Centralization or federation

Composition VIII, a 1923 abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky

What’s better, a centralized system or a federated one? As per usual in systems architecture, that depends on what values you’re optimizing for. Centralized is good for ease of use: there is one entity to configure, one system to learn. Decentralized is harder, but enables experimentation and discovery: there are many entities with different economic models, rulesets, goals, audiences, and more. Centralized can grow quickly, but needs money to do so: that leads to a short lifespan and rigidity. Accepting credit to enable growth comes with hard and soft requirements, while choosing to grow organically limits reach.

Paradoxically, centralized systems tend to become less enjoyable as products over time, despite their early ease of use advantages. This is because they must monetize to cover the costs of running centralized infrastructure. To do so, they will take one of three paths: sell ad space, charge fees, or embrace a benevolent parent.

  • selling ads leads to enshittification
  • Charging fees leads to dark patterns
  • Embracing a parent can seem to avoid those outcomes through negligence or benevolence, until the parent is forced to account for itself by a downturn.
    While early on those forces might be kept at a very low level, they always grow stronger in anything other than a personally controlled lifestyle business. It’s extremely difficult to find one of those in the world of centralized systems, because such a business would look like a tasty snack to government regulators.

A decentralized system is not entirely immune to those forces, but their impact is spread among many participants. Because there are many people with different goals and ideals in play, there is room for lower margin, higher utility outcomes. For every eBay, there is an equal and opposite Craigslist.

Decentralized systems are not perfect: in addition to difficult user experience and low discoverability, abuse and crime are serious issues. It was the poor discoverability of the early decentralized web that laid foundations for today’s centralized web, by making centralized search engines a required tool. Everyone gets to be a moderator and an admin? Then everyone has potential to get a terrible experience. The freedom to experiment includes freedom to crime, which is going just great.

So, two different models, each with pros and cons, neither stable. Decentralized systems historically tend to centralize, and appear likely to do so in the future as well. Centralized systems tend to fail, as is the nature of all things. Their replacements are not always decentralized, but when they are it often represents a step-change in functionality for the world.

I can believe in a pendulum swing between options. Aggregation theory drives centralization. Enshittification drives federation. But I also think that systems will tend to settle at one extreme to be replaced by new systems that might be able to swing. People around the world want systems to enable community and business, but they only want those systems to operate on locally acceptable terms. Those needs are opposed, so stability will be fleeting. “Chaos, control, you like?

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