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Host Roulette

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The Design Problem

In a centralized world, onboarding users to a service doesn’t involve too many individual decisions. Data is hosted in the same place, permissions are handled by an administrator, and if problems arise — from questions around app usage, privacy policies, or tracking logs and activities — it’s often all in the same hands of the service provider.

In a decentralized world, onboarding users to a service require many user-side decisions. Data can be hosted by different parties; permissions can be handled by end users, super users, or the protocol itself; and if problems arise, it’s unclear who or what to approach.

A good design practice is to provide default options when onboarding. The app and protocol developers should think about sensible options for its user group, and offer them as pre-selected, out-of-the-box options. For example, when you are choosing a hosting provider (the party that will host an instance of your software, as it is in federations), you should always provide a default, recommended “host” and not let users research and choose among the many options.

But this introduces another special problem: if all users get the same default, recommended “host”, then that host will become a super server in the networks, thus accidentally introducing centralization again.

The Design Solution

The solution here is simple: if there is no reason to choose one hosting provider over another, randomly assign new users to a hosting provider.


Why Choose Host Roulette ?

When you want to steer the network into further distribution

Best Practice: How to Implement Host Roulette

Make sure you indicate that the host was randomly chosen, e.g. write “choose a different host” next to it, and visualizing the next randomly assigned host in a similar fashion. Think about animating this, too.

Always offer users their own choice by making the choice editable (choose from list, for example).

Potential Problems with Host Roulette

Host Roulette only works if the options are truly equal. If you are building a social networks (more than an infrastructural network), you might want to present and even showcase different communities differently. In those cases, choice matters, and no default option should be provided at all. Instead, think about the 3-5 bigger communities that you want to offer as options, and test the copy with users to see if they all sound similarly attractive. See
Village or City for ways to describe differences between instances.

The Take Away

Host Roulette can help you decentralize a network among equal, federated servers.

References & Where to Learn More

Nextcloud’s design decision