Many of us know that the Internet is broken, so how do we build something better? On September 22, DWeb San Francisco invited a panel of experts to share their views on the most viable paths forward. The panelists included author & EFF advisor Cory Doctorow, Matrix.org co-founder Amandine Le Pape, decentralized social media researcher Jay Graber, and TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. They covered a range of approaches — including technical, regulatory, and organizational — that could bring us towards a future where our networks are more resilient, participatory, and decentralized.
Developer, and founder of Happening, Jay Graber, shared her insights on what she found hopeful about the decentralized web ecosystem, and some of the challenges that some of these protocols still need to grapple with moving forward.
Chief Operating Officer of Element and Co-founder of the Matrix.org Foundation, Amandine Le Pape, shared what she learned as Matrix built a new open standard for real-time communication from the ground up, as well as her ideas on how to counter the information silos of the big centralized platforms.
Journalist and co-founder of Techdirt, Mike Masnick, shared about the way people were realizing the need for change, and also some of his skepticism about how some proposed regulations to enforce interoperability may harm start-ups and other less-resourced projects. Masnick’s 2019 white paper, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech” has been an influential call to arms for the decentralized tech community.
As Mike Masnick writes:
At a time when so many proposals for how to deal with the big internet companies seem focused on spite and anger at those companies, rather than thoughtful discussions of how we get to what’s coming next, at the very least I’m hopeful that others can be inspired…to come up with their own ideas for a better, more proactive approach to a future internet.
Ultimately, that vision—building a better Internet and Web—is the North Star that the DWeb community aims for.
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:
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, 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.
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.
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.
And rounding out the evening was Edward West, founder of Hylo.com, an app that combines group management, messaging and collaboration built on holochain. Recently 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:
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.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
— Opening line from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
For those deeply engaged in cryptocurrencies, the words of Charles Dickens, written 160 years ago, have the ring of prophecy. 2018 was the best and worst of times for those holding bitcoin, ether, OMG or XRP. And yet, for some savvy community members who donated their currencies for good, 2018 was also a “season of light.” This year Ripple founder, Chris Larsen, donated $29 million in XRP to fulfill the wishes of every classroom teacher on DonorsChoose.org. In March, OmiseGO and Ethereum co-founder, Vitalik Buterin donated $1 million in crypto to help refugees in Uganda. The anonymous philanthropist behind the Pineapple Fund gave away 5,104 bitcoins to 60 charities, including us. Pine writes, “I consider this project a success. If you’re ever blessed with crypto fortune, consider supporting what you aspire our world to be :).”
Now, to close out the year, three generous supporters of the Internet Archive are offering to match any cryptocurrency donation up to a total of $25,000, made before the end of 2018. For the next few days, you can quadruple your impact for good. What better way to put your cryptocurrencies to work this year than by ensuring everyone will have access to world’s knowledge, for free and with complete reader privacy on archive.org?
So why should crypto communities support the Internet Archive? Well, we’ve been experimenting alongside crypto founders, developers and dreamers since 2011. Five years ago, the Internet Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, wrote this reflection on Dreams Reflected in Bitcoin. Back then, Kahle wrote about early bitcoiners, “Love the dreamers– they make life worth living.”
When asked why he is so interested in accepting and promoting Bitcoin, Kahle’s response is one that many people in the Bitcoin community can relate to. “I think that at the Internet Archive,” Kahle said in a phone interview, “we see ourselves as coming from the net. As an organization we exist because of the internet, and I think of Bitcoin as a creature of the net. It’s a fantastically interesting idea, and to the extent that we’re all trying to build a new future, a better future, let’s try and round it out.”
So as we wind down our 2018 fundraising campaign, we ask our friends in the crypto community to help the Internet Archive “round it out.” We’re about $460,000 from reaching our year-end goal. And right now your crypto donation will be matched 3-to-1. We accept dozens of altcoins now, thanks to a partnership with Changelly. Your support will go to building a new and better future on the net. We promise you, it will be crypto well spent.