Today I’m happy to host a guest article by a different Michael – Michael DiStefano – on a potential (and simple) solution to the problems so many of us conservative Catholics face on social media. Michael first approached me about his idea on November 10, 2020. Since then, I’ve been passively watching, and enjoying his diligence, commitment, and stability. Because I appreciate (very much) Catholics who think of potential solutions to problems … and then take action on their ideas, I’m very happy to post this. I’m not benefiting in any way.

So, read what he has to say, check out what he has built, and ask him questions, below.

The remainder of this post is written by Michael DiStefano, creator of Fidei.email:

Before we begin on our journey it is important to answer where we are headed. In short, I will outline what I believe is a Catholic approach to the Internet. It is not enough, I’ll argue, to simply replace one-for-one every Internet company who holds us in contempt with a Catholic alternative, tempting as it may be, but rather that we must first understand the underlying forces that allowed us to get here in the first place. With this understanding in mind we may then begin to apply Catholic principles to inform not only what we build but how it is built. Technology is merely a tool and it is time to begin to construct tools made for us and by us.

Many of us have an natural sense that it is better to support a small local business than to shop at a big box store. How much better does it feel to purchase eggs from a local farmer than to pick up a dozen from a grocery store, for example? It simply feels good to “buy local”. Why is this? Quite simply, when we support a small business we have the possibility of establishing a relationship in a way that is simply not possible with a larger corporation.

Multiply this exchange over a thousand times with more and more people exchanging goods and services and a local economy begins to form. Economies are essentially built on trust; the network of relationships that emerges from a multitude of interactions weaves a web of trust that is resilient.

The further we get from knowing or at least being able to relate to those with whom we exchange goods or services the more depersonalized our transactions become. The less we become customers, the more we become users.

Contrast the resilient web of relationships described above with the hub and spoke model that emerges when a large number of people instead patronize a large business. Rather than a resilient web of relationships we have a fragile system whereby “relationships” are isolated between the user and the provider.

We can describe the above metaphor as representing the difference between centralization (hub and spoke) and decentralization (web of relationships). For the remainder of this article I will propose that many of the issues we experience today on the Internet arise from a spirit of centralization and that only through decentralization can we begin to truly ameliorate these issues and build strong communities free to pursue the good.

The Internet in 2022 is a very different place than it was only a decade ago. Many of us are painfully aware of the control over communication that only a few large entities wield. Each mode of communication is so dominated by a single provider that it is difficult to distinguish the medium from the provider. Rather than speak in a public square we “use Twitter”, rather than watch videos online we “consume YouTube”, rather than share with friends and family we “follow on Facebook”. Even our most intimate communication, messaging, tends to happen on one of a few platforms: Facebook Messenger, Whats App, etc. A small group of technology companies, nearly all of which are headquartered within a few miles of each other in California control nearly all of the means of online communication.

To make matters worse, these technology companies espouse and frequently promote values contrary to a Catholic culture. We needn’t go into detail about the values promoted on App Stores and front pages, much less the organizations into which their copious donations flow or the bills sponsored.

The consequences of centralization are often not immediately felt. In fact, many would be centralizers present to the world a benign image in order to win users–for a long time, Google had the slogan “do no evil”, for example. It is only once dominance is established that we begin to feel the effects of the values of a company made manifest through its control. At this point, we often feel that it’s too late, “all the users are there” anyway, so we continue to use the technology begrudgingly, convinced that we must do so in order to reach others. This, of course, only serves to reinforce the dominance and blinds us to the alternative that has been there all along: decentralization.

What is decentralization exactly? And, how does it prevent the problems enabled and exacerbated by centralization? Just as we can approach who God is by examining who He is not, we can examine what makes a service decentralized by examining what makes a service not decentralized.

Let’s take Facebook Messenger, for example. In order to message someone on Facebook Messenger both you and he needs to be using Facebook Messenger. Similarly, if one wants to follow someone else on Twitter both parties need to use Twitter. The same, of course, applies to the vast majority of popular Internet services today.

Each service is its own fiefdom wherein serfs may till the soil, however, if one wishes to leave and go elsewhere he may not take any of his possessions (Tweets, Facebook posts, followers, network) with him. We may spend years investing our time forging relationships, writing, and sharing but all of this remains trapped within the safe confines of the single platform in which we’ve toiled. Or, it may disappear altogether when we cross the increasingly capricious rules of our centralized controllers.

Not only are we unable to bring the fruits of our labor with us, the benefit from those fruits were realized by the owner of the service. How? Advertising. Why are Facebook and Google such valuable companies? They sell advertising. All advertising needs a medium in which to be encountered. Television advertising is effective because it is interspersed between content people (for some reason) wish to watch; the same is true with radio advertising, billboards, etc. Each of these advertisement formats is situated in a medium that people have deemed either necessary (roads) or desirable to utilize (television and radio). The difference between these more traditional advertising mediums and those offered by the “social networks” is that with the latter the valuable content in which to situate advertisements was produced by you, for free.

These days we take this paradigm for granted but this was not always the case, nor need it be. There is in fact a decentralized platform–indeed, it is the most popular Internet platform in existence–that virtually all of use use. This platform is email.

