What Decentralization Requires

Decentralization. It's not just a hip happnin' buzzword. And it's not just for blockchain. It has been important, and it always has been—I was using it back in 2005 to describe the early Wikipedia—because it uses technology to guarantee, or at least safeguard, freedom. It removes control of public conversations from the hands of would-be overseers of the digital plantations.

Here are the principles that "decentralization" encodes:

  1. Self-ownership. Each user owns his own identity in the network.
  2. Data ownership. You own your own data; you control your own data, within the bounds of controlling law.
  3. Platform-independent following. You control your friend/follower list independently of all platforms. Hence, once a friend follows you on one platform, he should follow you forever everywhere until he unfollows you or you block him (or there is a lawful government order compelling a change).
  4. Platform-agnostic posting. Posting on one platform means posting the same thing on all platforms that are part of one big decentralized network.
  5. Decentralized moderation. Content moderation, which is ultimately an absolute requirement, cannot be performed by a single, central, controlling body or system, providing identical outcomes. So it, too, must be decentralized.
  6. Single conversation. Therefore, there is one giant integrated conversation, but parts of are not shown to people who don't want to see it (or in places it's literally illegal). Of course, it is still legal for people to run closed, walled gardens; but they're not for general broadcast.
  7. Anti-monopoly. Therefore, also, no corporation has anything like a monopoly over the means of social media broadcasting, as at present.

There are several requirements that, I believe, are absolutely required of the alternative social media platforms to satisfy these principles:

  1. User exportability. Platforms should permit users to export a complete and unadulterated copy of their user data from the platform and host it elsewhere. Moreover, public user data that is edited by the user in one place must be brought current with all other copies made elsewhere as well, in a timely fashion.
  2. Data exportability. The user's data must be easily exportable in a common, easily machine-readable format, according to a widely-used standard. This is an absolute minimum. Not many actually support this yet. This isn't enough, though, because you need to be able to export your followers, too, and to do that:
  3. Interoperability. The social media platform must be made as interoperable as possible (at the user's option). So I should be able to subscribe and follow someone who is posting on his own blog, or Mastodon, or Gab, or Parler. I should be able to post and read from any of these networks, and the data should appear in a timely fashion in all the rest.
  4. Data inalienability. If the user's data is not actually served from outside of a platform—which should be possible—then it is treated by the platform as if it were. The platform is merely holding the data on behalf of the user, as a service. The platform must not treat the data as "theirs." This is still a rather vague requirement, but it has specific consequences. One of them would be that the platform is absolutely not permitted to delete or edit a post from your data, although they can of course opt not to post it on the platform. Twitter and Facebook violate this principle when they fail to retain copies of posts that they delete.

Those are things I feel confident of, as a bare minimum. There are other things that really also need to be part of it, I suspect:

  1. Moderation. Individual users, or whole platforms (if users should wish to use them), should be able to select their own moderators. Moderation data, or metadata—such as that a certain user should be blocked, or that a certain post should be hidden or flagged in some way—should be shared in a way similar to how the user data and content itself is served (so, across the network in a decentralized way), and independently of the user's canonical copy of the data.
  2. Text representation. The user's public data must be syndicated in a lo-tech text-based (more human-friendly) format such as JSON or XML, even if they have an API (maybe I don't want to be forced to use their API, maybe because it's too restrictive). The purpose of this is to enable the user to more easily exert control over the source or original version of his own tweets. This text stream, if it still exists and the author's control can be proven, becomes the user's personal assertion or attestation as to how the state of his personal feed should be represented; this human-friendly data representation of the content becomes the controlling, "canonical" version of the data. No other representation, in no other data medium (blockchain, IPFS, bittorrent, or otherwise), is to be regarded legally or operationally as "the canonical version."
  3. Permanence (or uncensorability). By network policy, the user's public data must also be able to be made available forever (so a particular platform couldn't delete it on behalf of everyone else, even if they wanted to) via bittorrent or IPFS or the like. Maybe the blockchain is OK, but frankly due to the financial complexities involved in blockchain, I don't trust blockchains as bittorrent-type "decentralized public cloud" storage.

Something like that. This is not a complete set of "decentralization requirements." It is merely an attempt to articulate some of the basic requirements, including many that current attempts at decentralization have failed to deliver on.

If you put all such things together, then you've operationalized the vague principles of decentralization for social media. The more that existing social media platforms actually implement these features, the more social media will actually be decentralized.


We Want to Pay for a Good, Functioning WordPress Microposting Plugin

Skip down to the plugin requirements section

We are deeply upset at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. Blocking President Trump from these giant corporate networks was just the last straw. Most of us already loathed these corporations for their violations of our basic digital rights (laid out here: Declaration of Digital Independence), but this?

This crosses the line.

For many of us, banning Trump (and many of his defenders) means we refuse to participate on their networks anymore. We're running for the exits. We have to replace them now.

It's urgent.

Background

There's a problem with the alternatives. The problem of course, is that there are a lot of them, and more arriving all the time. You might think, "Sure, and one will eventually win out. So let's just move out and may the best platform win." This is a mistake. Look, think about what gave the Facebooks of the world their power. It was precisely the fact that people went to the biggest platform...because that's where the biggest group of friends, or the biggest audience, or whatever, would be. They seemed OK because they talked a lot about how they stood for free speech. They didn't mean it. And here we are.

Genuinely decentralized networks can't by censored. Here's how the Internet used to work until 2005-ish: you wanted to connect to a network like email, or the WWW (Web sites), Usenet, or FTP, or whatever. So, first, you downloaded a client, a piece of software that connects you to that network. The client speaks to the network through a special technical protocols. Nobody is in charge of the whole network. There is an organization that defines the protocol, sure, but they don't rule the network. The network has no leader, no center.

The Internet still works that way in parts. We still use browsers to connect to the web; we can still use email clients to connect to email. But today, instead of a client using technical protocols to connect people together for microposting, everyone uses Twitter. Instead of a client running social media protocols, people use Facebook. And so forth. Websites that run their own proprietary networks are "platforms." And you can be shut out of these platforms. This gives Twitter and Facebook massive power. They run what always should have been a neutral network. Absolutely nobody deserves that much power!

