The Nostr Protocol is a New Vision for Online Communications
Our lead copywriter, Jackson Rickun, delves into the inner workings of Nostr, a decentralized data protocol that aims to reshape the future of online communication. This story gives a behind-the-scenes look at the technology through its creator Fiatjaf and Bitcoin developer, Andre Neves.
On December 15, 2022, Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, made a bold announcement that sent ripples of excitement throughout the tech world. It was on Twitter where Dorsey, rather understatedly, tweeted, "14 BTC deployed to @fiatjaf for #nostr." He had made an investment of 14 Bitcoin — a sum worth nearly $250,000 — to help fund the development of Nostr, an innovative protocol that seeks to revolutionize the way we communicate online without the fear of censorship.
Since 2020, the enigmatic @fiatjaf — who goes by no other name — has been diligently working on Nostr, a project that until Dorsey's investment was unsupported by any external funds. Despite being a prominent voice in the Bitcoin community, fiatjaf has managed to keep his personal information shrouded in secrecy, making him one of the few genuinely anonymous players in the industry. But despite his low profile, fiatjaf has made a name for himself as a thought leader and innovator in decentralized protocols.
As a current developer at ZEBEDEE, a gaming fintech startup with seismic contributions to Bitcoin-based projects like Lightning Network and Lightning Address, fiatjaf already has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the Bitcoin space. And while fiatjaf is the driving force behind Nostr, his work is also made possible by his role as a developer at ZEBEDEE, which provides him with the salary and resources to pursue his passion for open-source development.
Similarly, Andre Neves, the co-founder of ZEBEDEE and a highly regarded Bitcoin Lightning Network engineer and systems architect, is closely following the development of Nostr. In addition to his expertise in Bitcoin-based protocols, Neves leverages his skills in product design to create platforms that facilitate economic transactions in gaming and virtual worlds. Both fiatjaf and Neves are considered indefatigable titans in the field of Bitcoin-based protocols, making their working collaboration particularly exciting.
In a recent podcast on December 31, 2022, fiatjaf and Neves discussed Nostr, its potential applications, and the challenges and opportunities that come with open-source development. I also spoke with Neves personally as he walked me through the ins and outs of Nostr, its technicalities, and what makes it so special.
What is Nostr?
Nostr is a revolutionary protocol that allows for the secure exchange of cryptographically signed messages among users on a decentralized network. Unlike other internet companies, Nostr doesn’t require individuals to sign up for an account or adhere to specific rules and regulations, functioning instead as a data layer for the construction of various applications. To use Nostr, a user must generate key pair — including a public key that serves as a unique identifier and a private key used to sign posted content — and then connect to the network.
In our discussion, Neves broke it down for me. He said that, put simply, the Nostr protocol is made up of clients and relays, which facilitate the transmission of data between two users. Clients are the end-users that interact with the protocol and post or receive messages, while relays are nodes on the network which help propagate messages through the system. Think of it like a mail system – the clients are your post office, and the relays are like a postman who delivers messages between nodes.
The heart of Nostr is a protocol for organizing content, referred to as "events," which are transmitted to relays. These relays are independent repositories of events and differ in operation from bitcoin nodes, which connect to validate, receive, or broadcast data. Relays, on the other hand, only listen to the network, aggregate events, and then forward them. When a user sends content to someone, it is not directly sent to the recipient but rather to a relay to which both the sender and receiver are connected. The client can connect to any relay, and the user even has the option to run their own relay.
The preeminent Nostr clients, such as Damus and Anigma, are all built to be decentralized versions of Twitter or other social media platforms. However, the potential data types that Nostr can incorporate are continuously expanding. For example, Sendstr is an open-source end-to-end encrypted clipboard app that allows users to share short text snippets securely. There's no login necessary, and the client generates new encryption keys when the page loads. Or take Jester, the Nostr-based chess application, which allows two players to play chess together, but since the game is hosted directly on the protocol, there's no need to play through a third-party platform.
While these applications may seem straightforward, they demonstrate how robust the Nostr protocol is and how it can be leveraged to create various applications. Neves told me the potential for this is immense: imagine an app that allows for secure document sharing or one that facilitates safe medical data transfers from one hospital to another. No company needs to control the infrastructure, and a user's data is safe from third-party access.
