A novel technology arises seemingly spontaneously and without warning, although it is, in fact, the culmination of decades of research and development by a diverse set of scientists. Political idealists hold it aloft as a symbol of liberation and revolution, while establishment elites denigrate and dismiss it. However, technologists are captivated by its vast potential and devote their free time to experimentation.
Eventually enterprises and entire industries spring up to capitalize on this technology, and its impact is substantial. In retrospect, numerous individuals ponder why its immense potential was not immediately apparent.
What technology am I talking about? It could be any technology that's sufficiently innovative and disruptive. Automobiles, personal computers, the internet, mobile phones, bitcoin... nostr.
What is nostr? Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relays
Nostr is a simple protocol for sharing relatively small amounts of data (such as text posts.) It doesn't rely on any trusted central server, hence it is resilient, It is based on cryptographic keys and signatures, so it is tamperproof. It does not rely on peer to peer gossiping of data, and therefore it is reliable.
Nostr is the first practical solution to censorship resistant social media. While it is not fundamentally a social networking protocol (more on that later,) it's quite simple to build social media networks on top of it. But wait, the nerds may exclaim, what about ActivityPub, ATProtocol, and Secure Scuttlebutt which are used to power Mastodon, BlueSky, and Scuttlebutt? Well, those protocols all create federated gossip networks - in order to be a "first class" sovereign (censorship resistant) user of those networks, you really need to run your own server. I can state from experience (selling plug and play bitcoin nodes for several years) that requiring folks to run servers greatly limits your total addressable market. Nostr is much more lightweight in that you can subscribe to a variety of relays and not be beholden to any single server administrator.
Nostr is NOT a:
- social network
- consensus protocol
- peer-to-peer network
- tradeable crypto token
Nostr's Key Attributes
- Decentralization. Nostr is a decentralized protocol, which means that it is not controlled by any central authority or corporation. Instead, the network is just a collection of independently-run data relays (servers.) This means that nostr as a whole is not vulnerable to censorship or manipulation by any single entity.
- Pseudonymous. Unlike many social media platforms, Nostr does not collect user data and sell it to third-party advertisers. No email address, phone number, or government identity is associated with your nostr account. Just like Bitcoin, the system is only aware of public keys and cryptographic signatures to authenticate that data is valid.
- Monetization. Nostr provides a unique monetization system for content creators. Unlike other social media platforms, which rely on advertising revenue to pay content creators, Nostr allows content creators to monetize their content directly and receive tips (AKA "zaps") from their followers. Nostr infrastructure providers can similarly monetize the services they provide via lightning payments.
- Open source. Nostr code is available for anyone to view, use, and modify. This allows for transparency and collaboration in the development of the protocol. Anyone can contribute to the development of nostr, and the community can work together to improve the protocol over time. Nostr is designed to be flexible and adaptable, so it can evolve to meet the needs of its users. This creates a sense of ownership and investment in the protocol, which is essential for its long-term success.
How Does it Work?
Nostr is basically a distributed note storage system, where notes are just text blobs and the notes happen to have public keys and signatures associated with them as a proof of authorship.
Nostr clients subscribe to any number of relays (servers) that they want and then can publish notes and query for notes associated with other public keys (users.) Servers are all independent of each other and have no concept of being in sync / consensus / etc.
At its most basic level, that's all there is to nostr. Though, of course, there are a wide variety of implementation possibilities being developed.
Nostr Fixes the Slippery Slope of Censorship
Nostr fixes governance and censorship issues inherent to centralized social networks by replacing the subjectivity of fickle authorities and administrators with open markets. Pretty much every social media company that has gained mass adoption runs into this thorny problem and ends up having to address it subjectively, creating perverse incentives for folks who are operating services that are arguably used as a "town square" despite all of the social interactions occurring on private property.
Centralized platforms also suffer from external pressure by nation states. If you operate as a company in a given jurisdiction, you find yourself compelled to respect the laws of that jurisdiction. Protocols have no such awareness of jurisdiction.
