Open Source Social

Something I spend a lot of time thinking about is how you’d break open and decentralize the social web.

Today, every social network operates by enticing users with some sort of flashy product feature set (Facebook: engaging content; Snap: ephemeral messaging; Twitter: hot takes; etc.) in order to get them to add their names and behavioral data to a giant database, which the company then sells advertising against. The results are pretty clear: the incentives of this model have led to invasive tracking and loss of user privacy, harassment and abuse, and the gaming of algorithmic feeds to spread conspiracy theories and fake news; Not to mention that Facebook’s manipulation of the content in their News Feed has dealt a body blow to the business model of journalism itself.

It’s easy to imagine how a for-profit social network could be better managed, but at their root, they have to make money, and that will typically mean selling ads. A social network run as some kind of non-profit foundation (like Wikipedia) is one option, but I think there’s a better way: open-source, decentralized social. This is what I’d do if I were a bored billionaire.

The way open-source social would work is that every user retains ownership and control of their own social identity – their “profile.” There would be no giant centralized database of users, any more than The Internet, Inc. has such a database. Instead, each person would have their own social persona, mediated by a set of standard protocols, exactly the same way anyone can build their own website using standard protocols like HTML and CSS, and share it with others via TCP/IP. This would allow you to operate multiple such identities, if you wanted, with varying levels of depth.

With this persona, “social” companies would be in the business of offering products that leverage access to the persona that users grant them access to. Perhaps they could offer fee-for-service models, or even sell advertising against the list of personas they had access to, but at no point would they actually own that data. Imagine, multiple, competing News Feeds that users actually had control over! Companies would have an incentive to construct any number of feeds that users could subscribe to as they wished – real-time chronological, or all dog and baby videos, or a mix of politics and sports news, for example.

Abuse and harassment is probably inevitable in some form on any social network. But instead of being at the mercy of Facebook or Twitter executives to do something, dammit, open source social would actually empower users. Filtering and blocking tools could easily be a part of the underlying protocols themselves. Just as the email world (which is also based on open-source protocols like IMAP and POP) has SpamHaus for compiling known spam addresses, open source social could use a similar model for banning known abusers. It’s easy to envision standalone companies who specialized in designing experience filters to keep out abusive, harassing or questionable inbound messages or queries. Today, we rely on social network product teams to do this work, which they have a perverse incentive not to do because it could affect usage numbers. (Twitter knows perfectly well about their tens of thousands of bot network users and Nazis, and chooses not to lift a finger.)

Not moats, but oceans

The good news is that a very primitive form of this social protocol once existed: Internet Relay Chat (IRC). No one beyond a tiny hardcore base uses IRC anymore, because now it’s been re-invented as Slack and the “chatbot” craze.

The bad news is that IRC was never designed or packaged for the Web 2.0 era, and thus never broke out of the early-adopter nerd community. Facebook did, and here we are. The advantage of for-profit social networks is that they can keep their barriers to entry extremely low, market like crazy, and now have network effects that are more like oceans than moats. In many countries around the world, Facebook is the internet. While its dominance may well wane, I think the company will be with us in some form for decades to come.

Could you start a new social social network from scratch now? Well, you can never say never, but building one would probably be extraordinarily difficult.

The challenge is not technical. In fact, no short of Tim Berners-Lee himself is behind Solid, a project at MIT based around just these principles. That recent New York Times article about the potential of blockchain technology also has tantalizing ideas about the application of the blockchain to shared, open source social personas.

Rather, the problem obviously about adoption. I think you’d need some type of fundamentally new access form factor than the computer/phone setup we’re all used to. Gaining mass adoption would probably be very expensive, meaning you’d need to find investors to back it, which would be… problematic for an open-source project.

This is why I think the more likely scenario for open source social is as the product of some consortium of wealthy investors getting together and buying Twitter out of its misery. To be clear, that itself is very unlikely to happen, but it’s pretty clear at this point that Twitter probably is not going to make it as an independent company indefinitely. As an open source social product divorced from the need to goose MAUs, however, Twitter might just have the built-in network, user understanding and traction to survive.

Social today sucks

You often hear people my age tisk-tisk at how hard it must be to be a kid these days. Being in high school with Facebook, Snapchat and whatever else they’re using now would certainly be a different experience than we had. When I was in middle/high school, no one even had a cell phone. Everyone rushed home to IM with each other on AOL (or, in my case, play LORD on the local BBSes). Today, by contrast, having a well-crafted social persona is basically a prerequisite to being a modern human by the time you hit puberty; and that persona, by default, belongs to a for-profit company aggressively selling advertising against your information.

That sucks. Kids today deserve better. Global society deserves better.


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