text to see how people envisioned this new entity at the time. Here are some excerpts from the original text:
"The cyber world consists of information transmission, relationship interaction, and thought itself… Our world is omnipresent and ethereal, yet it is by no means a world for material entities.
We are creating a world in which anyone can join, with no privileges or prejudices based on race, economic power, force, or place of birth.
We are creating a world in which anyone, anywhere, can express their beliefs without fear of being forced into silence or conformity, no matter how strange those beliefs may be.
The legal concepts and scenarios about property, expression, identity, and migration that you have in the material world do not apply to us. All these concepts are based on material entities, and there are no material entities here.
Our members have no bodies, so unlike you, we cannot achieve order through material coercion. We believe that our governance will emerge from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the common welfare. The only law that is universally recognized in our inner cultural world is the “Golden Rule” (Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you). We hope to build our unique solutions on this basis."
You can see that the vision at that time was very idealized, and the concept of governance was quite vague. It has evolved significantly from the internet back then to the internet as we know it today, a real and integral part of our daily lives. Many web3/blockchain communities would even argue that the internet took a detour and deviated from its original intent.
The two fundamental ideas mentioned in the “Declaration of Independence” have been violated by the current state of the internet:
- The internet today is powerful largely because it has become intertwined with reality, no longer separate entities. Many O2O services, such as food delivery, ride-sharing, and accommodations, have seamlessly integrated into people’s lives. The internet has infiltrated reality and, in some cases, guides real-life activities. In its early days, the internet was more like a pure new land of ideas, and many optimistically believed it could create a separate, free home for human thought.
- This home was supposed to be free from the governance of real-world laws and national governments, fully autonomous. This, too, has been overthrown. Today, various countries actively regulate the internet and enact a variety of telecommunications laws, primarily following the principle of territorial management. For any internet service, the location of its entity, server location, and data storage location correspond to the government and local regulations governing the internet service hosted in those areas.
We won’t discuss whether these two basic concepts’ overthrow is right or wrong. We won’t argue whether what the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” advocates is necessarily correct. We’ll only discuss the significant gap between the idealized vision and the reality that has occurred.
I’m interested in how this change occurred. From the perspective of the mainstream narrative, it’s a kind of cyberpunk emergence where big corporations, governments, and technological development have become uncontrollable and have created a “high tech, low life” reality.
For example, delivery drivers are like bounty hunters from science fiction novels, hired by a system, surviving under algorithmic management. Many people want to escape, but most of the time, they have to rely on it.
On the purely spiritual level of life, which is closer to the part of life on social networks, people’s lives on platforms like Twitter are similar. On Twitter, you have no basic rights, such as ownership of your account. Users only have temporary usage rights, not to mention the right to speak freely. These rights are held by companies like Musk and Twitter.
Another perspective involves a power struggle between humans and machines.
A civilization war between machines and humans.
Here, the machines refer more to servers. An online service, especially platform-type products, usually consists of two parts: servers and clients. Servers are controlled by private companies or developers and require authorized APIs to access. Clients are the software used by users on their local devices, whether accessed through a browser for the web or a mobile app. Users use clients to access servers, read and write data, perform calculations, and consume services.
Servers hold the most power in this process:
- Identity (name/identity/account, “who am I, how can I prove I am me”) and a byproduct: the relationship chain.
- Identity is what you request from the server, asking for a designation. It will either give it to you or not, and it can also assign your identity to someone else. For example, on Weibo, usernames cannot be duplicated, so who gets the good names? The server decides. Additionally, since servers can decide “who you are” and who your friends are, it’s what’s often referred to as the social relationship chain, which is also controlled by servers. The most typical example is WeChat, where the address book is one of its most valuable assets.
- Data (means of production - where data is stored, who has the right to access, whether data can be forged, ownership, and usage rights)
- Although most data is produced by users, it is stored on servers, and the relationship between who produces the data and whether data can be forged is endorsed by the server. In most cases, you only have usage rights for data you’ve produced, and ownership belongs to the platform.
- Transactions ( relationships of production - who can provide services/consume services, compliance with transaction rules, whether fees are required)
- Rules are written into the server, and servers can change rules at any time because they also have data and rule changes often involve adjustments to data usage and access. Servers can change the rules as they please.
We can see that the process by which servers provide services to users is similar to a country’s management of its people. When you register for an account on Twitter, it’s like registering for an ID with the government, and the police department gives you an identity card number. Your ID is your pass to prove your identity, and with an identity, you can rent a house, produce, and consume within the country. The entire process is often accompanied by social rules like laws and morality that constrain your behavior.
