Earlier this year, a group out of the MIT Media Lab published a research paper called “Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future?” which is well worth reading. The paper recognizes the threat to the open internet posed by the growing centralization of services and data within a handful of companies. The same group, consisting of Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula, and Ethan Zuckerman, also published an opinion piece in Wired called “Decentralized Social Networks Sound Great. Too Bad They’ll Never Work,” summarizing parts of their paper. Despite the depressing title, the authors don’t seem to think the story is all bad. Still, while they are right about many of the points they make–and their conclusion that there is no technical silver bullet to the growing problem of digital centralization is spot on–it feels to me like they are still unnecessarily pessimistic about the prospects for decentralized social networks.
First of all, Barabas, Narula, and Zuckerman are completely correct about the dangers that they identify in centralized platforms, particularly the way in which our public spaces have transformed in recent years “into a corporate-owned gated community of private platforms.” The impacts on privacy, free speech, and even civic participation are immense and yet have grown up around society mostly unnoticed and uncriticized. Wrestling back some measure of control from unaccountable companies is the focus of a diverse set of activists and technologists focused on decentralization.
Where I disagree with both the paper and the article is in judging the prospects of the new technologies that they discuss. Decentralized social networks have their own challenges, of course, but none are quite as daunting as the article makes them out to be. The first and probably most intractable problem the article points to is that of network effects. Nobody wants to join a social network without anyone else on it, and everyone is already using one of the big platforms. As the authors put it, people don’t join social networks “for ideological reasons like decentralization.”
That’s not necessarily true for everyone, but the past year has shown that even your average person can be pushed into looking at alternatives when they get frustrated or angry with a platform. For example, the federated micro-blogging social network Mastodon saw a huge increase in users over the course of a few weeks in April 2017 largely due to widespread anger about unilateral changes to how the Twitter timeline ordered posts coupled with some well placed advocacy that snowballed into mass media attention. Mastodon is one implementation of a widespread internet protocol that allows anyone to host their own social media server and follow anyone else running on any other server that supports the protocol. Since April, frustrations with Twitter’s inability or unwillingness to address harassment, racism, and sexism on its platform have pushed away even more users. By December 2017, there were upwards of 1 million accounts registered across the Mastodon network.
There are a couple of other factors that help address the network effect problem. First is enabling people to bridge the old and the new as they explore. Tools exist that allow users to mirror posts from Twitter to Mastodon and vice versa. The plain fact is that few people actually deleted their Twitter accounts during those weeks in April or since. Having an easy way to interact on both networks simultaneously meant more people were more likely to stick around on Mastodon after the initial rush and form a community there.
Secondly, the primary author of Mastodon, Eugen Rochko, realized what oftentimes open source projects do not: design is vital. He deliberately based Mastodon’s design on that of TweetDeck, a popular Twitter client, making the act of switching over that much easier. This is why the Wired piece’s claim that “existing social networks have perfected their interfaces” and “new social networks are often challenging for new users to navigate” is somewhat perplexing. Good design isn’t the sole preserve of huge companies, though this point does speak to the need to involve graphic design in the open source and decentralization processes.
Even with great design and some external event causing anger or frustration with the centralized services, the network effect is still a huge problem for budding decentralized social networks. The true solution is both technical and policy-based: the centralized services should open up and offer programmatic access to content by other services. Just as email still works if you’re sending from Microsoft’s Office365 to Google’s Gmail, Twitter should offer a way for Mastodon users to follow Twitter users. This is often referred to as open APIs (application programming interfaces) and protocols, and it used to be a fundamental building block of the internet.
The bigger question, however, and one that the MIT authors seem to miss, is why our data has to be held by big companies in silos in the first place. The article flirts with this topic when it suggests seeking “alternatives to advertising-based funding models,” but doesn’t take the next step of asking why funding models at all? A centralized service might point to the need for huge amount of bandwidth, disk storage, and processing power that a large social network requires, along with the revenue to pay the engineers that develop the software. Those obstacles start to look thin, however, if we conceive of a social network as open source and decentralized, and even “local-first”.
The funny thing is, most of us already pay for bandwidth and computing hardware. Around 68% of Americans in 2017 have a smartphone already that they carry in their pockets. Our individual phones aren’t as capable as the massive servers that drive Facebook or the like, but then each phone only needs to support the content of one person. You would have to be careful not to unduly destroy the battery of a phone too badly, but your average iPhone or Android phone should be capable of participating in a peer-to-peer Twitter-esque social network.
This is what Andre Staltz envisions when he calls for an “off-grid social network,” and pieces of it have been on the tips of many people’s tongues in the latter half of 2017. Mesh wireless technology has launched back into the mainstream, partly driven by the FCC’s net neutrality decision in December. Fast Company suggested the solution and Vice Media’s Motherboard has announced their intention to form a wireless mesh centered on their offices in Brooklyn. Secure Scuttlebutt, an off-grid gossip protocol that supports a usable and friendly social network on top, is mentioned by Staltz in his blog posts and was written up in the Atlantic earlier this year.
The companies that make our modern pocket computers and the cloud services we connect to have done a lot to convince us that these wonders of technology are really only good for consuming media and, ironically, are not suited to communicating directly with others (the sole purpose of another era’s phones) but only for doing so when mediated by a company inserting itself in the middle.
What’s holding us back from moving in this direction? There are a number of things that need to happen, and a few different parties need to cooperate. First of all, the existing centralized platforms need to open up their APIs so people using their platforms can communicate with the whole world, not just the walled garden they live inside. This would be an excellent way of relieving some of the pressure they are feeling as analysts on both side of the Atlantic are looking at the platforms and seeing monopolies. If they don’t do it willingly and on their own terms, they may find themselves forced to do so by the European Union, or even the Federal Trade Commission.
Apple and Google (who produce the two major mobile operating systems) should explore more ways for handsets running their OSs to communicate directly with each other. The internet is a great way to distribute content, obviously, but sometimes sharing media with the people in just the same room–or eventually just in the same town or city–is more in keeping with people’s concept of “social networking.” Some of these first steps have been taken in WiFi-Direct, for example, but the implementations are proprietary and by default are often not enabled. There are security implications for this kind of communication, but they should not be insurmountable, and the companies likely haven’t addressed them because they haven’t been pressed to do so.
The internet is never going away, of course, and both wireless and landline internet service providers have to confront the coming peer to peer evolution. ISPs should be rolling out the modern IPv6 addressing protocol to make every device a full peer on the network, and should remove the usual prohibitions on serving content from residential accounts. Businesses are not the only ones who want to send data on the internet anymore.
On the mobile side, many modern smartphones already have IPv6, as the LTE specification requires it. What does not seem possible is using that mobile device to serve content to the outside internet. Many wireless providers have completely closed off the ability to provide services from a mobile device.. There are obviously very good security reasons for doing so, but there are again other ways to solve those issues if there were demand for it.
The way our digital lives have been structured to depend on third party intermediaries that simply pass our communications on to our friends and families while all the time spying on us to make money isn’t fate. It is the result of many decisions made because it was easier this way or because it would make money for those in the middle. They were never made because they were in the best interest of the people actually using the product. It’s not too late to design and implement a different system. The authors of the piece in Wired are correct that there is no technical “silver bullet” here, but the technology does exist, and the willpower to make it happen is growing.