Toward a social contract for social media
Last week, I led a “strike,” or boycott, associated with the hashtag #SocialMediaStrike, directed at the giant, centralized social media services. Though throttled by Twitter and no doubt by others, the brief campaign led to massive use of the hashtag, many people carrying out the strike, as well as dozens of news stories from around the world.
Here I will tell the story of what happened, make some observations about what we might do next, and then make a rather specific proposal, what we might call a “social contract” for social media companies.
Let me tell the story briefly, from the beginning.
I joined Facebook around 2006 and Twitter in 2008; I never felt quite right about them, and my objections piled up over the years. After I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I abandoned as much of social media as possible. Facebook was a challenge, but I permanently deleted my account, and haven’t looked back. It wasn’t hard to leave Quora, Medium, and Instagram. But I was still on Twitter for career reasons, and it bothered me that I had abandoned my Facebook friends. I thought, “There’s got to be a way to get my friends to join me on some alternative social media network.” But how? Then it occurred to me that if somebody made a browser plugin for my friends, that would insert my posts on Minds (for example) into their feeds on Facebook, and which would enable them to reply to me, that would go some way to making different social media networks interoperable. This idea got a lot of play on Twitter.
The more I thought about it, the more I decided that the lessons I had learned as part of a blockchain company since September 2017 (Everipedia) were applicable to social media as a whole: the whole social media system needs to be decentralized. What does that mean, exactly, though? There are several ways to think about it:
- We should own (ultimately control the distribution of) our own data. Nobody should be able to shut us down, just as nobody can shut down our blogs.
- We should have total control over our own feeds, i.e., our user experience as we use social media apps. This includes the sorting algorithms
- Social media apps should not be “silos.” They should share data; they should be interoperable; if you post on one, your data should be available on all the others (that do not specifically block you or your post).
- More than just sharing data, the data they use should be entirely independent of the apps that contain them. That means social media apps become, essentially, social media readers analogous to blog/news readers.
- To continue the analogy, just as blogs and blog readers exchange data via the common (practically universal) RSS standard, so social media readers should exchange data via a common social media standard.
My employer (Everipedia) kindly supported me as I spent some time developing this idea in speeches and a Wired article. In writing the latter article I hit upon the idea of using social media to organize—ironically, sure, why not?—a social media strike, and to write the Declaration. Whoever I talked to about it loved it. It resonated for people with both left politics and right. That’s interesting and perhaps unexpected, because it is an idea that ultimate concerns Internet politics itself. It turns out that when it comes to Internet politics, almost everyone is still essentially “liberal”: we all want to be free to publish and to be in control of our own experience. (Matters, of course, are different when we consider whether we want other people to be free to publish and to be in control of their experience. But when it comes to our own, we want to be in control.)
That was last March. I had several months to organize something bigger and more formally, by reaching out to a lot of influencers and get them on board as early signatories of a Declaration of Digital Independence, but whenever I started to make cursory movements in that direction, I frankly lost heart. The reason, as I eventually realized, was that the only way I was going to do this is by reaching out to regular people through normal channels, out in the open—you know, real grassroots organizing. Everything else felt (and might actually have been) philosophically inconsistent. So a little over a week before July 4, I got to work.
I cleaned up the various documents and started pushing them out on various channels, but especially on Twitter.
At first it looked like it was all going to be a dud. Then, slowly but surely, different “blue check marks” and then news outlets started showing interest. When the BBC and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson took an early interest last Monday (July 1), that really opened the floodgates. Here’s a list of coverage a colleague collected:
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK6BHGu9SD4 (Tucker Carlson interview)
- https://twitter.com/questCNN/status/1147240877892481031 (CNN interview)
- https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-larry-sanger-slams-facebook-twitter-social-media.html (widely distributed and discussed)
- https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-48825410 (ditto; first major coverage)
- https://www.newsweek.com/reddit-technology-social-media-strike-larry-sanger-facebook-twitter-1447549 (ditto)
- https://nypost.com/2019/07/02/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-over-privacy-issues (ditto)
- https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-06-29/wikipedia-co-founder-unveils-declaration-digital-independence (first coverage by anyone, I believe)
- https://thenextweb.com/tech/2019/07/04/reddits-r-technology-goes-dark-as-part-of-socialmediastrike (/r/technology’s blackout in support was widely reported)
There was probably more. Despite this amount of coverage, I don’t think the story ever trended on Twitter or Google News.
That the effort was throttled by Twitter is obvious. Tweets were placed behind “sensitive content” warnings—never with any explanation, but often with high irony—even when I merely shared one of Twitter’s own memes with the #SocialMediaStrike hashtag. There also seemed to be games going on with the hashtag itself.
