What If…You Could Own A Social Networking Platform?

by Tushar Gupta - Nov 19, 2022 01:19 PM +05:30 IST
What If…You Could Own A Social Networking Platform?It takes $6 to set up a server on the decentralised social network.
Snapshot
  • Elon Musk had to pay $44 billion for Twitter. You could have it for as low as $6 per month. 

To begin with paraphrasing a famous meme first. 

Who we are; content creators, influencers and celebrities, local and global publishers, and routine users who advocate more equality in the application of laws of the platform, transparency, algorithms to suit the users, and data privacy and protection. 

Who we are angry with; platform monopoly where a foreign company is able to censor, control, or curb free speech, have selective censorship based on political leanings; where users lose followers to opaque algorithms, and a system without checks and balances. 

What do we want; most of the users don’t know that, yet. 

However, some have figured out the answer to difficult questions surrounding corporate monopoly, censorship and free speech, and algorithmic biases in social networking platforms, and are already experimenting with it.

The future of social networking platforms is not atmanirbharta where each country’s tech ecosystem cultivates its products but in decentralised social media networks. No corporate ownership, no closed system, no trouble with free speech or selective censorship. The control is with the consumers. 

To imagine a decentralised social network, imagine millions of independent servers, some operated by individuals, some by groups, some by communities dedicated to a cause or a subject, and some operated by corporations even.

A common technical standard enables the communication between all these servers.

Thus, someone who signs up on the first server can seamlessly communicate with the users on the nth server. The entire universe of servers is built on open-source software programmes, thus negating corporate ownership or rights. 

One server, one account, but limitless interaction.

But where does the consumer benefit? To begin with, any user can sign up on any server, as is the case with Mastadon, depending on their region or interests.

Each server can be imagined as an independent community where the rules are framed by the owners of those servers.

What works for the decentralised social networks is the fact that server owners, unlike corporates (Meta, Twitter, Google) do not care for political correctness that now plagues free speech on most conventional platforms. 

For some, the decentralised social networks may appear as a double-edged sword, where the most heinous of slang, phrases, and abuses are not curtailed.

In most decentralised networks, users have the option of moving their data and profile to other servers. Think of it as migrating to another apartment in another society, if the former society becomes intolerable. The former server has no control over the user’s data in this case.

Thus, the control over the data goes back to the consumer from the corporates. Even emails, today, do not allow that flexibility. 

In some communities, decentralised social networks are now being referred to as ‘Fediverse’ or a federated universe of servers.

If the users or an organisation is unsure about the longevity of the server or its owner, they can set up their own server, starting at $6 per month. In the scheme of things, that is as good as owning a social media network.

Server owners can block feed from servers if there is hate speech. Also, if a server or the virtual community hosted on it becomes toxic (subject to interpretation), users are free to leave. A free market, free users! 

For now, most decentralised social networks allow users to see their posts in chronological order.

However, as the networks evolve, server owners would want to customise their algorithms, depending on users’ interests, preferences, or the server subject (books, movies, politics, etc).

Thus, unlike Meta or Twitter, where the content algorithms are opaque, this part of the virtual networking world ushers transparency. Users can see what they want to see, within their communities and outside. 

Servers, at the end of the day, can also be imagined as habitable planets, but what happens when a planet is overpopulated, and the cost of running it becomes too expensive?

One, either the server owner can request donations, have a subscription fee, collaborate with advertisers, or else, sell it to a corporation. This is the first red flag.

Yes, users can migrate to other servers or create their own servers to negate the impact of corporate ownership, but that reduces the entire idea to a Tom and Jerry game, where the users are outrunning the giants. 

Even the minds at Mastadon discourage users from joining the big servers, stating that there is a possibility that it might be bought by someone who is nasty. They suggest that the number of users one can interact with remains the same in a decentralised network, irrespective of their accounts being on a huge server or a low-user number server.

Therefore, it is in the best interests of the users themselves for the communities to be more spread out. Bigger servers also raise costs and usher latency when it comes to admins addressing user queries. 

There are a few other problems with the idea of decentralised social media networks.

One; the user base. While the structure of these networks allows users to interact with millions of users within their servers or externally, the question of the users being too low still is a problem.

For instance, while Meta, even with all its faults, has over 2.5 billion users, decentralised networks like Mastadon and Diaspora only have million-odd users. The structure passes the test, but the adaptability is still a problem. 

Put simply, people sign up on platforms because they want to connect with their friends, family, professional counterparts, potential employers, or celebrities. That is how Orkut, MySpace, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter grew.

Even Facebook (before it became a global phenomenon) intrigued early users because they could find their fellow collegemates, and then students from neighbouring universities. An average user, unlike a few million, is driven more by the ease of access than ideology.

While users can migrate to other servers with their complete profiles (followers, media, posts, etc), the problem of community ownership in servers also remains.

What if, server owners alter rules without users being notified, or delete the server altogether without allowing users to migrate or backup their data? Unlike corporate-owned platforms, where the rules are uniform with almost an ideal application, decentralised networks do not make any such promise.

Eventually, it all boils down to who the users trust more to govern them online.

Yet, the idea of decentralised social media networks cannot be dismissed that easily. As the internet moves towards the age of the metaverse, users would want greater control over their data and less dependency on the corporates.

From a monetary standpoint, decentralised networks also make more sense for both users and publishers, taking the middlemen out of the equation. Quite literally like ONDC, this is about empowering both creators and consumers of virtual content, but like ONDC, this will take time to evolve. 

Per month, it takes $8 to get a blue tick on Twitter. It takes $6 to set up a server on the decentralised social network. What users choose between the two will define the future of social media networking. 

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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