This is an opinion editorial by Trey Walsh, host of “The Progressive Bitcoiner.”
A dangerous trend has emerged in the United States that is seeing terms like “free speech,” “censorship resistant,” “privacy” and more become co-opted by those on the political right, while tools enabling these principles are argued and fought against by those on the political left. The truth is that freedom, privacy and censorship-resistant technologies are important for everyone, regardless of political leanings and they should not be politicized, lest we head down the path toward a dystopian future with no privacy or free speech guarantees, and only centralized institutions controlled by people with the ability to censor, revoke and remove important guarantees of freedom promoted in the spirit and language of the U.S. Constitution.
Just as Bitcoin has falsely become politicized as a more right wing/Libertarian technology — explained away by others as having no value or as a tool for criminals and those who disregard the dangers of climate change — open and decentralized protocols like Nostr could enter the same cycle and become politicized or fought against, unless we share more reasons why it is important for all of humanity and not just a political position to take.
The fate of our ability to freely and openly communicate and maintain guarantees of privacy and property may rest on citizens of the world understanding the importance of open, censorship-resistance protocols, and private, end-to-end-encrypted communication tools.
The Importance Of Nostr
Nostr was first conceptualized by pseudonymous Bitcoin coder Fiatjaf and “Bitcoin tinkerer” Ben Arc. As described on nostr.how, run by JeffG:
“Nostr stands for ‘Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relays.’ Like HTTP or TCP-IP, Nostr is a protocol; an open standard upon which anyone can build. Nostr itself is not an app or service that you sign up for. Nostr is designed for simplicity and enables censorship-resistant and globally decentralized publishing on the web.”
The way in which we see the Nostr protocol being used and popularized today is via clients (i.e., apps and websites), like my personal favorite Damus, or Primal, Snort and dozens of others being built out by developers who are passionate about this protocol. Each user then adds relays (many are defaulted on most clients today), which is the way that these messages get sent around in a decentralized way, and users can add free or even paid relays. By paying for relays in bitcoin, which is the money/medium of exchange used on Nostr, users can eliminate the amount of spam or bots accessing relays/feeds and have a faster experience.
Users can also sort their global feeds based on relays and more. The beauty of this system is that most traditional social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. — is completely centralized. A platform like Twitter, for instance, manages the content withs its own servers (or pays third parties to do so) — one central relay, in a way. So, you can easily be censored or removed from using twitter for criticizing Elon Musk, posting a political statement that is unfavorable to decision makers within the company or a nation state asking Twitter to censor those types of messages, as was the recent case for a political election in Turkey.
With Nostr, if you are censored on one relay, you still have endless amounts of other relays to write or post to. Your Nostr account is not tied to one specific relay or client. When each user signs up on Nostr, an “npub” (think “username”) is created as is an “nsec” (think “password”) that can be used to sign up for any client. Imagine if you had your Twitter username and password, but you could also use that to sign into every other social media platform and it carried with it every post and connection you ever had on Twitter. Pretty cool, right?
So, practically, Nostr is a cool and easy way to use social media across multiple clients, leaving you with ultimate control and preference! But ideologically, it is so much more.
As I stated earlier, Nostr is an open protocol, on which anyone can post and build, leaving it to be censorship resistant and with you in control. As is the case with Bitcoin, if you can access the internet, you can access Nostr.
I know that many progressive friends of mine have been very frustrated with Twitter/X/Musk’s apparently-selective control of who gets to practice “free speech” and who doesn’t on that platform. Many other self-described “free speech” platforms have been created, such as Donald Trump’s Truth Social, Rumble and more. But these platforms offer “Free Speech In Name Only” (FSINO). They are still companies run by people with centralized control.
When I say that Nostr promotes free speech and that the user is in control, it isn’t because Nostr is run by a self-described “free speech maximalist,” or because Nostr has any specific political ideology. It is because the protocol is inherently open and free to use by anyone, and decentralized in a way where an infinite number of communities, ideologies, people and movements can flourish and utilize the protocol however they wish. I believe it is technology and an internet-enabled protocol as the Cypherpunk movement intended: promoting freedom, censorship resistance and the ability to be private and promote anonymity when needed (requiring no KYC or government checks to use).
The Nostr Community Speaks
So, why is this important? For this question, I reached out to the community on Nostr. Here’s some of the responses I got:
Derek Ross, builder of Nostr Plebs and Nostr Nests:
“Nostr may not be personally important to me (as a U.S. citizen), but it’s important for millions if not billions of people around the world that don’t have free speech and suffer from oppressive regimes censoring their ability to communicate. Nostr is important to them. Nostr embodies censorship-resistant technology, allowing users to continue to communicate with one another with minimal effort to avoid censorship. We have to think about the other 8 billion people that we share this planet with.”
