Our Social Media is Broken. Is Decentralization the Fix?

When Jack Dorsey, founder of the very centralized social media platform, Twitter, posted this message about decentralized social media, our DWeb community took note:

Dorsey went on to enumerate the current problems with social media: misinformation and abuse; opaque, proprietary algorithms that dictate what you see and hear; and financial incentives that elevate “controversy and outrage” rather than “conversation that informs and promotes health.”  But Twitter’s co-founder and CEO also sees promising new solutions:

We agree. Much work has been done and some of the fundamentals are in place. So on January 21, 2020 the Internet Archive hosted “Exploring Decentralized Social Media,” a DWeb SF Meetup that attracted 120+ decentralized tech builders, founders, and those who just wanted to learn more. Decentralized social media app builders from London, Portland and San Francisco took us on a tour of where their projects are today.

WATCH PRESENTATIONS HERE:

Developer and writer, Jay Graber, explained the state-of-the-art in Peer-to-Peer, Federated and blockchain related social media.

The evening began with a survey of the decentralized social media landscape by researcher and Happening.net developer, Jay Graber. (See her two excellent Medium articles on the subject.) Graber helped us understand the broad categories of what’s out there: federated protocols such as ActivityPub and Matrix; peer-to-peer protocols such as Scuttlebutt, and social media apps that utilize blockchain in some way for  monetization, provenance or storage. What was clear from Graber’s talk was that she had tested and used dozens of tools, from Mastodon to Iris, Martti Malmi’s new P-2-P social app and she deftly laid out the pros and cons of each.

What followed were talks by the founders and developers from each of Graber’s categories:

Evan Henshaw-Plath (aka Rabble) was one of the earliest engineers at Twitter. He’s bringing years of startup experience to Planetary.social, his new P-2-P mobile version of Facebook.

Evan Henshaw-Plath, an original Odeo/Twitter engineer, is the founder of Planetary.social, a P-2-P mobile app that’s “an open, humane Facebook alternative” built atop Scuttlebutt. His goal with Planetary is to make an app reflecting the values of the commons, but that feels as seamless and familiar as the social apps we already use.

Flying in from London, Matthew Hodgson, founder of Matrix.org, brought us up-to-date with his open network for fully encrypted, real-time communication. With an impressive 13.5 million account holders, including the governments of France and Germany, Matrix is showing hockey-stick-like growth. But Matrix’s greatest challenge: in an encrypted, decentralized system, how do you filter out the bad stuff? By using “decentralized reputation,” Hodgson explained, allowing users to moderate what they are willing to see. Hodgson also revealed he’s building an experimental P-2-P Matrix in 2020.

With fuller control over one’s social streams comes greater responsibility. Matrix founder, Matthew Hodgson explains how each user can subscribe to trusted blacklists and eventually “greylists” of questionable content and block it.
Today’s social media walled gardens are not that different from America’s phone companies in 1900, explained tech executive, John Ryan. We are in the early days of integration.

Thought leader and tech executive, John Ryan, provided valuable historical context both onstage and in his recent blog. He compared today’s social media platforms to telephone services in 1900. Back then, a Bell Telephone user couldn’t talk to an AT&T customer; businesses had to have multiple phone lines just to converse with their clients. It’s not that different today, Ryan asserts, when Facebook members can’t share their photos with Renren’s 150 million account holders. All of these walled gardens, he said, need a “trusted intermediary” layer to become fully interconnected.

Twitter CTO, Parag Agrawal, has been tasked with bootstrapping a new team of decentralized builders called “Bluesky.”

Next  CTO, Parag Agrawal, outlined Twitter’s goals and the problems all social media platforms face. “Decentralization to us is not an end, it’s a means to an end,” he explained. “We have a hypothesis on how it can help solve these problems.” Agrawal says Twitter will be bootstrapping a team they call “bluesky,” who will not be Twitter employees, but independent. “Twitter will have very little control (over bluesky) other than our bootstrapping efforts,” he laid out.


Next up was Burak Nehbit, founder of Aether, something akin to a peer-to-peer Reddit. But here’s Aether’s secret sauce: expert moderation, with 100% transparency and communities who elect their own moderators. Aether is focused on “high quality conversations” and those users willing to roll up their sleeves and moderate them.

