Social networks, once a fun and novel way to connect with friends and interests online, have taken on a much more frustrating and dispiriting tone for many users in recent years. It’s an albatross that many of us can’t seem to shake.
Twitter and Facebook have ballooned into monolithic giants that hold a lot of sway over the way we consume information and interact on the web. And they can’t seem to solve their myriad negative impacts on society… or worse, don’t see the value. Facebook allows lies in political advertising and plays fast and loose with user data; Twitter lets fake accounts run riot across its service.
Could decentralized technology be the key to breaking their hold over our online social lives, all while better connecting us to our interests and communities and protecting our data? Several competing networks already use decentralized approaches—and even Twitter, believe it or not, is investing in a potential decentralized future.
Here’s a look at some of the current platforms and future proposals, along with the potential benefits and drawbacks of each.
Exploring Mastodon's fediverse
Mastodon is arguably the best-known of the bunch, as the decentralized social network has a Twitter-inspired look and feel—albeit with 500 characters per “toot” (post) to play with. The differences are significant, however. Not only is there no central company or group setting standards, moderating content, or harvesting data, but Mastodon is also not designed as one huge, all-connected network.
Instead, Mastodon acts like a federation of thousands of user-hosted instances (the “fediverse”), each of which serves as an individual community. Some are much larger than others, but they’re all self-managed by each group of users. Each instance has the ability to connect with others, plus Mastodon itself will only link to servers that agree to follow certain rules, such as moderating hate speech and providing three months’ notice of an impending closure.
With more than 4.4 million users, Mastodon’s network keeps growing. However, the decentralized approach also poses challenges. Last year, Gab—a social media site known for its ties to white supremacists—created a fork of Mastodon and became its most populous instance. As a decentralized network, Mastodon couldn’t take a hardline stance against the move, but individual instances could block and therefore help further isolate the server. There’s no central force leading moderation across the entire network, but unseemly Mastodon communities may have to live in the shadows.
Decentralized social media platforms
There are other approaches out there for a decentralized social media experience. Peepeth is another current example, and it’s one that uses a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain to keep a record of all activity. Your actual interactions don’t take place directly on the blockchain, but rather they’re hosted elsewhere and saved off-chain up to a certain amount until you bulk post them to Ethereum for a small fee. Veteran users are able to avoid some fees after hitting a certain threshold.
Minds offers a compelling proposition, letting users earn tokens for using the platform and having people view their content. You can also tip other users with tokens, as well as pay to boost views of your own content if you desire. Rather than have some centralized company earn money from your interactions, Minds lets users earn and spread that money instead.
Inrupt also deserves attention, but it’s potentially far more than a simple social network. Co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the person who invented the World Wide Web, Inrupt envisions an open-source, decentralized future in which everyone creates and manages a personal online data store (POD) that has a variety of uses. It can be a social media profile or a resume, or an easier form of age verification for websites, for example. With the new “Solid” platform, people will be able to take control of their data and use it more easily across the web.
Is Twitter going to decentralize?
Amazingly, Twitter itself could end up pursuing a decentralized approach in the future, as far-fetched as that might seem. In December, the company announced that it would fund an initiative called Bluesky, which according to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will consist of an independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers, with a brief to “develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.” The goal is for Twitter to “ultimately be a client of this standard,” he tweeted.
In a tweet thread, he explained that Twitter initially was very open in its early stages but eventually became much more centralized, and the scale of supporting such a centralized network in the future could be unsustainable. “Blockchain points to a series of decentralized solutions for open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization,” he added. “Much work to be done, but the fundamentals are there.”
Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard. 🧵
— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack) December 11, 2019
According to Dorsey, Twitter’s only direction to the team will be that it must either use and improve upon an existing decentralized social media approach, or build a new one from scratch. As Decrypt explored when the news was announced, there are plenty of roads that Twitter or other companies could pursue to bring a decentralized social network to life, such as using Web3 technologies like blockchain to enable micropayments. Whatever route Twitter opts for, it very well could be a years-long process.
Whether Dorsey’s seemingly well-intentioned pet project eventually becomes a real product remains to be seen—but it is promising to see a social networking mammoth consider opening up a bit.