What inroads did the effort make? There were a few notable “blue checkmark” supporters, but on the whole the result was a creature of grassroots efforts and direct reporting on those efforts. No major politician supported it; no A-list conservative or libertarian YouTube star or pundits supported it; no high-ranking lefty, rightly complaining about “surveillance capitalism,” joined; none of the leading Silicon Valley darlings, often critical of social media, joined; etc. In short, the Establishment pretty much uniformly took a pass—except, oddly, for the massive amount of news reporting as I said, and despite that reporting.
The lack of Establishment up-take I chalk up to the fact that it was started as a grass-roots effort and thus was beneath their notice; presumably, their support would need to be courted in advance. But as I said, I specifically decided not to court their support in advance. I’m not particularly sorry I didn’t, even though clearly it would have been a bigger deal if I had. It would have been bigger, yes, but the rank and file would be wondering much less about the genuineness of the movement. Besides, I’d have to worry about movement politics and personalities. What we’ve demonstrated is that this movement has legs without any A-list endorsements. And I don’t count myself in that group. I’m a B-lister at best. Heck, I’ve only got 6,000 followers and Twitter gave me my own blue checkmark only a couple months ago. My interest will continue to be that of a disgruntled social media user who also happens to be a casual Internet theorist.
Next steps: some notes
After announcing that they were back from the strike, many people asked what the next steps were. Some suggested we do another, longer strike; I’m not opposed to that. Many suggested that we start new social media networks; I think some of these people really didn’t realize that there were plenty under development. Representatives of several alternative social media networks reached out to me, including CEOs of two or three well-known ones. It’s all been quite confusing and so you’ll have to give me time to get it sorted out, especially since I’d like to be doing other work too, of course. Helping to organize this effort is at best a temporary sideline for me.
First, then, let me make a few observations about future strikes:
- We still haven’t shown the whole world that there is a massive latent demand for decentralized social media and data self-ownership.
- Simply doing another strike (perhaps a longer one) might be more effective than last week’s strike.
- But a similar strike anytime soon would almost certainly be ignored by the press and many potential participants. It would be better to plan any follow-up strike for some time months from now—even next year on the same days.
- There doesn’t have to be a centrally organized strike. You can declare yourself to be on strike on any social network you like, and maybe repeat the message daily or weekly, and then don’t interact except to promote your strike.
- Here’s the thing. If there’s going to be another big organized strike, I’m not going to be the one to organize it. I’m a reluctant organizer of this sort of thing, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a specialist or working full-time on this stuff. So someone else, or some other organization, would have to organize it. I might well participate, though, if someone else organizes it.
- Another proposal I saw is to have regular planned strikes, like once a month. This strikes me as unlikely to make big inroads, but of course it all depends on execution.
- There’s a whole aspect of any such effort toward data ownership, privacy, and decentralization that might need special attention, I think: teaching the ignorant. A common reaction to the strike was, “Wait, why should we care about privacy again?” I explained that before, even why we should be hardcore about privacy, but much more needs to be done on this. Similarly with free speech. So many people, especially younger people, have never learned why free speech is so important.
But there are maybe more important issues aside from any strike:
- I’m not aware of anything like an industry-wide agreement or commitment to interoperability and to settling on common standards. I’m interested in helping to broker that or to kick it off, although I probably wouldn’t want to participate, as that is not my area.
- I’m not interested in endorsing or joining any social media companies as an adviser. Though I am often asked, I am an adviser to almost no one. Thanks for asking.
- In my Wired paper, I describe “mass try-outs,” i.e., as many people as possible descends en masse on one particular social media alternative, then another one a week later (or whatever), for as long as necessary.
- Here is a message for alternative social media CEOs: there is strength in numbers. If you fight each other for the giants’ table scraps and leftovers, you’ll get nowhere. If you join forces to make each other interoperable and to organize mass try-outs, you’ll not only get a massive amount of publicity, you’ll get a massive amount of new users. A rising tide lifts all boats. Please act on this observation.
- I’m happy to try to bring you together for these purposes, if you’re not already making satisfactory headway, but I don’t want to be part of the organization. That’s your business, not mine. I have no interest in being an interloper. This is not just because I don’t like to be rude, it’s because I don’t know you or trust your organizations (yet), and I would like to stay independent of the fray.
- I do have one piece of advice for such an organization: you can’t include all alternative social media organizations in the biggest, most serious mass try-outs (I think), like every little Mastodon instance. Some will not make the cut, because they’re not big enough.
- That said, if you (social media companies wanting to organize mass try-outs) want massive grassroots support, the best way to organize which sites to follow is to use some objective and publicly-verifiable metrics of engagement, such as Alexa or Quantcast, number of social media mentions, or something else like that. Another option is to agree on a list of judges, and they democratically determine a list of n networks to do a “mass try-out” on.
- Of course, the also-rans should also have their (perhaps briefer) day in the sun. But the main event will feature some of the unquestionably leading alternative social media networks and will have more days and more publicity, naturally.
- That is, as long as they really are provably committed to decentralization, self-ownership of user data, and interoperability. But we would have to determine their bona fides.
