Maybe we’ll look back and see that Elon Musk did us, the civilized citizens of the net, a favor by forcing us off our cozy if centralized, corporatized, and corrupted internet to find and build an alternative future grounded in the founding principles and dreams of this networked age. How’s that for looking on the bright side?
Well, optimist to a fault that I am, I see a better future. Come along…
Twitter will fail — for all the reasons Nilay Patel’s mic-drop foretells — ending up in the sewer where journalists claim it has been all along, in bankruptcy, in the hands of Saudi princes, or — who knows — in Yahoo!, where all good things have gone to die. I’m not leaving Twitter, I’m still on Facebook, and I’m enjoying TikTok’s honeymoon. But I am packing my go-bag to travel to an internet built on protocols over platforms. Here, I’ll explore some of the opportunities afforded by the likes of Bluesky, Scuttlebutt, the Fediverse, and Indieweb — not to mention good, old, reliable RSS. Nowhere better to start getting one’s head around this distributed vision than with Mike Masnick’s epic explainer, Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech.
To start with the present, I am on Mastodon and already enjoying it. Come on in; the water’s fine. For me, it is already reaching critical mass — not mass media, mind you; let us leave scale and its debasements behind — with folks I know from Twitter and new and interesting conversants, particularly academics and journalists. Don’t let unhelpful reporters dissuade you with their arm-waving about complexity; you are smarter than they think you are.
It’s really quite simple: Join any server, set up your profile (say who you are, please), and start looking for folks to follow: search for friends and follow whom they follow, or click on the local (your server) or federated (every server) timeline to see who’s strolling by the front porch, then follow hashtags to interesting conversations and people. A few tips from my vast experience of days: Go to the settings and switch to light mode (really, it makes a difference; it’s not just my dark-mode phobia) and enable the advanced web interface (it’s like Tweetdeck). Boost posts you like (no quote tweets here). Use the verb “to toot” at your option. If it slows down for a bit, just remember Twitter’s Fail Whale of yore, know that your server is run by volunteers (led by the amazing Eugen Rochko), and chill; it’ll speed up speedily.
There are more than 3,000 Mastodon servers, all built on and connected via the ActivityPub protocol. There are also related services you can connect to (e.g., Pixelfed, an Instagram that doesn’t Zuck). You may follow folks from any server, so where you start isn’t all that important. Later, if you want, you can move yourself to another server (you’ll keep your followers but lose your posts).
Here’s the most important thing about this open architecture: No one owns it. Musk can’t buy it (not that he can afford to buy a bagel anymore). I predict this will give censorious and authoritarian governments fits when they realize that a federated, distributed conversation is impossible to control (just as the printing press was; I have a book about that coming out soon). That immunity from control is a reason to love it — and also to be concerned, for there is no central authority to verify identity or kill bad accounts.
Which leads us to the next most important thing about this Fediverse: It’s adaptable. Look how already academics are gathering to create groups and lists of folks you can import and follow all at once. I’d like to see journalists and COVID experts and my beloved book-history wonks do likewise. See also Dan Hon’s excellent suggestion for news organizations— or universities, companies, or any organization or institution — to set up their own Mastodon servers to verify and control their users. Say The Guardian set up a server and created accounts for all its journalists, then when you see someone coming from that server, you know for certain who she is. That is a new blue check of verification (now that Twitter’s blue check becomes the mark of the $8 shmuck). Again, if someone leaves the paper, she can take her identity and social graph with her elsewhere. Because it’s open and federated.
I want news organizations to not only set up their own servers but also to start adding share-on-Mastodon buttons to story pages. That will send a message to Elon et al, endorsing an alternative.
With me so far? Now is where it gets exciting. In an open, federated, distributed, and/or peer-to-peer ecosystem, folks can come and build services atop it. As both Masnick and Daphne Keller explain — see also Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Zittrain — this might allow you to pick the level of algorithmic and human curation and moderation you want as companies or organizations offer such services. Say you want the Disneyfied social feed, cleansed of all nastiness and filled with unicorns; Disney could provide that and charge for it. Ditto a Guardian liberal feel; you could donate to help them. Or, yes, you could get your crazy Uncle Al’s feed of nothing but conspiracies from Q’s Pizza Parlor. That’d be up to you.
