Can decentralized social networks address the failures of centralized social media platforms?
The proliferation of social media over the past two decades has coincided with a few private companies and their leaders obtaining unprecedented power over our digital public squares. The consequences have been grave for society and democracy around the world.
A new generation of digital infrastructure and social media platforms are emerging through the rise of blockchains and decentralized web protocols. What is the current state of this nascent industry? What are the important things to know about the technologies themselves? What are the major debates underway and what are their social considerations? What is the role of policy and regulation in shaping the ecosystem?
For our podcast on this topic, we were joined by Evan Henshaw-Plath (@rabble), a lead developer at the dawn of Twitter and now the CEO of Planetary, a decentralized social media network on the open source Scuttlebutt protocol.
Decentralized Social Media Essentials:
Assessing this technological moment
- Blockchain technology has inspired new architectures for innovation, including cryptocurrencies and a host of decentralized web protocols and platforms
- These architectural concepts are not new. In the early days of Twitter (2007), Evan was among technical leaders who shared an intention to create a federated model for social networks with built-in interoperability, but more immediate technical concerns and economic incentives prevented it from ultimately happening
“Twitter started as a protocol. It should have never been a company. That was the original sin.” - Jack Dorsey
- The market space is still early-stage and fast-moving — a ‘wild west’ with a proliferation of emerging initiatives, technologies, protocols, and products. The design decisions being made today will likely manifest into the norms of our next-generation platforms
Dominating tech companies are falling under increased regulatory scrutiny
- The European Union passed the Digital Markets Act in September 2022. Among many provisions, it prohibits large social networks and search engines from sharing customer data with subsidiaries. It also forces messaging services, specifically Meta’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage, to interoperate with smaller platforms. The US and UK are considering similar legislation
- TikTok, a leading social media platform based in China, is facing regulatory scrutiny in the US with some influencers and politicians calling for it to be banned. Among leading concerns are its addictive user experience and distrust over the platform's relationship with the Chinese Communist Party
Recent market trends have swung against the Meta empire and Twitter
The problems with today's dominating social media platforms
- Consolidations of power: Highly consequential decisions around the design, governance, and moderation of these platforms reside in relatively few individuals, often at the whims of a CEO
- Consolidations of infrastructure: Servers, applications, and data are all in one centralized company. Influencers and audiences cannot easily switch to a competing platform, and centralized systems can be prone to major hacks and crashes
- Their business models are extractive: With business models that predominately rely on maximizing user engagement and advertising revenue, sophisticated behavioral science is being applied to addict, trigger, and commoditize social media users
- Algorithms are biased, secretive, and alter human behavior: The design and parameters placed on algorithms determine what users see and what becomes popular. Aspiring influencers thus alter their behavior to serve the algorithm with downstream effects on users. For example, Instagram's negative effects on teenage girls have been studied. The design flaws of these algorithms have been increasingly exposed with the meddling of foreign governments, epidemics of misinformation and disinformation, and tragedies like the WhatsApp lynchings in India
Features emerging within the decentralized social media ecosystem
- Open-source protocols: that are by definition consensus-driven and transparent. The underlying programming of these platforms are built and available in the commons. Their rules and practices are determined collaboratively and in in the open. They're more stakeholder-driven by design
- Interoperability: Different social media platforms on the same open protocol can be interoperable, enabling greater choices and use cases for influencers and active users
- Resiliency: Protocols and platforms are more resilient by being structured beyond the whims of a single CEO, the financial viability of a profit-maximizing firm, and the architecture of a centralized system
- Self-determination: Anyone can get involved in using and/or building a value-aligning platform. We can advocate for dWeb platforms that better protect human rights and empower dignity among people who are prone to systemic inequity and prejudice
- Accommodates numerous business models: Private companies, public institutions, and distributed networks each have opportunities to innovate and customize applications using open source protocols. The hope is for a more diverse and competitive market ecosystem
Distinguishing between the dWeb and Web3
Both the decentralized web (dWeb) and Web3 labels share ideals of decentralization, but our discussion with Rabble distinguished some characteristics:
- dWeb preceded Web3 with examples like open source technology, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent
- Web3 is built using cryptocurrency technology and tends to be philosophically oriented towards libertarianism and shifting control of the financial system. Power and economic benefit tend to concentrate among miners (Bitcoin and other proof-of-work tokens) and coin holders (Ethereum and other proof-of-stake tokens)
- dWeb protocols and applications are designed to require and incentivize cooperative behavior. Some dWeb principles were recently released after years of collective effort to define them. Elinor Ostrom's Eight Commons Governance Design Principles are highly cited as a more general reference point
Major debates amongst players in decentralized social media
Beneath the ideals of a decentralized social media ecosystem are several consequential questions around the architectures, governance, and business models of these platforms.
Among these questions are:
- Weighing the available protocols of Web3 vs. dWeb or designing a new protocol within these frameworks
- What principles are the developers and users rooted in? (ex: dWeb principles)
- Where do the servers sit?
- Where does the software reside and how does it operate?
- Where is our data stored and how is it used? Is the data encrypted?
- Which data is public vs. private? In the social graph, can users see who everyone's connections are or not? These have ramifications for fostering safety and trust in more sensitive discursive spaces.
- Who governs the platform and how are important decisions made?
- What are its standards & practices for content moderation? How do you solve for spam and bad behavior?
- Which business models incentivize investment, development and user engagement?
- What awareness and control do users have over the algorithm?
We've cited deeper dives into these questions in our resources section
Emerging protocols and platforms in decentralized social media
- A protocol is a set of rules for transmitting information in a communications system (Wikipedia). Examples of protocols include HTTPS (webpages), SMTP (e-mail), and FTP (file transfers)
- Many different platforms may operate on top of the same protocol. Some platforms and protocols go by the same name. We will distinguish that below
- Some decentralized social media protocols are peer-to-peer, meaning that they run entirely on the user's device, or they can run on a shared server as a federated protocol
- Most are open source, some have their own platforms, and there are multiple federations of interoperable platforms
- Since protocols do not interoperate, each protocol creates an island of social media platforms on those protocols
Web3 (blockchain) protocols and platforms
- DeSo: An open-source protocol focused on scaling storage-heavy applications to billions of users. Platforms on DeSo include Diamond (like Twitter), Pearl (like Instagram), and Entre (like LinkedIn)
Note: DeSo is also applied as a general abbreviation for the decentralized social media ecosystem
- Steem: A blockchain-based protocol focused on generating revenue streams for content creators. Platforms built on Steem include Steemit (like Reddit) and DTube (like YouTube)
- Some platforms emerging on the Ethereum blockchain: Minds (similar to Facebook) and Mirror (similar to Substack)
dWeb protocols and platforms
Note: This a rapidly emerging and evolving topic last updated in November 2022