Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has proposed a way to decentralize social media that could defang censorship and improve privacy.
Sanger, who parted ways with Wikipedia almost two decades ago over the project’s direction, is now working on developing technical standards that could strip power over social media from giant companies and give users more control over the content they produce and see.
Concerns over the power of social media platforms have emerged across the political spectrum in recent years. Conservatives are primarily irked by censorship of political speech by the tech behemoths, while many liberals have long criticized the companies for intrusive collection of personal information.
“What needs to exist is a system that just makes it really easy for the average user to push out their social media content from a place that they own, like a blog, and then make it available on all these different platforms so it doesn’t matter which platform you use,” Sanger told The Epoch Times in a phone call.
“So this places the locus of control back in the hands of the average person, the end user.”
There are already partial technical solutions. The Hootsuite social media management platform, for example, allows users to browse news feeds from and post to multiple social media simultaneously. But it only works with a handful of legacy platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Moreover, the content still primarily lives on those platforms. If they decide to censor it, it’s gone.
Alternative social media, such as Gab and Parler, aren’t quite the fix either, in Sanger’s view.
“They are alternatives, but they themselves still involve the platform owning your data. … They don’t really constitute a solution to the problem that Twitter and Facebook and the rest give us,” he said.
What he envisions is a tool, such as a browser plug-in, that would aggregate content from all the accounts the user follows across all the myriad platforms. If the user wants to post his own content, he’d post it on a microblog of sorts where the plug-in would pick it up and distribute it to some or all the platforms the user has an account on. The microblog would run on a simple content management system that could be placed on any web hosting service or even hosted on the user’s own server.
The trick is, the microblogging systems would have a standardized protocol that would allow a single plug-in to translate the content into the various formats suitable for different social media platforms.
“You cannot have a truly successful decentralized network of some kind of content … unless those things are able to talk to each other and they’re talking in the same language,” Sanger said. “Otherwise you just have a proliferation of silos.”
He’d like to convince social media companies to adopt the same protocol to ensure a smooth transfer of the content between the blogs and the platforms.
“They’re not talking to each other,” he said. “They need to be made interoperable.”
If successful, his plan would turn social media platforms into mere “clients”—different interfaces to access content from the users’ microblogs. It could give rise to new tools developed exclusively to give users a superior experience browsing and interacting with the content.
Sanger isn’t particularly hopeful that the big players, such as Facebook or Twitter, would be willing to go along with his plan.
These companies base their business on monetization of user data, which may be greatly constrained if people no longer need to interact with the platforms themselves.
“We don’t care about monetization. I mean, if you’re just a person who wants to share his opinion, do you care about monetization? No. You’re just trying to reach your people,” Sanger said.
In his view, the presupposition that a proprietary platform collecting user data is necessary is exactly what he’s trying to preempt.
“What led to the whole problem that we’re facing right now is the very fact that there’s a monetizable, proprietary platform. [It] is the very fact that the internet is dominated by such platforms that has made it possible for those platforms to shut down so much free speech and it’s made it possible for governments around the world to contemplate the chilling, amazing notion that they could use the private sector to censor political speech,” he said.
“So it’s very important that we stop thinking in terms of monetization and start thinking in terms of liberation.”
He plans a series of seminars that will outline his plan and offer the technical know-how necessary for its development.