If you are like me you know very little about blockchain, crypto, or just how the internet works in general. When Jack Dorsey posted on Twitter earlier this month that Twitter is developing a way to decentralize the platform, a lot of people praised the announcement as a step in the right direction during a time when social networks are facing major pressure to both honor free speech laws and crack down on harassment, fake news, and disinformation.
But what does it mean to decentralize a social network in the first place? Turns out it’s a lot more political than you would think. We break it down here, in this guide for the technologically illiterate.
Decentralized Protocols: The Basics
Most of the popular social networks today are operated by a centralized server, which communicates to your computer, tablet, or smartphone using something called a protocol. When you connect to a social network, your personal Internet Protocol address (IP address) is connecting with the centralized server that stores the software and network for each social media platform. Think Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. Each of these companies is responsible for the tens of millions of users that operate on their platforms at a near constant rate, all around the world.
Because each and every post that gets published to the platforms is hosted on one server, the social network is responsible for moderating and censoring content that may be considered dangerous (such as disinformation or online bullying).
But that leaves a lot to be desired when the companies responsible for moderating content are responsible for setting the standards. Facebook, for example, has stood by its decision not to fact check political ads going into the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
After disinformation was at the heart of one of the biggest data misuse scandals in history, social networks are facing increased pressure from both consumers and government officials to begin monitoring what users post—but where does the line cross between censorship and free speech?
Instead of treading that line a bit too closely, social networks like Mastodon have found an alternate solution: decentralization. Decentralized social networks take the software that users see at the face of the network (the interface or user experience platform that you see when you log into a social network) and let anyone use it to create their own social network.
Facebook, in a way, has a structure of a decentralized platform without actually decentralizing anything at all. Facebook groups allow users—all connected to Facebook’s network—connect and interact within private circles of users that share the same interest. Each group is responsible for moderating activity from its users (beyond community standards set by Facebook itself).
While Facebook is ultimately still responsible for the activity within its groups, some groups choose to set greater standards upon their members than on Facebook’s regular feed. This is where it’s different from a decentralized social network, because a decentralized network places no responsibility on any one party or company to monitor the activity of its users.
How Current Open Source Social Media Platforms Work
Where Mastodon (an almost exact replica of Twitter that is already decentralized) differs from Facebook groups is that its software is available for anyone to create their own version of the platform. If I wanted to, I could create my own version of Mastodon dedicated to—I don’t know, people who like to wear Birkenstocks with socks (something I have recently started doing). All I have to do is download a server and create what the platform calls an Instance, which is basically a community.
Anyone that signs up for my new social network within Mastodon can access the posts that come from people within my network. Plus, they can access content from any other network they choose. On Mastodon, these are called local (within my network) and federated (outside of my network) feeds. A decentralized version of Twitter will look a lot like this, but it will take some time to get there—if it’s possible at all.
Why Twitter Really Hopes To Decentralize
Twitter’s reasoning for investing in ways to decentralize its platform are certainly political. Dorsey, the controversial CEO and co-founder of the company said earlier this year that Twitter would not be allowing paid political ads on its platform at all as we head into the 2020 election season. In a move that was both hailed as a good decision and called out for being a surface level problem to the deeper issue of disinformation, Twitter’s issues run far deeper than simply banning certain types of paid ads.
In theory, decentralizing Twitter to put moderating in the hands of the people that use it might be a solution to the problem, but it also begs the question of whether or not Twitter is simply trying to offload the moral responsibility of acknowledging its power and dealing with it in a way that will help democracy, rather than threaten its very existence.