These days, there are a few large technology companies that handle most of the web’s information. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others have ownership over the lion’s share of our data. Many of these companies have been in hot water recently over data privacy violations for misusing the vast amounts of data they have on their customers. Furthermore, these companies’ business models depend on gathering as much data as possible to sell ads against.
Many years ago, the web was much less centralized around these huge companies. For instance, before Gmail it was much more common to host your own email or use a much smaller service. You had much more control over your own service. Today, your data isn’t in your hands, it’s in Google or Facebooks. Furthermore, they can kick you off your platform for a number of reasons without any warning. Additionally, there are political reasons for not wanting all of your information in these centralized silos. Being a part of these platforms means that you must conform with their rules and guidelines, no matter how much you don’t like them.
Decentralized systems fix this by giving you control over your information. Instead of one centralized company with one running copy of the service, decentralized services work a lot like email. Anyone can run their own email server and have control over their own information. This has been true about email since it was formed. But for social networks and other sites, this kind of distributed model is now becoming an option as well.
Mastodon is a twitter-like social network based on federation and decentralization. Federation means that individual versions of the service run by different people can talk to one another. This means that I can follow someone with an account on Mastodon.com from my account at Mastodon.xyz. This works very similarly to how email works: you can email anyone from your gmail account, not just other gmail accounts. Federation means that I can run my own server with my own rules if I wanted to. I can choose to allow certain content or people and know that my data is in my control.
Many people are starting to call decentralized technology “Web 3.0”. While Web 2.0 saw people using the internet for more and more things, this came at the cost of consolidation and large companies taking over much of the control of the web. With decentralization and federation, the web can once again be for the people, and not only for large companies.