Why I’m Betting Big on Nostr
Nostr – the simple, decentralized messaging protocol with the potential to replace (and even integrate with) centralized apps like Twitter and WhatsApp – is going mainstream. And fast.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it. From December 13th to January 10th, the number of public key identities interacting with Nostr jumped from ~700 to ~250,000 👀 Yes, you read that right, the number of identities increased >30,000% 😯 And even if you only count individual users as identities with profiles in their bio, which is probably a more reliable indicator, user count still jumped >100x!
The proximate cause of this recent explosion in usage was a Jack Dorsey tweet and Elon Musk ban (nothing buys publicity like prohibition).
But I believe this rapid uptake has much deeper roots which are destined to blossom into a new mainstream protocol that’s as widely adopted as HTTP for the web or SMTP for email, an analogy which DK paints nicely here.
The reasons are 2-fold:
- Trust in social media platforms (and institutions more broadly) is at all time lows. People are increasingly aware of the value of free speech and dangers of letting any centralized platform decide what is and is not acceptable to say
- Nostr has the perfect mix of ingredients to maximize rate of innovation: it’s open/permissionless, incredibly simple/flexible, and has a clear path to evolve
I won’t belabor the first point – the controversy over censorship on social media platforms is a well documented crux of the culture wars. But the second point is very important. I believe that open and permissionless systems inevitably win over closed competitors because open systems can marshal the collective resources of many more contributors than any individual business can employ. This is the central reason why our Internet continues to run on open standards (TCP/IP/HTTP), why Wikipedia and Linux dominate in their respective domains, and why the growth rate of open source software continues to outpace that of its closed counterparts.
But being open as a protocol is not necessarily enough. Many have raised the compelling counterpoint that open source protocols eventually ossify, allowing for closed platforms to innovate even faster on top (see here and here). But I don’t see that as much of an issue with Nostr because: A) it’s one of the simplest protocol specs ever – the only object type is a JSON blob with 7 fields. That simplicity leads to incredible flexibility, allowing for the design of all kinds of interoperable apps on top. B) Nostr has a clear path to evolve and improve via Nostr Improvement Possibilities (NIPs). Fountain founder, Oscar Merry, stressed to me the importance of having a clear path forward for protocol change by noting all of the recent activity we’ve seen around RSS for podcasting since Adam Curry and friends launched podcastindex.org + podcasting 2.0.
And we’re watching all of this theory play out in real time. Just look at how much got done across the Nostr ecosystem in a single day 🤯
What’s more, all of this recent Nostr growth came while Damus, arguably the most well-known and polished Nostr iOS app, had to hard cap at 10k users (the limit for TestFlight) while waiting for Apple’s App Store to approve its official release. That limitation has, apparently, not done much to slow growth. Instead users are creating their Nostr identities with other apps like Alby, a browser extension for bitcoin lightning payments that also supports Nostr, and then interacting with Nostr through emerging web clients like astral.ninja, iris.to, nostr.rocks, blockcore notes, and branle.
Again, the killer feature here is that ALL of these apps are open and interoperable. I was able to successfully port my identity and social graph from Damus to Alby and then access each of the web clients above. Many have dreamed of Twitter enabling this sort of functionality by re-opening its API as it did in its earliest days. But while Twitter is a centralized company with an advertising driven revenue model, Nostr is a neutral protocol whose data stream will NEVER be shut to developers, because it CANNOT be shut to developers. Only individual clients and relays can restrict data. But then new ones will inevitably rise to augment and/or take their place. In fact, I would not be at all surprised to see Twitter itself become a major Nostr client in the coming year.
This is all incredible for building a more free and open world, which is ultimately the mission. But this new, open network also excites the investor in me. That’s because I believe that as Nostr emerges as the open standard for messaging, it will develop symbiotically with the open standards for money (bitcoin) and payments (Lightning Network). Together these three open systems will combine to create the first ever Value4Value protocol stack (h/t Stephen Hall), where service providers must continue to innovate and provide real value or else their users will exit for better options. This dynamic will enable a myriad of interesting, venture scale business opportunities.
Value4Value is a simple but revolutionary concept: people who create valuable content or services should be remunerated appropriately by those who derive value. For a beautiful vision of how a Value4Value world could look, check out this recent essay from Gigi. One of the essay’s central claims is that most of the ills of our modern attention/outrage economy stem not from some fundamental human evil, but rather from inadequate technology and broken incentives. The core culprit is credit based money, which unlike bearer instrument cash carries counterparty risk. This counterparty risk has prevented the use of small micropayments and/or necessitated the collection of customer identity. Put another way, people must currently pay for value online either in batches (subscriptions) or with a proxy currency (attention).
