The Tragedy of the Communications Commons

Nov. 15, 2020 [technology] [proprietary]

Looking on in retrospect, the internet had been dominated by free and interoperable communications standards for an unexpectedly long time. But there has been a very powerful and very successful trend over recent years to destroy these commons. The opposing models at play, for clarification, are:

What is currently happening to digital communications standards is akin to private interests plundering public resources to establish monopolies. Imagine the interstate highway system being phased out in a takeover by a private highway system. People begin to use it electively because it is flashier and perhaps more convenient, but at the end of the day, everybody is now forced to drive only Ford vehicles (for example) as no other vehicle type is allowed to be made compatible with this new road system.

A unique problem surrounding the hostile takeover of proprietary standards involves their leveraging of social intertia in order to softly enforce the usage of their [dis]services. The decision to use a communication tool, to a layuser, often takes the form of “That is where all my friends are, so that is what I like to use.”. The problem is therefore not necessarily technical in nature. It does not matter if a free and user-respecting solution is as featureful (or even more featureful), users will tend to coleasce around what is already established and dominant. And so the platform which is lucky enough to have won over the minds of normies will always win out no matter how malacious it may be.

For a number of years, I had run a VoIP instance using Mumble in which all of my colleagues were happy to partake. But something changed sometime around 2016. A period of silence on the instance and when I next tried gathering on voicechat with my colleagues, they were no longer interested in using Mumble. Not only passively dissinterested, as one might imagine an indifferent party to be, but demonstrated a strong vitriolic hatred towards this thing that we once shared. They discovered the new [dis]service Discord.

Online voice chat is now another once-free area of the internet that has been gobbled up by software which is designed to mistreat its users.