So what should we do next?
Proposal: A social contract for social media
Here is a proposal that I would like your feedback on.
I’m thinking of trying to get the CEOs of alternative social media companies—and then, perhaps, the big ones—to agree to a set of principles.
Once agreed and signed, I would be happy to help broker an announcement that a deal, along these lines, had been reached.
And then we could do some “mass try-outs” of at least some signatories, in conjunction with a new social media strike. But I think the first step is to get the alternative networks on board.
What principles? I don’t think the Principles of Decentralized Social Networks is specific enough. What we really need to do is to operationalize those very general principles. So, something like this:
- We, representatives of social media networks agree to work with each other to adopt, adapt, or create a single, commonly-used, commonly-developed, and mutually satisfactory set of standards and protocols for making our networks interoperable, regardless of what other and underlying technologies we may use.
- “Interoperable” networks are those in which, at a minimum, posts that appear on one network can appear on other networks of a similar kind. Thus if one network supports microposts only, then microposts that originate on other networks can appear there. Similarly with longer posts, images, videos, and so forth.
- We will make diligent efforts support what might be called personal social media accounts as soon as available, so that there is support for peer-to-peer social media that does not require any networks or instances at all. In other words, these would be user-owned social media accounts, made according to standards that enable a person to post a social media feed entirely independently of any social media network. We will work diligently toward offering full technical support for users to post directly from feeds they directly and individually control onto our networks.
- As we become more fully decentralized, we will make user data fully portable. In other words, when a fully decentralized and interoperable network comes online, we will enable users to export their data in a format that allows them to host the “ur-version” of their data elsewhere.
- There is no requirement that our networks must carry all types of social media content; we may restrict what we carry by medium. Some networks may focus on microposts, others on blogs, and still others on photos or video. The standards and protocols should cover all uses of all these media, sufficient to specify how they are used by the big social media networks. As distinct new kinds of social media are invented, these too should be specified as well.
- It is also to be expected that we will support all features supported by the standards and protocols. For example, while some networks might support a wide variety of “reaction” features, others might have just “like” or “dislike,” and some might have none at all.
- We, the social media networks that are party to this public pledge, each retain the right to moderate all content that appears on our networks. Neither any central body nor any specially commissioned organization has the right to determine what may and may not appear on our networks. We may be as open, or as restricted, as we wish.
- We acknowledge that there are other serious problems associated with decentralized networks—such as, perhaps especially, spam and problems associated with real-world identities. We will work diligently to solve these problems in a way that does not create a potentially corruptible system, or an ideologically-driven system of viewpoint-based censorship.
- Whether or not our own projects will support a private messaging service, the standards and protocols we support will include end-to-end, strong encryption for individual private messaging as well as private group chats.
- The only requirements for a network to be join this decentralized system are neutral technical protocols; the only requirement for a person to create an account will be purely technical ones. There will be no application or vetting process, any more than there is for the registration of a new domain name, blog, or email provider or address.
- The standards and protocols we adopt will be open source, not proprietary.
- We will create or place our trust into, and continue to support, an open and democratic organization that manages these standards and protocols. We may and should be expected to object if we notice that biased or corrupt procedures, particularly those operating behind the scenes, are shaping the development of these standards and protocols.
- We will particularly resist incursions by governments and giant corporations that attempt to hijack the standards and protocols for purposes of censorship, surveillance, or profit-making opportunities not open equally to all.
- We are committed to ease of use—so that people can enjoy the full benefits of owning their own data and participating in a decentralized social media system without installing their own server or doing anything else that requires technical skill beyond that of the plain non-technical person.
Please read that over and let me know what you think.
I propose that social media CEOs negotiate with each other on some such set of principles, then all agree upon them. The benefits of doing so would be tremendous:
First, this should light a fire underneath all and create a mutual, shared understanding about the ultimate goals of the new social media architecture. It would constitute a “Manhattan Project” for redesigning the Internet (or, as one organization has it, “redecentralizing” the Internet).
Second, it should also give users enthusiasm about alternative social media, by giving them some assurance that networks they reward with their participation today will remain true to certain basic principles. This is, as Internet entrepreneurs can surely agree, very important.
Third and finally, this will also give journalists, commentators, and technical professionals commonly-agreed grounds for criticizing the big social media networks. Perhaps they will want to claim to be moving toward decentralization; but if they cannot satisfy the requirements of this agreement, we can deny that they actually are decentralized. If the public shows tremendous support for decentralization in the sense that is agreed to, this will make it ever harder for social media giants to resist moving toward a decentralized future.
I know I haven’t come to grips with all the issues involved here, and I know there are real experts who have. So help me to edit (or completely rewrite) the above so that it is something that we should expect social media networks to accept—assuming they really do take decentralization seriously.
The above is a very rough first draft at best. How should these principles read? Please discuss below.