Cover photo

The New Digital Town Square

The answer was never Elon Musk's Twitter. It's always been Farcaster, Mastodon, Lens, and the rise of Decentralized Social.

Let that sink in...

It was the perfect meme to end the saga. From the initial offer filed on April 13th to the sink entering Twitter’s headquarters, there were six months of absolute drama. The board originally responded with a “poison pill”, resisting the takeover. The offer was eventually unanimously accepted, only for Musk to back down. Finally, a lawsuit filed by Twitter forced him to follow through with the deal. At many points throughout the year, it seemed very unlikely that the acquisition would happen. So the sink was a fitting end to the story.

But the sink symbolized something more profound to me. It epitomized asymmetry: a single man — using his own assets — could privatize a $44B company. It meant a long-needed blowback against cancel culture, as Elon had predicated much of his acquisition as a statement against it. Lastly, and most significantly, it meant a fundamental shift in the upholding of freedom of speech. Not because Musk had promised to uphold these values after his takeover, but rather because now one man, armed with his own convictions and platform, had become the custodian of the foundational principle of democratic societies. Now let that sink in…

In recent years, Twitter/X has grown to an ever more crucial role in public discourse. Far more than just a tech company, many began seeing it as the digital town square. The place where politicians, investors, philosophers, and the broader public converge to exchange and debate ideas. The drive behind Elon Musk’s acquisition was, in part, a desire to address the platform’s biases and gatekeeping perpetuated by a predominantly left-leaning culture and external political pressures.

Even before Elon acquired Twitter, most people could appreciate that power over freedom of speech was concentrated dangerously around a handful of people. If not Elon, then the Twitter board; if not the board, then Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council (which, of course, was promptly dissolved after the takeover); and if not the council then any other Big Tech company. A new product, a new feature, a new recommendation engine tuned for this or that, and a significant portion of our daily experience shifts dramatically.

Given the importance Twitter had risen to in society, I was taken aback by the public’s reaction to the takeover. The so-called thought leaders, venture capitalists, and a large chunk of the techno-libertarian community were celebrating the takeover. The crowd criticizing the concentration of power under Twitter was now celebrating concentrating that power under Elon and 80% fewer people. The people warning about the chokehold the left had on the mediums of speech were now gladly submitting to Elon’s chokehold.

The discourse about the acquisition overindexed on who had the power to silence people, and what values they would enforce. The real discussion, however, should’ve been whether that power should exist in the first place. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator. And it does not matter how many positive things Elon has brought to humanity, unilateral control over the public square should not exist.

From Protocols to Walled Gardens and Back

A social media “walled garden” by Dall-E

Three years ago, I wrote an essay discussing the de-platforming of Trump and his allies following the attacks on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. I presented a similar version of the argument with which I opened this essay. Quite simply, the power to silence the president of the United States with the press of a button should not exist.

I explored the decentralized social (DeSoc) landscape as a potential solution, but DeSoc was a rather esoteric topic in early 2021. Few outside a handful of early adopters even knew about the existence of these networks. It became clear since, however, that the answer was not better “governance and regulation” — as I had appealed for in my 2021 essay — but decentralized social media.

In its infancy, the internet was a land of protocols. There was a protocol for virtually anything you could do on the early web: SMTP for mail, FTP for files, HTTP for hypertext, NNTP for news, and the list goes on. The idea behind them was to standardize the transfer of information and allow each “client” to display it as they saw fit. Some of those protocols survived and became the backbone of the interoperable web. It is thanks to these protocols that we send emails back and forth without worrying that the recipient may use a different provider, or that we can access the same website regardless of whether we use Chrome or Firefox.

As it happens with most emerging technologies, as the internet matured, it went through the seemingly paradoxical process of simultaneous democratization and concentration of power. It empowered individuals to reach far more people than they could otherwise; but it also created corporations of unprecedented scale and power. There are many websites, but there is only one Google. There are many online communities, but there is only one Twitter. There are many forums, but there is only one Reddit.

