Let me begin by telling you (and my blog readers) a personal history of decentralizing social media and content generally.
Decentralizing social media
It began in January when I decided to lock down my cyber-life. Among the items on my “to do” list was: “Quit social media, or at least nail down a sensible social media use policy.” I rather quickly decided to get rid of Facebook and a number of others. I grudgingly conceded that I would keep using Twitter for career purposes.
By February, I was still not satisfied with how I was using social media, basically because I did not have control over my own data. When trying to download my own contributed content from Facebook, Medium, and Quora (which did not even offer a tool for downloading my answers), I got seriously frustrated. “This is my data,” I thought, “and they act like it’s theirs.”
I got to thinking. My data was not easy to download. It wasn’t even easy to search—almost all Big Social Media platforms have minimal search tools. And there was no standard, as is there is for address books, blogs, and email, that would enable me to move this data to a competitor.
The latter is probably what gave me the idea, which of course is not a new idea at all, that what we really need to do is to decentralize social media. I wrote a blog post about that, which TheNextWeb printed. The idea was wildly popular on Twitter and in a few speeches I gave last spring and summer.
In one of these speeches, at South by Southwest in March—in a shortened version of this Wired article—I said there desperately need to be open standards for a new system of decentralized social media, and that we should have a social media strike to raise awareness of this.
In the speech, I asked you, Jack, three questions. I reiterated them on Twitter, and you answered “yes” to all three:
- 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? [Q] [A]
- Will you create tools to let people export and sync their tweets with microposts from outside of Twitter? [Q] [A]
- And will you give users a lot more control over their feeds? [Q] [A]
Shortly thereafter, you DM’d me and offered to chat on the phone about Twitter’s plans. Since you are now, nine months later, coming out publicly with your plans, I’m now going to share the notes I took then:
My piece in Wired [i.e., this] is “spot-on”
They’ve had discussions about similar plans for last six months
Run some ideas past you: problems we’re trying to solve; then solutions
CR2019, execute 2020
Pressure testing the ideas now.
Want to encourage greater amounts of healthy conversations
Four leading indicators of health of corpus of conversation: shared attention, shared reality, variety, receptivity. MIT lab is measuring these against talk radio.
Six problems with the poor health of conversation on Twitter: (1) focus on following accounts rather than topics; problems with variety and shared reality. (2) Attention problems, is dissipating. (3) Global enforced policy is not scalable. (4) Burden of moderation is placed on the victim. (5) Permanent bans and takedown do not promote health. (6) Tech trends challenge content hosting.
Principles going forward that address the problem:
- An account or tweet can only be deleted by the account owner.
- Anyone can follow any account, topic, keyword/question.
- Anyone can mute any account, topic, keyword, question.
- By default, we’ll only promote “healthy” accounts/tweets.
- Everyone can quickly switch off to see all accounts and all tweets in all conversations.
- Everyone will have incentive to participate in healthy conversations.
You could use a different recommendation engine purposes of filtering feed.
CTO is working on how to implement principles.
I was cautiously optimistic in March. But now, I don’t think you were sincere. I still don’t after your recent announcement.
We were going to circle back after a month. We never did. I said in my speech that I wanted to organize a social media strike, and I suggested July 4-5 as the date.
Still, Twitter finally gave me a blue checkmark in May, I suppose in an attempt to appease me. (Didn’t work.)
The social media strike
I organized a social media strike and asked strikers to sign this Declaration of Digital Independence. I’m pretty sure Twitter noticed, because it was then that my tweets, ironically, started being throttled as “sensitive content,” which has happened dozens of times since, and when the content was nowhere near being “sensitive”—unless it’s Twitter being quite sensitive about the idea of a social media strike. Throttling. Kind of pisses me off, Jack.
The strike got quite a bit of news coverage, even though it was quickly and informally organized, with no backing organization, no PR firm, no nothin’. By July 6, it was not clear how successful the strike was, because of course the social media companies were not going to supply data. It is possible the strike might have had something to do with outages at Facebook and Instagram, but I heard nothing specific about that.
I’m not terribly surprised that no one at Twitter (or any other social media giant) contacted me about the strike. I’m sure it didn’t help that I went on Fox to talk about the strike:
Consequences: traffic decline and throttling?
The strike did have one very clear and beneficial effect: it spread the idea that there was something wrong about social media companies having exclusive control over our social media data. I speculate—and saw a fair bit of anecdotal support of this—that people started abandoning social media in general more last summer. I started tracking to the Alexa Rank of various social media sites, as an imperfect way to check up on this.
After Twitter’s rank kept dropping throughout the summer, I looked at other sites in September, and I noticed their ranks, too, had precipitously and noticeably declined recently—and yet, strangely, nobody had reported this remarkable news. So I reported it myself here on this blog. A fair few opinionated techies follow me, but none of them told me this wasn’t news; still, the tech press was entirely silent. And weirdly, within days, the Alexa Rank of my own blog plunged by around 500K places, and did not come back up for a few months, while the ranks of almost all of the sites I reported on slowed or stopped their decline, and started plateauing and even slowly climbing back. Could be a coincidence, of course. But the ranks have not yet climbed past where they were in late September.
Anyway, Jack, I confess that those notices of “sensitive content” slapped on my social media strike-related tweets began to bother me quite a bit. It especially bothered me when Twitter stopped me (for a day) from linking to my own blog. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Of course, I can’t prove that my posts about the social media strike had anything to do with censoring links to my blog: it did turn out someone had been using my blog’s password reset functionality in a simple spamming exploit. But if that was the reason, it was a frankly boneheaded excuse to block the domain; and there was no excuse to ignore my repeated requests for explanation.
So it has become personal for me, not that I wasn’t already thoroughly pissed off about Big Tech encroachments on free speech and privacy.
When we last spoke, I was working for Everipedia, the blockchain encyclopedia. In September, I left in order to start a new, independent nonprofit project to define open standards for encyclopedia articles, which will, I hope, create a new encyclopedia network called the Encyclosphere (after the Blogosphere). This was the plan all along with Everipedia, but I figured I needed to develop the standards independently of any for-profit organization, or the standards would probably never enjoy mass adoption. You can learn about our new Knowledge Standards Foundation here:
The plan for the Encyclosphere is very similar to the plan I was proposing for social media. In both cases the proposal is:
- Define open standards for sharing content.
- Content is published in a feed; everyone controls their own feed.
- Content aggregators bring many feeds together and make them available via an API or (probably decentralized) database (such as WebTorrent).
- Reader apps (analogous to blog readers) make is possible to read (and contribute) the aggregated content.
So I’m going to be honest. When you say you’re going to create “an open and decentralized standard for social media,” I don’t believe it. My reaction to this announcement is similar to my reaction to Mark Zuckerberg giving a speech in favor of free speech: to laugh.
Twitter used an open standard in its early days—then abandoned it. Twitter said they were the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” then started banning and throttling people for political speech.
A lot of people are working on decentralizing content in reaction to your mishandling of social media.
We don’t need Mark Zuckerberg’s “help” to support free speech, and we don’t need your “help” to make content decentralized.
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