Aether’s founder, Burak Nehbit, is creating a P-2-P social media platform of highly curated, self-governed content, where elected moderators ensure “high quality” conversations.

And rounding out the evening was Edward West, founder of Hylo.com, an app that combines group management, messaging and collaboration built on holochainRecently Holo acquired the Hylo software and Holo’s Director of Communications Jarod Holtz explained why this union is significant for decentralized builders, including the Terran Collective‘s Aaron Brodeur and Clare Politano, who will be stewarding the Hylo project: 

Edward West of Hylo, Aaron Brodeur, Jarod Holtz and Clare Politano are joining forces as Hylo.com is acquired by Holo and “stewarded” by the Terran Collective.

From both a design and an engineering perspective, the way Hylo is structured makes it perfectly suited to being converted to run in the future as a decentralized application on Holochain. The Hylo code base will be instrumental in helping us demonstrate how a centralised app can be transformed into a distributed app.

Blockchain based social media solutions, including Bevan Barton’s Peepeth built on Ethereum and Emre Sokullu of Pho Networks, gave overviews of their work at lightning speed. After the Meetup, Sokullu penned this article explaining how Pho can serve as a programming language to build decentralized applications. 

From federated to blockchain and gradations in between, decentralized social media is taking flight.  And on one winter night in San Francisco, builders of wildly diverse projects came together at the Internet Archive to demonstrate how far they’ve come—and the long road ahead.


42 thoughts on “Our Social Media is Broken. Is Decentralization the Fix?

  1. Debbie Flores

    My Facebook and by myself and my other joint Facebook with my fiance had been hacked on from my laptop,cell phone.and also my fiance cell phone been hacked and my lil girl ipad and email also and het laptop has Been hacked what can i do to stop all this from happening

    1. Yuri

      Step 1, now you must change passwords, on all accounts involved. Any information about you that is public should not be a component of your password. Scan for malware on all devices.
      If android, then encrypt the phone.

      Step 2 Check your daughters iPad and know what is installed, run anti-malware, anti virus on it. keep her safe children to not have a deep understand of how dangerous tracking is today. Google was recently finder for flagrant abuse of COPPA.

      Do not run Facebook on your cell phone. The app is invasive.
      Go to Facebook account and disallow all Public view, dissallow contact from
      all who are not Friends of Friends.
      Your little girl is protected from ANYONE capturing her data by way of the
      COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act),
      Second, Never ever use Facebook or Google credentials to log in on other websites if they offer the option.

      Sadly it is time to censor the use of “convenience” technology… the price is to high to pay.

      Good Luck!

  2. Macarti

    We need solutions to avoid the blunt manipulation of the tools by bigots, fearmongers, corporative hushing and specially politics.

    1. M.M.M.

      Exactly.. That’s a short and strong way to transform it in one sentence only..
      Thank You, everybody here and This beautiful Archive that I just found today!

      Kind Regards,
      From The Netherlands.

  3. GMcK

    From my security perspective, I’m concerned that it doesn’t look like there was much discussion of business models other than nods to a magical blockchain. Decentralization won’t help much if it distributes the costs but allows for centralization of revenue, ad-based or otherwise.

    Decentralized control means that there isn’t even “a single throat to choke” when malicious actors invade or subvert communities. Volunteer moderators provide a noble service, but nobody should be subjected to the horrors that a successful population of hundreds of millions of users will unearth without paid mental health support.

  4. Dil jaised hadke

    The biggest issue I see with The Wayback Machine is is 503 errors or such where it does have the snapshot of a page but can’t load the assets and/or cross-dependencies so the page doesn’t show. That effectively renders some of these saved snapshots useless.

  5. Jacqueline Marta Hulli

    I only joined today. So I am just observing. One comment, why did You Tube, Yahoo, Twitter and the like attend? You

  6. Shawn S Fahrer

    While centralization appears to be bad, decentralization may just make “social media” even worse, especially when ‘decentralization’ leads to (as it inevitably does) to decentralization of RESPONSIBILITY (assuming you even want to dole out any responsibility to take down allegedly “misleading”, “erroneous”, “racist”, “sexist”, etc. posts to prevent some so called “snowflakes” on the right or the left from being “offended”).

