August 6, 2023•605 words
The year is 2023. The Internet is over two decades old. And yet, individual messaging apps can't communicate with each other.
Today I was reminded of this absurdity when a friend proposed we move a planning discussion for an upcoming trip to a WhatsApp group. If you know me, you know that I think Facebook is absolute garbage and the pinnacle of surveillance capitalism. I will never use one of their products again, so the move to WhatsApp means that I'm going to be left out of the discussion and possibly miss key details for the trip.
This is only a problem because we have zero regulations around a very basic functionality of the Internet: sending messages from one place to another.
Going back to the founding of the Internet, it was all publicly funded research. The incentives were around providing an open set of protocols that would allow for interoperability regardless of the client used. That's where we got email from! Researchers and engineers wanted to build a set of standards that allowed for easy communication between parties.
But as the public gained access to the Internet and companies took over wide swaths of the digital landscape, walled gardens began to form. Because messaging apps weren't a fundamental part of the Internet's birth, we didn't get that wide standardization like we did with email. Sure, IRC is over 30 years old but it just never gained the same traction that email did.
If email was trying to be invented today, it's clear that we'd be stuck being unable to send emails outside an individual company's domain.
The rise of mass messaging with Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple Messages, and more meant that you had to choose the one where most of your friends and family were. This led to perverse incentives to monopolize the messenger space, and now we only have a few major players, and those players don't allow communication between themselves.
I'm often reminded of this when I'm made fun of for fucking up a conversation because I have an Android device while everyone else is on iPhone, degrading the conversation into SMS instead of Apple's proprietary messaging protocol. Or when I'm left out of a planning group because everyone moved to WhatsApp.
It's stupid. It's capitalism's perverse incentives at its worst. It removes consumer choice and competition from the equation. And because I'm an obstinate idealist, I refuse to participate in the farce. Which ultimately hurts my social standing and prevents me from participating in some areas of digital life.
That's a tradeoff I'm willing to make because frankly I don't feel the need to spend my days texting. I have a good group of friends that tolerate my quirks. We hang out IRL and it's great.
But imagine what the world would be like if there were standards and regulations around messaging apps. It would be just like email! Everyone could choose their messenger of choice and still have secure, private conversations with each other.
And guess what? That future is on the horizon! We have a new Internet standard: MLS. It's a protocol for messaging that will enable inter-client communication in a secure and private manner. I'm so excited for this because it will inject a bit of competition to the messaging space and in the long term enable interoperability!
I just wish it didn't take until 2023+ to get here. But the future is bright, and one day nobody will give a flying fuck which operating system or messaging client I use, since the walled gardens will be torn down and a bright future of free communication will emerge!