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Why Is Twitter Keen On Creating a Decentralised Social Media Protocol?

Editor, TRANSFIN
Jan 16, 2021 1:17 PM 6 min read
Editorial

On January 6th 2021, the world witnessed two non-state entities successfully repress the free speech and expression of the head of the most powerful nation in the free world (let’s leave aside the content of his expression for a moment). 

After Twitter and Facebook banned and dismissed President Donald Trump's accounts from their networks permanently, a few others followed suit (Snapchat, Instagram, Twitch, Shopify, and YouTube which only permanently disabled comments on his channel). 

Although these moves were largely symbolic of private corporations taking a stand against the inflammatory behaviour of a President (only after he lost re-election, how convenient!), they don’t really qualify as stifled authoritarian measures against free speech in general. 

They however do pose an interesting question - what entitles private entities the 'right' to censor and boycott any individual, be it any ordinary individual or one who holds an office of immense electoral and military importance?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey issued a public explanation behind his company's actions saying that although he "did not feel pride" about the decision, he was compelled to do so owing to the "extraordinary and untenable circumstances" they were faced with. In retrospect, he also brought up the initiative "Bluesky" that he sponsored earlier and emphasised upon the increased need to enforce the same to "promote healthy conversations". 

Let's find out what he was talking about. 

What is Bluesky?

In December 2019, Dorsey announced his support towards creating a "decentralised standard for social media" in an effort to curb hate speech and real-world violence on his platform. It is basically an open source network standard or more precisely a protocol that is accessible to anyone, through which users can make decisions about what they see, share and engage with on the internet.

Let's simplify this. Imagine you use your Gmail to send an email to somebody who has a Yahoo email address. Alternatively, you can set up your own email server to send and receive emails, or even move everything to an external service like FastMail to do the same. 

There is neither any rider on you doing the above nor any control over your content because email runs on an open source protocol called SMTP. Websites like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo etc. Are merely clients of the protocol who enable better user interaction by offering us tools to access the protocols. On the other hand, Facebook, Twitter and most of the popular social media apps run on closed protocols. It means that Twitter has complete control over what happens or who sends messages to whom on its own platform. 

Dorsey wishes to change this. In fact, he referenced the possible use of blockchain technology to instrumentalise this. Blockchain functions in a similar way to decentralised social networks. To be fair, the blockchains that we are familiar with, like bitcoin, mostly employ the decentralisation technique to create a payment system. But, all their other features, like lack of central ownership or decentralised financial authority (absence of a bank or government controlling the currency), are exactly what Dorsey conceives in his model for the decentralised social media standard too. He is suggesting a decentralised social media protocol that could host algorithms or programmes uploaded by anyone, unlike current protocols which are proprietary.

 

Is This A Novel Concept?

Yes and No.

Yes, there are already other decentralised social networks (DNS) already in place. 

In 2007, Google and MySpace created OpenSocial to enable users to post on social networks across services. 

In 1998, Jabber was conceived as an open source IM protocol. It was made compatible with Google Chat. Even Facebook came out in its support in 2010 but it gradually died down as more social networks moved towards fully proprietary alternatives. 

There's another called Sola, which doesn't regulate account behaviour but uses AI to match content with user-interest via search vector. 

The most prominent DNS that's out there, however, is Mastodon. It is a free, open source microblogging service (similar to Twitter) with over three million users across different servers. Each of these servers can create and enforce their own standards for however they wish to regulate their content and utility, albeit, within a 500-character limit. 

Mastodon uses a protocol called ActivityPub which includes almost all the particulars that Dorsey has outlined in his vision. He even acknowledged that if need be, his team of researchers may choose an existing protocol rather than creating a new one from scratch, thus letting the acquisition-buzz loose. 

Having said that, if Twitter chooses to adopt this matrix, it will set up a new industry standard in internet governance. So yes, although it isn't a novel concept, Twitter's choice to allow accessibility and contribution to a much larger scope of public dialogue will be perceived as breaking massive grounds in social media territory. 

 

What Is Twitter's Interest In This?

This is the most puzzling node of the equation. If you are the owner of a social media network that boasts of at least 300 million active monthly users, why on earth would you choose to declaim that power and influence?

Although the idea is still nascent and we are yet to see what shape it takes, replacing the "centralised enforcement of global policy" that is unlikely to tide over in the long run, by creating a decentralised protocol that relies on individual hosts who may or may not choose to abide by their local laws, seems like the ultimate technocratic gamble. 

Admitted, a protocol hosted on a vast network of computers would be very difficult to shut down. But it could yield paralleled and diverse results on controlling hate speech because the act of moderation, when left in the hands of a community could easily get mobbed and lose its purpose. 

The "open-source" ethos are held in sacrosanct terms in the programming, gaming and engineering community. However, if we have learnt anything from Bitcoin's example, it is that open sources are equally vulnerable to criminal use. 

So is Mr. Dorsey being naive in assuming that independent contributors would fill an open source, centralised social media platform with benevolent algorithms all the time?

Another thing, what about monetisation? Perhaps the inspiration sought from bitcoin is to conceive a "social media blockchain"? Although the means of how they would administer it is not clear yet.

There is also another speculation circling the upstart DNS community that Twitter is in this to unleash an "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish" strategy, where a large corporation adopts an open protocol, becomes its biggest user and then either abandons it or fundamentally restructures it from within, thus turning the locks on everyone else. 

As nifty as that might be, from a bystander's perspective, it could rather seem like a "passing the buck" strategy on internet governance. 

 

The Theory of Everything

Bluesky is exactly that as of now, a theory. A total of five experts were reported to have been hired to develop the project in 2019 when Dorsey first announced it. After more than a year, it is yet to report any breakthroughs. In fact, Twitter employees predicted the growth of the project to embark at a glacial pace first hand. 

However, Dorsey insists that he aims to develop not just the protocol but also an open community around it that consists of companies, organisation, researchers and civil society experts who will set up the blueprint of regulatory benchmark (or lack thereof!) that Bluesky might employ eventually. 

Outsourcing critical mass of content to a wider audience is a utopian ideal to conceive and utopian greater still to live up to. But if the goal is to enforce a liberated internet regime in the coming years, Twitter's keenness to do so seems extraordinary, especially since it involves seceding control from its own hands.  

FIN.

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