Questions and answers

So why replace censorious platforms with...new platforms? Why not replace them with good old-fashioned neutral, decentralized networks? There should be a microposting network, and a video network, and an image network, and a social media (Facebook-style) network. I would also add: an encyclopedia network.

"Decentralization"...I've heard of that. This is just blockchain, right? Not necessarily. That's what the blockchain crowd wants you to think, but blockchains are just one kind of decentralization. The problem with blockchains is that they mostly incorporate coins, which means whether content gets into them can usually be determined, in one way or another, by who owns some coins. That means that "whales," or people with a lot of coins, can control the network. That's not decentralized. That centralizes power in the hands of a few individuals. The whole idea of decentralization is to eliminate any control of the network.

What's wrong with just using Parler and Rumble, again? If you're still asking that, then you missed the point earlier. This is important: we should never trust proprietary platforms again. If Parler and Rumble become the new Twitter and YouTube, it doesn't matter what they say about how open they are, or how committed they are to freedom of speech. You simply have to trust them. That is what got us into this mess in the first place, back in 2005. Let's not repeat the mistake.

So...what do we do? Here's the deal. A lot of people are now working on this problem. Massive amounts of money are going to be thrown at it. I've spoken to at least three billionaires in the last 24 hours about this stuff, and they're all motivated to open their pocketbooks. And that's all in addition to the existing networks, some of which are growing very fast. So if you ask, "What should we do?" my response is: "You mean, in addition to all these other things, that other people are doing?"

What do you want to do? Quite a few people have been asking me this, and generally, I point them to things I've written before, such as this, this, and this. Those document lay out some of the requirements and principles behind a properly decentralized social media network, one that preserves freedom in the way the rest of the Internet does (well—I fear we'll soon be seeing just how well it stands up to concerted attack).

Naturally, most people with money look at censorship on the march as a big money-making opportunity. I look at it as an existential threat to my country and a brutal attack on my principles. I have never been involved in Internet projects for money alone; I always just wanted to do the right thing in the right way, money be damned.

Wait, so what is "the wrong thing" that people are doing? There are several things:

  • Blockchain: Some startups aren't even seriously trying to be a good decentralized, free speech social network. A lot of blockchain "social media" projects are sold as "decentralized" (because they're on a blockchain! That makes them decentralized, man!), but they aren't really decentralized, because a few people are in control of the chain, there's one client (a website and/or app), and basically it works like a regular website...built on a blockchain. Who cares? Minds.com is probably the closest we have to a fairly successful and growing site that is committed to free speech and open source, which does use blockchain; but I don't think it's quite fully decentralized yet.
  • Conservative social media: Some startups are devoted to free speech, but not decentralization. This is true of Parler and Rumble. They're OK. But they're platforms. They can and probably will eventually be compromised. We want to solve the problem, not just kick the can down the road. See "What's wrong with just using Parler and Rumble, again?" above.
  • Federated networks: Some projects are pretty good at decentralization, but they are hard to use, or aren't so keen on free speech. This is true of the Fediverse, meaning the projects built using the ActivityPub protocol, such as Mastodon, and also true of Diaspora. When Gab switched to ActivityPub, Mastodon and many others blocked them. This goes to show you that what we really need is not a federated network, but a genuine P2P network, so I can connect to the network to my own little client (which might be a website only I use, or a client app). There is also a big problem on some of these sorts of projects with child pornography and Nazis (or people impersonating them, which I personally think is just as likely). The latter has actually been Gab's big problem.
  • Totally peer-to-peer networks: There is one small, hard-to-use app, Scuttlebutt, that is totally decentralized. There are others, and I'd like to know about them, but they seem to be small in adoption and in a very early stage of development (so, hard to use and not very good yet).

Can you just summarize what you want? Sure. I explained it before, but let me explain it again in another way. It isn't that complicated:

  1. Client: I want an easy-to-use, well-designed, fast, modern client. Not an account on a website. No. A client. Not a website on which I make an account. The client could take the form of a browser plugin, a WordPress plugin, a stand-alone website, a hosted solution (where you save your own space, like on WordPress.com), a mobile client app, or even a desktop app.
  2. Similar UX to Twitter: The client allows me to publish to the network and view posts from the network. In other words, my experience as I use the client will be similar to my experience on Twitter: I can follow people, view my feed, like and share posts, etc.
  3. Direct or transparent connections to people: The client basically connects me to...other people. Or to their clients. Possibly with an aggregator intermediary, which stays out of the way. There is nobody who owns the whole network or has any special financial interest in the network. I am connected to people, not accounts on a website. It's like email: I have a bunch of family, friends, and colleagues, and I have their email addresses, and I see the stuff they send me. Similarly, an unbranded social media network would let me specify the people I follow, and it goes and grabs their posts for me (somehow; see next point) and shows them to me all in a feed. Great.
  4. Aggregator: There are various different aggregators that prepare our feeds for us. If you're following a thousand people, or if you have a million people following you, your client cannot by itself easily fetch, or send, all the necessary updates regularly for that many people. This is purely technical work that needs to be done as a service for you. So maybe you subscribe to a service. Maybe your university or corporation or ISP runs one. Maybe you just connect to one. It might cost a few dollars a month. It would be money well spent.

Here is the idea that inspires me, that I want to shout out to the world:

If you already have a standardized place—your blog or web space—then isn't that where you should be able to do your microposting? After all, you should own your own data; so why not there? There's no better place.

And then it is just a matter of figuring out how to syndicate it and display it in feeds of followers. Just using RSS to begin with would be absolutely fine. Then gradually add support for the other features such as sharing, upvoting, and threading, which Twitter offers, perhaps via a more strictly P2P extension of ActivityPub.

Requirements for a microblogging plugin

I've been in discussions with one particular investor and philanthropist, Futo.org, who wants to fund one or more OSS projects that will do 1-4 from the latter list. Basically, he's willing to put up money for an open source client and also behind an open source aggregator service.

Something like $5,000 for the following is proposed. We'd like to hear from you first, about whether this is fair or not. Let's talk before you start work. We want it to be very, very solid, beautifully designed, well-documented, easily maintainable, and 100% bug-free.

Let's begin very simple, with a bare-bones microblogging plugin. And while it will be very simple, it will be 100% modern and awesome, with all the UX features users would expect.

