Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced the establishment of a new team in the company - called bluesky - which will be tasked with examining the potential of "an open and decentralized standard for social media".
Twitter is 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. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard. ????— jack ???????????? (@jack) December 11, 2019
Dorsey says that a decentralized model could help address some key areas of concern for social networks, such as acceptable content moderation guidelines, universal systems for tackling the spread of misinformation and, most interestingly, a new approach to algorithm recommendations.
Third, existing social media incentives frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation which informs and promotes health.— jack ???????????? (@jack) December 11, 2019
Dorsey says that this new approach could theoretically be built on the blockchain, with the more open model better able to facilitate more inclusive, collaborative solutions to these key areas of concern.
"Why is this good for Twitter? It will allow us to access and contribute to a much larger corpus of public conversation, focus our efforts on building open recommendation algorithms which promote healthy conversation, and will force us to be far more innovative than in the past."
It's an ambitious remit for the bluesky team, and Dorsey acknowledges that it could take "many years" to develop a useable decentralized standard for social media communication. But by building an open community, which would be inclusive of companies, organizations, researchers and civil society leaders, "all who are thinking deeply about the consequences, positive and negative", Dorsey believes that this could be a key initiative, which could advance the capability of social media as a connective medium.
There's a lot to consider in this process. Several decentralized social networks already exist in varying forms, with Mastodon being the most high-profile of its kind.
But decentralization, in this form, does come with its problems. As noted by Brave New Coin, some decentralized social networks built on the blockchain have become lawless swamps, and havens for criminal activity.
"Imagine a social media network that enables user privacy through encryption, incentivizes user contribution through a token-based reward model, curates content purely based on user votes and runs without any sort of authority that can enter into the platform to make any changes or edits once the network is live. As enticing as this may sound to free speech advocates, the outcome would most likely not be pleasant. If content cannot be edited or deleted by the operators of a social media network, the platform will likely be hijacked. An “anything goes” social network would be poised to become littered with illegal content, criminal activities, and hate speech. In other words, it would quickly deteriorate into what sections of the dark web have become today."
You would imagine Twitter's model to be more advanced than this, but the very parameters of a decentralized, open network would likely facilitate the same. Idealistically, this model could facilitate a more collaborative, communal approach to address the key issues of the day. But idealism has also lead to some of the bigger problems we've seen with social networks - Facebook, for example, has repeatedly fallen victim to misuse of its tools purely because it hasn't considered the potential negative consequences of such.
That's not to say it can't work - tools are evolving, as is our broader knowledge of such, and it's theoretically possible that Twitter could build a new, improved approach to social networking which would provide enhanced societal good, while reducing the negatives. Given this, it's likely worth exploring, but as noted, it's going to take some time before we see anything tangible, or useable, on this front.
Still, it's an interesting project, and one worth keeping an eye on - at present, Twitter only has one source of info for the experiment, a new twitter handle for @bluesky. Might be worth a follow.