CEO of Twitter, Jack Patrick Dorsey, speaks during an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times at Twitter India office, at the Crescent, on November 14, 2018 in New Delhi, India.
Burhaan Kinu | Hindustan Times | Getty Images
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Tuesday the company is funding a new research team that will develop an “open and decentralized standard for social media,” in part to address some of the current problems with the platform.
The idealistic long-term vision is to make disparate social media networks more like email, so that users could join different networks but still communicate with each other no matter which one they’re using.
Shared technical standards would also make it easier for users to gain some control over how these networks recommend content, which could reduce the tendency to guide users to the most outrageous material and users in hopes of keeping them engaged, according to Dorsey. It could also make it easier for the social networks to enforce restrictions against hate speech and other abuse, essentially helping them share the load at a lower cost.
There are already social media platforms that operate on a decentralized framework, the most popular of which is Mastodon, an open-source social network that’s often used as an alternative to Twitter. Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, has also launched several projects advocating for a decentralized internet.
But unlike these projects, which have struggled to gain traction, Twitter already has a devoted user base of more than 300 million people, which could give Dorsey more traction in trying to push the standard through and convince other social networks to lend support.
It seems unlikely, however, that Facebook, which currently dominates the space with an audience of more than 2 billion users, would be willing to cede control to an external coalition. A Facebook spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Bluesky vision
Dorsey announced the vision and team, called Bluesky, in a string of tweets:
Bluesky will include up to five architects, engineers and designers charged with creating the standards. The goal is that one day Twitter will become a “client” of the network, though it’s likely the standard will take several years to develop, Dorsey said.
“For 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,” Dorsey said. “That’s the only direction we at Twitter, Inc. will provide.”
The standard would allow Twitter to focus its “efforts on building open recommendation algorithms which promote healthy conversation,” Dorsey added.
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. 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.
By announcing Bluesky, Twitter appears to have realized that hosting and managing content “is a business model that doesn’t have many benefits,” Grygiel added.
“They’re looking to deal less with the responsibility that is the walled garden, aka the platform,” Grygiel said.
When asked to elaborate on the Bluesky project, a Twitter spokesperson pointed to Dorsey’s tweets and said in a statement: “We’ve long demonstrated our commitment to doing critical work in the open and empowering people to build off of the fundamentals of our service. Apart from the technical elements outlined by Jack today, this is about exploring the fullest and most participatory vision of our service.”