On Twitter, there are similar things like “terms of service” , which are analogous to real-world laws. If your account violates certain behaviors, Twitter can revoke your account. However, this online system is much worse than the offline legal system. In the real world, citizens have the right to participate in lawmaking and a system that allows citizens to debate. Online, this is completely lacking, and Twitter has full control.
So, we need to realize that in cyberspace, human rights, in essence, are even more lacking than in the real world. If people in the real world have advanced to a stage of modern civilization and have established sovereign nations, in cyberspace, we are likely still in the era of slavery or feudalism. Servers are the kings, emperors, and rulers of this space.
Nostr has a very unique position. I like to view its position on a spectrum that ranges from centralization to decentralization, with Nostr positioned more towards the right side of the center.
In this spectrum, we are actually describing and discussing different types of services provided within cyberspace. It’s more about the approach to doing things or the technical architecture choices, and it is not related to political identities in the offline world. The terms “left” and “right” are merely metaphorical.
At the extreme end of centralization, most entities operate under the model of maximizing the power of servers, which can be referred to as the “right-wing” or conservative approach. This category consists of:
- Business companies (mainstream forces, large corporations/startups)
- Individuals/small groups (geek self-hosting/indie developers)
- Governments (government portals/services provided by social institutions/online government affairs)
Right Wings primarily rely on building servers and machines, and our lives are governed by the rules established by these machines.
It’s worth noting that even within the Right Wings category, there are some independent developers who, often in a more artisanal manner, provide unique software and services. However, they still operate within the framework of server power maximization, where a single developer holds authority.
As an example, consider https://tilde.town/. This is a community hosted on a Linux server. The founder provides server resources, and individuals can apply to join the community, receiving access credentials to connect to this public server. Once connected, users can write, draw, create things, and share their creations within the community.
This community operates under a model characterized by human governance. The founder manually approves entry applications, and they have the authority to remove users if their behavior is inappropriate. While this community is small and wonderful, it still aligns with the aforementioned centralization model.
Therefore, in many cases, the right-wing approach is also valid. As long as the residents of a community willingly accept the rule of servers , and community development proceeds unhindered, there may be no need to replace this centralized model with decentralization entirely. Centralized services have their own legitimate reasons for existence. This is also why I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that “blockchain is eating the world”.
Left Wings refers to the extreme end of decentralization in its practices. It includes several forms:
- P2P networks (volunteer nodes, such as Bittorrent, Tor, SSB).
- Blockchain (where code serves as mandatory rules, requiring incentives and consensus).
- Free software (does not provide services, open source/donation-based).
Left Wings essentially want everyone to run their little homebrew machines and unite all devices under one global cyber law. This “code of the law” represents the consensus layer in blockchain networks.
Left-wing radicals are currently an influential force. Taking blockchain as an example, how do they operate? Essentially, they aim to create a fair system that everyone can participate in. This system has strict rules, such as a fixed total supply of Bitcoin (21 million) and the requirement for nodes to adhere to the same set of code rules.
The rules governing this code and how it is modified or upgraded are themselves governed by rules. For instance, some blockchains use DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) voting to decide whether a proposal should be included in the consensus rules. In the case of Bitcoin, changes to the system are primarily determined by the adoption and support of mining nodes.
So, blockchain is, in essence, creating a highly idealized system akin to the intricate systems of ancient Greek direct democracy where all citizens actively participate in political life. In contrast, Nostr lacks such grand ambitions. It operates more loosely, defining only a few core rules, while allowing a wide range of other actions. This approach is more aligned with modern liberalism, where there is a clear distinction between personal and political life. Anything outside that line remains free from legal interference and government authority.
Nostr’s protocol is minimalist, and its positioning is unique. It doesn’t lean left or right but rather adopts a somewhat moderate stance. Let’s compare Nostr to conventional approaches in terms of ID (identity), data (production resources), and transactions (production relations).
ID (Identity): In Nostr, identity is merely a pair of public and private keys, controlled by the user. Servers cannot deprive users of their identity or make them someone else. Only the user can prove that “I am me.”
Data (Production Resources): Nostr defines the format of data (a very simple JSON) and the method of transmission (communication standards between servers and clients).
- Data Format: All messages must adhere to the same standard, with the most important requirement being that any sent message must be signed.
- Data Transmission: Nostr hardcodes the use of WebSocket for server/client communication, defining the basic communication format. Why hardcode? It is a more practical approach for bootstrapping.
