After being inspired by a podcast with Preston Pysh and Will Casarin in January of 2023 I experienced my first interaction with ‘the nostr’ using a rather clunky interface. Since that time, nostr has gradually become more user friendly and an increasingly meaningful part of my life. I have now deleted all other social media accounts in favor of this blossoming decentralized alternative. My slow exodus away from centralized social media started over ten years ago, but the formation of a functional substitute was the final nail in the coffin. Making the jump at such an early stage may have been premature, but after two months using both nostr and Twitter I chose to make the transition permanent. I’ve written this article to explain my reasoning and provide an assessment of the nostr network as I understand it today.
Nobody is in charge of nostr, I have no one to ask if NOSTR should be capitalized or lowercase. I also have not reached a definitive conclusion regarding how it should be pronounced. Frankly it wouldn’t matter if anyone had an opinion about either of those things. Nostr is what the users and developers make it. Nostr is not a website and it is not a company. Nostr does not rely on a blockchain to function and there are no central servers dictating who can participate in the network. With the exception of shared interest and lightning ‘zap’ integration, it is independent from Bitcoin. Those who already understand Bitcoin seem to have an easier time wrapping their head around the importance of nostr, but I have also met several non-bitcoiners who are passionate about what is being built.
Nostr is a protocol which is designed to have applications built on top of it, or rather to interface with it. Users are free to choose from dozens of applications (clients) to access the protocol. The client they choose determines the nature of the user experience. The name NOSTR is an acronym for Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relay. The functionality of the protocol is in the name, but I will not be diving into the technicalities here. I also will not be discussing the pros and cons of the various clients used to access nostr. Though that would be a helpful resource if someone would like to write that up!
As a non-technical enthusiast of freedom focused technology, I attended Nostrasia in November of 2023 with one primary question in mind; “What applications can’t be replicated on nostr?” At this point there are too many unknowns to answer this conclusively, but my understanding of nostr and its potential applications expanded dramatically during my time in Tokyo. The conference included talks on decentralized versions of nearly every application you can imagine. Twitter, Twitch, Youtube, Reddit, Spotify, Maps, Amazon, GitHub, Goodreads and others. None of these decentralized alternatives are carbon copies of those services. In many ways they seem to have the potential to become even better versions due to lightning integration and open-source user input.
At times I have wondered if what is being built will ultimately become a new decentralized version of the entire internet. As far as current limitations are concerned, the primary challenge I heard being discussed at nostrasia is that of creating a nostr equivalent for signal or telegram. Private encrypted chat may be more addressable by something like SimpleX. At this time it is unclear if the applications in development will be successful or scalable, but given the progress I have witnessed in the space since joining, I am feeling enthusiastic.
Optimism aside, it is hypothetically possible that nostr will not survive long enough to accomplish any of the bold objectives that are currently being proposed. There are many financial and technical challenges ahead. It is possible that I made a mistake in putting all my nostrich eggs in one basket. That choice is not for everyone and I fully appreciate that. However, having waited for a decentralized and open-source alternative to social media for many years, I am willing to take the risk associated with adopting this technology early. I would rather experience the unpolished user interface and potentially wade through a lot of frustration than continue putting my energy into a system I see as obsolete.
Every choice carries risk. When it comes to asset management, the risk of poorly allocating financial capital has drastic and permanent implications. In the case of social media, the risk of poorly allocating social capital is noticeable, but much less dramatic. The truth is that by using a centralized social media platform you have already sacrificed control over any social capital you have expended. At any moment, that site could shift its policies in a way that negatively affects you or they can delete your account at their own discretion. All the connections and content you have developed on those platforms is hanging at the whim of mega-corporations and government intervention. Personally, I have more faith in open-source code than I do in human institutions.
