Nostr and Damus first impressions

2023-04-20 14:00:00 +07:00 by Mark Smith

I’ve been listening and reading to much bitcoin, crypto and blockchain content these past few months. I decided it would be interesting to try out Nostr, which is a blockchain simple client & relay based social messaging protocol and network. Loads of the bitcoin people are talking about it, especially since Elon bought Twitter. It’s sort of like Twitter except it’s decentralised, so there’s no central company that runs it. Rather than use a username and password, you use public/private keys to create your identity.

Nostr is a simple, open protocol that enables global, decentralized, and censorship-resistant social media.

Though it’s similar to Twitter in many ways, you post messages to a timeline and can see other people’s messages, which you can reply to, and you can post pictures and videos, but in other ways it’s different and a bit confusing. You have to connect to relays which forward your messages throughout the network for instance.

I installed Damus, which is the iOS app. It installed without any issues and opening it up for the first time was mostly quite straight forward. The app is minimal, with all of the functionality you would expect for a messaging app. It’s a nice looking app.

They automatically set you up with some relay servers and one or two users so that you can see some messages in the public timeline. That makes big difference, even if it’s a bit odd to only have messages from one user viewable. In my case it was the account of one of the project devs.

I suppose it’s the same for everyone. He was going on about quite technical dev stuff which didn’t make much sense to me. Not a huge deal, but I can imagine that would scare off most normal non dev folks. I clicked around and was able to view a few threads where others had commented on some of his messages. It all felt a bit disjointed, but made a bit of sense.

After looking through the settings and filling out some basic details I was ready. Then the big unanswerable question: where is everyone? How the heck do you find people?

I had seen that some folks have been sharing their Nostr npub on their Twitter profile. Npub’s as far as I can tell are the user’s public shareable key. I found one of these and stuck it into the search box, which tried to autocomplete it into some sort of hash tag. The search results that came back were weird long text strings. Didn’t look like it had found anyone.

Then I searched for a few usernames of bitcoin podcasters. That did return what looked to be the right accounts, but this is where I started wondering how safe this all was. Was it safe to click on long strings of text? There were loads of messages with folks sharing text strings, but what happens if I click on one that then somehow hacks my phone? Nothing against bitcoiners and crypto people but they are all using nyms, voice modifiers and balaclavas and you read about hacks like every few days in the news. I decided to hold off clicking on anything and following anyone.

I found this Github repo from cryptoquick that has some general Nostr info but also suggests usernames of other devs to follow. They come with long text strings that don’t start with npub. Are these npubs or something different? It’s not clear.

There is also a way to attach a domain name to your username by going through a mostly automated verification process. Looks like it’s relatively easy to do, you have to put a special text file on the domain you use to prove it’s your domain. I guess I could do that once I’ve figured out how to add some users.

By this stage I’d used up all my available energy and good will, and the thought of having to determine who to follow was too much. It just felt like there was a quite high non zero chance I could screw up my phone if I made s mistake. So that’s where I left it. I can see all the messages from the initial dev bloke and whoever replies to him, but that’s it. I’ll have to revisit this when I have more time. How do you safely find people on this thing?

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