All humans should have the right to speak, though no one is obliged to listen. Nostr gives controversial speech a more reliable home. Although a relay can block a user from publishing anything to it, they can't stop anyone from publishing to other relays. Since users are identified by a public key, they don't lose their identities and their network of followers if they get banned from a relay.
On nostr you can have a high degree of confidence that you won't be deplatformed for any reason.
Nostr enables something that no social network has ever supported: the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Want to see exactly what someone else's feed looks like? Just set up a read-only account with their public key. If this functionality is sufficiently interesting, nostr clients could add a "view feed as..." feature that could be as simple as a button on a user's profile screen.
Freedom from federations. All of the other "free speech" platforms still have centralized aspects. If you're using an app that has "terms of service" associated with it, you are not sovereign unto your social media. Mastodon users have discovered this the hard way. Going back to my earlier point about running servers being a lot to ask from folks... few folks are cut out to handle the abuse inherent to being the administrator of a "public space."
Freedom from Anti-Features
Nostr is elegant in its simplicity. It lacks many anti-features, such as:
- Paid advertisements that fill your feed with noise.
- The Algorithm, which distorts the reach of accounts and messes with your curation in unknown ways.
- Arbitrary limits on the length and type of content you post.
- Unpredictable rules around how embedded media gets rendered.
- Nanny warnings about posting negative language.
- Unencrypted DMs that can be read by admins.
- An ever-looming axe over your head that if you violate the increasingly complex and ever-changing terms of service, your account will be censored.
Nostr is freedom. But that freedom is currently also free of frills...
Key Management. At the moment most nostr users are not handling their private key material very safely and they're keeping keys on internet connected devices, which is guaranteed to end poorly. The ability to delegate and revoke keys will be important both for individual security and for supporting ownership of corporate / team accounts. One upside to using a centralized service with an API is the ability to grant access to third party integrations. But with a protocol based on private keys, I'd have to give integrations "god mode" that (currently) can't be revoked. NIP-26 supports this, though unfortunately it only supports delegation based upon expiration rather than open-ended with revocation. Key invalidation via NIP-041 is something I'm keeping my eye on.
Scaling. At time of writing there are less than 100,000 daily active nostr users. As we see growth spurts, they put stress on the infrastructure powering the relays and we find weak points, which are then addressed by developers. For example, recently I'm seeing nostr developers implementing CDNs and image optimizers to reduce bandwidth usage. There will be no shortage of scaling challenges ahead on the long road to mainstream adoption.
Incentivizing Relays. At the moment, most relays are being operated for free. Clearly this is not sustainable for mainstream adoption. Some relays already support subscribing via lightning; over time I expect that services will arise that rate relays based upon their data quality and service offerings. We see the early stages of that at https://nostr.watch/relays/find and https://nostr.info/relays/
Disincentivizing Spammers. NIP-013 describes a way to require notes to have proof of work attached to them as an anti-spam mechanism, though I don't think it has seen much adoption. Iris, for example, now only accepts events that are within 3 degrees of separation of your social network. Relay subscriptions can also act as anti-spam paywalls.
Identity verification & account discovery. Imposters are not a huge problem (yet) on nostr but they certainly will be. I really like nostr.directory's keybase-esque approach to proving that your nostr account is really you by linking it to other well-known accounts. I expect nostr clients will want to integrate with identity and reputation services such as nostr.directory and hive.one so that when someone sets up a new account, they can actually find people to follow.
Inconsistent experience. It's unclear how big of a problem this is; it will certainly be annoying to marketers who love metrics. The nature of nostr is such that you can never be completely sure that you are seeing 100% of the available data, because it's dispersed across an arbitrary number of independent servers.
This consistency issue also extends to metrics and interactions in general. For example, when I look at my own account in different clients, they give me different numbers of replies / likes / reposts / zaps.