When creating an identity on nostr, a cryptographic signature is fashioned for you by open-source internet magic (as far as my pleb mind can ascertain). This signature has a private and public key, referred to as the nsec and npub respectively. An npub looks like the one below and can be used to find other users:
npub1jfn4ghffz7uq7urllk6y4rle0yvz26800w4qfmn4dv0sr48rdz9qyzt047 (add me 🧡🫂💜)
The npub is a novel form of online identification which is not required to be linked to your meatspace identity in any way. The nsec is used to sign in to new clients and to prove that you are the owner of the account; similar to bitcoin private keys. This key pair can be used anywhere in the nostrverse to prove that you are a particular individual or account. Follows, followers, and posted content are associated with a npub through the relays that npub is using. This means that if you are interested in trying out a new client or migrating away from the one you are using you may do this without any loss of connections or content.
This novel approach to online identity and data storage creates a much more competitive space for the developers creating applications, but also enables interoperability. Two critical factors which are altogether missing in today’s existing social media landscape. Current social media behemoths rely on the fact that it is challenging to leave and difficult to communicate between platforms. I deleted my Facebook years ago and for many months received emails about ‘So-and-so misses you! Look at what they posted recently.’ Naturally, I would be forced to log back in to view the content. The blatant and desperate emotional manipulation was too much to stomach. Nostr has the potential to obliterate the walled garden model where your digital life is held hostage for ad revenue and data collection.
In addition to the structural issues with legacy social media, it is clear that online censorship is on a steep increase. However you may feel about censorship when it is happening to someone you disagree with, you won’t like it when the censors turn on you. Some people appreciate censorship because there is a lot of content they would rather not see. Personally, I would like to make that choice myself rather than have some faceless corporation without a customer service line make it for me.
Ultimately the social media giants have been placed in an impossible position. Legislators will not stop pushing them to maintain the Overton window in their favor. Whether a social media provider wishes to be a propaganda tool or not, the nature of any centralized platform will ensure that it becomes one. Centralized dissemination of what is ‘appropriate content’ and what is considered ‘misinformation’ will inevitably narrow the scope of human understanding to a point where self-censorship is the norm. To a large extent this has already happened.
Some believe that misinformation is the most dangerous aspect of the internet. Allowing people to communicate freely in an open marketplace of ideas is too much to bear for these people. They feel the need to control what people say and by extension control what people think. This fear based need for control over the population does not align with my values. Despite the inevitable failure of such approaches in the age of the internet, we will likely see an increase in attempts to KYC (know-your-customer) everyone on centralized networks. The social credit system in China has provided the world with a case study to be weary of. When your bank card gets declined at the grocery store for a meme you re-posted on Xitter don’t say I didn’t warn you. Have I already become a toxic nostr maxi?… Maybe. 🧡🫂💜
Michel Foucault’s writings on disciplinary power outline a methodology towards an essentially non-violent oppression of the masses. Looking at his conceptualization and the current state of affairs in the social media landscape, I have a difficult time telling them apart. The final result of such a system is a society in which authentic connection and genuine behavior become impossible. Physical prisons are only one form of enslavement. The true prison of the dystopian future manifests inside the mind of the individual. Bitcoiners who have watched their personal time preference expand understand this intuitively.
There are people in the bitcoin community who see nostr as a distraction and there are people in the nostr community who see bitcoin as an impediment to adoption. All I see is a massive synergistic upward spiral between the orange badger and the purple ostrich. These two protocols feed each other and enable new use cases which culminate in something much greater than the two independent parts. Bitcoin is essential for shifting the world away from debt slavery into proof of work. Nostr is essential for shifting the world away from top down dissemination of information to a free market of content. In this way the two technologies are ideologically aligned with volunteerism and personal liberty.
Most bitcoiners would agree that financial freedom is essential in maintaining one’s personal agency. However, without the ability to communicate freely the new found financial liberation is handicapped. The ability to reliably coordinate commerce and correspond in a peer-to-peer fashion is much more essential than many seem to acknowledge at this moment. Additionally, the reason the fiat system is so potent in its deception is not exclusively a result of the accountants and politicians engaged in the fraud. The real strength of the fiat leviathan is a function of global propaganda efforts to maintain the perpetual delusion. If hyperbitcoinization occurs and the propaganda apparatus remains in place, most people are unlikely to benefit from its liberating qualities. In order for the full impact of bitcoin to take root on this planet we will also need a means of sharing information openly and efficiently.
