Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been rocking the social network boat. First, under his direction, Twitter banned political ads. Now, he’s announced a radical change to Twitter’s fundamental technology: Bluesky.
Bluesky is to be “an open and decentralized standard for social media.” It will be designed by “a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers.”
In its early days, Dorsey tweeted, Twitter had considered using an open, decentralized standard, just like Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), which became one of email’s core standards. Instead, “for a variety of reasons, all reasonable at the time, we took a different path and increasingly centralized Twitter.”
Now, Dorsey and company are reconsidering that decision for four reasons:
Centralized enforcement of global abuse and misleading information policy doesn’t scale well over the long-term without placing too much burden on people.
The value of social media is shifting away from content hosting and removal, and toward recommendation algorithms directing one’s attention. Unfortunately, these algorithms are typically proprietary, and one can’t choose or build alternatives.
Existing social media incentives frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation, which informs and promotes health.
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.
Specifically, Dorsey wants the “team to either find an existing decentralized standard they can help move forward, or failing that, create one from scratch. That’s the only direction we at Twitter, Inc., will provide.”
Others quickly pointed out that Mozilla, Mastodon, diaspora*, and the W3C have all worked on decentralized social networks. In an interview, Evan Prodromou, open-source developer and Wikimedia Foundation product manager, said, “I hope that they at least consider using or enhancing existing social standards, like the W3C’s ActivityPub standard, used by dozens of codebases around the world.”
Prodromou added: “Overall, I’m very hopeful for this first step. There has been some work by Google (e.g., Buzz) and Facebook in previous years, but this is the first big initiative for decentralized social software by a major social media platform.” In addition, Prodromou noted Twitter has already shown it can help with open-source programs. “For example, OAuth [the open-source secure authorization protocol] 1.0 was an existing standard, and while reviewing it, Twitter found some architectural problems that made it unsuitable for them to use. So they fixed the problems, and their design became OAuth 1.0a,” Prodromou said.
The reasons behind Twitter’s proposed change to its technology foundation, according to Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s legal lead, is Twitter “is fundamentally about openly exploring the fullest and most participatory vision of our [social network]. In 2020, we will be using our voice to more prominently support and foster the values of a free and open internet.“
Further, Gadde continued, “Twitter has always believed in the principles of a democratic, open Internet — we believe the future of our industry rests in community-focused initiatives and direct engagement with emerging innovators.”
Dorsey knows “this isn’t going to happen overnight.” He said it would “take many years to develop a sound, scalable, and usable decentralized standard for social media that paves the path to solving the challenges listed above.” He added, “Our commitment is to fund this work to that point and beyond.”
Decentralized social networks aren’t new. Mastodon and diaspora both use open-source decentralized protocols. It will be interesting to see what Twitter, which is far more popular than either does with this approach.