FAQ about the project to decentralize social media

Larry Sanger

See also: Declaration of Digital Independence Social Media Strike!FAQ about the project to decentralize social mediaResources

General questions

What is the Declaration of Digital Independence?

Here it is. It is not meant to be a general bill of digital rights. Rather, it has the very delimited purposes of (1) declaring that we have the digital rights to free speech, privacy, and security, (2) enumerating the ways in which Big Social Media has violated those rights, and (3) articulating some Principles of Decentralized Social Media Networks, which together define the requirements of a better system of social media.

Can you summarize the latter principles?

I’ll try. Essentially, social media should be decentralized. Our data should be owned and served by ourselves, just as we own and host our own blogs: it’s BYOD, or “Bring Your Own Data.” Social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and their smaller alternatives and successors should aggregate the data from many different places, just as blog readers aggregate blogs. In short, they should be fully interoperable not just with each other but with their many smaller competitors.

If you do happen to stick with Facebook or Twitter, your data should be able to be exported to and synced with an independent data repository they don’t control. This would take the pressure off of conservative and libertarian calls to regulate the Social Media Giants: they could still censor whomever they like, but unlike at present, your followers would be able to find the unexpurgated versions of your feeds elsewhere, and you’d be able to follow them without joining censorious networks. If you wanted to use a freer social media reader that is plugged into a broader, more neutral, all-encompassing social network, you’d be able to do so.

In addition, social media readers would, to be competitive, have to give users much more control over their feeds and what they’re capable of seeing (and what is hidden from them).

Where can I read more about the idea in general?

Aside from the Declaration itself, see this long Wired article I wrote and a blog post (which appeared on TNW) that sort of kicked off this effort.

Is this a new idea?

No, it isn’t. People have been discussing how to “decentralize social media” (as I put it) since the 2000s and have proposed social media standards. Another term for it it is distributed social network, although my take might be a little different from older ideas.

What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?

Ultimately, all I personally am trying to do is to help usher in a new system of decentralized social media and, in general, a newly decentralized Internet. I’m basically a dissatisfied customer. I don’t have any project I’m pushing. In my day job I’m working on an encyclopedia project.

In the short run, however, I have much more delimited goals:

  1. Get many signatures on the Declaration of Digital Independence. I want it to go massively viral. I want millions of signatures. I want everyone to become aware of decentralized social media as an option.
  2. Make the social media strike on July 4-5 a roaring success. Create a massive media event that forces the social media giants, as well as the commentariat, to start discussing this seriously. Nothing would do that better than flexing our collective muscle.
  3. Divert traffic to social media alternatives, especially ones that are committed to decentralized social media rather than building yet more silos. They need all the help they can get, and I want to see what they’re like at scale.

My medium-term goal is to get all the social media players into one room, at least metaphorically speaking, under tremendous public pressure to adopt common, open, and fair standards so that the various networks become fully interoperable (and thus open to broader competition from smaller players).

What is the biggest problem standing in the way of decentralizing social media?

It’s actually a problem that is at once technical and social: we must get all the players on the same page, not just using some open standards or other, but the same standards. You can’t have blog readers without all those blogs publishing feeds using the RSS standard (another, lesser-known but common blog standard is Atom).

What reason is there to think that Twitter, for example, would choose to support a more decentralized system? Seems crazy!

Well, that’s what I thought too, until I asked Jack Dorsey point-blank:

(1) Once the standards for microposts are properly settled on, will you, Jack, enable Twitter users to incorporate Twitter-style microposts that are hosted elsewhere inline in their Twitter feeds?

Jack answered:

Yes. If we want to serve the public conversation (our purpose) we need to be more expansive than just what’s on Twitter. There’s real work here of course.

I also asked:

(2) Will you create tools to let people export and sync their tweets with microposts from outside of Twitter? [Jack prompted me to clarify “sync” some more.] Since people might want to post using different services but to the same personal micropost feed, a syncing process would have to occur to avoid forking/conflicts. An important part of the request here is that the exporting is done not just via Twitter’s API (already in place) but via a standard, like an RSS feed, or even perhaps to a separate data storage (e.g., maybe I’d prefer to serve my own data from my personal cloud).

