Centralised vs Decentralised Social Media

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Asad Tahir Jappa

In the ultimate analysis, it can safely be concluded that time has already come for users to know and, thereby, control as to what data is sold, to whom, and for what purpose

Beyond the shadow of any doubt, centralized social media has become an integral part of our lives. We regularly use it to form social groups, foster relationships, build bonds, evolve synergies, and keep in touch with our long-distance family and friends. We also use it to share our hopes, our fears, our vacation photos, our celebrations, and post videos of joyous moments. Likewise, we use it to keep in touch with local, national, and international political developments. Businesses use it to pitch and promote their products while public sector organisations use it to disseminate information of various new initiatives and, thus, maximize their outreach. It is interesting to note that with the rise of technologies like Blockchain and the cloud, the decentralized network has become a growing trend in today’s business environments. These networks are still a far cry from the centralized networks that were around 20 years ago. Therefore, it is imperative to illustrate some of the fundamental differences between both environments, as well as identify the key advantages and disadvantages of each in its own unique context.
A centralized network architecture is developed around a single server that handles all the major processing. Lesser powerful workstations connect to the main server and submit their requests to it rather than performing them directly. This can include applications, data storage, and utilities. Some key advantages of the centralized network management are consistency, efficiency, and affordability. Network administrators are under pressure to keep machines patched and up-to-date. Therefore, having one central server to control the whole network means less IT management time and fewer admins. In addition, all the data on a centralized network is required to go through one place which makes it far easier to track and collect data across the network. Centralized networks do have their limitations too. For example, a single point of failure can be a big risk factor for organizations. If the central or master server goes down, the individual client machines attached to it fail to process user requests. The impact of this failure largely depends on how much the server processes. If the client machines do little more than the desired number of requests, system availability can be totally compromised. They also offer limited scalability. As all applications and processing power are housed in a single server, the only way to scale network is to add more storage, I/O bandwidth, or processing power to the server. This may not turn out to be a cost-effective solution in the long run. Thus, a lack of bandwidth can also become a challenging handicap. Therefore, in such situation, a single server can simply prove a bottleneck. It can be difficult to keep up with the influx of concurrent user requests, given its inherent limitations to process a certain number of requests at the same time.
Highlighting some of the grey areas of centralised social media network, Tim Berners-Lee has rightly remarked, “But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.” Hence, it is sad reality to witness that centralized social media continues to invade our privacy and thus breach our trust. More often than not, apparently benign quizzes and soft games wilfully share our data and our friends’ data to huge commercial outfits with vote-garnering and money-making motives. Similarly, news feeds don’t generally provide accurate and reliable perspectives on current events. Unfortunately, majority of advertisers stalk us from one digital platform to the next. Centralized social media is not a benign way to connect people to one another. While Facebook may connect people better than any other platform, it has its price tag attached. It gathers loads of data on participants and exploits it to sell targeted advertising. Advertisers are not just companies that lure users to buy their goods and services, but also ones that want them to think a certain way about a political candidate or a social issue to win their vote. The centralised social media applications like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube, advertisers are the customers, while the user data is their prime product.
It is true that at times users look for biased news sources that endorse their own worldview. But it is one thing to make a conscious choice to do that; it is just another thing to have Facebook do it because its advertisers, which include media outlets, identify people as a certain type based on their likes and other data the platform has gathered about them, analyzed, and packaged up. Facebook user data shapes algorithms that determine what users see in their news feeds in a way that can present a one-sided view of the world. A view that only affirms and never challenges our views can increase divisiveness and cause social unrest. That is precisely why that as company uses centralized storage for user data, any breach of that system exposes enormous data at any given moment. We have already seen it happen to Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and many more companies that store our data in this manner. The question no longer seems to be if but when a given database will be compromised and thereby threaten our privacy. Thus, we are all vulnerable: every company, every organization, and every individual, unfortunately though.
On the other hand, it is so very reassuring to see a wave of visionary computer programmers developing new services that seek to foil these threats through decentralisation which emanate from our current social media framework. Unlike a traditional centralised platform, a decentralized network architecture distributes workloads among several machines, instead of relying on a single central server. This trend has evolved from the rapid advancements of desktop and laptop computers, which now offer performance well beyond the needs of most business applications. Therefore, a decentralized network offers a wide range of benefits over the more conventional centralized network, including increased system reliability, scale, and privacy. One of the key benefits of decentralized network management is the fact that there is no real single point of failure—this is because individual users’ machines are not reliant on a single central server to handle all processes. Decentralized networks are also much easier to scale, as one can simply add more machines to the network to add more compute power. Besides, a decentralized network architecture facilitates greater privacy, as information is not passing through a single source. Instead, it is processed through a number of different points.
This makes it much more difficult to track across a network. However, on the downside, decentralized networks require more machines, which results in more maintenance and potential issues, hence, an additional burden on your IT resources. Other significant challenges with decentralized platforms include creating user-friendly interfaces, helping people understand how to use tokens, and building up network effects. Furthermore, some blockchains, including bitcoin and ethereum, currently can’t handle enough transactions to support a widespread spectrum of decentralized platforms.
In the ultimate analysis, it can safely be concluded that time has already come for users to know and, thereby, control as to what data is sold, to whom, and for what purpose. As users of social media, people must not act as mere bystanders and watch the blatant breach of their trust, resulting in the invasion of their valued privacy. By shifting to the emerging decentralized, open-source social media platforms, individuals can regain much of the control and power that they have lost using centralized social media. It is true that network centralization was created to improve efficiency and harness potential on the economies of scale. On the other hand, decentralization aims to improve the speed and flexibility of network by localizing processing power to an individual user. This has rendered blockchian as the technology of future. Therefore, both peculiar environments have their specific advantages and disadvantages. There is hardly any definite conclusion as to whether one is better than the other. However, it is quite closer to reality that the days of glory attached with traditional centralised social media are long over while the dectralised social media platforms seek to create inroads into the market and pitch themselves as a safer and more reliable substitute. Therefore, it is quite appropriate to quote from Mathew Arnold who had rightly highlighted similar dilemma in his famous verse, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead; the other powerless to be born.”