What does "decentralized social media" even mean?
LAST YEAR JILLIAN York, a free expression activist, was temporarily booted off Facebook for sharing partially nude images. The offending photos were part of a German breast cancer awareness campaign which featured, well, breasts. Facebook flagged the post as a violation of its Community Standards, which strictly prohibits most types of female nudity. Though the account suspension lasted only 24 hours, it had a powerful impact on York’s ability to get things done.
Locked out of Facebook, York was unable to complete her work or post comments on news sites that use Facebook’s commenting tools. And without Facebook credentials, York could not access apps like Spotify and Tinder. Tick off Facebook and you may be unable to work, date, or listen to music. York’s suspension highlights the ever-expanding ways in which we now rely on large private platforms to facilitate our online activities.
Over the last 13 years, Facebook has evolved from a lifestyle site for college kids into a cornerstone of civic life. It is one of a handful of very large platforms that dominate our online world. As such platforms have gained traction, the web has transformed from an open space for free expression into a corporate-owned gated community of private platforms.
The power of giant platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter leads to problems ranging from the threat of government-ordered censorship to more subtle, algorithmic biases in the curation of content users consume. Moreover, as these platforms expand their reach, the ripple effects of exclusion can have serious consequences for people’s personal and professional lives, and users have no clear path to recourse. The platforms that host and inform our networked public sphere are unelected, unaccountable, and often impossible to audit or oversee.
In response, there is a growing movement among free speech advocates to create new technology to address these concerns. Early web pioneers like Brewster Kahle have called for ways we might “lock the web open” with code, enabling peer-to-peer interactions in place of mediated private platforms. The idea is to return to the good old days of the early '90’s web, when users published content directly in a user-friendly decentralized fashion, without the need for corporate intermediaries and their aspirational approach.