Decentralised Twitter?

Earlier today, Jack Dorsey, who is still the CEO of Twitter, announced that they will be “funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media”.

On the one hand, great! It’s fantastic that a social media giant like Twitter has come to realise the need for decentralisation. The four reasons given by Dorsey are:

  1. Moderation – “we’re facing entirely new challenges centralized solutions are struggling to meet… [e.g.] centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information”
  2. Algorithms – “the value of social media is shifting away from content hosting and removal, and towards recommendation algorithms directing one’s attention”
  3. Incentives – “existing social media incentives frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage”
  4. Viability – “Blockchain points to a series of decentralized solutions for open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization”

He points to posts by Stephen Wolfram and Mike Masnick but not to ActivityPub, the W3C spec used by social networks such as Mastodon, Pleroma, and MoodleNet (the project I’m leading).

To my mind, the audience of Dorsey’s message, served as a series of tweets, is investors and regulators, not users and technologists. That’s why I’m not jumping up and down at this news.

I could point to how Twitter grew because of a third-party ecosystem of apps and services that it then destroyed for the sake of shareholder value. But instead, I’ll point to what happened when companies buying from cocoa and coffee growers were threatened by the Fairtrade movement.

In that case, those companies set up a rival organisation to extinguish the threat of Fairtrade. And it’s been largely successful: consumers buy Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, despite the fact that the programme (unlike Fairtrade) “does not offer producers minimum or guaranteed price, therefore leaving them vulnerable to market price variations”.

Ultimately, Twitter’s announcement is a distraction to the important work of building viable, interoperable alternatives to Big Tech. The thought of Dorsey and chums building an alternative to ActivityPub sounds a lot like the Rainforest Alliance. Given the mention of blockchain, I should imagine there will be a ‘token’ or cryptocurrency angle in there, too. And I’m not sure that’s in the long-term best interests of humanity.