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Why so many people have become dependent on centralized apps like Slack


Slack was down for a couple of hours today. Because Vox Media depends on the rapidly-growing group-messaging service, this has imposed a productivity hit here in the newsroom. And because lots of other companies use Slack too, it's likely preventing a lot of people from getting their jobs done.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The internet was designed to be decentralized. By distributing intelligence around the network, the internet's architects hoped to minimize the risk of a single catastrophic failure crippling the whole network.

The internet's early applications were designed to work this way too. Email, for example, is designed on a distributed model. Anyone can — and thousands of organizations do — run email servers, which talk to each other using shared standards. Your company's email server might fail, but the email network as a whole is never down. Similarly, your company's website can crash; but the web as a whole never does.

But online communication systems invented more recently don't work that way. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, Whatsapp, and the like are each owned and operated by a single company. If engineers at Twitter screw up, the entire Twitter network can stop working all at once.

So what changed? Probably the biggest reason for the change has to do with how software is distributed. Until the 1990s, software had to be manually updated by users. This meant that the way computers talked to each other had to be highly standardized to enable different versions of software to communicate.

But a new generation of web technologies, dubbed "Web 2.0," changed all that. When you visit Facebook from your PC, you don't run Facebook software installed on your hard drive. Instead, you download a fresh copy of the Facebook software onto your browser every time you load the Facebook website.

This makes software development a lot more flexible. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to add, change, or remove a feature from the Facebook website, he doesn't have to worry about how to accommodate people running old versions of the Facebook software or wait months for people to download the latest version. Instead, the new software is pushed out to users almost instantly.

In contrast, recent efforts to create new communications platforms that are open like email have fallen flat. There have been a number of attempts to launch open social media networks, including Identica and Diaspora, have failed to gain traction with the public.

A related issue is that decentralized platforms generally demand more of users, who must either install and run software themselves or sign up with a third party to run the software on their behalf. This is why even email is more decentralized in theory than in practice: a huge number of individual users and even many customers rely on a handful of large web-based email services run by companies like Google and Microsoft. A Gmail outage doesn't completely disable the email network, but it still affects a huge number of email users.

The good news is that users have a growing number of different centralized communications platforms to choose from. The Slack outage was annoying, but people could still use other services like email, instant messaging, Facebook chat, Twitter direct messages, and Whatsapp. And the barrier for entry keeps getting lower. So if any one service doesn't serve its users well, others can pop up to take its place.