Jack answered:

I don’t see why not. … [And in response to the “syncing” clarification.] Ah yes. I can see that.

Finally, I asked:

(3) And will you give users a lot more control over their feeds?

Jack replied:

Yes. We took a tiny step with the switch at the top of the timeline. Realize it’s small. But points to direction.

Much to my surprise, Jack then reached out and we discussed some details of Twitter’s plans, which (without giving anything away) sounded excellent to me. He liked my Wired article; the description he used over the phone was “spot-on.” So we’ll see.

Even Mark Zuckerberg, whom I don’t trust as far as I could kick him, paid lip service to neutral technical protocols and touts encryption which he finds “decentralizing,” even while he backs away from firm commitment to end-to-end encryption. Because we need to protect your safety, of course. He also pays lip service to “data portability.” So who knows?

About me (and my nonexistent organizational motives)

Who are you?

I’m Larry Sanger, currently CIO of Everipedia, the blockchain encyclopedia startup, and in 2001 I co-founded Wikipedia. It was my idea to apply wiki tech to the problem of creating an encyclopedia. I named the project and led it and its predecessor for a couple of years. It wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t have shown the world how to use wikis to write encyclopedias. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from Ohio State (2000) and have spent most of my career after academia starting or advising a variety of other reference and educational websites. I write and speak on a wide variety of themes about the Internet, philosophy, technology, education, etc. I’ve been steadily online since about 1992 or 93, although I first accessed the Internet via a dialup modem in the early 80s.

Are you trying to start a movement?

No. I am trying to call attention to one that already exists.

But you want to start decentralized social media networks, right? Or what is your angle, or your goal?

I don’t want to start a new social media network. (I am not interested in quitting my job. I’m CIO of an encyclopedia network.) I’m also not affiliated with any social media company or project. I’m not angling to be. Finally, I’m not a member of organizations devoted to decentralizing social media; apart from my recent efforts, I don’t think I’m particularly well-known to the people who are in such organizations. I’m also not angling to infiltrate or take them over.

But I’m a fan of what they’re doing. I want them to be more successful so I can start using their excellent hard work more actively.

I’m deeply upset with Big Social Media, and that is ultimately why I posted the “Declaration of Digital Independence.” I’m just a dissatisfied customer with a blog and a modest following.

A few months ago on this blog, I stumbled upon a common and obvious idea, i.e., that we should decentralize social media. I ran with that in a couple speeches and a Wired article, and here I am, executing something like the plan I set out there.

What sort of organization are you starting here?

I’m not starting an organization at all. I have no committee or inner circle (this bit is contrary to plan; I’ll explain why I changed this strategy in a bit). It’s just me. And you. I want this to be really grass-roots. And if it doesn’t take off, too bad—I don’t really want to join anything more formal.

Organizations devoted quite explicitly to social media decentralization, data self-ownership, and related causes already exist. I lack the time and energy to work within those organizations. Those who are more professionally and exclusively committed to the cause should seek out those organizations and join them.

Why not work within (or start) an organization?

I find organizations to be limiting. I want to drive forward not an organization but a pre-existing movement. The movement, after all, is to decentralize social media. That means there’s no center. Or if there is one kinda-sorta, I’m not that interested in being part of it. I’m a cat who wants to be a cat herder.

But aren’t you organizing people who support your effort?

Not really; I don’t want that role. I don’t have “an effort” beyond cheerleading for something we all seem to want. I have a day job. I hereby disavow any role as the leader of any organization. I just want lots of people to republish the Declaration, or if they don’t like it, come up with their own. I just want to persuade developers and investors and nonprofits and yes, maybe even governments if they can not try to take things over, to usher in a new age of decentralized social media. I want to do whatever I can individually to start a grassroots movement to get coders working on, and to get users switching to, any networks that respect the “Principles of Decentralized Social Networks.”

Maybe you don’t want to call it an organization, but isn’t there a lot going on behind the scenes here?

No, not really, not as of this writing, there isn’t much that I haven’t shared quite openly. I’m not pulling strings anywhere, and nobody is pulling my strings. What you see is what you get. That’s how I like best to operate.

So-and-so claims to be part of your organization or to speak on behalf of the Declaration. Is that right?

No it isn’t. I don’t have an organization, therefore nobody is part of my organization.

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