Rossmann, Grayjay, and Sovereign Identities
Grayjay seeks to do something truly important… but I fear it is doomed to failure.
Most articles on this site are factual articles covering technical or scientific topics. This article is not one of them–it falls squarely into the category of an opinion piece.
There has been a lot of noise in certain Internet circles1 over the past several weeks about an application released by FUTO and Louis Rossmann called Grayjay. This application, or perhaps more accurately a constellation of related applications of which Grayjay is the most “visible”, seeks to solve a very real, and very important problem. But I fear that it is doomed to failure in the long term.
First, the problem: the structure of the modern Internet essentially fragments your identity across a number of islands, which can only be softly linked together. For example, you may have a YouTube account, a Twitter (or whatever it’s calling itself these days) account, and a Reddit account. There isn’t really a “you” in this system: just a “you on YouTube”, a “you on Twitter”, and a “you on Reddit”. If somebody wants to follow “you”, then they must individually follow all three of these identity fragments. As potentially annoying as that is on its own, it is further complicated by the fact that there isn’t a particularly good way to formally associate these three fragments with your identity. Anybody could create an account called “Douglas Rumbaugh” on Twitter and impersonate me. And if you only follow “me” on Twitter, you’d have no way of knowing! Even if I were to disavow the impostor on my Website, how would you know that the Website isn’t the imposer and the Twitter account legitimate?
Further, most of these identity fragments aren’t actually controlled by you, but rather by the platform on which they exist. YouTube could close your account without warning at any time. When this happens, you will lose almost everybody in your YouTube audience, even if you have uploaded videos to some other place. You’d have no way of communicating with your old YouTube audience to let them know that you are posting somewhere else. As far as most of them are concerned, you may as well be dead.
FUTO’s end-game is the creation of what they call a sovereign identity. They’re seeking to develop a decentralized system by which you can create an identity, which you control, and then link all of these identity fragments to that main identity. This system is comprised of a number of discrete applications, including Polycentric (a text-based social media system) and Harbor (an application for managing an identity and claiming Web properties). Grayjay is their solution for “subscribing” to one of these sovereign identities, at least for video content.
This system provides a number of benefits. First, it is designed around a web-of-trust model (like is used in PGP), where identities can “vouch” for the claims of other identities and their claims to ownership of certain properties. This system addresses the impostor problem I mentioned above, and creates a trusted, “hard” link between the identity fragments comprising your online existence. Further, it also helps to protect you from some of the risks associated with account termination on a platform. When, using Grayjay, a user subscribes to an identity, they will see an aggregated (and deduplicated) feed of that identity’s content from all the platforms it is associated with. This means that, if somebody is on YouTube and Odysee, and their YouTube account is terminated, their subscribers on Grayjay will automatically pull videos from Odysee instead.
I think that what FUTO is seeking to do here is incredibly important. But, I have my doubts as to whether their approach will actually work. Specifically, I see a few major problems,
- The adblocking controversy
- Confusing target demographics for their system
- These problems have already been solved
Let’s discuss these in detail.
To Adblock or Not to Adblock…
The majority of the conversation surrounding Grayjay seems to center on one of its features that is almost accidental: its blocking of advertisements from YouTube video playback.2 Given YouTube’s current crusade against adblockers, this accident of the way the YouTube API works has exploded into a major selling point for the app. However, I think that this situation may actually cause more harm than good. The important aspect of FUTO’s system (sovereign identity) is being either a) overshadowed in popular discourse by, or b) conflated with adblocking.
This will become a problem for the marketability of the application, I think, because adblocking is a contentious issue. I don’t see any real way to argue against the importance and utility of the sovereign identity system. But adblocking… there’s a lot of debate about that right now. Whether intentionally or not, Grayjay has hitched its horse to the adblocking cart, and as a result has alienated a lot of potential users who have different opinions on the topic.3 They are allegedly working on a way for creators to opt-out of their content appearing on the platform, which might help a little. But, realistically, if that is the route they want to take it, the system should be “opt-in” instead. That’d be the only way to actually get anti-adblocking types on board (but would also render the app close to useless, so I get why they don’t do it).
The way in which FUTO is approaching setting up their sovereign identity system is, frankly, confusing as hell. They seem, based on their approach, to be targeting it directly at non-technical users. But they also are not taking the steps that they would need to in order to appeal to this audience. It’s almost as though they have no idea what their ultimate roadmap towards market adoption is.
