It's no secret that a small handful of enormous companies dominate the internet as we know it. But the internet didn't always have services with a billion users and quasi-monopolistic control over search or shopping. It was once a loose collection of individuals, research labs, and small companies, each making their own home on the burgeoning world wide web.
That world hasn't entirely died out, however. Through a growing movement of dedicated hobbyists known as self-hosters, the dream of a decentralized internet lives on at a time when surveillance, censorship, and increasing scrutiny of Big Tech has created widespread mistrust in large internet platforms.
“Self-hosting” is a practice that pretty much describes itself: running your own internet services, typically on hardware you own and have at home. This contrasts with relying on products from large tech companies, which the user has no direct involvement in. A self-hoster controls it all, from the hardware used to the configuration of the software.
“My first real-world reason for learning WordPress and self-hosting was the startup of a podcast,” KmisterK, a moderator of Reddit's r/selfhosted community, told Motherboard. “I quickly learned the limitations of fake ‘unlimited’ accounts that were being advertised on most shared hosting plans. That research led to more realistic expectations for hosting content that I had more control over, and it just bloomed from there.”
Edward, co-creator of an extensive list of self-hosted software, similarly became interested in self-hosting as a way to escape less-than-ideal circumstances. “I was initially drawn to self-hosting by a slow internet connection and a desire to share media and information with those I lived with," he told Motherboard. “I enjoyed the independence self-hosting provided and the fact that you owned and had control over your own data.”
Once you're wrapped up in it, it's hard to deny the allure of the DIY self-hosted internet. My own self-hosting experiences include having a home server for recording TV and storing media for myself and my roommates, and more recently, leaving Dropbox for a self-hosted, free and open source alternative called Syncthing. While I’ve been happy with Dropbox for many years, I was paying for more than I needed and ran into issues with syncing speed. With a new Raspberry Pi as a central server, I had more control over what synced to different devices, no worries about any storage caps, and of course, faster transfer speeds. All of this is running on my home network: nothing has to be stored on cloud servers run by someone else in who-knows-where.
My experience with Syncthing quickly sent me down the self-hosting rabbit hole. I looked at what else I could host myself, and found simply everything: photo collections (like Google Photos); recipe managers; chat services that you can connect with the popular tools like Discord; read-it-later services for bookmarking; RSS readers; budgeting tools; and so much more. There's also the whole world of alternative social media services, like Mastodon and PixelFed, to replace Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which can be self-hosted as a private network or used to join others around the world.
Self-hosting is something I've found fun to learn about and tinker with, even if it is just for myself. Others, like KmisterK, find new opportunities as well. “Eventually, a career path started with it, and from there, being in the community professionally kept me personally interested as a hobby.” Edward also found a connection with his career in IT infrastructure, but still continues self-hosting. “It is nice to be able to play around in a low risk/impact environment,” he said.
But beyond enjoyment, self-hosters share important principles that drive the desire to self-host—namely, a distrust of large tech companies, which are known to scoop up all the data they can get their hands on and use it in the name of profit.
Despite new privacy laws like Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), the vast majority of Americans still don't trust Big Tech with their privacy. And in recent years, the countless privacy scandals like Cambridge Analytica have driven some tech-savvy folks to take matters into their own hands.
“I think that people are becoming more privacy conscious and while neither these laws, nor self-hosting can currently easily resolve these concerns, I think that they can at least alleviate them,” said Edward.
Some self-hosters see the rising interest in decentralized internet tools as a direct result of Silicon Valley excess. “The growth of self-hosting does not surprise me,” nodiscc, a co-creator and maintainer of the self-hosted tech list, told Motherboard. “People and companies have started realizing the importance of keeping some control over their data and tools, and I think the days of 'everything SaaS [Software as a Service]' are past.”
Another strong motivator comes from large companies simply abandoning popular tools, along with their users. After all, even if you're a paying customer, tech companies offer access to services at their whim. Google, for example, is now infamous for shutting down even seemingly popular products like Reader, leaving users with no say in the matter.
KmisterK succinctly summarized the main reasons people have for self-hosting: curiosity and wanting to learn; privacy concerns; looking for cheaper alternatives; and the “betrayed,” people who “come from platforms like Dropbox or Google Photos or Photobucket or similar, after major outages, major policy changes, sunsetting of services, or other dramatic changes to the platform that they disagree with.” This last one “is probably the majority gateway to self-hosting,” based on recent traffic to r/selfhosted, he says. Look no further than their recent Google Photos megathread and recent guides from self-hosters on the internet. For me, changes in LastPass, even as a paid user, had me looking elsewhere.
nodiscc also noted the different reasons people self-host, saying, “There would be many... technical interest, security/privacy, customization, control over the software, self-reliance, challenge, economical reasons, political/Free software activism.” Looking at the growth of self-hosting over the years, Edward says, “These aren't comprehensive reasons but I expect that privacy-consciousness, hardware availability and more mainstream open-source software have contributed to the growth of self-hosting.”
These are all good reasons why self-hosting is so essential. Self-hosting brings freedom and empowerment to users. You own what you use: you can change it, keep it the same, and have your data in your own hands. Much of this derives from the free (as in freedom to do what you like) nature of self-hosting software. The source code is freely available to use, modify, and share. Even if the original author or group stops supporting something, the code is out there for anyone to pick up and keep alive.
Despite the individualistic nature of self-hosting, there is a vibrant and growing community.
Much of this growth can be seen on Reddit, with r/selfhosted hitting over 136,000 members and continuing to rise, up from 84,000 just a year ago. The discussions involve self-hosting software that spans dozens of categories, from home automation, genealogy, and media streaming to document collaboration and e-commerce. The list maintained by nodiscc and the community has grown so long that its stewards say it needs more curation and better navigation.
The quality of free and easy-to-use self-hosting software has increased too, making the practice increasingly accessible to the less-technically savvy. Add to that the rise of cheap, credit card-sized single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi, which lower the starting costs of creating a home server to as little as $5 or $10. “Between high-available hosting environments, to one-click/one-command deploy options for hundreds of different softwares, the barrier for entry has dramatically been lowered over the years,” said KmisterK.
Of course, even the most dedicated self-hosters admit that it isn't for everyone. Having some computing knowledge is fairly essential when it comes to running your own internet services, and self-hosting “will never truly compete with big-name services that make it exponentially easier," KmisterK said.
But while self-hosters may never number enough to put a serious dent in Big Tech's offerings, there is aclear need and benefit to this alternative space. And I can't think of a better model for the kind of DIY community we can have, when left to our own devices.