Nostr's scalability and ease of use have been compared to a postal system, with clients serving as the senders and receivers of mail and the relays functioning as post offices facilitating the delivery of the messages. Just as numerous post offices are available for individuals to send and retrieve their mail, various relays are accessible for Nostr users to connect.
Nostr Takes Flight
While Dorsey's tweet announced his donation with understated subtlety, its response was anything but. On Twitter, the news of his investment rippled throughout the tech community, with many speculating about the potential impact of Nostr on the future of social media.
Some praised Dorsey's commitment to decentralization and free speech, while others questioned the feasibility of such a project. Regardless of the reactions, one thing was clear: Dorsey's investment was, at the very least, the Midas touch that put Nostr on the map, as Bitcoiners and tech enthusiasts alike began to pay close attention to the project, toying with how it could shape the future of online communications.
In their podcast, Neves and fiatjaf said that, on the one hand, it's put the project at the forefront of the industry. But on the other hand, the protocol and existing clients have yet to deliver refined user experiences, seamless integrations, and robust security management capabilities.
"No one was able to handle the massive influx of people. I didn't expect that much, even when I saw Jack promoting it. I didn't expect so many people to come," fiatjaf said.
With open-source development, one of the main challenges is that there’s often a mismatch between public attention and usability. As open-source protocols become more popular and gain attention, the development often lags behind. This can be a significant obstacle for protocols like Nostr, as the current clients are not yet fully developed and may not provide the best user experience. This can lead to people being disappointed with their experience or losing interest in the protocol.
Referencing the influx of new users, fiatjaf said, "I think I feel sad that some high-profile account or some famous person says, 'Oh, I'm going to experiment with Nostr.' But if they experiment with Nostr, they're going to get a very suboptimal experience. So it will be bad for the network."
In fact, fiatjaf said that he thinks people shouldn't be using Nostr yet. There's an asymmetry between the attention it's getting and the current stage of development, so until the client experience is improved, the two said that people hold off on using Nostr. They said it's imperative to focus more on building and creating more structured, comprehensive clients on the protocol to close the gap.
Doing so is key to unlocking the full potential of the protocol and making it more accessible to the general public. By incentivizing people to work on projects using Nostr, we can ensure that it is developed further and reaches its full potential.
"I think that the idea should be sold more than the actual product," fiatjaf said.
Private Key Management is Crucial
Central to the idea of Nostr is enabling users to have complete control over their data to maintain optimal self-sovereignty. In a world increasingly dominated by corporate and governmental control, Nostr supporters believe it's paramount that individuals have the power to shape public conversation with permanence, personal discretion, and reliability.
Dorsey opined these core values as reasons he invested in internet-native social media protocols like Nostr. In an open letter on December 13, 2022, Dorsey wrote, "I'm a strong believer that any content produced by someone for the internet should be permanent until the original author chooses to delete it. It should be always available and addressable. Content takedowns and suspensions should not be possible."
While this vision of a free and open internet is lofty, Neves and fiatjaf said it will take significant development to align with this goal. For example, private key management is foundational for users to have complete control over their data and maintain self-sovereignty. But as it stands, managing private keys has been an obstacle as vulnerabilities with clients have led to compromised keys.
Fiatjaf and Neves agreed that using Nostr for mission-critical activities is only advisable once more work is done on the protocol. That said, it’s the same story with any nascent decentralized protocol — even Bitcoin. There will always be challenges, but they think it's worth it.
"This whole holding private keys thing is complicated. Well, welcome to Bitcoin. Welcome to owning your money. Welcome to being the bearer of holding your assets and your dreams. But in general, it needs to be a bit more friendly," Neves said.
If Nostr is to have a future, the average user will want to avoid writing down their public and private key pairs (colloquially called 'npub and nsec key formats') or other cumbersome procedures. But the solutions are there; developers just need to implement them, he added. From browser extensions to small storage devices to key rotation, multi-sig, and cloud services, numerous unexplored opportunities exist to simplify private key management.
