Scuttlebutt – An Off-Grid Social Network

“It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.

For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.”

—Ian Bogart, “The Nomad Who’s Exploding the Internet Into Pieces.” The Atlantic. May 22, 2017.

Originally came across Scuttlebutt in this article in The Atlantic a few months ago. It’s relatively easy to set-up.

  1. Get an invite code to a pub.
  2. Download a release of Patchwork, a Scuttlebutt client, for your operating system and install.
  3. Follow the prompts to connect to the pub.

It strikes me as reminiscent of the old BBS systems. But, much would look familiar to the people that came of age using Facebook. There are public forums, public user journals and private messaging. The reason it’s more like a BBS is that it is built around the idea of asynchronous updating rather than real time.

The problem—like with alternative, decentralized social networks everywhere—is the existing user base does not include people you already know. Then, for most people, it’s a question of why not just use Facebook? 

There are good answers to that question, e.g., it’s not a platform built on doing surveillance on its users so it can make money selling ads to them, it’s an augmentation to occasional social interaction rather than a surrogate for it, the built in delay cuts out some of the addictive attraction of social media, etc. Still, these are rarely persuasive arguments that convince people to change from Facebook, Twitter, and so forth to a much less polished social media platform.

Regardless, Scuttlebutt is an interesting alternative—one I’ll be watching in the coming years.


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