This article is a compilation of posts I wrote on the decentralized social network Mastodon. Mastodon uses readable user handles like mine: @email@example.com. A handle includes my username and the domain of my home server. Like an email server, a Mastodon server can federate content from users on other servers. Mastodon uses the protocol ActivityPub. When I thought about a search engine for decentralized networks, I also mentioned the fully decentralized protocols Scuttlebutt and IPFS. Instead of readable user handles they use hashes to identify other accounts or content. Hashes make it hard for users to discover interesting content, because they are often long and not memorizable.
I think that search engines focusing on decentralized networks or protocols would be highly popular. As a new user of Mastodon and ActivityPub I was looking for popular people. I was figuring out how the medium is used at its best before personalizing who I follow. With the fully decentralized Scuttlebutt protocol the discovery of successful, public content is even harder. Most pages I navigate to on the World Wide Web, I found in a search engine — even the ones I should know the address to. (post)
Why should decentralized content be indexed and curated?
Next to search engines, curated lists of great profiles would be helpful for onboarding to a decentralized network. Other than centralized social networks, most clients of decentralized networks don’t bug you with recommendations of whom to follow. However, when intentionally used, recommendations can be a powerful feature to follow new people and pop your social bubble. An example of such a curated list is awesome-mastodon. (post)
Curated lists and search engines should be part of the onboarding for Mastodon, IPFS and Scuttlebutt networks. Mastodon subscribes you to your admin and IPFS tells you how to view a photo of a cat. These are not proper introductions to the contents of those networks and left me puzzled of where to discover more content! I wanted to adopt IPFS and Scuttlebutt several times, but the lack of up-to-date link lists are what kept me feeling empowered to find any content of interest. (post)
I would love to see a Mastodon search which allows me to see who is posting in my geographical neighbourhood and to discover new people talking about my interests. In centralized social networks this is most commonly solved by using hashtags and a global search. In Mastodon your searches are limited to the federated content your server knows about. It is not your server’s task to crawl and index all public content, however, a search engine could try this. (post)
If Mastodon had a global search, I would feel encouraged to switch to an even less populated server. The local search is limited to content and profiles which my server sees. Federation relays are great to make a server feel less empty, however, they don’t satisfy my need for a search of structured content unknown to my home server. (post)
How to promote decentralized networks?
People promoting decentralized networks should highlight great content both via the main stream networks and the promoted networks. If I had learned about Mastodon on Twitter, links to find great content should be available on Twitter – not just a ‘join network’ link. It should also teach me how to find great content using only Mastodon. Are there accounts highlighting main stream content?
Fully decentralized networks operating on Scuttlebutt or IPFS should also focus on multichannel promotions. (post)
Would it be decentralized or centralized?
As I am thinking about how a search engine for ActivityPub or Scuttlebutt networks would function, the idea of decentralization has crossed my mind. The biggest benefit may be to split the workload of crawling and indexing thousands of websites. Furthermore, the search could become more resilient by storing the data in a distributed database. Running it decentralized also plays into it. In the end, a centralized search might still be a great option for ActivityPub as having untrusted crawlers would require a verification layer. (post)