Social media briefly blew up last week when Twitter's Jack Dorsey tweeted about decentralisation. Seems Twitter will be setting up an independent research group, dubbed BlueSky, to create an open and decentralised standard for social networks. The goal, said Dorsey in a long tweetstorm, is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard, along with many other apps.
There was outrage, mainly from those who saw this as a U-turn on Twitter's earlier move to limit third-party API access to its data. Lots of scepticism over whether Dorsey's proposal is just more talk about 'a far-out idea' that may not come to fruition. Also contentions about how this is just a way for Twitter to sidestep responsibility for moderating content—if content is no longer 'owned' by the platform, it would no longer be accountable for what goes out. In his tweets, Dorsey even acknowledged the 'terrible challenges' placed on content moderators.
But the idea of decentralised social networks is not new. There are plenty out there, offering themselves as friendlier and more user-centric alternatives to the centralised behemoths that are Twitter and Facebook. They are not without their issues though. Researchers investigating several decentralised platforms back in 2017 concluded they'll never work for reasons ranging from challenges in acquiring users and gaining developers' attention to potential security threats and issues with content curation. A recent example is Mastadon, whose reputation as a harassment-free version of Twitter was threatened when far right network Gab migrated to its platform.
Still, Twitter's blue sky initiative feels significant: an existing centralised platform unpicking itself into a decentralised one, potentially upending its own ad-based business model as it opens its doors to competitor services. Regardless of whether this will happen within the next year or decade, it feels like a step in the right direction. Over a year ago I wrote about decentralisation offering entirely new models for working, a force of general good that may well win in the end. As we move into the new decade, let's see more of such moves away from centralised systems.
This is MadHATTERS's last issue for 2019. Wishing you all the best for the festive season, and see you in the new year/decade!
Yours in HAT,