When I spoke with Neves, he said that these implementations will come with time, but he’s confident these solutions will materialize on the protocol as it develops.
Funding Must Follow
But above all else, funding is essential for the advancement of open-source protocols like Nostr. With reliable funding, developers can create the innovative solutions needed for a secure future.
A mission-driven stalwart of the open-source community, fiatjaf knows this more than most. Unfortunately, the crypto world is rife with avarice, insatiable hunger for venture capital, and an overall lack of understanding of the value of open-source development.
But fiatjaf practices what he preaches. After Dorsey's 14 BTC donation, fiatjaf gave part of the funds to William Casarin, founder of Damus, one of the leading Nostr-based clients dubbed as "Your very own Twitter for your friends or business."
"I'm going to split this. I think Will has been one of the most enthusiastic people about Nostr. So I figured we could do a good thing with that," he said.
For the remaining funds, fiatjaf created a microgrant structure for developers interested in building the protocol. Detailed in a Google Doc to anyone interested, the microgrants provide bounties to developers who work on the protocol. Among the list of projects are developing "microapps" (Nostr apps that do only one thing and do it well), new use cases besides social, and making things more user-friendly.
"This is not a payment for your work of love, because that is priceless, it is just so your efforts don't go without mention," he wrote in the Google doc.
Neves echoes fiatjaf's sentiment that open-source development is invaluable and should be respected as such. Likening Nostr development to the vision of Bitcoin, Neves said that working on the protocol is a chance to shape the future.
"There's a bunch of developers and tech-savvy people out there that want to help. So the second they saw the protocol, they were like, 'How can I help?'" Neves said.
Shaping the Future
Decentralized social media platforms have long been identified as potential replacements for centralized platforms. For example, fiatjaf said that Nostr may one day be seen as possible Wikipedia, GitHub, Telegram, Twitter, and Reddit "killers."
Beyond that, fiatjaf identified several potential uses for Nostr, such as internal communication within companies, live views for Internet of Things data, and the ability to sell access to social media posts. In addition, fiatjaf has suggested that Nostr could be used for voting systems and government elections.
The ability to use Nostr for internal communication within companies is an intriguing use case. Today, companies often handle internal communications using centralized solutions such as email, chat, and file-sharing programs. Unfortunately, these systems are subject to a single point of failure, meaning malicious actors can easily compromise them. But by utilizing a decentralized protocol like Nostr, say, with setting up a private relay, companies can ensure that their internal communications are secure and away from the public domain.
The idea is that if the Nostr protocol remains decentralized and secure, it forms a readymade springboard for people to create, collaborate and communicate — whether it be a social media app or something else entirely.
"At that point, it's just plug-and-play," fiatjaf said.
What Happens Next?
As the potential of Nostr continues to ignite excitement in the tech community, fiatjaf and Neves repeatedly stressed that it's important to approach things with caution. Despite the attention it has received, the clients and relays of Nostr still need to fully develop and provide the best user experience.
But despite the necessary caution, the enthusiasm for Nostr has been overwhelming, and the community is abuzz with a sense of spritely anticipation for what the protocol can do. Even with healthy doses of skepticism, an overall feeling of cautious optimism fills developers and tech devotees with boundless possibility.
As Nostr's journey continues to unfold, it’s worth reflecting on its creator's motivations. Fiatjaf’s endeavor is not a thirst for accolades, but rather a fervent desire to craft a platform that facilitates the secure dissemination of information without the threat of censorship — an exercise in freedom of expression with impunity.
In fact, when Neves asked about his following on Nostr, fiatjaf responded with surprise and confusion.
"Did you know you have 1800 followers on Nostr?" Neves said.
Fiatjaf couldn't help but to let out a disbelieving chuckle, as if he had been presented with something ludicrous.
But Neves was serious.
"No, I did not. I thought I had 26 followers,” fiatjaf said.
For fiatjaf, it's not about the numbers — it's about the mission. Nostr isn't ready yet, and no one feels that more than him. But if the excitement of those involved and their dedication to building on Nostr is any indication, a new future for social media and data sovereignty could be right around the corner.