Decentralising social media

Issue 49/2019

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, lit up the Twittersphere last week with a tweetstorm about his plans to potentially decentralise the service:

Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.

twitter was so open early on that many saw its potential to be a decentralized internet standard, like SMTP (email protocol). For a variety of reasons, all reasonable at the time, we took a different path and increasingly centralized Twitter.

I'm not going to lie, I'm a fan. Any time a billionaire running one of the largest social media platforms in the world wants to move toward decentralisation, it's a good thing. I've written before about the unfortunate decisions companies such as Twitter and Facebook made by moving towards being publishers rather than platforms. A fully decentralised social media platform, upon which publishers (users) can build, would be a better model than what has become of the major social media sites today. For example, under such a model it wouldn't be possible for a Singaporean court to order an American company to take down an Australian's content. Control, ownership and responsibility would be returned to the user, where it belongs.

But the problem Jack will inevitably confront will be how to decentralise the platform without compromising Twitter's ability to monetise its service. Most of Twitter's revenue comes from advertising, and advertisers love centralised, censurable publishers with captive audiences.

https://finelybalanced.com/images/twitter-revenue-by-source-2019.png

It's not like decentralised social networks haven't been tried before. For example Mastodon, diaspora*, pump.io, GNU social and Friendica, have all been around for a long time but have never really taken off outside of a relatively niche group of privacy enthusiasts.

But the potential difference this time - as with Facebook and Libra until it spectacularly caved to establishment pressure - is that if Dorsey is serious, he has the resources to potentially mainstream the idea. He also has the technology, with blockchain looking like the prime candidate to achieve his goal:

...new technologies have emerged to make a decentralized approach more viable. Blockchain points to a series of decentralized solutions for open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization. Much work to be done, but the fundamentals are there.

Once again, what Dorsey is suggesting has been done before. Peepeth, for example, was a decentralised social network built on Ethereum that never took hold. Monetising social media with blockchain is not easy, either: while the technical problem of micropayments has mostly been resolved by blockchain, mental transaction costs are still a very serious issue that have so far proved to be a hurdle too high. Essentially, people may hate adverts but they hate having to constantly approve transactions even more.

There's always a chance that Jack Dorsey and the enormous resources he has at his disposal will succeed, even if it would presumably involve a considerable adjustment to Twitter's business model and a huge coding feat for his new team of just six engineers. But as with Facebook and Libra, the establishment will be out to get him.

Is Jack's spine sturdier than the Zuck's? Time will tell. Good luck Jack, you'll need it.

Enjoy the rest of this week's issue, and be sure to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Cheers,

— Justin


The bits


Facebook's fight for... encryption?

This is odd coming from the company that makes its money by trading people's data:

Facebook said it would not weaken end-to-end encryption across its messaging apps, despite pressure from world governments, in a letter to US Attorney General Bill Barr and UK and Australian leaders.

“It is simply impossible to create such a backdoor for one purpose and not expect others to try and open it,” wrote WhatsApp head Will Cathcart and Messenger head Stan Chudnovsky in Facebook's response. “People’s private messages would be less secure and the real winners would be anyone seeking to take advantage of that weakened security. That is not something we are prepared to do.”

Look, she's absolutely correct. I just don't buy the claim that Facebook hasn't already undermined the encryption on its messaging applications by keeping its source code closed and 'safeguarding' everyone's master keys. But at least it's not sharing, right?

Learn more:



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This week's data breaches



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Issue 49/2019: Decentralising social media was compiled by Dr Justin Pyvis and delivered on 17 December, 2019. Feel free to send feedback, suggestions for future issues, ideas, insults, or pretty much anything that crosses your mind to his Keybase or Twitter account.