Jack Dorsey’s latest foray into decentralized technology could be a harbinger of a radical shift in social media infrastructure. It all depends on the execution.
On Wednesday, the Twitter and Square CEO announced plans to support an independent team “of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.”
“The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard,” Dorsey said.
The new team would follow a model similar to Square Crypto, a bitcoin-focused entity separate from Dorsey’s fintech unicorn Square. Likewise, the new Twitter entity would focus on open standards for decentralized processes across social platforms, rather than proprietary structures. Although Dorsey didn’t directly associate the disparate efforts, he hinted that the “fundamentals” of blockchain technology might offer some tools for “open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization.”
Twitter’s head of legal and policy, Vijaya Gadde tweeted that this new project, called Blue Sky, is part of the company’s broader push to “support and foster the values of a free and open internet.”
Plus, Dorsey tweeted this team would help address “abuse and misleading information,” since global policy enforcement strategies are proving difficult to scale. He also mentioned the propensity for social media to amplify outrage rather than healthy discourse. Since this dynamic has been proven in countless psychology studies, Kaliya Young, co-founder of the Internet Identity Workshop and the startup HumanFirst.Tech, said the Blue Sky team should support “experts who have been in the trenches working for years” instead of starting from scratch.
“Social threat modeling should be done to understand how [social media] is impacting people,” Young said. “Technical protocols for content interoperability doesn’t solve content moderation or community management problems.”
Young said she was even a little offended by the “arrogance” of this announcement, which failed to acknowledge groups have already been working on open standards for social media for a decade. Security researcher and Open Privacy nonprofit founder Sarah Jamie Lewis echoed this point with a tweet likening decentralized social media standards to the “next generation of Pokémon.”
For example, the Social Web Working Group has already published guidelines for activity streams through the World Wide Web Consortium. There’s also been considerable open-source work on decentralized identifiers, basically social profile data that belongs to the user and can be used across the internet rather than being tied to a platform like Facebook. The head of affiliated projects at Microsoft, Daniel Buchner, promptly tweeted to say he’d love to collaborate with Blue Sky.
Pie in the sky?
This Blue Sky team will have such a lofty directive that it’s hard to imagine which issues they’ll tackle first.
Another decentralized social network veteran, Tim Pastoor, founder of the Netherlands-based digital identity startup 2way.io, said he believes personal identity management is one of the keys to promoting healthy social networks.
“If you filter information only to trusted sources, you can listen to their friends and their friends, because the chances of there being trolls and sock pockets is fairly small,” he said.
Pastoor also supports the open-source project Iris, which is a peer-to-peer platform similar to Twitter that leverages mesh grids for when the internet goes down.
Whoever joins the Blue Sky team, it’s already clear that blockchain technology will play a significant role in the project. Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal tweeted the ideal candidates for this team should be “curious across disciplines” and have “experience working in the open on the blockchain.”
Pastoor said he’s not sure how blockchain is relevant to any of the issues Dorsey identified, but he’s curious to see how Twitter will sponsor innovation. Pastoor likened support for this independent team to how AT&T’s research contributed to the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947.
“It led them to invest in the invention of the transistor, which led to automatic switching of information so you could punch in a number and be connected to anybody on the network, anywhere,” Pastoor said. “That’s basically what [Twitter] is looking to do as well, to automate the job these moderators are doing.”
From his perspective, Pastoor says decentralized protocols will enable even more intermediaries and companies facilitating activity across social networks, which is fine as long as users have some level of control and independence. To be sure, the Blue Sky team’s work will need to think beyond both Twitter’s business model and the general open-source process to “business models for the various entities participating around a decentralized standard,” Argawal tweeted.
Although Dorsey isn’t unique in his goal of supporting healthy and decentralized social networks, the announcement was generally received by Twitter audiences as a positive step.
“Welcome to the party,” Young concluded.