Switching to Matrix


I started using Matrix recently. I’ve been looking for an alternative to FB messenger for a good long time now and I think maybe Matrix is what I’m after?

In a nutshell, Matrix is a messaging service, just like Signal or Facebook Messenger or MSN Messenger or Google Talk or what-have-you. It’s got some cool features which really draw me to it, but it can be a bit confusing to dive right in. So this post covers two bases:

  • Why I like it, and thus why you might also like it
  • How to get started with it.

If you’re reading this and you’re friends with me on Facebook - or if you’ve left Facebook and are looking for a way to keep in contact - maybe you want to dip your toes in the water. Drop me an email and I’ll send you my username so we can switch our primary comms channel!

Why Matrix?

The social media ecosystem is a cartel of monocultures. The vast majority of popular one-to-one and small-group messaging services are a subset of that, and suffer exactly the same problems. Depending on where you are in the world, and your demographic, you’re probably familiar with at least one of these. For me, an older milennial living in New Zealand, our monolith is Facebook, but what I say about Facebook will apply to every other service of this type.

We know, I believe, that these companies and their business models are bad. We even know, deep down, that we’re not the real customers here - we’re just the product, willing to sell our attention and data in place of money, because we all love a free lunch. Once you’re signed up, the inertia of the network effect keeps you there, unless the owner completely screws up.

If you agree with the above, I think you’re in a similar place to me: you’re either putting up with your current service now because switching would be a hassle, or you’re vaguely unsatisfied and have been searching for the right alternative. You might have found services like Slack, Discord, or Signal to fulfil your needs: while I feel like these are all miles above the current incumbents, I can’t help feeling like we’re trading one walled garden for another.

Obviously, based on the premise of this article, Matrix has grabbed me in a way that these other alternatives haven’t. There’s lots of good things about it - I love how well it handles both ad-hoc conversations and persistent rooms, it has a bunch of nice quality-of-life features that we’ve kind of gotten used to in other clients, and its main client, Element, is pretty snappy. But the thing that sets it apart from pretty much all the other competitors is that it’s not just a service - it’s also a protocol, and an open one at that.

What does that actually mean? It means that anyone can run a Matrix server1, and they all talk to one another. In practice, it means that it doesn’t matter whether I have an account at matrix.org or mtrx.nz or some other Matrix homeserver - I can still message you and chat wherever you happen to be. There’s no single point of failure in the network and no one server dictating what happens. Now in practice the foundation who maintains the protocol also hosts the largest server and publishes the most commonly-used and feature-complete client, but that’s how these things often go.

Matrix is actually part of a whole host of apps which have sprung up to take advantage of (or rapidly adopted) the open ActivityPub protocol, which lets servers and even applications talk to each other through a kind of “universal translator” of activities. Mastodon is one of the more well-known apps on “the fediverse”, as this community of tools is known. For every social media website that exists right now, someone has probably built (or is probably building) an equivalent on the fediverse, although given most of this is done not-for-profit and/or on a shoestring, the interface may not be as slick as the more traditional/centralised counterpart.

When I’m feeling optimistic, I hope that the end result of the current backlash against social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit…) is a shift away from centralisation and commercialisation, towards federation and a smaller, cozier, less expoitative web. Regardless, if you’re going to spend the effort to up sticks, to shift to a completely new service for any of this, I figure why not go for the one which offers you something a bit more philosophically and ethically thorough than the current profit-driven model. If you’re going to die on a hill, might as well make it a hill you agree with.

So let’s say you’ve read this far, and you’re curious. You want to explore an alternative to Facebook for your social messaging needs, but you’ve been waiting for someone else to make the first move. How can you join me over there? I’m so glad you asked.

How Matrix?

Setting up Matrix is a little bit more complex than joining most messaging services, but honestly, it’s fine. Here’s how you go about it:

1. Pick a server. As I mentioned before, Matrix is like email - just like how one person can be on GMail, someone else can have their old hotmail account from twenty years ago, and a third person can have an email address sitting on their own domain, you can pick one of a number of Matrix servers to be your “home server”. Here’s a big ol’ list of home servers including some high-level details on how they’re run.

In reality, you can just jump on the main server at matrix.org and be fine. If you’re New Zealand-based, you may want to join me on mtrx.nz, a service hosted by these fine folks.

Again, though - it doesn’t matter too much! Just like how email works between servers, you will be able to talk to anyone on Matrix regardless of your home server.

2. Create an account. Whichever server you pick, make an account there. Link it to your email and all that jazz.

3. Grab a client. Matrix’s decentralised nature means there’s a few clients out there for you to play around with. Most home servers host their own web-based client, but you may also want to download one for your computer and/or phone. I’ve found Element to be very good - it’s made by the people who make the Matrix protocol, and it’s pretty fully-featured. It’s also supported on most platforms.

And…you’re on! Now all you need to do is find some friends to talk to. If you’re a friend of mine (and not just some random person visiting from the internet, hello random person from the internet!), drop me an email or message me on your non-Matrix service of choice and let me know - we can exchange details and you’ll have a friend on there. Congratulations on starting the journey away from Facebook’s monopoly!

But all my friends are on Facebook!

Yup, this is how they get you. The Catch-22 of network effect is that no one wants to shift off of the dominant platform because all their friends are there, and all the folks you know are on the dominant platform because no one has shifted off yet.

It’s easy to think we don’t have a choice in this matter. We do, but the cost is high enough that the easy choice is to stay with the company/platform we know is bad, because we want to talk to our friends. It’s a choice that social media companies rely on to keep customers beyond the point where their product stops being a media darling.

I don’t mean to tell you that your choices are bad. Many people don’t have the time to work out how to change messaging programs, or rely too heavily on their existing (and heavily embedded) networks within these systems. I still have Facebook Messenger installed on my phone, and I’m not likely to uninstall it any time soon.

If you’re at the point where you’d like to move platforms, but don’t want to be the first one to move, let me offer you the chance to be the second one to move. If you’re on Matrix, and I’m on Matrix, maybe we can persuade a mutual friend to join us. This is how we start to shift.

  1. Of course, in practice this means that a few folks run Matrix servers, and we just pick the one that we want from that limited list. But this is still, in my opinion, miles better than the alternative where the person defining the protocol also hosts the only server and builds the only client, locking us into the environment they’ve decided on.