Just a couple weeks ago, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the company was setting up a team to create a decentralized standard for social media. With it, Twitter is joining the existing efforts to develop decentralized frameworks through which the platforms themselves do not hold the information or the power to act as referees. As we enter 2020, we are going to keep hearing about decentralizing social media from both the companies themselves (Facebook’s CEO has also talked about it) and other web experts. However, the general public has yet to grasp why a decentralized system would benefit them, and if the switch is even possible.
Given the multiple issues that have rampaged social media platforms, decentralization has been in everyone’s mouths for the last few months. From Cambridge Analytica to the latest data-hack against Google+, social media scandals have gone to the front pages of numerous outlets in the previous three years. Data privacy and internet security are now hot issues for lawmakers worldwide, users, and tech companies themselves. While the first two want to protect citizens—with many commenting on EU’s GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation (read The most critical success of the one-year-old GDPR is awareness)—tech companies are just trying to avoid further scandals and litigation.
But what is decentralization, and what does it entail? In layman terms, to decentralize social media means to create open-source platforms that give people control over their data—in most instances storing it in their own computers, instead of storing it in a company’s servers. When Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web, he intended it to be decentralized: users just needed internet access and a computer and would be holding their data. However, the rise of social media has concentrated private data in a few very powerful hands.
Recently, there have been several initiatives to decentralize social media, with one coming from Berners-Lee. The computer scientist has been working on the new startup, inrupt, a company aimed at promoting open-source strategies and taking decentralization to mainstream users. Inrupt is based on Berners-Lee’s project Solid, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Solid is a program that lets users decide where to store their data through structures called “pods,” which collect the data. The user then creates a WebID, logs into Solid and access the pods, choosing where to store the data (Solid offers a list of storage options.) This way, the data belongs completely to the individual, who can transfer it from one app to the next. If a system like Solid were to be applied, social media companies, which live off private data, would have to relinquish that source of income unless explicitly authorized by each user. In the most likely scenario, instead of Facebook collecting your tastes and selling it to third-parties, you would choose to upload your data to the app/social media. With this revolutionary approach, tech giants would find it hard to use citizens’ private data to their own advantage. Berners-Lee explains on a blog post: “Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance—by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.”
Another initiative comes from Wikipedia’s founder Larry Sanger, who publicly criticizes social media. “The problem about social media is that it is centralized. Centralization empowers massive corporations and governments to steal our privacy and restrict our speech and autonomy,” he writes on his website. For Sanger, decentralized models should follow seven rules, not present in today’s social media platforms: (1) common standards, (2) multiple publishers, (3) no central content server, (4) open to all publishers, (5) multiple readers, (6) open to all users and (7) individuals control their content. And these are just two of myriads of initiatives, which rarely reach the general public.
While it’s true that decentralization would certainly bring data security to users and diminish social media companies’ power, the shift is not going to come any time soon. Although tech experts are advocating for decentralization, social media platforms still have the most decisive voice in the matter. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has certainly raised the topic, saying that Bitcoin-style systems would take power back into the individual’s hands, as reported by The New York Times. But still, Facebook hasn’t done much—for example, the tech giant could delete content if it considers it fake. Facebook holds “central authority,” but exerting that authority would require to pass judgement on what it is and what it is not fake, with the hundreds of grey zones in between. Decentralization would mean that Facebook would no longer be anything similar to a publisher —it would be a truly decentralized platform, and enabler, and thus, it could prove beneficial for the user (read Facebook, a veteran media outlet.) However, it could also mean that new competitors would arise, as the platform would no longer hold private data, and users could join many social networks simultaneously sharing the same information if they chose to. No wonder then that their interest on this is minor, and until social media companies decide to push decentralization through, the changes will still be slow.
Of course, not everything is in the hands of social media giants. Sanger and Berner-Lee, along with other experts, are launching separate platforms with decentralized systems. The problem is that, as with any new platform that enters an established market, decentralized services will face the strength of network effects. Individuals get on social media platforms to connect with friends and family or to follow content they are passionate about. They will hardly get off Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter unless the decentralized services offer the same kind of network, which basically implies that the whole network of acquaintances switches too. For that reason, it will also take time and coordination to get the desired network effects for users to change platforms.
So yes, although social media companies do not determine how the web works, they certainly have a strong voice on it. Still, Twitter’s announcement is hopeful. What’s clear is that data privacy is going to be a top issue in 2020, and decentralization could reach the mainstream.