Last week Twitter chief Jack Dorsey proposed a decentralized open-source protocol for social networks, and announced plans to form a research team to figure out how to do that.
What does that mean, exactly? At the moment, not a lot. The problem isn’t the concept – which has been kicking around developer circles for awhile – but getting existing social media platforms to go along with it.
In a Twitter thread, Dorsey said the basic idea behind this project – dubbed “@bluesky” – is to “develop an open and decentralized standard for social media” with the idea that Twitter would ultimately be a client using this standard.
The reason, he said, is that social media has evolved to a point where the current centralized model used by Twitter, Facebook and others is buckling under the strain, particularly when it comes to content moderation and policy enforcement, which is becoming a huge problem as outrageous controversial content tends to generate the most attention.
Dorsey also said that the value of social media is increasingly in the recommendation algorithms that direct our attention, not content hosting and removal.
The idea of a decentralized social network is similar to how email works now. You might use Gmail, Yahoo, or some other email service (or even set up your own), but that service runs on a federation of decentralized email servers that run on open standards behind the scenes.
Actually, as this paper from Techdirt editor Mike Masnick explains (Dorsey cites the same paper as an inspiration for @bluesky), this is essentially how the internet originally worked in the first place – open protocols like SMTP, IRC and HTTP enabled anyone to build an interface for email, chat and the Wold Wide Web that would work with any other client.
But now that social media giants have become the default internet for millions of people by using those protocols to build centralized walled-garden platforms, Masnick proposes that social media networks shift to the open protocol model, which would result in more competition and innovation, as well as the potential for new business models that don’t rely on harvesting and selling user data.
That would not only address the antitrust and privacy accusations that Twitter, Facebook and Google are currently facing, but also address the problem of policing content, which is improving impossible for social media giants who are simply too big (and often unwilling) to do it themselves. A decentralized model would theoretically let the clients (as well as the server owners) set their own policies and give users more control over what they see in their feed.
This is essentially what Dorsey wants to do with @bluesky.
Would it work?
Possibly – a company called Mastodon has been doing it since 2016. In fact, there are already a number of decentralized social media networks already in existence, such as Diaspora, Minds and Manyverse. Some, like Mastodon, already use an open protocol developed by the W3C called ActivityPub, although there are a number of others out there.
Unsurprisingly, Mastodon was unamused at the spectacle of Jack Dorsey announcing a plan to develop something that it’s been doing for several years. That said, Dorsey did say that the @bluesky team will “either find an existing decentralized standard they can help move forward, or failing that, create one from scratch.”
However, according to The Verge, Mastodon and Diaspora are wary of being co-opted into a Twitter project for fear that Twitter will simply colonize existing standards and protocols so they can control them and reshape them to something that serves Twitter’s business interests.
This Mastodon tweet sums it up:
So that’s one challenge right there – Twitter has to either convince existing projects that its intentions are honorable, or it has to build its own protocol and convince everyone else to use it.
There’s an even bigger challenge – getting the other social media giants to go along with an approach that would completely disrupt their current business models and endanger their empires. Even if the CEOs were keen, their shareholders may not be.
On this point, Techdirt’s Masnick is somewhat more optimistic, if only because the current path for Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and other entrenched social media monoliths is simply not sustainable. Their platforms have become too big (and costly) to enforce their content and behaviour policies effectively, and the user-data business model is just going to get harder as more GDPR-type laws start coming into force. A decentralized approach could potentially provide them with the chance to reinvent themselves and simultaneously giving them the tools to do just that. If nothing else, Twitter claims it’s willing to take the chance – others might follow.
Or they might not, if only for the same reason Mastodon isn’t keen. It’s one thing if an independent group like W3C is driving research – it’s another when it’s your competitor.
Then again, if regulatory pressure continues to build, they may not have much choice. In fact, if this decentralized protocol standard takes as long to develop as Jack Dorsey thinks it will, social networks may have already been disrupted by regulatory remedies or market forces by then.
Dorsey at least seems to understand this – it’s not clear to me if Mark Zuckerberg does. But something has to change, drastically, and soon. The social network model has become a nightmare. Time to wake up.