The social media landscape stands upon a knife’s edge, with debate around where people should move in the wake of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover raging day and night. Many have pointed to open-source platforms like Mastodon as ideal Twitter alternatives, with a growing chorus of voices throwing their weight behind the idea of more ‘decentralised’ social media platforms.
Decentralised social media comes in a variety of different shapes and sizes, some using blockchain technology while others opt for a simpler model of operation that prioritises public ownership that would see control of the platforms removed from the hands of profit-hungry shareholders and egotistical billionaires.
These social media alternatives are becoming increasingly popular, because just when we thought that social media company CEOs couldn’t get more detestable than Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk came along and showed us all how to lose a popularity contest in epic fashion.
Musk and twitter
Musk’s recent, seemingly unnecessary antics since taking over the day-to-day running of Twitter have provided everyone with a compelling reminder for why an alternative to existing social media platforms might be a good idea. When we combine this recent example with the atrocities committed by the team over at Meta, which include knowingly exacerbating mental health issues in users to drive engagement, it’s not hard to see why a replacement for current social media platforms is in dire need.
This is why Mozilla, the tech company behind popular internet browser Firefox are looking to create a “healthy” decentralised alternative that puts the needs of its users before the creation of revenue for predatory advertisers.
In a Thursday morning Twitter thread, Mozilla announced that the will be a launching a new publicly accessible social media platform called ‘Mozilla Social’ in early 2023.
In an attached blog post, Mozilla’s Chief Product Officer, Steve Teixeira outlined the reasoning behind the open-source tech company’s move to explore
“An open, decentralized, and global social service that puts the needs of people first is not only possible, but it’s absolutely necessary,” wrote Teixeira.
What is decentralised social media?
There are number of different ways that a social media platform can be ‘decentralised’, but overall the idea refers to removing the control and ownership of social media from any one, concentrated point of power.
In the case of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg owns 84% of the company’s Class B shares, which grants him 54% voting power on any of the decisions that the company chooses to make. With Twitter, Elon Musk owns the platform outright and has full control of the platform.
Mozilla is looking to decentralise their social media platform by creating a “federated social space” that operates outside the control of profit-motivated tech companies. This essentially means that Mozilla will look to create an open-source set of code for the upcoming platform where they will invest in “scalable, human-centred solutions” for its users and broader community.
“In private hands our choice is limited, toxicity is rewarded, rage is called engagement, public trust is corroded, and basic human decency is often an afterthought.”Steve Teixeira, Chief Product Officer at Mozilla
Bluesky’s ‘protocol’ model of decentralisation
Mozilla isn’t the only tech entity looking to create a platform that exists outside of the control of tiny ultra-wealthy groups. The co-founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey recently unveiled his plans for a more technologically decentralised social media app called Bluesky.
According to Dorsey, the Bluesky app will be constructed on an open-source, decentralised code protocol called the ‘Authenticated Transfer Protocol’ or ‘AT protocol’ for short. This protocol will allow users to transfer their social media account information as well as provide users with a choice on how much control the almighty ‘algorithm’ has over the content they see.
One of the most notable features of the AT protocol that the Bluesky app is built on, is the option of “algorithmic choice” — which provides users with the freedom to choose the type of algorithm that governs the type of content they end up interacting with. This isn’t too different from the way the people alter the specifics on search engines like Google to show them different results.
“There’s no one company that can decide what gets published; instead there is a marketplace of companies deciding what to carry to their audiences.”Jack Dorsey
Blockchain-based social media platforms
The core tenet of blockchain technology is decentralisation which lends it well to creating a less-centralised alternative for social media. Right now, there are a growing number of blockchain-based social media platforms emerging with two main names: ‘Lens Protocol’ and ‘Farcaster’ leading the charge.
Lens Protocol is a ‘decentralised social graph’ founded by Stani Kulechov, who told The Chainsaw that he believes the future of social media is decentralised.
The Lens protocol uses NFTs as its core business model, prioritising user ownership of data at every juncture of the social experience by attaching NFTs to individual actions such as following other users, to collecting their work. However, Kulechov says that the platform tries hard to avoid all references to blockchain technology and focuses on providing a clean and easy user experience.
“It’s all about blockchain in the backend and the party in the frontend.”Stani Kulechov
Similarly to Lens, Farcaster is a new social media platform that leverages blockchain technology to provide users with the freedom to move their social identity between different applications.
However, unlike Lens Protocol which stores a huge amount of user data and activity on the blockchain itself, Farcaster only stores the user’s identity on the blockchain and leaves the rest to be stored on external servers elsewhere.
“We did this to build the best of web2 and web3. We want Farcaster to have the usability and speed of a web2 app with the strong ownership guarantees and permissionless innovation of a web3 protocol,” said founder Dan Romero in an interview.
Social media has rapidly evolved from being merely a way for people around the world to connect and stay in touch. Over the past few years, social media platforms have become modern-day ‘public squares’ where people discuss ideas, read the news and interact with each politically and economically. A recent survey from Pew Research found that more than 70% of Americans get all of their news content via social media platform.
When we consider the impact that social media already has, and will continue to have as the younger generations move ever-more online, it’s probably best that the running of these platforms isn’t left solely in the hands of erratic and opportunistic billionaires.