The primary goal of Nostr is to establish a global social network that avoids the pitfalls of previous attempts at decentralized social media, such as the federated server model used by Mastodon.
Nostr is a protocol developed as an attempt to create a simple, censorship-resistant alternative to mainstream social media platforms like Twitter. It was designed by a developer known as fiatjaf, who is also known for his involvement in the LNURL spec. While not a Bitcoin or Lightning Network project, it has garnered attention from individuals within the Bitcoin community due to fiatjaf's involvement.
The primary goal of Nostr is to establish a global social network that avoids the pitfalls of previous attempts at decentralized social media, such as the federated server model used by Mastodon. This model, which utilizes the ActivityPub protocol, has been criticized for leading to authoritarian community management and inter-server disputes, undermining its goal of being censorship-resistant.
Nostr diverges from this approach by using cryptographic private keys, similar to those in Bitcoin's Taproot (Schnorr keys), to establish user identity. Messages are published as JSON blobs, signed with the user's key, and can be sent to multiple relays. Unlike federated models, Nostr doesn't tether a user's identity to a specific server, thereby preventing arbitrary bans by server administrators.
The underlying infrastructure of Nostr consists of relays, which are akin to databases that store and forward messages. These relays are "dumb" in the sense that they do not discriminate against content, accepting messages signed by any user's private key. If a user is banned from one relay, they can easily continue their activities on others, ensuring a high degree of censorship resistance.
Nostr also defines a straightforward querying interface for the database, allowing users to request posts from specific public keys and receive updates in real-time via websockets. This facilitates the creation of real-time applications, such as chat rooms, without the need for traditional web apps to interact with databases directly, which can pose security risks.
Users do not need to run a node to participate in Nostr. They can interact with the network through clients like Damus, which communicate with relays. Damus is an example of a client that simplifies the onboarding process, requiring no personal information to create an account and allowing users to start sending messages to selected relays quickly.
Nostr's design enables various use cases beyond public social networking. For instance, organizations can operate private relays within their infrastructure, allowing for secure internal communication that remains invisible to outsiders. Personal implementations can also be tailored to individual needs, such as receiving private real-time notifications for cryptocurrency transactions.
The question of incentives for running public relays is critical, as they can consume significant resources. Some relay operators may be motivated by a desire to support the network's growth and success. Others might implement payment systems, requiring users to pay a fee, often via a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin's Lightning Network, to send messages to their relay. This could also help mitigate spam by adding a cost to message sending.
Spam remains a concern within Nostr's network, and several strategies are being considered to address it, including proofs of work and paid relays. Additionally, the concept of "orange checks," akin to verified statuses on other platforms, has been proposed. Users could pay for these checks, which would then help others identify trustworthy accounts and filter out spam.
Nostr represents an innovative approach to creating a decentralized, censorship-resistant social media platform. By leveraging simple cryptographic identities and a network of relays, it provides a versatile foundation for various applications. While challenges such as spam management persist, the ongoing development and community support suggest a robust potential for Nostr to impact the landscape of social networking.