Twitter is considering decentralization according to a recent report from The New York Times. But what does decentralization mean, and how would it impact our experience with social media? Is this a solution to all the problems around censorship standards that Big Tech companies have faced in recent years?
According to The New York Times, Twitter is following the early vision of a former employee named Blaine Cook by “funding an independent effort to build a so-called open protocol for social media. It is also weaving cryptocurrency into its app, and opening up to developers who want to build custom features for Twitter.”
Kate Conger reports:
Some skeptics believe Twitter is jumping on the web3 bandwagon, joining a trendy movement in tech to shift many services, including social media, to so-called blockchain technology. But executives say that Twitter is catering to what an overwhelming number of users want, while following the decentralization mandate laid out by Mr. Dorsey before he departed as C.E.O. in November.Kate Conger, “Reinvention and Nostalgia: The Project to Remake Twitter,” at The New York Times
When you log onto Twitter, the world of Twitter – and only Twitter – is open to you. You can post your own thoughts, share other people’s posts, and message other people. But your world is limited to that of Twitter. You could not message someone’s Facebook account from Twitter, or re-post an image from Instagram to Twitter. This is what is known as a “closed platform.”
Decentralization would create an “open platform.” Instead of managing several different social media accounts, or limiting yourself to just one and missing out on other social media activity, decentralization would allow you to interact across platforms. It is akin to how email works, where a Gmail account and a Comcast account can interact with one another despite the fact that each is supported by a different server. It would be more like a return to the early days of the internet, before the rise of giant platforms.
But more than that, the idea behind decentralization is to restore ownership to internet users – ownership of their data and their content.
Ledger’s School of Block describes this new age of the web – known as Web 3.0 – as “digital freedom”:
[I]magine if you had ownership of every single post you made on social media and were rewarded for the engagement you generated. Now, that data, that content, is yours. It’s owned by you, not some social media company. If it’s not on some mega company’s servers, well then where does it live? And how is it tracked? Well, of course, on the blockchain, where, cryptographically secured, it will allow direct peer-to-peer transactions with no social giant or middle man to broker the process.Ledger, “Intro to Web3 for beginners” on YouTube
Twitter started out as an open platform, and then quickly changed direction and centralized. Then, in 2019, then-CEO Jack Dorsey announced Bluesky, a project that would move Twitter in a decentralized direction. Now, under the leadership of Parag Agrawal, The New York Times reports that the social media company is continuing to move in a decentralized direction.
Many are theorizing that decentralization would also solve the problems social media faces around misinformation and free speech. “[I]f Twitter is just a client, it’s much less responsible for what people post online,” writes Adi Robertson at The Verge. A 2019 report from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, cited by Dorsey in his Bluesky announcement, explains:
Moving to a world where protocols and not proprietary platforms dominate would solve many issues currently facing the internet today. 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. 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.
In short, it would push the power and decision making out to the ends of the network, rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very powerful companies.Mike Masnick, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech” at Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
A decentralized Twitter “could allow users to set moderation rules for their own communities and ease the pressure Twitter faces from lawmakers over how it moderates content,” writes Kate Conger at The New York Times.
But some experts are skeptical.
Larry Sanger Weighs In
“Decentralization is a necessary but not sufficient condition of internet freedom,” Larry Sanger told Mind Matters News.
Larry Sanger is the co-founder – and now critic of – popular internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Since becoming disenchanted with the mainstream route Wikipedia took, Sanger has been pursuing greater internet freedom. He and a team of others are now working on a new online encyclopedia called the Encyclosphere as well as an open social media network currently called Minifeed.
There are reasons to be cautious, Sanger explained. There are two types of decentralized networks: federated and peer-to-peer. Federated networks are still fairly easy to control if you can organize the people who own the main on-ramps to the network. A peer-to-peer network is a freer sort of technology, in which you don’t have to connect to the network via a specific server. But both decentralized networks “can still be captured and controlled in various ways and rendered un-free.” Hence, decentralization is not an automatic guarantee of internet freedom.
So what has to accompany decentralization to secure internet freedom? That’s a problem Sanger and his teams are working on right now through the Encyclosphere and Minifeed.
Still, many are hopeful of what a decentralized social media could mean. “Such a move has the potential to return us to the early promise of the web: to create a place where like-minded people can connect on various topics around the globe and anyone can discover useful information on a variety of different subjects without it being polluted by abuse and disinformation,” writes Masnick.
In the words chosen by Ledger, “a radical revolution of social media might just be on the horizon.”