Basic requirements:

  1. We want to build a (to begin with) simple WordPress plugin. It would be acceptable to fork the existing "Simple Microblogging" plugin, although that needs a lot of work. Have a look at https://startthis.org/ to get a notion of the general sort of thing I am after, but bear in mind I am not too excited about the idea of multiple columns. If that could be made optional (which implies an options page) without much trouble, that would be great.
  2. You must agree to release the code as open source only. The KSF can hold the code on Gitlab.
  3. The "new micropost" and the "author's micropost archive" are both on the same page. They occupy a single column, as for example Twitter and Minds do. There is a clear visual distinction between the form for creating a new micropost and the list of old microposts, beneath the form.
  4. Let the blog's admins create microposts in an easy-to-use interface:
    • For admins only, the new micropost form appears at the top of the page, always open, i.e., never collapsed (as on Twitter). No other user roles see this.
    • Input field should have a set width (never gets too wide, regardless of the window width), and which collapses down to something suitable.
    • Micropost text should be autosaved in the background (i.e., without the user having to do anything), and not in cookies but in the database.
    • When the micropost is submitted, it immediately (without page refresh) appears beneath the new post field.
    • Micropost character limit = 280. Include a nice, standard sort of interface for showing when the user is getting close to 0 characters, including a count of number of characters left.
    • On all platforms, the width + height of the form should support up to 280 characters (resizing the form should never be necessary).
    • On loading or refresh, the focus/cursor goes inside the form, at the end of any present text. Enter = submit. Shift+Enter = newline. Submit button available too, same action.
    • Small button for attaching images and video is just below the field. It calls the same WordPress "Select or Upload Media" interface, I guess (seems right).
    • After selecting media, they appear just below the new post box, in a preview.
    • Note: microposts don't have titles.
  5. The rest of the page is devoted to displaying the author's older microposts:
    • In this version, the following, older microposts are just those by the author (the author's history). In the next versions, by micropost feeds followed.
    • Published micropost content design elements should include: small thumbnail of any media, linked user ID, micropost content, timestamp. For the layout of these items, please propose a few designs for me to choose from.
    • Each should appear in, or surrounded by, a box.
    • Single images and video thumbnails should appear in smallish thumbnail versions, not terribly full-sized versions, always landscaped. We want this looking like Twitter, not Instagram; so, there should not be no very tall posts. Of course, the full normal dimensions should appear when:
    • Clicking an image displays it in its own modal.
    • If there are two or more images, display the first two side-by-side. If this takes time, take the time to do it right. In a visual medium like this, this little detail will be hugely appreciated and will be important to building a user base.
    • A like button (show me a few acceptable designs, and give me your top choice too; something with an unsurprising, standard, up-to-date look and feel). Increments a local counter, that's all. Either on or off for each user session. Don't bother matching votes to users (or, not yet; we might later; this button is mostly experimental, so don't take a long time on it).
    • Small delete button in a not-too-prominent place and color (don't want it to stick out). Available only to admins, of course.
    • Desirement: handle Open Graph data in an intelligent way (like a Twitter card). The more full-featured, the better. Probably best saved for a later iteration, but whatever you can do now, grand. Nobody likes to see just a plain link without any preview. If you can do this, and simply want me to elaborate requirements, let me know. Or if you have any design decisions to make, let me have input on them. Generally, make it unsurprising and standard.
    • Desirement, please do if possible without much extra work: include a view counter. Increment the counter whenever the micropost is (locally, of course) loaded either as part of a page or on a list of posts (see below), or if the micropost's unique URL (see below) is loaded. I doubt this could be done without a lot of extra work, so, I won't expect it.
  6. Each micropost has its own unique page and URL, probably that of the corresponding WordPress post (assuming each micropost = a WordPress post), but definitely not based on the title (as microposts must not have titles). I don't especially care about the design of the micropost-only page yet, but there should be one. A modal, probably, but a regular WordPress post would be fine as well. It doesn't matter quite yet, though it will (so if you are inspired to work more on this, let me know so I can give you requirements).
  7. Pagination: your choice, either a traditional 30-microposts-per-page pagination feature or else an infinite scroll feature. I personally prefer the traditional sort (doubles as a sort of crude archive). But you decide. In either case, the UX should be standard and work well.
  8. RSS:
    • Include a file describing how we propose to extend the RSS standard, if at all. At the very least (I'm just guessing though), as a child of the <channel> element, there should be a new blogtype element, where the two possibilities are blog and micro. Please see this. This would help blog readers to know which RSS feeds to represent as micropost feeds, which would require special handling.
    • Create RSS output on a subpage. If the human-readable micropost feed appears at mydomain.com/micro/ then the RSS for the feed should appear at mydomain.com/micro/rss . Maybe even better, because shorter: mydomain.com/m/rss .
  9. Nice-to-have, not required yet (requirements available on request):
    • Editing (in place; not in a modal, unless you think that's actually more modern...? I wouldn't think so). If this is particularly easy, please do it.
    • Basic search. Results page paginated as necessary. As I think this is built into WordPress, please do this if it isn't too much trouble.
    • Add a sidebar (for wide screens)/hamburger menu (for narrow ones) containing monthly-sorted archive. Archive pagination = 30 per page. Is going to be high priority soon.
    • Twitter importer. Input: a Twitter archive file. Output: all your old tweets, available on your blog in this format. This would make the plugin into truly a killer app and would guarantee explosive growth. Might already exist.
    • Page reader. Another page...or maybe the same page...which allows you to subscribe to feeds. Ultimately the posts themselves should probably have @username functionality (see ActivityPub).
    • User profile page, linked from the microblog home page as well as each user post. Data drawn from the WordPress blog.

General design/presentation layer requirements:

  1. There are a lot of design-related requirements above, so have a look.
  2. A minimalistic sort of project branding exercise. It needs a name. I don't care what it's called or about colors (nothing surprising or garish) or fonts (default = sans serif of course). I leave that hard part up to real designers, but we do need to do a name and branding elements. We want to convey a feeling of fun, ease-of-use, and independence.
  3. Both light and dark themes/skins available, as on Twitter.
  4. Generally, the main landing page will have a look and feel like Twitter. It should not be identical, for the simple reason that we don't want to run into legal issues.
  5. Header requirements:
    • When a user is not logged in, the front page of the website should have a banner image and circular icon, as on both Twitter and Facebook.
    • When logged in, do not display the banner image. Basically, I see little need for a header at all when you're logged in.
    • Menu items go above Archive on the right side of the sidebar.