Email doesn’t get the fanfare it deserves. Despite many claims that email is outmoded and needs to be superseded by something better (usually followed by a pitch of how “we’re going to kill email” and if you just join our centralized platform you’ll see) email has quietly remained the most popular “social network” of all, surpassing even Facebook in terms of active users. Email has been around for decades and its intransigence in the face of Big Tech attempts to scuttle it proves its robustness. What makes email so robust? In a word, email is decentralized. Unlike the centralized communication platforms mentioned above, not everyone has to use the same email service in order to communicate: mary@bethlehem.com can contact elizabeth@galilee.org without any issue. In practice, the fictitious bethlehem.com and galilee.org are two separate email providers but those sending and receiving the emails don’t need to know this; it just works. If bethlehem.com gets attacked by Herod, Mary can (with the help of Joseph, of course) sign up for a new email @egypt.com and continue speaking with her cousin Elizabeth @galilee.org. It is very difficult to take down the entire email network for this reason, which highlights one of the key benefits conferred by decentralization: resilience.

In addition to resilience, decentralization prevents the market dominance needed to control a given technology. All email service providers, often to their chagrin, are forced to inter-operate with all other email service providers if they wish to be able to exchange messages. With a decentralized technology like email it is far more difficult for a single entity to dictate what can be said on it. If ever a provider tried you could simply switch to another provider at very little inconvenience. If you are removed from Twitter you can no longer tweet and you lose all of your contacts, but if you decide to leave your email provider for another you can still send email and retain your address book.

The fact that any email provider can send and receive messages from any other email provider points to one of the key benefits of email for our purposes: email is fungible. At the end of the day, email is email no matter who is providing it as a service.

Just as the fact that bread is bread enables anyone become a baker, the fact that email is email allows anyone to become an email provider. This means that just as we might seek to support out local baker who does not include artificial preservatives in his bread, even better if he shares our faith, we can seek out an email provider who does not analyze our email in order to target us with advertisements. Or, even better, an email provider who shares our faith. This is why I created Fidei.email, an email service made by and for Catholics.

Because email is a fungible medium that isn’t controlled by a single entity it provides the necessary freedom, properly understood, to create a truly Catholic alternative. To be sure, email is not the only decentralized technology out there (and there will be more to come), but it is a perfect starting point to get us away from the confines of technology companies whose values are anathema to our own. And, because any email works with any other email, all of your friends don’t have to be using Fidei.email for it to be immediately useful.

Email is not the end, Fidei.email is just the beginning of a plan to provide small Catholic alternatives to platforms dominated by Big Tech. But, the success of email is instructive. And, in the end, who doesn’t delight in opening one’s inbox to find a well-written epistle.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: An Alternative to the Big Tech Paradigm

  1. This is a really smart idea, and it’s great to see people using their expertise to take action. I like the spam filter and that the cost is reasonable. Moving away from the monopolies little by little seems to be the way to go.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hello,
    What an incredible way to utilize technology to connect without compromising values in a way big tech never could. Thank you for pioneering this! I’ve admired the Amish for their self-reliance, and there’s absolutely no reason why the Catholic community couldn’t create networks for everyone’s needs to be met in abundance. All brothers and sisters in Christ should take heed of the times we’re living in. Defending the faith in every way is a worthy cause, and gathering together would bring even more to the truth.
    And by the way, I have honey for sale or barter.;)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your kind words! The Amish are a pretty big inspiration to me as well. I’ve long admired their steadfastness in living out their beliefs (plus, they make the best furniture!).

      This entire endeavor began (at least the thinking around what it would eventually become) nearly two years ago when I gave a talk at my parish that was called “Engineering the Benedict Option”, which kind of gets to the heart of what you mention: a self-reliant network for everyone’s needs to be met in abundance, at least on the Internet.

      I really love St. Paul’s many mentions of the mystical body of Christ. Each of us, whether it’s making honey, milking cows, building homes, making an email service, or any of the other myriad things we do can, when oriented rightly, help to build up His Kingdom.

      Oh, and my wife and I would love to buy some of your honey!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s so cool and amazing you’re living your faith in such a way as to assist others in ensuring that compromising with evil doesn’t have to be the only means to communicate. This has been a struggle to reconcile, wanting to connect without going totally off-grid and ceasing communication at all. God bless you.
        And in a strange twist of fate, Michael’s blog page has become “twitter nouveau” for now. (Except I still haven’t figured out how to “like” anything:)
        I’d love to send honey for your family, and Michael’s family. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        1. You’re right, there is a false dichotomy here I think: either make use of the (very valid) conveniences that come with modern technology and compromise with evil or become a Luddite. While I do think that pulling back from technology in general might not be a bad idea I do think that it is possible to throw the baby out with the bathwater (I’ve done it–I went full on dumbphone for nearly a year!) and there is, I think, a better way forward.

          Regarding Michael’s blog becoming “Twitter Nouveau”. I think you actually capture something really important here, which is that not all communication needs to happen in what I call a “public square” in the article. In ordinary life, there are living rooms, park benches, public squares, restaurants, etc. all of which afford different levels of intimacy and privacy and consequently lead to different types of communication. I think online communication, while not exactly the same, is analogous enough to think about this way too.

          Regarding honey, you now have my email 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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