Is building a social media service off email even feasible?

Is building a social media service off email even feasible?
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

Last blog post, I said that email protocols could be a good building block to base a federated social network upon. Today, I'm going to explore how this works with a real world example – but ultimately why you might also want to pass on that idea.

Yet, why do that in the first place? The biggest incentive for using email protocols is that everyone has an email address. If you want to send a message, the recipient doesn't need to register for yet another app. It just appears in their inbox.

This is what makes Delta Chat so attractive. Cosmetically, it looks a lot like WhatsApp, Telegram, or Signal. In reality, it's just an email client.

That's right, unlike those other messengers, Delta Chat is not running any messaging servers. It therefore doesn't store your messages. What's more, their privacy policy is tip top – their end-to-end encryption "means that the requirements of the GDPR are already implemented at the technical level."

But there's a catch.

Delta Chat is built on top of Push-IMAP. Because many privacy-focused email providers, such as Protonmail, don't support receiving email through IMAP, that means you can't connect any email address to Delta Chat.

What's more, not all email providers support Autocrypt, the encryption method that Delta Chat uses.

Yet the biggest catch is that, even if  you set up your own email server and implement every standard to Delta Chat's specification, it's no guarantee your messages will appear in a receipient's inboxes. This is because email providers like Google will only let your messages be seen if they have "trust".

(And who establishes trust? Google, of course!)

So which email providers can you use Delta Chat with? Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! – in other words, Big Tech.

Herein lies the difference between the Fediverse and email. I can set up a working Mastodon or Pleroma instance within minutes. Almost immediately, I can send and receive messages. But with email? That could take days, if not months, to ensure a new email server is fully compatible with Delta Chat and will actually send messages to a recipient's inbox.

Now to be sure, this isn't entirely email's fault. Email used to be simple. However, decades of abuse by spammers has ensured that gatekeepers make it hard for anyone to just send an email.

It also means that as federated as email is meant to be, federation is now compromised by Google, Microsoft, Apple. Since all of these Big Tech companies run their own email services, their status as gatekeepers presents a conflict of interest.

Some folks might say, "This cuts both ways! If Google doesn't want to play fair, we can just refuse to send messages to Google mail!" Fair enough, but now we've diminished the network effect of email and therefore the big advantage email has over other protocols and APIs.

At that point, why bother with email? Why not use protocols that are easier to work with and present a lower barrier to entry for sending/receiving?

Delta Chat is awesome. For decentralization, they're a better option than WhatsApp or Telegram. The argument for using Delta Chat is a compelling.

Still, there's equally compelling reasons not to build a social media app off email protocols.