Long-term data availability. This is a similar issue to above, but more focused on long-term issues of link-rot / data-rot. It wouldn't surprise me if we see mirroring services that crawl popular relays and check for the integrity of your historical notes, then reposting notes to new relays if there aren't many copies left in existence.
Network partitioning. As an extreme example of the above, what happens if you share 0 relays in common with someone else with whom you wish to share notes? At the moment, you won't be able to communicate with that person. But there are hints on events that can be used so that your client software knows how to connect to the other person's relay and interact with them. This remains an area of active development and may become a bigger problem if the total number of relays becomes much higher.
Search / indexing. Another issue that's a side effect of data partitioning - it's also naturally more difficult to search across the entire nostr universe without querying every single relay. I'd expect us to see nostr-optimized search engines that tackle this problem.
Feed curation / recommendations. While "the Algorithm" was noted earlier as an anti-feature, it could still be interesting / there may be market demand for customizable automated curation algorithms. These would have to be built on top of other indexing services that could then sift through all of the content from your raw feed and from adjacent / algorithmically similar accounts in order to filter out noise and recommend new signal. Each client can decide how to best show posts to users, so there is always the option of just consuming what you want in the manner you want — from using an AI to decide the order of the updates you'll see to just reading them in chronological order.
Reliability of arbitrary servers. This is something I see slowing down a lot of nostr web clients - they are making dozens if not hundreds of network calls to many different servers scattered across the web, because:
- NIP-05 has folks setting up custom JSON files on personal domains
- There is no "nostr image host" or other media content host, so folks upload embedded content to sometimes unreliable web servers.
It's critical that we get the incentive issues handled, because we want to avoid veering down the path of convenient arbitrary censorship that killed the robustness of email.
Flipping Web Architecture on its Head
The interesting thing about all of the challenges I listed in the previous section is that traditionally, all such functionality is implemented within the infrastructure of a web service such as Twitter or Facebook. But since there is no central nostr service host, those functions are all effectively "outsourced" to third parties.
This is where the free market comes in. The optimal outcome is that each of those pieces of desirable functionality turns into a competitive market of service providers rather than a single relay / server / company holding a monopoly over them all.
It's Still the First Inning
I've done several engagement tests across the different social media platforms I use and nostr is consistently performing better than expected. My nostr notes tend to get anywhere from 25% to over 100% of the amount of engagement as my tweets, despite the size of my Twitter audience being nearly 100 times larger. Perhaps this is just the euphoric honeymoon phase; we shall see if it's sustainable.
Nostr is improving every day. When I started using it a few months ago, there wasn't even a way to repost or like other people's notes, much less tip them via lightning.
We can see from the list of projects on nostr.net that a variety of folks are building tools and apps to help increase the utility of the protocol. Twitter-esque functionality is by no means the only application for nostr - we're seeing blogging platforms, pastebin clones, encrypted chat, and even gaming (chess) on nostr! Meanwhile, relay operators are also improving the tooling for infrastructure with things like CDNs, image optimizers, data indexers, spam filters, and so on.
Nostr already has its first podcast and first conference!
I'll be watching the stats on nostr.band and nostr.io to monitor nostr's growth trajectory. In particular, the zap stats are interesting because they're not a costless activity - we won't see those stats manipulated by folks running spambots (as seen in the mid-February spike below.)
Release Your Inner Nostrich
Nostr is a revolutionary protocol for social media because it provides a decentralized, monetizable, incentive-aligned, market-driven, and open-source platform for social interaction. Nostr has the potential to create a new era of social media that prioritizes user sovereignty and free market competition.
Don't keep your head buried in the sand - check out nostr.how to get started!
Want to help build nostr? Check out the open bounties!
Follow me on nostr: npub17u5dneh8qjp43ecfxr6u5e9sjamsmxyuekrg2nlxrrk6nj9rsyrqywt4tp