All of this rhetoric is a bit grandiose for the moment given that the estimates I have received regarding daily active users ranges around 10,000. It could be that this article and the protocol itself will age poorly, but many of the concepts in this article will remain relevant to the importance of a decentralized method of mass communication. If nostr fails, something will take its place. Given the development I have witnessed so far, I would be surprised to see nostr fall flat. The protocol is drawing in talent and checking off bounties at an exponential rate. As the bitcoin price increases I anticipate this trend to continue. Those who believe that bitcoin is a distraction to nostr underestimate the electromagnetism of the bull market. Those who believe that nostr is a distraction from bitcoin didn’t meet the former ethereum dev at nostrasia who became a bitcoiner because of nostr. The purple pill helps the orange pill go down.
On a more subjective level, I have noticed a dramatically better user experience on nostr than I did in the legacy system. The effect is so pronounced that I can say that my mental health has noticeably improved since I got off of Twitter. There are several variables I could attribute to that improvement. The lack of enraging algorithms, the general size of the community I am interacting with, the shared interest of that community, or the conscious understanding that I am free to say whatever I want. Whatever it is, I am not the only one who has noticed a much better vibe on the nostr.
I have noticed that some of the popular Twitter accounts have not been quite as popular on nostr and some lesser known accounts have gained traction. I currently have more followers than I ever did on Twitter (a whopping 1400). Some of the larger accounts on Twitter are sharing on a more personal level on nostr than they do in the larger forum. These effects may not stay this way as the network grows, but at the moment it feels as though some of my favorite people are more accessible and more comfortable to share openly with the nostr community.
Earlier in my bitcoin journey I was of the opinion that the greater diversity of viewpoints I could interact with, the more comprehensive my understanding of the world would become. I was cautious of ending up in a filter bubble or an echo chamber of certain niche opinions. As time went on I made a point to exclusively follow people on twitter who were outspokenly ‘Bitcoin Only’. This provided a simple heuristic for me to narrow my field of interactions to people who had put in enough work to jump the hurdle out of the clown coin casino. I remain realistic about the possibility that I have intentionally manufactured confirmation bias in my online experience, but with the impending AI boom it will become increasingly difficult to remain in an unfiltered social pool.
By narrowing my online interactions to a specific group I run the risk of missing out on unique opinions, but so far this pruning has continuously increased the signal in my feed while reducing the noise. The scope of nuanced perspectives between bitcoiners on nostr has provided me with plenty to consider and learn from. In any case I still get a daily dose of intellectual debris to sort through from the normies I talk to in meatspace. When it comes to my online life, I concluded I would rather spend time getting to know this merry band of internet pioneers than stay connected to the rest of the traditional social media system.
Some have suggested that by leaving legacy social media I might be surrendering to irrelevance and obscurity. Personally I see the exodus of bitcoiners from Xitter gradually culminating in that network fading into irrelevance. I give credit to those of you who remain in the fray to fight the good fight, but my days engaging in that digital mosh pit are over. While my own learning process was accelerated by debates on Twitter, nine times out of ten I don’t see productive outcomes from online arguments. What I have found productive and rewarding has been interacting with people who are passionate enough about freedom to roll the dice on this new protocol.
It is very likely that every person early in this movement will be doxxed. However, in the long run we are supporting a technology that will enable future generations the freedom to choose how much privacy they maintain and how much information they share with the world. We are enabling a future where people have the freedom to be as authentic as they want without artificial limitations on the scope of human expression.
Being on nostr in 2023 feels a lot like pre-gaming the greatest internet party the world has ever seen. The sound system has some bugs, the decorations are still in process, and nobody knows for sure if anybody else will show up, but spirits are high. I’ve often equated sites like Xitter and F-book with a crappy dive bar that everybody goes to exclusively because everybody goes there. The more that they kick people out, water down the drinks, and raise prices; the more they will chase their customers off. I didn’t write this article to shame anyone or to pressure them into joining nostr, but if it ignited a spark in you to learn more, my objective was accomplished. There’s no rush, but when you decide you’re fed up with the status quo we will be waiting for you with open arms.
This is a guest post by Source Node. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.