Lyn Alden, founder of Lyn Alden Investment Strategy:
“Nostr is important because, in a world where half of the world population lives under authoritarianism, the ability to transmit unrestricted speech is important. We might not all want to participate in online forums with unrestricted speech, but it’s important that such an option exists. And with Nostr, relays and client applications can tailor their experience to benefit from this open-source aspect while also filtering it in ways that meet their own preferences. Over time, it would make sense for social media to follow in the way of email: a raw and open-source base layer but then various applications built on top of it that can filter it in a way that makes sense for their needs.”
Walker, creator of The Nostrich, member of The Crypto Couple, Bitcoin advocate and events host:
“You don’t need to give away any personal information to start using Nostr, so it’s safe for activists to use, even in countries with heavy surveillance. Nostr prevents suppression of expression. It enables the return to an internet that is not dominated by algorithms meant to control, enrage and engage you. Nostr is social media that is actually social.”
Carla, member of The Crypto Couple, Bitcoin advocate and events host:
“As someone also on Twitter, Bluesky and Threads, I can honestly say Nostr is the only place I’m unapologetically myself. Anything goes. Stream of consciousness notes? You betcha. Dog pics? Obviously. Beautiful and ugly feet, send ’em. Hot selfies or bucolic landscapes, both sexy. Podcasts, articles, intelligent content, that’s here, too! There are no rules or rulers — and while that certainly enables some undesirable content, it’s the price we pay for true censorship resistance. Thanks to client-muting tools, you can curate your own experience, even on an open protocol. It’s early, it’s exciting and it’s growing.”
Marce, writing for “Nostr Report”:
“For me, Nostr is important because it redefines identity as we know it. It brings two very important things together: real private property and identity. Your keys cannot be taken away, therefore your identity is truly owned by you. Everything on Nostr that you put out is yours to share forever and your voice can’t ever be taken away.”
A Growing Community
There are thousands more who utilize Nostr day in and day out with their own thoughts and specific use cases, but who share similar sentiments to the notable voices above. And in addition to the platform’s open protocol, its community itself is something to marvel at.
As of early August 2023, there were around 333,000 users on Nostr (check out Nostr.band for even more data). That number of users, and particularly active users, is very small compared to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., but protocols like Nostr are intended for the long haul.
Every day, developers are building on Nostr via social media clients, news websites, marketplaces, music forums, virtual event platforms, you name it. We are still in the very early stages of Nostr and the world it has yet to build into. One thing that can be said of those building on Nostr already: The community of users are creating and implementing Nostr in ways not seen since the early internet.
Folks may say it has a similar feel to the early days of Twitter, when Twitter looked to the community for where the platform would grow, and what features would or would not be utilized (the use of hashtags, for instance, came from the community playing around with things). In addition to the openness of the protocol, Nostr developers are open and transparent, leaving notes on Nostr for the community to interact with, and each client is in friendly competition with the other to build the latest and greatest features. There is an inherent, open-source ethos, encouraging one not taking oneself too seriously, and to build a better, more open and connected communications surface for the internet, which has veered far from its initial path via the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Lastly, what Nostr encourages is honest connection and communications, not coerced by central authorities, advertisers or algorithms intended to fan the flames of hate and conflict. I’m not suggesting that Nostr has all of the answers to our political divide, polarization and echo chambers on social media, but any user will tell you there is a stark difference between scrolling on Twitter and scrolling on Nostr.
Yale researchers analyzed over 12 millions tweets and found that moral outrage gets heavily rewarded:
“This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media,” the researchers said.
Part of this is algorithmic, and part of this is where society has been trending for some time. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma, but research and user experience suggest mainstream social media today, along with their positives, carry with them a dark undertone, leading many to experience more anxiety, depression and despair.
While Nostr will not inherently remove the “reward” vectors of seeing likes, gaining followers, etc. that, for some, can become an unhealthy addiction, the focus is on authentic connection and valuable content (that can be rewarded via zaps — think “tips” for your content!). From personal experience, I can say that using other social media such as Twitter is extremely overwhelming and creates negative emotions compared to using Nostr clients.
This article only briefly outlines a few of the major selling points of Nostr. With its open protocol, users in control and psychologically-different goals than mainstream social media today, everyone, including progressives, should be applauding efforts to build out the Nostr protocol that asks us to reexamine current social media and communication protocols on the internet, and encourages us to engage in a thoughtful and open way, where you, the user, are in control — not a corporation, not a self-entitled tech billionaire, not a nefarious government or unhinged political ruler. You.
To politicize this in any way is to miss out on mainstream adoption of a more free social media and internet communication protocol. And how were these principles and freedom tech politized in the first place? On mainstream social media, encouraged to divide us.
For more information on Nostr, please check out the following resources:
This is a guest post by Trey Walsh. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.