But with the Lightning Network, anyone can send nearly free and instant payments globally with a bearer instrument – denominations of bitcoin (satoshis) – worth as little as a fraction of a penny. What’s more, this system is open to all 8B people alive, independent of where they live, whether or not they have a government identity, and how much money or credit they have. This is a brand new construct which I believe will completely rewire all Internet commerce (and ultimately grow it orders of magnitude by on-boarding billions of new users and use cases).
So how do Nostr, Bitcoin, and the Lightning Network fit together to build this future? And what sorts of business opportunities will these integrations yield? Well for starters, let’s be clear, it’s not that Nostr MUST use Bitcoin and Lightning. They’re completely independent protocols. But the fit is simply too natural not to emerge. And because both the creator and many early developers of Nostr are also open source Lightning Network developers, the likelihood of this marriage seems inevitable.
I believe there will be multiple initial use cases for integrating Nostr and Lightning, each of which will create new business models (either standalone or partially bundled). I think they’ll loosely follow along the four axes that Nostr is currently unbundling from centralized apps like Twitter. Maciek did an excellent job of outlining this unbundling:
I’ll rephrase these dimensions as:
- Relays & Resources
- Clients & Apps
- Search & Discovery
Let’s examine each layer and its potential business models:
- Relays & Resources
First, perhaps the most obvious opportunity is on the server/resource side. Today, dozens of individuals and organizations are running Nostr relays simply to support the cause. But as the number of users grows 3-4 orders of magnitude and support is added for richer data like images and video, it will quickly become prohibitively expensive to run these relays altruistically. I expect to soon see premium relays that charge per KB written or read. There’s already at least one credible proposal to do just that by hooking up Nostr relays with LSATs (Lightning based pseudonymous token identities). I also expect to see caching services and content delivery networks emerge to help users filter the global firehose of information based upon their own preferences and to ensure fast and reliable connection. Eventually I expect to see other resources like bandwidth and compute metered and billed for in similar fashion.
Second, we’re already starting to see multiple services emerge to validate a user’s identity. NIP 05 establishes a standard for web servers to validate that the holder of a Nostr public key also has (or has purchased) access to that web server. Nostrplebs is one of the leading early services that charges for identification exclusively in satoshis over the Lightning Network. Alby and Stacker News have both launched free NIP 05 verification associated with their users’ Lightning Address (a human readable address to receive Lightning payments). LNbits released open source software that allows anyone to verify Nostr identities at a domain they control. Still others like @porteaux are proposing ideas to use the Bitcoin blockchain itself as the namespace.
I believe this idea could integrate with Block’s vision for Web 5, which to the best of my understanding, also anchors Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) into the Bitcoin blockchain. It’s early, but I expect to see a variety of services and features emerge here.
- Clients & Apps
Third, clients could charge users directly, though I expect many will actually monetize via their relay or some ancillary service. One feasible model could be giving away a consumer version of the app for free and then charging for an enterprise version with additional features (think enterprise Slack or Discord) as jb55 mentioned as a possible direction for Damus.
Clients could also likely take a small cut for coordinating payments that flow through their app to resource providers (e.g. paid relays), service providers, or other users. And there’s always the option that some clients introduce various forms of advertising.
And while most people are still thinking about clients in the social media context, I expect to see many more custom apps (with potentially unique business models) built with Nostr and Value4Value assumptions baked in. As Jack laid out nicely in this podcast, the future of Nostr is likely a Cambrian explosion of microapps, each focused on a specific niche or use case. But that can all communicate interoperably. Like him, I’m particularly excited about specialized services that help creators fund and distribute their work. I expect to see several companies move quickly in this direction – e.g. Fountain for podcasts, Wavlake for music, and Geyser for generalized crowdfunding. I also expect to see a lot of experimentation in how open source software gets developed. Nostrdirectory proposed the interesting idea of a bounty poll app where users vote with their satoshis for what a dev builds next. This could lead to a cool Github + Trello + Upwork type mashup.
Perhaps we’ll even see the emergence of a new decentralized Nostr/Lighting marketplace like a modern OpenBazaar, an early protocol for p2p commerce backed by USV, which was a great idea, but just too early in my opinion. Their key mistakes were requiring everyone to run a dense desktop app + node and using mainchain Bitcoin for payments. Nostr + Lightning solve these problems by allowing anyone to access the marketplace via light web or mobile clients with instant Lightning Network payments. My early money here is on Diagon Alley (from LNbits), which was itself an early inspiration for the creation of the Nostr protocol.
LNbits founder Ben Arc has also published ideas for other types of Nostr + Lightning marketplaces as well, including a decentralized Uber. Perhaps one day all marketplaces will be coordinated trustlessly via Nostr.