Transactions (Production Relations): Nostr can integrate with the Bitcoin Lightning Network, providing the capability for native digital currency payments. However, this is optional. Apart from this, there are no other specific rules. Essentially, it adheres to the principle that if something is not prohibited by law, it is permitted.
In the Nostr ecosystem, servers are referred to as “Relays.” User-generated data is temporarily stored on Relays, and because every piece of data is signed, servers cannot forge user data or claim ownership of data produced by users.
Data propagation depends on requests made to a public Relay to obtain a user’s data. The same data can be stored on multiple Relays, and a user can request the same data from multiple Relays. This mechanism makes servers (Relays) service providers that users can freely switch between and select. They lose the power to define identity, own data, or dictate transaction rules. Servers become a more simplified role, akin to an API-connected hard drive, and their revenue generation is primarily based on providing this service.
In conclusion, the power of servers (Relays) is diminished, while the rights of clients are amplified. Some might be concerned about clients amassing too much power. However, due to the deconstruction of server power and reduced switching costs for users, this scenario is unlikely to materialize.
Of course, there is a scenario where a client introduces too many services customized beyond the scope of the Nostr protocol under the guise of “caching/optimization.” This should still raise concerns, as excessive optimization can limit users to a specific client’s services and prevent them from switching to other clients following the Nostr protocol’s standards. This situation would be akin to the ecosystem being hijacked by a particular product.
At present, because switching clients incurs almost no costs, the bigger challenge is how client developers can offer products with differentiation (while remaining compatible with the Nostr protocol) and determine viable business models for clients, which seems more complex than exploring Relay business models. However, this falls under a different discussion and will not be addressed here.
On the other hand, I believe that Nostr’s relay-client architecture is more aligned with the way human society operates in the real world.
Relay as a Free Cache or Paid Long-Term Storage :In the Nostr ecosystem, a Relay can be seen as a service for free caching or paid long-term storage (free to cache, pay to save). Many users new to Nostr may ask, “What happens if a Relay goes offline? Do I lose my data?” The answer is yes; your data would indeed be lost. However, this might not be a problem.
Nostr’s social network is similar to having a conversation in a physical coffee shop. Free public Relays act as a medium for distributing and caching the messages you send, just like the air carries your spoken words to others in a coffee shop. After the conversation ends, everyone goes home, and the information shared during the conversation dissipates, just like spoken words in the air.
Of course, if you believe that what you’re saying is particularly valuable, you can run your own Relay to permanently store these messages. This is akin to people who write diaries to record what they said during a conversation when they return home. However, most people may not keep diaries. If you highly value your data, you can use a paid Relay to have the server store your data long-term. This is similar to renting a storage unit to store your belongings when your home gets too crowded.
Relay as a Localized Autonomous Community: Present-day social networks are global, and globalization comes with its own set of challenges. The human brain cannot effectively process global information because we have historically lived in small villages with perhaps just a few hundred neighbors. When the internet inundates us with global information, our brains can easily become overwhelmed. As a result, you may feel anxious when scrolling through Twitter, as you need to care about a conflict in one part of the world, a trade war, or a technological standoff elsewhere. The Relay model has the potential to bring us back to a pattern of small localized communities, each acting autonomously. Every Relay is a community advocating local self-governance, and users are free to switch between these communities.
This is why I feel that Nostr is pragmatic. We’re taking a step back and abandoning the pursuit of peer-to-peer (P2P) in favor of a social network model based on “polycentric, small-scale community self-governance.” Why give up on P2P? Because P2P won’t work (in the words of faitjaf, and I largely agree). P2P networks have been around for a while, but we’ve been unable to make them universally accessible as social network services, and they’re often not user-friendly. So, we’ve shifted our focus to the model of multiple Relays and free switching between Relays, which is more practical and already up and running.
A common misconception is that Nostr is decentralized and censorship-resistance. In reality, each Relay acts as a gate-keeper, and each Relay chooses what data to store, effectively conducting a form of censorship. However, I find this type of censorship acceptable because Relays must bear real-world legal risks. Behind every Relay is a specific individual operating it, expending their resources to provide services. They have the right to choose their users and decide which data to accept. What we don’t want is everyone being forced to obey the rules of a single server. Users have the freedom to switch between Relays, and if you disagree with a particular Relay’s rules, you’re entirely free to disconnect from that Relay and use another.
Now let’s take a closer look at what sets Nostr apart.
