No one owns the internet. There’s no one stopping you from posting videos to your own web server, at least so long as you have the technical chops to set one up and the money to pay for hosting. But you’re at a disadvantage if you’re posting your video outside of YouTube or Facebook. And if Facebook or Twitter ban you from sharing it, will anyone ever find it?
But allowing everyone to post anything they want to these platforms isn’t a great idea either. The power and responsibility to handle issues from harassment to hate speech to revenge porn to foreign propaganda is concentrated in the hands of just a few companies.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says he wants to change that. Twitter will pay five people to develop standards for “decentralized” social networks, Dorsey tweeted Wednesday. Eventually, Dorsey said, he hopes Twitter itself uses whatever the team comes up with to make itself less centralized.
That could mean that, instead of Twitter the company having sole control over Twitter the social network, many other people could run their own versions of Twitter, in the same way that many different companies, nonprofits, and individuals run email services. You can send an email from Gmail to Yahoo, or to a server run by a mom-and-pop email provider. You can even set up your own email server at home. That’s because email is based on open standards that anyone can use.
But don’t expect to set up your own Twitter tomorrow. The project is in its earliest stages. Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal is hiring the team, which will be known as “@bluesky.” It’s not clear yet what form the new project will take. “We’d like this team to either find an existing decentralized standard they can help move forward, or failing that, create one from scratch,” Dorsey wrote. “That’s the only direction we at Twitter, Inc. will provide.”
It’s also not clear how, if at all, the company would make money from a decentralized version of its social network. “Why is this good for Twitter?” Dorsey wrote. “It will allow us to access and contribute to a much larger corpus of public conversation, focus our efforts on building open recommendation algorithms which promote healthy conversation, and will force us to be far more innovative than in the past.”
Dorsey’s tweets hint that Twitter sees decentralization as a way to handle content moderation. He cites a paper by Mike Masnick, editor of the tech publication Techdirt, as one of the motivations for exploring decentralization.
“Rather than relying on a few giant platforms to police speech online, there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices,” Masnick wrote. “It would allow end users to determine their own tolerances for different types of speech but make it much easier for most people to avoid the most problematic speech, without silencing anyone entirely or having the platforms themselves make the decisions about who is allowed to speak.”
The decentralized social network Mastodon provides one model of how this might work. Anyone can set up a Mastodon server and allow people to sign up for an account. Once you have an account on a Mastodon server, you can follow people both on that server and on other Mastodon servers. The owners of each server set policies for acceptable behavior and content on their own servers, and can block other servers from connecting to their server.
For example, when the far-right Twitter alternative Gab, which once hosted posts from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, joined the Mastodon network earlier this year, many Mastodon servers and Mastodon client apps banned Gab, leaving it quarantined from much of the larger Mastodon ecosystem.
That approach gives individual communities more control over their experience and if adopted by Twitter would mean the company wouldn’t be the sole arbitrator of what can and can’t be seen online. But it doesn’t solve all the problems that big platform companies face. For example, quarantining problematic content doesn’t address problems related to misinformation and disinformation. Propaganda circulated in private groups, where it’s hard to counter, has led to tragic results in India and elsewhere.
Even if Twitter follows a model similar to Mastodon’s, it could end up practically just as centralized if the vast majority of users stick with the original, company-controlled Twitter.
Meanwhile, some developers and entrepreneurs are worried about the long-term viability of such a project at Twitter. The company once gave outside developers more freedom to create Twitter clients and other tools, but gradually limited those capabilities over the years. “Thousands of developers dedicated themselves to projects built on Twitter’s API, making the platform accessible to the masses,” Joe Colangelo, founder of the parking space reservation app company Boxcar Transit, tweeted. “Their reward was Twitter creating a walled garden and throttling their access. Why try again?”
Dorsey alluded to this history in his tweets. “For a variety of reasons, all reasonable at the time, we took a different path and increasingly centralized Twitter,” he wrote. “But a lot’s changed over the years.”
The big question is whether Twitter will embrace existing standards or create new ones. One existing possibility is ActivityPub, the protocol used by Mastodon and many other services. In his tweets, Dorsey specifically namechecked blockchain technology, the distributed ledger/database that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, saying it “points to a series of decentralized solutions for open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization.”
Mastodon and Bitcoin take two different approaches to decentralization. Like email, Mastodon is “federated.” The app you use to send email, Microsoft Outlook for instance, doesn’t send or receive email directly from other people. It sends it to and from email servers. Likewise, anyone can host a Mastodon server and talk to people on other Mastodon servers. But those servers still play a crucial role in storing and routing those messages. Bitcoin is “distributed,” much like a peer-to-peer file sharing service. People on the Bitcoin network use Bitcoin software to connect directly with other Bitcoin users. Scuttlebutt is an existing protocol for distributed social networking, but it isn’t based on the blockchain.
It’s a surprise that Dorsey is even floating the idea of a decentralized Twitter. But it’s still just that: an idea.
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