What else, folks? Comments, please.

Realistically, why think this will solve anything?

There is an interesting answer to this.

First of all, if we're serious about people owning their own identity and data, we can do a lot worse than building on top of the personalized web presence they already own—either their own domain, or at least a blog or website, the data of which they own in a portable format. A lot of people have WordPress sites; for those who don't, it is very easy to install a hosted blog that includes the ability to add plugins. Something like 35% of websites online are WordPress sites. Like 400 million websites. The "killer" feature of WordPress is its decent (if bewhiskered) server, the power of which is increased by a zillion plugins. Also, it's free and open source. And you can easily move your data around. And lots of people know how to work with WordPress sites (whether they want to is another matter).

So here's the deal. All those WordPress sites, every one of them, could become a social media account in which the user owns, controls, and syndicates his own data. How freaking cool is that? Speaking of syndication, that's a feature of WordPress sites that's a killer: RSS and Atom are built in. So you could build a social media protocol on top of those protocols. Why not? And there's another killer relevant feature: that protocol is already massively in use, already supported by many feed and news readers, and already decentralized. All we have to do is build on top of it.

So...why not just use blogging, even as it is right now, in a new "short message, social media" sort of way? Because, of course, the medium drives how people use the tool. We need to make it more like social media:

  • Adding a new micropost needs to be dead simple. Even simpler than writing a new WordPress post. As simple as posting on Twitter.
  • Text has to be artificially limited. You can't let them go on and on, or they're not microblogging anymore.
  • The look-and-feel has to be just like "social media" (Twitter and its imitators), not like a blog.

And those are just what the above starts to work on.

Here's the dream—because we don't have an interesting dream, what's the point? It goes like this.

People learn that there's a new Twitter-like plugin for WordPress. They tell each other, "Did you know that you can just tweet from your blog...and then you own and control your own tweets? Why didn't anybody ever think of this before?" (Never mind that they did, a long time ago, but it didn't really catch on or develop because some people didn't care enough about decentralization and owning your own data, while other people didn't care enough about writing easy-to-use software for non-geeks.) So people start installing the plugin. They share the location of each other's feeds, use feed readers, and have an experience that is actually a bit like Twitter...but one that is totally their own and totally decentralized.

At first, people just use Feedly to follow the micropost feeds of friends. But, because of the brisk adoption rate of the plugin, new features are rapidly added. The all-important "dedicated microfeed reader" feature is added, so now you can see not just your tweets, but the tweets of your friends. Someone creates a registry of all known WordPress Microblogs. So you can search through those and find old friends and new. You can also add your friends' feeds directly. Someone else creates a chat feature, so that, while you can't tweet in response, you can treat somebody else's top-level thread as the first. The original poster is given the right to delete and instaban (from the tweet) anyone who is difficult. Another feature quickly added is the "quote retweet."

Then someone decides to hook up WordPress microblogs with the Fediverse, and various blockchain networks, etc. Suddenly, this becomes the standard: when you offload your content from some other content into your microblog...that, being totally, 100% owned and controlled by you, becomes the "true home" of your social media content. And the RSS is the "true format" of your social media feed. People write exporters for Twitter...and all their tweets are added to their WordPress microblogs. There's a mass movement to say get off Twitter now, follow me instead via WordPress!

Of course, that's when we start "posting at" people via their Fediverse account addresses, or perhaps some contextualized shortened version thereof (the present blog happens to be located at @admin@larrysanger.org in the Fediverse; you can confirm this for yourself on mastodon.social because this blog runs the ActivityPub plugin, which enables a few Fediverse sites like Mastodon to pick up my blog posts as feeds).

Many more developments come fast and furious as the world discovers the power of this concept, and starts rebuilding and connecting everything to simple RSS feeds of microposts. The new day, of a truly decentralized microposting world, has dawned.

Well, I think it's a nice dream.

UPDATE (Feb. 2): development is underway. Since I was eager to start using word press to make a microblog, I went ahead and made one without any of the advanced functionality described above. Here it is: https://StartThis.org.


An ActivityPub WordPress plugin

Matthias Pfefferle has made a WordPress plugin that converts your blog into a very, very stripped-down Fediverse server. What this means, basically, is that if you install this plugin on your WordPress blog, then your blog posts will appear as posts in ActivityPub Fediverse servers, such as (most famously) mastodon.social. You just install and activate it and then go to ...wp-admin/profile.php, and you'll find you have a handy-dandy Fediverse profile ID made for you. Mine is @admin@larrysanger.org.

This represents a practical step toward fixing social media, as I described, by making the Fediverse more robustly peer-to-peer (as in individual-to-individual, not just server-to-server federation), but it really doesn't do much yet. Matthias is to be congratulated for getting this far. I hope he will make this into another whole front end for the broader Fediverse. That might be a bit much to ask, but...wouldn't that be cool?


The Era of Centralized Social Media Is Over

For too long, we have made what has amounted to a Faustian bargain. If you post your comments, your pictures, your videos, your essays, your reviews—your content—on Big Tech's enormous centralized platforms, then Big Tech will give you free hosting, an audience if you compete well, and some content development tools. It seemed fair. At least, that is how they encourage you to think about this bargain.

But we have now awakened—only half-awakened, most of us—to the real costs of the arrangement. They are higher than we thought.

We donate much more than temporary use of our content. Since content hosting has grown more complex and your audience is built into their product, and especially since it is difficult if not impossible to move most of our content and audience to other platforms easily, we have also effectively donated control, if not ownership, over our content and our audience.

But we also donate ourselves. We donate our valuable attention. We donate our freedom and autonomy, when the corporations decide what we may or may not upload or view, and whether others may or may not view our contributions. We donate our good name, our public support, for the very medium we use. We rent out our very minds when we open ourselves to manipulation by the controllers of these platforms. By our participation, we endorse this treatment as legitimate, no matter what indefensible things these corporations do.

There is also another thing we receive—another important part of the Faustian bargain—that is worth dwelling on. We receive a shot at popularity. We get a chance at an audience, at "friends" and "followers," who "like" what we produce, who amplify our voices. Who doesn't want friends and followers liking and amplifying us? And so we are hooked.

