Twitter

Can Jack Dorsey Reinvent the Internet by Making Twitter More Like Email?

The case for a technical free speech fix

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On Wednesday morning, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey surprised many people by tweeting out an ambitious plan to hire an independent team, called "Bluesky," to explore re-architecting Twitter as an open, standards-based "protocol" rather than its current state as a "platform." As part of that tweetstorm, Dorsey cited a paper I wrote earlier this year, published by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, entitled "Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech."

Assuming you don't feel like reading that 7,000-word long academic piece on what this all could mean, I will make the simplified case here for why this could be a very big deal, while also noting that there's an even greater probability that it will mean very little.

Let's start with a simple analogy. Compare email, an open standardized set of protocols including SMTP and IMAP, with Facebook Messenger, a proprietary, centralized messaging tool created, owned, and controlled entirely by a single company: Facebook.

With email, anyone could (with a bit of technical knowhow) set up their own email server. But since few people want to do that, there are plenty of places to get your own email address and client (the interface through which you receive and send emails). Your internet provider often will give you an account, or you get a Gmail account from Google like basically everyone has. Here's the interesting bit, though: even though Google has a huge market share of the email business with Gmail, the fact that it's based on open email protocols means that you don't have to rely on Google for anything. You can bring your own email address into Gmail if you want. Or you can use Gmail using a third party client, like Mozilla's Thunderbird.

And, perhaps even more important, it doesn't matter which combination of these things you use because you can still communicate with anyone using any other email system. Don't like what Google is doing with email or worried that the company might spy on you? No problem, export your emails and contacts and go use something else. Nothing breaks. You don't lose access to anyone else. Indeed, Google actually has tremendous market-based incentives to "not be evil" in this scenario, since it's so easy for you to go elsewhere.

Compare that to Facebook Messenger. If you want to communicate with someone on Facebook Messenger you need a Facebook account. And you need to use Facebook's app. And you can only communicate with other people on Facebook using Facebook Messenger. If you don't trust or like Facebook Messenger, you can certainly move to a different messaging app—but you lose your history, you lose your contacts and you can only communicate with others who use your new choice of apps. And, worse, if Facebook decides it doesn't want you on Facebook any more, you're entirely out of luck. Facebook is, literally, the monopoly provider of Facebook Messenger.

The email/protocol example is the way much of the internet used to be in the early days. The Facebook Messenger example is what much of the internet became during the web 2.0 timeframe. Old-school open protocols were seen as less user-friendly, and less sustainable without a big company backing them.

What Dorsey is proposing, however, is to take Twitter—a proprietary, closed system—and see if it's possible to move it to the historical, more open protocols of the early internet. This would mean giving up centralized control, pushing more power and control out to the end users, and creating a more competitive market for a better version of Twitter. 

While it has resulted in plenty of eye-rolling, Dorsey's nod to the possibility of cryptocurrency/blockchains is quite interesting here as well: "Blockchain points to a series of decentralized solutions for open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization." As he notes at the end, this offers up a potential business model that could keep a protocol sustainable (unlike in the past) without the need to resort to sucking up all your data and targeting ads.

It has the potential to, at the very least, shift the discussion on three of the biggest complaints concerning the big internet companies today: competition, privacy, and content moderation. By default, it enables more competition. Depending on how it's structured, you can reduce the privacy questions by (1) reducing the need for data since you might not need targeted ads to support it; (2) handing the data control back to the ends or to more trusted third party data stores; and (3) incentivizing better behavior because of the ease of switching. And, it allows for better content moderation options by allowing there to be both competition at the moderation/filter level, but also in allowing end users to opt into their own level of moderation comfort, rather than leaving it all up to a single monolithic entity.

If this works, it would completely upend much of how the internet is looked at today, potentially limiting the internet's biggest annoyances, while retaining its best features: the ability to freely connect and communicate with people around the globe. But that's a very big "if" at the beginning of this paragraph. There is no history of taking a proprietary, closed platform and turning it into a broad, open protocol. However, Twitter is well-positioned to make it happen—perhaps better than almost anyone else. Other efforts to build a new social media protocol from scratch (and there are many) suffer from a failure to attract a large enough audience. Twitter brings scale.

There are many reasons why this could fail. But if it does succeed—and I believe it could—it would represent a big shift in how an internet service at scale can operate, and it would change much of the discussion we've been having over the past few years concerning the position and power of big internet sites.