The problem here is that their system is built on a series of linked Android apps. This automatically makes the entire thing unappealing to many more technical users, who would much prefer to be able set up and use the system from an actual computer. I am particularly unhappy with their Harbor app, which is used to manage your sovereign identity and claim Web properties. It’s almost too user friendly; the key generation is too transparent and there’s no password protection of the keys. You need to go out of your way to create a “backup” to get a copy of the key to store somewhere other than your phone. It’ll be interesting to see if people start losing their keys, or having their keys (and thus their identity) stolen. You are also severely restricted with the properties that you can associate with an identity. You cannot lay claim to a Website or a PGP public key; the only options right now are accounts with a variety of centralized content hosting networks. It doesn’t even support claiming an email address or an IRC nick.
I think that targeting non-technical users first with something like this is a mistake, largely because most non-technical users don’t care. The thing that really drives adoption of a system like this are network effects, and that usually starts with technical users, who then convince their non-technical friends and family to start using the software. This has been the way that Signal has grown so popular, for example. Without appealing to the technical audience first, I’m worried that FUTO’s system won’t get much penetration into the mainstream either. And they really need to focus on making their system appealing to more technical audiences for it to gain traction there, because…
Websites, RSS, and PGP
The sovereign identity problem has already been solved for years. The problem has always been the barrier to entry: it requires a fair degree of technical proficiency to set up.
The solution to maintaining a sovereign identity on the Internet is simple: host your own Website. The solution to aggregating content from disparate sources is also simple: host an RSS feed on said website. The solution for verifying an identity also exists: PGP keys and the web of trust. All of these tools exist, and have existed for a long time. They are just harder to set up and work with.
This is why going out of the way to appeal first to a more technical audience is so important. For somebody like me, it isn’t immediately obvious why I should download some random app on my Android device and set this up, when I can’t even link my own website or existing PGP identities to my new sovereign identity. I could (admittedly I don’t, but I could) very easily host an RSS feed on my site for my videos, which would allow anybody who follows me there to see my content regardless of what platform its on. Yes–this would require my viewers to go out of their way to figure out how to find and subscribe to this feed. But Grayjay still faces the same problem–it only works if people go out of their way to use it. There isn’t a clear value proposition for me, compared to the systems that I have already set up (or could easily set up). And I assume that the situation is similar for many other technically-minded people.
I have set up my sovereign identity and linked the accounts that I could to it. But, realistically, there wasn’t a very compelling reason for me to do so. Combine that with restricting the whole system exclusively to Android users (believe it or not, I have heard legends of technically minded people using iPhones), setting up the system to initially cater to a demographic that has limited interest in the problem it is trying to solve, and picking a side in the great adblock wars, and I fear that FUTO has set themselves up to have an uphill battle for adoption.
Don’t get me wrong, I do hope that this takes off. But it isn’t looking good. Let me put it this way: I have yet to see any creator, other than Rossmann and myself, on Grayjay who has set up and linked their sovereign identity.
I would almost have preferred seeing FUTO take the approach of pushing for adoption of the technologies that already exist, rather than trying to develop new ones. A system for automatically generating merged RSS feeds across multiple platforms, for example, combined with the linking of this feed to a sovereign identity and a convenient app for reading from the feed would solve the same problem in a simpler manner while helping popularize the existing solutions to this problem.
I’m going to be addressing some, but not all, of these circles here. Most notably, I won’t be discussing any of the licensing controversy or the debate on whether Grayjay is “open source” or not. This debate is, I think, largely immaterial regarding the adoption/success of the application or of FUTO’s sovereign identity system. The number of people who would actually boycott the app for licensing issues is vanishingly small in the grand scheme of things. This is not to weigh in on whether their issues with the license are valid or not; words have meaning and it’s important to protect them. But this issue isn’t important to the points I want to make in this article. ↩︎
Though to use the word “blocking” here is a bit of misnomer; the YouTube API Grayjay uses to download videos doesn’t have ads to begin with, so there’s nothing to block, really. ↩︎
It’s actually slightly worse than this. Grayjay doesn’t support some features, notably Sponsorblock, that the pro-adblocking crusaders demand. So it doesn’t satisfy the really rabid anti-advertisement folks either. They’re rather stuck in the middle of two opposing camps, and not fully satisfying either side. It’s not a great spot to be. ↩︎