No other place did these “digital walled gardens” grow taller than in social media. These began as siloed ecosystems originally built around a specific use case — YouTube for videos, Instagram for photos, or Twitter for short-form text. But they grew exponentially as the benefits of network effects began to compound. As more people piled in, some users began building massive audiences and along came the creator economy. Politicians, influencers, artists, and investors alike would spend considerable resources building their following, prizing it as major assets in whatever line of work they pursued.

Suddenly, the cost of leaving any of these platforms became too high. Quitting, especially if one had a substantial following, meant losing one of the biggest assets in the modern economy. These gated ecosystems, insidiously, grew to play an ever more essential role in fundamental aspects of a well-functioning society — from the dissemination of news to political discourse.

In the three years since the deplatforming of Trump and other political figures, the dangers of unilateral control over the dissemination of information became clear to almost everyone. But few have realized that the answer is not changing who holds the power. The answer is reverting to the origins of the internet. The answer lies in protocols — not platforms — becoming the default again.

The Era of Decentralized Social

Farcaster OG NFT on OpenSea

Farcaster, Mastodon, Lens, Minds — these are all examples of decentralized social media startups. All are predicated on the same principle: The user owns their identity, their account, and their social graph; and they can port them to different clients as they see fit. In other words, if a user creates an account on Warpcast — the most common Farcaster client — they can use their credentials to log into Supercast and see everything as it was: user ID, posts, followers, and so on.

The ideas of interoperability and clients are the solution to the chokehold on freedom of speech. These two principles give users the autonomy to choose whichever client aligns the most with their values. A user could migrate to a client that blocks, say, gore and nudity, if they want to avoid that type of content on their feed. Or users could migrate to clients that promise radical transparency over any political ideology. So long as the underlying protocol is the same, users can migrate from client to client with virtually no disruptions to their social graph. This radically changes the strategy to protect freedom of speech. Rather than focusing on who enforces the limits, it allows for a self-regulating system.

The two biggest pushbacks against these platforms have been a subpar user experience and a lack of critical mass. Juggling wallets, safeguarding keys, and purchasing NFTs — all essential pieces of using these platforms — are UX hurdles that the general public is not ready to deal with. Furthermore, these networks remained niche with their users and topics revolving primarily around crypto and tech.

But both things have changed drastically in the last year. Farcaster’s daily active users graph has gone vertical since January. The number of interactions, posts, and unique users has also skyrocketed in the last month. Most importantly, the flows of the app for a non-crypto user have improved tremendously. Given the open nature of the protocol, many net new use cases are now possible that would not be on closed platforms like Twitter: In-app minting of collectibles, user-driven metrics, on-chain tipping, or wbe3 games. The speed of innovation — both from the Farcaster team and the user community at large — has been neck-breaking.

Farcaster is but one example of the DeSoc movement. And Twitter-like platforms are also not the only use case. Companies like Paragraph and Mirror are building decentralized alternatives to Substack and Medium, DTube a decentralized version of YouTube, and Unlonely a decentralized competitor to Twitch.

Many users indeed gravitate towards these platforms seeking some form of financial gain. And it is also true that many of the communities still revolve around crypto. But underpinning the financial interest and niche discussions is a bigger and far more important transition: A world of true free speech online. A world where the power to silence, deplatform, or ban is no longer held by any single entity.

Time will tell how these communities deal with the inevitable governance challenges of connecting hundreds of millions of people. Fake news, hate speech, and pornography are all bound to emerge sooner or later. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), which empower users to actively participate in governance, could play an interesting role here. Users of a given client could receive a token that enables them to vote on moderation policies, algorithm changes, or sensitive new features. This participatory model not only democratizes governance but also aligns the platform with its users’ values.

Regardless, those building and using these platforms need to start thinking about the mechanisms they will implement and the values they’d like to uphold when those governance challenges arise. They also bear the responsibility of onboarding more people and elevating the discussion beyond crypto and tech. They need memes, they need news, politics, governance, and the many other things that make social media enjoyable for most people.

On the other hand, those who have so far dismissed the movement as just another crypto fad should reconsider. The transition away from the walled gardens of regular social media will take time. But it will make way for a new era; an era where power is not hoarded but shared, and where speech is not silenced but moderated by the collective wisdom of the community. This is not only needed but essential for a well-functioning society.

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#governance#freedom of speech#social media#desoc#politics#democracy
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