Is this exchange really worth it? Really?

We have been assuming that it is. I say it is objectively speaking a terrible arrangement that benefits them and mostly harms us, or most of us. Why do we agree to it, in that case? Because "they" have control over our social lives. We will be lost without the audience, the attention! And because the threat of that loss is so terrifying that most people will put up with increasingly obnoxious treatment as "the price you gotta pay." It seems like a good example of the Stockholm syndrome.

I think the exchange is not worth it. I will not speak for you. But I can say confidently that it is not true of me. Since, last year, I declared that what I really wanted was decentralized social media, I have felt rather dirty as I used Twitter and YouTube. I admit it—I made excuses myself. "This is the only way I can get my voice out there effectively," I told myself. Of course, I knew it was not true. I could write for publication. I could use my blog. "I'd be abandoning my peeps!" But nah. Nobody needs me there very much, and if they love me that much they can always come to the blog. "I would be giving up the fight (on Twitter) for freedom and justice!" I'm not Superman, and if my voice is really needed, I can probably fight more effectively on my blog and for publication.

All of those things strike me as being excuses because I liked the attention. The real bargain, and what makes the bargain demonic (so to speak), is that it involves receiving the attention of others, which merely feeds our ego, in exchange for something much more valuable: control over us by people we despise. When you get down to it, most of us are slaves to their system in exchange for the main thing we are after: evanescent, ultimately unimportant narcissistic pleasure. Is that what you really want and need?

It took this latest outrage by YouTube, threatening to delete any video that talks about the 2020 election fraud, to make me rethink my attitude toward contributing in any way to the Silicon Valley monsters.

So I am going to stop using my Twitter and YouTube accounts. I am not entirely sure what I will do with them. As to Twitter, I might keep it operational but just use it as a way to promote this blog and nothing more. I might completely shut down my YouTube channel. I am fairly sure I will be moving all my YouTube videos to my Bitchute channel (the move has already started), but whether it will be their final destination, I am not sure. I really want to support fully decentralized networks, so that I can have total control, right here in my own web space, of everything I want to put out there. Wouldn't that be nice? Is it really too much to ask?

In any event, I am highly motivated right now to leave the Big Tech monsters behind. I am exiting their Faustian bargain. I am 100% committed to owning and controlling my own content and audience in the future. I have talked a lot about this, but it is finally time to make the last, necessary, hard changes to make it real.


My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare "what we all know" and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?

What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Two Early Articles about Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.

But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?

Wikipedia's Original Neutrality Policy

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Why Neutrality?

To ... put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. ...

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise are tolerated).

How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know

[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. ... [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.

Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge

[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?

The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.

But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.

Introducing the Encyclosphere

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

Declaration of Digital Independence

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.

The Future of the Free Internet

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.

Buy it!


How to Fix Social Media in Three Easy Steps

The social media bullies—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more—constantly violate our digital rights. That is the problem. The solution is to wean us off these social media giants, somehow. You own your own data and decide what you see (or not) for yourself. You subscribe to people, period, not to people's accounts on this-or-that service. That is the dream of "decentralizing social media."

This sounds nice, but it turns out to be too vague and complicated to be helpful. So I have been thinking about this. I have been asking, "What do I want?" Here is my answer, and if it works for me, it should work for everyone.

(1) I want a plugin to let me post on social media from this WordPress blog. I want to be able to go to a sparkly new, easy-to-use page that allows me to post from here—from my completely self-owned web space—to my Twitter and Facebook feeds and also (this is actually the important part) to a new reusable feed, like this blog feed. I do not want to have to go to Twitter to get my message out. Why should I have to? I should be able to post from here. Nobody can censor me or throttle me here. And you can have this same plugin yourself. Maybe you are a nasty troll, and you get kicked off everywhere, but I happen to like you, and I want the unadulterated you. I can come look at your feed, or better yet, I can get a feed reader that does not censor you, unless I decide I want you removed from my feed (see the next point). Come on, how hard should that be?

(2) I want to be able to view other people's posts from here, too. In other words, I want this plugin to go about and fetch posts wherever they are (well, maybe it will be more complicated than that; see (3)), bring them back here, and show them all in a feed that I can rearrange however I like. I can make posts public or private. I can arrange posts by social media service, or combine them all together. I can combine Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Mastodon, and pretty much everything. Why should I not be able to? And here is the really great part. I can subscribe to other people's feeds of the sort described under (1) above. It should be an open network, not a bunch of separate silos. I can arrange posts chronologically or according to fancy algorithms, including ones I build myself. Of course, I should also be able to reply to people from here. Again, this is an obviously useful thing. Why does it not already exist? Come on, developers, make it already. I want to start using it!

(3) Tools facilitating this need to be built. There are two main tools that will make this system feasible. The first tool is some social media content standard, like ActivityPub, but for individual posters like you and me, not whole social media servers like Mastodon.social or Gab.com, let alone giant silos Twitter. The second tool is an aggregator. Developers will need a massive, constantly growing database that slurps up all the social media content, coupled with an amazing API that and acts as a back end that serves the posts. This way my little blog does not have to go and separately fetch all the feeds individually. At scale, that would be super-slow; it would not work. If I follow 1,000 people my little server is not going to individually ping 1,000 feeds. It needs someone to constantly be doing that on behalf of all the blogs and other apps built on top of this decentralized social media network. And then of course if one aggregator censors certain people, fine; I should be able to use a different, more open aggregator.

And that, boys and girls, is how to decentralize social media!

So, developers, can I have that as a Christmas present this year? OK? Thanks.

If you like this idea, share it far and wide, and maybe some developer will see it and actually make it for all of us. Wouldn't that be great?


Essays on Free Knowledge (book)

New book: Essays on Free Knowledge

I published my first book this morning. The current cost is $9.95. It is a 270-page ebook, first published on Gumroad, where I'll get a higher percentage. A paperback should arrive in about a month on Amazon if I don't get distracted by other things.

Buy via the embedded ad below, and after that, I'll have a few notes for my regular blog readers.




