Twitter Funds Research for a Decentralized Version of its Platform

On December 11, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey tweeted that Twitter is funding a small group of researchers to build an “open and decentralized standard for social media”; Twitter would be the client of that new social media standard. The team and project will be called Bluesky. No one is currently part of the team. Parag Agrawal, Twitter Chief Technology Officer, will find the lead for the project.

Dorsey states that inspiration for the project came from Mike Masnick, founder of Techdirt, “promoted a standard of ‘protocols, not platforms’ for the internet.” Further, Dorsey states that it could help some key issues. He tweeted, “[c]entralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term without placing far too much burden on people.” Bluesky would change how Twitter hosts and manages content. CNBC reported that “[t]hese standards would allow users of different social media platforms to communicate and could make it easier to enforce rules against hate speech and other abuse.” This could be key as social media companies have been scrutinized for such incidents on their respective platforms. This long term vision would have social media work like email, where users could communicate with each other on any platform. Additionally, the decentralized standard would partially change the way recommended content works; instead of the current trend towards recommending material solely to keep engagement high, the new system could tend toward recommending content a particular user might actually want to see.

Twitter is investigating blockchain technology as a potential model for decentralized social networks. There is already a decentralized social network, Mastodon, which is comprised of individual or community-run servers connected through a system. It is based on an open-source networking protocol. Further, Dorsey tweeted, “[f]or social media, we’d like this team to either find an existing decentralized standard they can help move forward, or failing that, create one from scratch.” Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, is also looking to decentralize the internet in an effort to safeguard personal data.

Twitter, and social media platforms broadly, have come under fire for their role in promoting misinformation and radicalization, which has highlighted the challenge of creating and enforcing a moderation process which is both fair and efficient. Dorsey tweeted, “[A decentralized platform] 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.”

A decentralized platform where Twitter is the client rather than the provider could help Twitter avoid liability or responsibility for content moderation controversies.  “‘Focusing on recommendation algorithms could help Dorsey deflect some of the content moderation problems the company continues to face, such as its failure to curb hate speech,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University. ‘They’re looking to deal less with the responsibility that is the walled garden, aka the platform.’ In an open-source framework, Twitter would handle how content surfaces on the platform, akin to Google searches, instead of hosting and managing the content itself.’” Twitter’s blanket ban on political ads, enacted last month, is another move that absolved Twitter from the responsibility of content moderation.