    The only solution that I see as making any sense is to agree (as members of ANY social media site as a precondition for using that site, which can include a COMMENT SECTION on a news article in your local online newspaper) that YOU (or I) MAYBE OFFENDED BY WHAT YOU READ OR SEE THERE (and that I as an individual have the ONLY to WITHDRAW from the site — and that the concept of BANNING someone from a site without at least some form of “due process under American law” for American users should itself be BANNED unless their material runs afoul of “pornography laws” in regards to children under a certain age –which themselves should be relaxed, but that’s another issue for another time). Even if you or I should be triggered” by someone / something (such as “pro-ana” content or an alternate view of “eating disorders” or THE HOLOCAUST, [or whatever sinks your boat] the likes of which are often banned from most social media sites and are now left to individual blogs / websites in a not so good move for FREE SPEECH), then that triggering is YOUR FAULT. No one should hold the WEBSITE itself liable for ANY content THAT IT DID NOT DIRECTLY PRODUCE (or have contracted to be produced by, say, an advertising of public relations agency). The idea of holding THE SITE responsible for the content WHICH IT DOES NOT CREATE, sends a HORRIBLE LEGAL PRECEDENT IMO…. Can we agree to these conditions? If not, please leave this site right now without comment as censorship (or even the threat of censorship) is an EPIC FAIL where ever it has been tried….

  7. ahang

    Hi
    We need solutions to avoid the blunt manipulation of the tools by bigots, fearmongers, corporative hushing and specially politics.

  8. nts

    Fat chance of Twitter decentralizing itself. And on “proprietary algorithms that dictate what you see and hear”, dictating what people see and hear is the core of Twitter. Right down their mostly faked trends. Twitter won’t ever allow their service to be decentralized. That’s even more true for other social media websites. They won’t give up control and their selective censorship.

  9. Luke

    I have refused to have a Facebook account since they first came into existance, and the more I hear about them the more this decision is validated. For good reason they get called “fedbook,” “snitchbook” and other such things. I have also chosen not to have any email accounts with US servers due to PRISM, not to have any Google accounts, no Twitter account, etc.

    As an earlier poster said, Facebook’s phone apps are worst of all. Some versions of it unless a user knows to change default preferences even “sync contacts” with facebook, meaning everything you keep in contacts is stolen by Facebook, where it can be sold to advertisers, accessed with (or without) a search warrant, etc. Then updates to that app have on more than one occasion reset preferences to the ad-friendly defaults.

    Worst of all, some phones preinstall the Facebook app in such a way that it cannot be disabled or removed by normal means. Your options in such cases are to discard the phone, remove the app over adb (android debugging interface)using a USB connection from a desktop/laptop, or (if possible) root the phone and remove the app as root.

    1. Sheryl Lamoureux

      Is it possible to remove the app any way on the iPhone? Contacts on all my Mac devices have been changed and manipulated in various ways on different devices. Attempts to remove the app have resulted in warnings that all items in Mac Contacts will be destroyed , with the implication that Future attempts to use Contacts will be unsuccessful as long as I maintain a Facebook account.

      1. Luke

        Never had an iPhone, I don’t like Apple’s walled garden, their high prices, or their sweatshops. I would suggest backing up your contacts, then disregarding the contacts warning and removing the app. NOT sure, but it should not be able to detect a facebook account when there is no app to log into it. If contacts is that integrated into Facebook, then assume it is designed to sync your contacts with facebook and don’t trust it either: get a 3ed party app without antifeatures for this, if you cannot do so, get rid of the phone or take it to an expert.

  10. Alessio

    An interesting read, I think the technology to make this happen is definitely coming together and will bring about some exciting improvements to social networks.

  11. سفارش طراحی لوگو

    Worst of all, some phones preinstall the Facebook app in such a way that it cannot be disabled or removed by normal means. Your options in such cases are to discard the phone, remove the app over adb (android debugging interface)using a USB connection from a desktop/laptop, or (if possible) root the phone and remove the app as root.

  12. D.

    Twitter are no saints, they pull a scam on users where they respect your privacy enough to get you hooked then they block your access to your own data until you hand over very personal identifying information such as a private phone number, which obviously can be easily cross referenced to your credit history etc. The jokes about them being a CIA front don’t look so funny when they play games like that.

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