I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. I decided to do it now because I was thinking of combining fundraising for the Encyclosphere with a course. But to get publicity for a course, I thought it would be good first to remind folks of my writings (and qualifications) to teach something like this. A book would help publicize both the Encyclosphere and the course. I also thought if I were going to keep plugging away at my (time-consuming) consulting business, a book would help spread the word for that as well (although I have had more business than I have had time for). Finally, the fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.

I hope you will get your hands on it (or rather, get it on your handheld) soon, but I will have a paperback available hopefully in about a month, if that is more your style.


How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course

I am thinking of offering a new, independent online course about decentralization and freedom. The focus would be social media; perhaps a future course would focus on free encyclopedias. Or maybe we would do the encyclopedia course first. A proposed reading list is below. Interested? Have ideas about what we should read for this?

This could be considered an outgrowth of last year's work on the Declaration of Digital Independence and the social media strike. As I said in this Wired article, at some point after we do the strike, we should organize mass try-outs of a bunch of social media tools. I wanted to, but I never did this last year because doing it properly would take time, and time takes money.

A course could help pay for this, though. Maybe we could fund proper deliberations over social media tools by combining such deliberative work with a course. That seems like a good idea. My worry has been that I'd be on the hook to offer a course that not many people were interested in. But a friend just told me about a Gumroad.com feature: you can let people pre-order a product, but the user is not charged until the course begins. If enrollment gets up to a certain number, I will green-light the course, and people are charged when it starts. If there is insufficient interest, they are never charged. Perfect!

Combining deliberation about the best social media tools with a course seems like a good idea for an additional reason: I do not actually want to deliberate seriously about this important decision with people who are ignorant of the relevant issues. Indeed, I would like to seriously review all the relevant issues myself. We got into this Big Social Media mess by going in half-cocked. I propose that we should not do that as we decide what to replace Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter with.

General Course Information (tentative)

Tentative title: How and Why to Decentralize the Internet

Description: A two-to-three month upper-division-to-graduate-level course. focused on reading and discussion. You will read and closely analyze and evaluate many important source texts that go into understanding, appreciating, and making decisions about component projects of the free, decentralized Internet in general and social media in particular. There will be a dual focus on the relevant technology and on practical philosophy (or applied theory). The technical decisions before us must be made based on deep principles.

Instructor: Larry Sanger (Ph.D. philosophy from Ohio State, 2000; ex-founder, Wikipedia; serial Internet project starter-upper; Internet consultant). Maybe also guests/interviewees.

Possible course requirements: most importantly, weekly readings as well as online written, moderated discussions in a forum, blog, or mailing list (haven't decided yet), focused on the readings; probably a weekly video session; maybe 2-3 short papers (feedback offered if desired); probably, participation in choosing and trying out various social media tools, and then later helping to launch larger try-outs of our top choices of social media tools.

Grading: n/a
If you want a grade, I am willing to give you one based on written work.

Prerequisites: None checked, but you should be able to do upper-division college-level work, including (especially) coherent writing and careful reading; you must also be a "power user," someone who is not afraid to read about sometimes difficult technology concepts

Texts: all distributed free of charge; Larry Sanger's first book, Essays on Free Knowledge, will be given to all students.

Reading/Topic List (tentative, unfinished, additions requested)

NOTE: the following is not finalized in any way. If there are topics and readings you want included, please let me know!

I. Background

Internet Governance: History and Recent Developments

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Standards-setting bodies: W3C, IETF, IEEE, etc.
  • Governance/policy bodies: ICANN, WSIS, IGF, Dept. of Commerce, etc.

Technical Background: Internet Protocols and Standards

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • SIntroduction to the Internet's protocols and standards
  • Languages in which standards are written: XML and JSON
  • Decentralized content standards: RSS and Atom
  • Older identity standards: oAuth and SAML
  • Self-owned(?) identity standards: DIDs
  • ActivityPub, ActivityStreams

Technical Background: Content Networks

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Old-fashioned P2P networks
  • CDNs
  • Modern torrent networks
  • Blockchain content networks and IPFS

II. The Theoretical Principles

Internet Freedom: Principles and Software

  • The very idea of Internet freedom
  • Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”
  • Larry Sanger, "The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir"
  • The rise of git, Github, and modern open source software

Free Culture and Self-Ownership

  • The GNU FDL
  • Selections from Creative Commons website materials
  • Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, selections
  • The "own your own data" movement

Internet Privacy

  • Wacks, Privacy: A Very Short Introduction maybe
  • Schneier, Data and Goliath selections (maybe)
  • Selection from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What is digital privacy?
  • Why is digital privacy important?
  • European and Californian legislation
  • The NSA's spy programs
  • The Chinese social credit system

Free Speech, Censorship, and Neutrality

  • Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2
  • Sanger, "Why Neutrality"
  • Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet selections (maybe)

Online Anonymity and Pseudonymity

  • Selections from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What encryption is, what it's for, why it's important, whether it's "too dangerous"
  • (maybe) Larry Sanger, "A Defense of Real Name Requirements"
  • (maybe) "The Rise of Digital Pseudonymity"

Digital Autonomy

  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget selections
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion selections

Decentralization and Digital Identity

  • What is decentralization, anyway?
  • Gilder, Life After Google selections
  • What is “self-sovereign” identity mean and require?
  • The essential necessity of DID
  • The grave dangers of DID

III. Social Media or maybe Encyclopedias

Critique of Social Media

  • The Social Network (2010 film)
  • Carr, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains selections
  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now selections
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism selections
  • Newport, Digital Minimalism selections (maybe)

Decentralized Social Media Projects

  • IndieWeb and Mastodon
  • Conservative social media: Gab, Minds, Bitchute, and Parler

What Next?

  • Larry Sanger, "Toward a Declaration of Digital Independence" and "Declaration of Digital Independence"
  • Fair methods for organizing mass try-outs of social media tools


Toward a Superior News Service

Do you run a news startup that features original reporting—not just news aggregated from other sources? Do you want to make it a standout, the sort of service people will point to as "the best solution to all the problems with fake news"? Then I want to give you some free advice. And look in the comments to see if anyone agrees that this is a good idea. Maybe not. We will see.


No sensible reader accepts the claims of journalists without question anymore, if ever they did. Considering their track record, especially in recent years, this is only appropriate. Journalists might not like this state of affairs, but it is not likely to go away anytime soon. The reason we are more aware of journalistic malpractice today than ever before is that sources are often as close as the reporters who report on them. Besides, reporters wear their bias on their sleeve. It follows that responsible news consumption must be critical.