In this distributed future, other services can be offered. Institutions, entrepreneurs, or individuals could provide services including curation and recommendation (of users and content), verification (of users), and authentication (of content). See also our founding webmaster, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for data vaults that would allow you to hold and control your information; he’s building a service called Inrupt based on the protocol he proposes, Solid. We will see new means to help pay for and support the services and creativity we want. I anticipate new kinds of clubhouses where folks of like interest, need, or circumstance can gather to connect or collaborate.
Then no longer are we caught in an endless, hopeless game of Whac-a-Mole against the bad shit on the net. Now, at last, we can concentrate instead on finding the good shit — and get help doing so. This is precisely what happened when print emerged. See the story of Nicolo Perotti asking the Pope to censor the press in 1470, when what he really wished for was the establishment of the new institutions of editing and publishing: to find, improve, support, recommend, verify, and authenticate the good shit.
What institutions need we create now, in this new reality? Note that I did not say what new technologies. We have lots of technologies; more than enough, thank you. What we need are human standards, norms, and means to discover and support quality and credibility, talent and utility.
This is not to say that there is not more technological work to be done. It is underway. I have long been enthusiastic about the prospects for Bluesky, a protocol for an open, distributed social ecosystem proposed by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and now run by Jay Graber. Bluesky is funded independently of Twitter and Musk (thank God and Jack). They just released the first version of their protocol and an app will follow soon. Here are Bluesky’s principles:
Account portability. A person’s online identity should not be owned by corporations with no accountability to their users. With the AT Protocol, you can move your account from one provider to another without losing any of your data or social graph.
Algorithmic choice. Algorithms dictate what we see and who we can reach. We must have control over our algorithms if we’re going to trust in our online spaces. The AT Protocol includes an open algorithms mode so users have more control over their experience.
Interoperation. The world needs a diverse market of connected services to ensure healthy competition. Interoperation needs to feel like second nature to the Web. The AT Protocol includes a schema-based interoperation framework called Lexicon to help solve coordination challenges.
Performance. A lot of novel protocols throw performance out of the window, resulting in long loading times before you can see your timeline. We don’t see performance as optional, so we’ve made it a priority to build for fast loading at large scales.
My fondest hope is that @jack, who still owns his chunk of Twitter — thus saving Musk $1 billion! — might convince Elon to open Twitter to Bluesky. Imagine if we could control our identities and social graphs and take them wherever we want, choosing the curation we desire, and interacting with folks on many other services. That might just save Twitter and Musk’s own hide, for then his users would not feel so trapped there.
I’m also excited by the work of rabble, an early employee at Twitter, on the Scuttlebutt protocol. Leo Laporte and I had an enlightening conversation with him about the app he is building, Planetary, and about his fascinating collaboration with the Maori of New Zealand, learning from their social structures and enabling peer-to-peer communication off the grid. I’ll let him explain (the conversation begins with Twitter tales, then gets to the meet of Scuttlebutt, and Rabble returns at the end for more):
And lest we make the mistake of once again being dazzled by only the new, shiny things, also follow the ongoing work of pioneers including Dave Winer ☮, a creator of RSS (and podcasting atop it) and a pioneering blogger. Blogging is a model for the conversation we want and we can still have it there. See also Kevin Marks, a champion of the Indieweb. See also our This Week in Google conversation with Matt Mullenweg about the virtues of open source. The things that work online, that give you choice and some measure of control, are the things built on open protocols: the net itself (TCP/IP), the web, email, and next those explored here.
Mind you, this is not a net without corporations and capitalism; they can use the protocols, too, and I’m glad Google gives us usable email and spam protection. But it need no longer be a net corrupted by the business model of mass media imported online: the attention economy. And it need no longer be a net under sole corporate control — and thus, potentially, the influence of malign actors, whether Musk or his pals Putin or Trump.
If we gain this promising future, if we return to the net’s founding principles, keep one thing clearly in mind: It won’t be so easy to blame the bad shit on the corporations and nasty nerd boys anymore. The net will be ours along with the responsibility to build and enforce the expectations and standards we wish for. The net is us, or it can be at last.
<a rel=”me” href=”https://your.server/@your_username”>Mastodon</a>