Issue 58

Decentralising social media

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.

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:


Other bits of interest


Image of the week

Do I trust this tech company with my data?

This week's data breaches

When  you sign up to a service in almost all cases they will sell whatever  data about you they possibly can, more so when they're "free" (we don't!). Just be aware of the trade-off.

The breaches:

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Issue 58: Decentralising social media was compiled by 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 their Keybase or Riot.im account.