It follows that we need new and better tools to decide whether various claims made are actually accurate. And that is really the root of the insight I want to give you:

Stop thinking of journalism as writing a story. Start thinking of it as sharing research notes.

What does this mean?

Well, what is the purpose of journalism in the first place? I propose to back to basics: let us set aside the ideological purposes of journalism and think about the more essential function or activity, both from the reporter's and from the reader's perspective. The reporter is trying to introduce the reader to some new facts as accurately and efficiently, preferably in a narrative that captures the reader's interest, perhaps while advancing an editorial angle (not that I approve of the latter). Surely, as old school journalists think, that is enough.

The reader is indeed trying to apprise himself of new facts. But he has to negotiate at least three issues that are at the forefront of his mind:

  1. Importance: How important is this news, really? What might make it important, if it is? Has it been blown out of proportion?
  2. Credibility: Is the purported news credible? Is there adequate evidence, especially in terms of sourcing, to believe it? What is the confidence level of the news?
  3. Neutrality: Are there important facts being left out? Would other sources disagree?

I do not think reporters dwell much on these needs of the reader. For one thing, standard journalistic practice in 2020 is fixated on creating narrative, as if they were novelists or something. In so doing, a reporter might give enough background necessary to appreciate the importance of the story; it might say enough about sources to establish the credibility of the information; it might lay out the context sufficiently that the reader can appreciate that a complete, appropriate range of views are being presented in a way that invites the reader to make up his own mind.

But these days, most news stories do none of this. Stories are presented as if they were all uniformly important, for often undisclosed reasons. Articles tend to lead with sensational claims, without considering why sources (or journalists) might exaggerate. Sources are frequently anonymous, and even when a source is fully identified, key information—specifically why they are in a position to know—is hidden or obscured. The most relevant scientific data, video evidence, documents, etc., are only sometimes included. As to neutrality, that has mostly gone the way of the dodo; but it is still something readers desperately want. This is not a quirk. Responsible readers know they must have the whole story, told from all sides, if they are to come to a rational opinion about it. Otherwise they know they are probably being manipulated.

Imagine, instead of this sort of hit-or-miss news article, readers were presented a news research summary, which featured:

  • Bullet points summarizing the main facts, in order of importance (together with sources).
  • A collection of key quotations from source interviews and documents.
  • A list of sources (people), with their most specific relevant qualifications in the relevant subject matter fully stated, at the top of the article. If a source is anonymous, then as much information as possible (such as that a person is "a retired U.S. intelligence official").
  • A list of any available supporting media, including images, videos, links to or copies of documents and polls, etc. A nice subsection would be a list of relevant tweets and other social media sources (assuming they are newsworthy).
  • A list of previous reporting consulted.
  • A background narrative or, perhaps better, answers to likely questions about matters necessary to understand in order to appreciate the news, its importance, relevant controversies, etc.
  • Recent commentary on the issues involved, scrupulously divided into competing sides as necessary.
  • Now, if in addition to this you wanted to have a traditional news narrative, that would be OK, as a "nice-to-have"; but I suspect that, once all these other resources were marshaled, the narrative would be regarded as a boring aside that is better skipped.

In short, what we really need is a resource that we can use to research and come to our own conclusions. Of course, a news research summary could be made just as biased as traditional journalism; but if done well, it would be exactly the sort of thing professional fact-checkers need to do their work. In any event, a startup that developed such resource pages should use trial and error to determine precisely the best format; it is not especially clear to me what the very best format would look like. Certain kinds of reports would have specific requirements; for example, a report about a poll should include a section, with both summary and details, about polling methodology and about the pollster.

If done well, I and I think many people would be willing to put down good money for such reporting.

Theoretically, this could be crowdsourced, e.g., on a wiki, but offhand I am inclined to think a crowdsourced version would not work out very well for the simple reason that people do not generally volunteer to do difficult gruntwork, and compiling this sort of resource would be quite difficult work indeed. But maybe; I could be wrong.


How to Choose a (Bible) Translation

Choosing a Bible translation is not easy or straightforward.

While readability or comprehensibility are important, accuracy reigns supreme, for the simple reason that inaccuracies may be defined as failures of translation. A failed translation is an invention of the translator rather than a representation of the intent of the original author. The author's thoughts must first be "translated onto paper," and from there they are translated into English (or the language of your translation), and from there into your own mental representation of their meaning.

So accuracy beats out readability and comprehensibility, which are also important (as is beauty/poetry). Things are not quite as simple as "accuracy wins," however, because what a translation does, ultimately, is convey the thoughts lying behind the original text into the reader's fallible human understanding, and we are each capable of different degrees of understanding depending on how hard we try, our background knowledge, and maybe our native smarts as well.

A careful, responsible reader naturally understands that he must work hard to grasp the full and rich meaning of a difficult text. Hence it is probable that a diligent scholar working primarily with a "paraphrase" text might, by consulting several commentaries that take apart the key terms, actually come to understand the text better than someone who uses a "literal" or "formal equivalence" translation.

Moreover, many of the more literal translations, like the King James Version, tend to choose more precisely correct words and phrases that, it so happens, are uncommon, abstract, or require background knowledge to understand. Unless a reader makes a genuine effort to engage with the text—to double-check that he really does understand what is going on—then the more "precisely correct" word may leave a fuzzier representation of the original author's meaning in his head than a "roughly correct" word would.

Indeed, it seems probable that if you wanted to read a translation and have the very best chance of getting utterly confused about the meaning of the text, you would choose a difficult, strictly literal translation and then read it quickly and without assistance. If you must read a relatively difficult or obscure text, like the Bible, quickly and without assistance, it is highly probable that you should choose a paraphrase, because then you will emerge from the experience with more of the original author's thoughts.

But make no mistake: if you read a paraphrase, you will fail to understand many things, maybe mostly unimportant things, but some more important and occasionally even crucial things. This is because the meaning you glean from a paraphrase uses more familiar concepts, while the original text is naturally difficult for you because the thoughts behind it are sometimes quite simply unfamiliar concepts. You cannot properly translate the Bible into "modern colloquial English" for the very simple reason that "modern colloquial English" draws on or expresses a conceptual scheme—an integrated set of concepts representing the world—that is quite different from the conceptual schemes used in the Bible.

