Before the “great de-platforming” following the events at the Capitol on January 6, defenders of a laissez-faire approach to social media were able to tell those unhappy with Big Tech’s content moderation decisions to simply switch platforms. But when Amazon Web Services removed Parler from its cloud hosting, making the app impossible to access, the case against a government crackdown became less convincing. But if given some time to innovate in an environment free from stifling regulation, the market may yet produce a solution in the form of decentralized social media.
It seems everyone is concerned about “Big Tech” these days. The Left is worried about its role in spreading misinformation — both actual and perceived. The Right is worried about what they see as anti-conservative bias on the part of tech companies. Even libertarians, who regard these two concerns as misplaced, worry about cronyism and a disturbing tendency to cozy up to authoritarian regimes. And the Big Tech firms themselves say they need to be regulated — on their own terms.
But compelling companies to quiet the “hate speech” du jour will displease conservatives and libertarians. Forcing companies to carry all speech will anger the Left and libertarians. And doing nothing will annoy the Left and Right alike.
The good news is that we already have a possible path out of this impasse: disintermediation. In practical terms, that means replacing the current generation of social-media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Parler, with decentralized social media — a different infrastructure where there is no central server. Instead of a company owning and controlling the site, the users themselves would control content moderation and other management of the network.
Some of these apps can use cryptocurrency to promote and reward content. Posters can exchange tokens among themselves to promote the sort of content they like to see. So, as well as the proven method of getting your friends to sign up, you can grow your network through self-promotion (or noticing the self-promotion of others).
Properly done, that will mean that community standards are both decided by and enforced by the social-media community itself, not by poorly paid moderators trying to enforce the demands of their highly paid superiors, who themselves are trying to please everybody.
The old adage, “if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product,” will then cease to apply. You and your content may indeed be the product, but you’ll pay to promote yourself using crypto tokens. And if you get popular enough, you will be rewarded with tokens in turn. In a popular social network, those tokens will take on a real-world value. But if you just want to browse, you’ll be able to do that free of charge, without much intrusive advertising.
These apps are decentralized via blockchain technology to one degree or another. A distributed social media app will keep going as long as enough individuals are willing to host it. And because there is no one centralized place the entire network exists, there is no way for Big Tech or repressive governments to de-platform it. The rise of these decentralized networks will reduce the power of data-service providers such as Amazon Web Services.
Many examples already exist. Apps such as Minds allow for free speech, while apps such as Voice ensure that everyone else you deal with is a genuine, breathing human being with a story to tell. Mastodon is similar to Twitter with its 500-character limit. Diaspora allows for anonymity and for users to retain ownership of their data. Odysee is a video-sharing site that is built on a blockchain platform presenting itself as an alternative to YouTube.
These decentralized platforms vary in their specifics and ease of user experience, but it’s clear there is plenty of incentive for entrepreneurs to make them increasingly easy to join and use. Though decentralized platforms are in their infancy, if enough people find that current apps don’t work for them, they may easily take off. That’s how network effects work.
A distributed social-media world will be both more and less connected than the current one. More, because you will be more intimately connected with like-minded people who can reward you. Less, because you may need to use different apps for different interests. That may prove too much of a challenge for some people.
However, it is clear that the alternative is out there. It is up to us if we want to take it, rather than let the battle over Big Tech continue to polarize us further.