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Jack Dorsey plans open-source social media protocol

As the internet has evolved, it has shifted from public open-source protocols to private platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. With the help of blockchain, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey plans to liberate social media by taking it back to a protocol-powered future.

In a string of tweets published on December 11th, Dorsey outlined plans for a decentralized social media protocol called BlueSky — that will not be owned by any single private company. Instead, it will act as a new open "standard" that lets individuals use different services on the same underlying protocol, just like they might use different email providers to read the same messages.

Protocols over platforms

The path of centralization that Twitter has pursued up to this point has several limitations. Instead of creating healthy conversations, the algorithms can create controversy and outrage, leading Dorsey and other social media frontmen to be accused of perverting the political discourse and failing to tackle hate speech.

Blockchain is seen as a possible solution, allowing for the removal of Dorsey and other social media executives from their positions as arbiters of truth, and letting platforms skirt the debate over free speech by deferring to the rules of a standard protocol.

This was foretold in an August article from Techdirt, cited by Dorsey in his Twitter announcement, which suggested that a "protocols, not platforms" approach is appropriate for "free speech in the twenty-first century."

"Protocol-based social media", wrote Techdirt editor Mike Masnick, would make it unnecessary to rely on "a few giant platforms to police speech online." Instead, "there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices."

But as a new blockchain-based internet protocol, Bluesky is significant and may offer more than just a new way of promoting online conversation. The project could also represent a different model for monetising the web, and spark a larger movement towards a more liberated and decentralized internet.

An old idea made new

Naturally, Bitcoiners have been quick to support the project. Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong commended Dorsey for focusing on the development of protocols rather than platforms, Morgan Creek Digital’s ‘Pomp‘ claimed that Dorsey "understands the future better than any entrepreneur on the planet right now", and both Cardano founder Charles Hoskinson and Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao offered their support.

But others have been quick to criticise, with many pointing out that several projects have already attempted to answer the call for decentralized social media.

The largest among these projects is ActivityPub — a protocol that is already serving as the foundation for a range of alternatives to mainstream platforms.

The social media applications running on the ActivityPub protocol form a series of overlapping communities with their own individual rules in what is known as a ‘federation’. These include decentralized YouTube competitor PeerTube, Instagram alternative PixelFed, and Facebook clone Frendica, which offers extensive privacy settings and lets users choose from a variety of interfaces.

The most popular platform running on ActivityPub is the Twitter competitor Mastodon, which was launched by German developer Eugen Rochko in 2016 and has since attracted well over one million users. On the surface, the platform resembles Twitter, but behind the scenes, it runs not on a single, central server, but in a series of semi-permeable silos — each with its own algorithms and administrators that can be set up by anyone wanting to form a community.

When quizzed on whether he was aware of ActivityPub by Twitter commentators, Dorsey — who follows Mastodon on his own account — acknowledged its existence, stating that "the team will have the freedom to choose whatever is best, be that what exists today or start from scratch."

Whichever route the team takes, it is likely to be a difficult path, but Dorsey is one of the most eligible candidates to make the dream of decentralized social media a reality.

And as Dorsey’s inspiration Mike Masnick notes, if the project is successful, it "has the potential to be one of the most significant directional shifts for the mainstream internet in decades."


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