When you read news or a blog post without difficulty, the reason you understand it easily is that you and the author draw on the same background knowledge and use words or concepts in a similar way. Ancient, obscure, technical, and academic texts are hard to read because they require background knowledge you lack, or because they use words or concepts you have never encountered. This is not to say you cannot learn the background knowledge and concepts, maybe even easily; but it is to say that you must actually take the time to learn, or you simply will not understand the text.

What do these observations entail about translations? By themselves, they do not really help us to choose a translation, because the choice of a translation does not solve the problem of getting correct understandings from a text. But they do entail something important about how to read hard texts, and the Bible in particular.

If our goal is to get the most accurate possible understanding of the text, then we must indeed begin with a literal translation. A paraphrase like The Message or Easy-to-Read Version—and even a "dynamic equivalence" like the Christian Standard Bible or the New International Version—will substitute modern English words and phrasings in place of more obscure ones, as long as they are "good enough." This is "dangerous" for purposes of getting the most accurate possible comprehension, because it gives you a false sense of understanding: you are missing something from the text, and you do not even know it, because it is systematically hidden from you by a misleadingly "simple" word choice.

An example (chosen more or less at random) should make this point clearer. The Good News Translation—a paraphrasing translation—renders Proverbs 15:4 as: "Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit." This utterly leaves out an essential reference to the "Tree of Life," as in the (more literal, but still "dynamic") English Standard Bible: "A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit." This reference, which requires background knowledge from the book of Genesis, adds richness to the text (the Tree of Life in the Garden of Evil literally gave sustenance to the first humans, but was available to them only as long as they lived in purity, according to God's commandments). This suggests that the gentle words in question give us sustenance of some sort.

But the New American Standard Bible, a literal translation, goes one step further: "A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit." The translators chose the rather obscure phrase "soothing tongue," which the GNT rendered as "kind words" and the ESB as "gentle tongue." What is the original Hebrew word for "gentle" or "soothing" here? Apparently it is "marpe'" (מַרְפֵּ֣א), which one lexicon says means "curative, i.e. literally (concretely) a medicine, or (abstractly) a cure; figuratively (concretely) deliverance, or (abstractly) placidity." Strong's Lexicon glosses the root of this word as "1) health, healing, cure 1a) healing, cure 1b) health, profit, sound (of mind) 1c) healing 1c1) incurable (with negative)."

So the GNT's rendering of "kind," while in the right ballpark and "gentle" suggests a sort of kind care, neither suggests the healing ministrations of something that "soothes" an (unhealthily) irritated friend. Perhaps "healing words" would suggest the original thought most plainly.

By the way, we might encounter a problem with the King James Version, namely, that it renders Hebrew and Greek (very precisely, yes) into common English words as they were used in the 17th century. Hence the KJV has the phrase in question as "wholesome tongue." We think of "wholesome" as meaning supportive of good morals, but that is not quite what the Hebrew text meant, so the KJV rendition is actually misleading unless you also know that "wholesome" also can mean "healthy" (as in "wholesome food"). So, basically, stay away from the KJV unless you have read a lot of early modern texts (like Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, and Locke) and such different shades of meaning are familiar to you. I have read quite a few of such texts and am often on the lookout for shades of meaning, so I rather like it.

Also by the way, you might have wanted me to explain the verse in question, so here goes. Proper comprehension of a text always requires context, so here are the first six verses of Proverbs 15 (KJV translation):

1 A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.

2 The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.

3 The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.

4 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.

5 A fool despiseth his father's instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.

6 In the house of the righteous is much treasure: but in the revenues of the wicked is trouble.

So the proverb is placed among others that talk about, essentially, wise words, the understanding that they reflect, and the consequences of using them (or not). It immediately follows a verse that says that God sees both evil and good. Now, the Tree of Life was a symbol of wholesomeness (in both senses) within the Garden of Eden, and you will recall that there was another tree there, that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or as I like to put it, the knowledge of how to become evil.

So in this context I would explain the verse this way. He who speaks words that soothe or heal, not merely emotionally but, especially, morally or spiritually—so the words heal the soul, both the speaker's and the listener's—acts in the same sort of life-giving way that the Tree of Life did in the Garden. By contrast, speech that is "perverse" (Strong's says the word is סֶלֶף, which can mean twisted, crooked, and overthrown, a word used often in the Old Testament to describe things that are not functioning well, that are out of joint or indeed unhealthy) is a "breach" (שֶׁ֣בֶר: crushes, breaks) in the "spirit" (בְּרֽוּחַ׃: originally, wind, but meaning the potentially holy inner part of us). In other words, "crooked" words reflect a morally twisted soul. Perhaps we can even read an allusion to the impure, unhealthy Tree, eating of which certainly crushed the spirit of Adam and Eve. The boy the KJV happens to suggest this, of the translations considered. That exemplifies the sort of interesting analytical insights a good translation can foster.

A briefer but still accurate paraphrase: "He who speaks healing words gives life as the Tree of Life did; but crooked, sick words morally crush the spirit."

"But," you say, "isn't it better just to paraphrase that as 'Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit'? Isn't that good enough?"

Sure, it might be good enough for some purposes. The problem is that you are getting a stripped-down, watered-down, blurry version of the original thoughts, a version that is not integrated into the original conceptual schemes that become clearer and more fully accessible with the help of a literal translation and the use of commentaries (and other reference tools).

If the Bible really were the inspired word of God, that would mean getting the original meaning as precisely as possible is very important.

Of course, reading the text in the original languages would be best.

"But wait, Larry, what is your favorite translation?" I don't have one yet, although I tend to switch between the KJV and the NKJV, which simply updates some of the confusing word choices of the KJV. When I want to read a passage quickly and I just want to get the gist, I read the “Amplified Bible.” But to pick a favorite for careful Bible study, I would have to answer many other questions, such as, "Which are the best source Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible?" and others. I have no time to dive into all that. My point above is relatively simple: the reason a literal translation is best, for purposes of serious Bible study is that it will greatly facilitate the difficult but important job of understanding the ideas behind the original text most fully and accurately.