In addition to microapps flourishing, we may also see the emergence of new super apps like a decentralized WeChat for users who prefer to combine all of their messaging and commerce in one place. Imagine if CashApp becomes your primary messaging app (or WhatsApp your primary payments app). I could easily see a world where remittances are sent with a text message and goods sold via a Tweet.
- Search & Discovery
Fourth, just as with web 1.0 and 2.0, I believe that the biggest winners will emerge in search & discovery. My best bet is that we’ll see Nostr search engines that differentiate by indexing the most data and providing the best social graph & ValueRank market signal, an idea which I fleshed out in How to Disrupt Google. TL;DR: for the first time in history, we can now associate information with value. As the amount of information goes infinite, only the amount of bitcoin (value) remains scarce. Attaching this value to information will help surface the highest quality information (in association with other attributes like the identity of who pledged that value).
Before playing with Nostr, I believed that the best way to create this new value-based search engine was by either dropping satoshis on top of the current web (via tips from a browser extension like Alby) or by creating a brand new value-native knowledge marketplace like StackerNews. I now think that perhaps the best way to build this search engine is on top of Nostr, a blue ocean of quality content that Google and other centralized web companies will likely not index for some time.
In order to build this vision, we need two key primitives: A) identity and B) value associated with individual Nostr posts (perhaps via tips like people are already giving on StackerNews or in Fountain). Put another way, we need an open social graph and open value graph. Every Nostr post already contains identity metadata (the poster’s public key). And the integration between posts and value is emerging quickly! jb55 has already published his plan to do this for Damus. He’s also going to propose it as a new LNURL spec and/or NIP as well.
And astral.ninja has already shipped this feature! Here’s a screencast of Bumi instantly tipping NVK and Jack. And here’s a screenshot of me tipping 100 satoshis to a Nostr post by GPT-3 Bot, a chatbot interface to Open AI’s GPT-3.
(I kept the tip-selector interface for this screenshot. The experience is even more seamless when I turn on auto-tipping in astral.ninja and set an automatic budget on Alby)
If your mind wasn’t blown already, let me clarify: I just sent a micropayment via an open twitter-like client to a bot interface for GPT-3 🤯 What other financial system can bank the AIs? 😉
The search engine that can best index and rank these new Nostr posts and their associated value will be in an incredible position to build the next Google. Artur has a similar idea, as his 2 sites – realsearch and nostr.band – are playing with each of these ideas. I expect that he’ll merge them at some point. His Nostr search engine is already particularly good – I used it multiple times to find specific Nostr posts while writing this article. I expect to see (and fund) several more approaches here and will likely expand my thinking on this idea in future posts.
Ultimately, I’m still open minded about how each of these layer & businesses will develop and whether they’ll do so as independent entities or get rebundled either partially or fully. My best bet is that we’ll see some early winners that merely re-create existing services and business models. But the really big winners will come in the second wave once evolution plays its course and mashes up communication and commerce in truly novel ways that no one yet expects. New medium, new message (h/t NVK). And to hammer home the point – the real magic is that all of these apps, no matter their specific focus, will speak openly and interoperably. It sure feels like we’re getting close to building a global hivemind of communication and commerce 😉
And with each passing day, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this rapidly developing ecosystem is what will bring Bitcoin and the Lightning Network mainstream. Many are already speculating that the recent surge in Wallet of Satoshi Lightning payments may be directly attributable to Nostr usage. Just wait until Damus integrates tipping and gets approved by the app store…
I recognize that all of this is still very early and that these claims are bold. But my spidey sense says that this is not a drill. I’ve seen enough early adoption and understand enough of the potential to believe that Nostr + Bitcoin + Lightning represents the most interesting opportunity to rebuild a decentralized Internet. And I’m planning to go all in on this thesis with Hivemind Fund 2 (just as I did on the Lightning Network with Hivemind Fund I). If you’re a hacker experimenting with Nostr, please reach out. This is my top priority.
The best way to reach me, of course, is on Nostr 🤙
(Edit: Please note that I changed my Nostr public key identity. My last private key was compromised, likely from using it to log into a web client last month. This is still a very new technology, so please make sure to only use your private key in an iOS app like Damus or stored in a browser extension like Alby. Ideally, you should never paste it directly into any web client.)
If you’re new to Nostr, I’ve found that Damus is the easiest way to get started. But while their TestFlight is still full, here’s a guide on how to get started with Alby and various web clients.
Thanks to DK, Bumi, Ben, Oscar, and Moritz for feedback on this post.
Alby, Stacker News, LNbits, Fountain, Wavlake, and Geyser are all Hivemind portfolio companies.