Blockchain is a very expensive and more rigorous system. Its data must go through nodes to achieve eventual consistency. Blockchain can provide trust. For example, if a developer writes a smart contract on the blockchain, they can trust that the contract will produce results consistent with the code. For users, this means that in systems like Bitcoin, they can trust the Bitcoin blockchain to record their holdings accurately. However, this kind of trust is costly and comes at a significant expense. Each Bitcoin mining machine, for instance, pays a cost during proof-of-work (PoW) mining.
In contrast, Nostr is cost-effective because its system is loose. On Nostr, the only guarantee is that every message sent has been signed by an account. Users can trust only a very thin layer of assurance, which is whether the received message genuinely comes from a certain public key. Beyond this assurance, Nostr does not make any guarantees regarding Relay data availability or message order consistency.
However, this flexibility offers significant advantages. Nostr is a very loose and adaptable system, allowing for the spontaneous growth and development of its ecosystem. This level of freedom and flexibility means Nostr can easily connect with other systems and serve as a standard at the DID (Decentralized Identifier) layer, thanks to its simplicity. Unlike other blockchain systems, Nostr doesn’t come with the biases of a particular system (e.g., BTC community not accepting the ETH community and vice versa).
In terms of their approach, Nostr and blockchain are fundamentally different. Blockchain systems often require a well-thought-out architectural design in advance, define every aspect of the protocol, envision the behavior of various ecological roles, design intricate economic incentive mechanisms to coordinate these roles, and develop a protocol upgrade mechanism. In contrast, Nostr’s approach is to specify only the most critical rules and leave everything else to the ecosystem’s own development. For example, how a Relay makes money is not a concern for the core Nostr protocol; it allows people within the ecosystem to experiment and find viable business models.
In summary, blockchain is excellent and may address about 5% of humanity’s most crucial issues, such as currency and finance. But blockchain is also expensive, making it unrealistic to expect it to solve the remaining 95% of problems. Furthermore, not all problems require blockchain’s heavyweight form of trust. Nostr, on the other hand, may be able to address 80% of these issues, which may only require lightweight trust. The remaining 15% of problems can continue to be addressed with centralized, right-wing approaches.
For me, what makes Nostr most intriguing is not just the protocol itself but the “ecosystem.” Regardless of how well-designed a protocol may be, it can never develop and evolve without a community of people surrounding it. Nostr’s most valuable asset isn’t the protocol itself; it’s the community that has gathered around it. Many are Bitcoin maximalists, but there are also many who are not particularly enthusiastic about blockchain technology. If you delve into the development of the Nostr ecosystem, you’ll be amazed by the vitality and energy it demonstrates. This vitality aligns cleverly with the principles followed by the group that established standards for the early TCP/IP protocols (IETF):
- We reject: kings, presidents, and voting.
- We believe in: rough consensus and running code.
That is, our credo is that we don’t let a single individual dictate decisions (a king or president), nor should decisions be made by a vote, nor do we want decisions to be made in a vacuum without practical experience. Instead, we strive to make our decisions by the consent of all participants, though allowing for some dissent (rough consensus), and to have the actual products of engineering (running code) trump theoretical designs.
In the Nostr ecosystem, you can find some similar characteristics:
- Organization structure: no official organization, light funding by people like Jack
- NIPs: loosely join, everything is optional, openly debated, the founder is not afraid of being subjective
- Developers ship fast: Everything happens publicly on the Nostr protocol(launch/discussion/feedback/debate)
most new things added in the Nostr protocol are done this way: firstly some clients/relays software developers introduce a new feature and then push the feature to public users, users give some feedback, and other developers notice that and start the discussion, some people writing NIPs, have debate on the NIP drafts, and then finally merge the NIPs —— this is true “rough consensus and running code” looks like.
In summary, the original vision of cyberspace has diverged from reality.
Technological advancements, whether from P2P or blockchain’s left-wing forces, have prompted people to reconsider their initial notions of cyberspace. At this juncture, Nostr offers a pragmatic and moderate approach, providing an alternative solution. Essentially, Nostr represents a compromise because P2P and blockchain technologies, in terms of usability and cost, can be too cumbersome for many scenarios that only require lightweight trust. Nostr has a unique ecosystem, driven by the pursuit of rough consensus and running code, and its minimalistic protocol allows more room for the ecosystem’s organic development. This positions it as a potential nexus for connecting various aspects of the digital world.
This article has covered various fragmented thoughts and ideas. Due to time constraints, many topics couldn’t be explored in depth. We look forward to future opportunities to delve deeper into the challenges and opportunities that Nostr faces.