🔮 Weekly commentary: Can protocols beat platforms?
Back in 2019, Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, declared that Twitter was funding an independent team to build a “new decentralised standard for social media.” This week, that team, BlueSky, released more details of its new protocol, the “AT protocol”.
If the AT protocol works, it could be rather important for how social media works, too. The primary challenge of today’s Web 2.0 social media services is that they are platforms: owning our user experience from top-to-toe, often in opaque ways. It is unclear whether the incentives that price social services product choices benefit us individually.
For example, a recent paper shared by academic Sinan Aral shows the causal link between social media use and mental health. In summary, the paper, which is forthcoming in the American Economic Review, shows that the introduction of Facebook in college campuses causes symptoms of depression and has negative impacts on academic performance. (Sinan’s tweet summary is worth checking out.)
Nor is it clear that the concentration of power is helpful societally. Platforms, such as Facebook, may have used traditional methods like vertical integration and market share in the digital ad market, and may have abused their dominant market position. And, as I argue in my book, the non-economic power of the platforms to control and shape public discourse and weakens our ability to “uphold the democratic institutions that allow society to function.”
In the words of the BlueSky team, the goal is to create:
tools for public conversation [that] exist outside of private companies as common infrastructure, like the Internet itself. An open and durable decentralized protocol for public conversations can allow users a choice in their experience, creators control over their relationships with their audience, and developers freedom to innovate without permission from a platform.
In other words, social media could become like email or the Web. Email and the Web are governed by protocols such as IMAP, SMTP and HTTP. Anyone who runs servers that adhere to those (and other) protocols can operate an email or webservice. No permission from BigTech is required.
Services using the AT protocol would be interoperable.
Here is what I wrote about interoperability in my book:
Interoperability redresses the power imbalance between large platform companies and individuals – if I can leave, say, LinkedIn without losing the ability to post a job ad, then the site’s power over me is much more limited. Interoperability is kryptonite to winner-take-all power of network effects. In an interoperable world, I can stop using a particular provider but still reach all of my friends still using the service.
BlueSky will offer interoperability as well as portability for users. Your ID is yours, even as you move from provider to provider. The protocol will provide mechanisms for a marketplace of algorithmic (and other) ranking systems which end users (or service providers building on the protocol) could choose. It is also designed for Web scale (hundreds of millions, or more, users).
One challenge is that this sort of portability (as well as algorithmic) choice comes with complexity for the end users. Self-sovereignty in identity is often quite cumbersome to manage. Deciding on a ranking algorithm might be beyond the attention span of most of us.
I was heartened by the language the BlueSky team used to discuss the trade-offs between ideal states, user complexity, and utility:
Our philosophy is to give users a choice: between self-sovereign solutions where they have more control but also take on more risk, and custodial services where they gain convenience but give up some control.