In brief

  • Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht has proposed a concept for a decentralized social media protocol.
  • He argues that a user-centric protocol could put an end to big tech monopolies.

Ross Ulbricht, the imprisoned founder of the Silk Road dark web marketplace, has published a proposal for a decentralized social media network that he claimed would address the problems caused by centralized social media platforms.

In a lengthy Medium post, Ulbricht, who is serving a double life sentence in a US prison, stated that he had planned to launch a decentralized social media network had he been pardoned—but since he doesn’t know "when or if that will happen", he has shared his idea with the world.

Ulbricht argued that simply giving individual users the power to create websites and choose which ones to visit is not enough anymore in an online world controlled by tech giants. “When we talk about decentralization, we are talking about putting all the decision-making power and authority in the hands of the users,” he wrote.

A radical shift from the current paradigm

In order to fully control the process of interaction with social media platforms, Ulbricht's decentralized social protocol (DSP) would give users the ability to manage access to their content with encryption tools. The scheme would involve key sharing, with service providers ideally not having access to unencrypted content.

Ulbricht said that this represents “a radical shift from the current paradigm”—a user-centric DSP strips tech giants of their monopolies over users and content distribution.

Diagram showing centralized social media
The current centralized social media landscape. Image: Ross Ulbricht

This new concept would require a different approach to how online services are designed–apart from the user, Ulbricht sees three other stakeholders: interface providers, content servers, and advertisers.

Instead of having centralized platforms play the role of intermediaries between users and advertisers, a DSP-based system means that advertisers would pay users directly by bidding for placing ads on their interface, with interface providers and content servers competing for this ad revenue.

Ultimately, this means that users hold all the keys and control all the value generated by the system.

A universal protocol for all types of content

Ulbricht stressed that while existing major social media platforms focus on different content types—such as videos on YouTube, or short messages on Twitter—at their core they all offer a way to communicate with others and share content with them. Hence, he argued, a different protocol for each of these services is not needed and the DSP should support all content types.

diagram showing alternative user-centric social media model
Ross Ulbricht's alternative user-centric social media model. Image: Ross Ulbricht

“Approaching the design of DSP from this level of abstraction will both simplify it and maximize its reach,” he wrote.

Speaking of profile management, Ulbricht sees cryptography as one possible solution to how a DSP-based platform would handle usernames, including checking them for duplicates. Another solution would be to use blockchain—although since the data on blockchains are public by default, this could threaten user privacy.

The decentralized social media movement

Ulbricht isn't the only one to experiment with the idea of decentralizing social media; a number of platforms, including Mastodon and Minds, have attempted to launch a DSP with varying degrees of success.

No less a person than Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also thrown his hat in the ring, setting up Bluesky, a project to create a "decentralized standard for social media." In recent months, the project has been joined by contributors including alumni who've worked on privacy coin Zcash and Protocol Labs, the company behind the censorship-resistant InterPlanetary File System and distributed storage network Filecoin.