How “Decentralised Twitter” Will Actually Work

Popzazzle | Saturday, 21 December 2019 |

Exploring the detail of Jack Dorsey's cunning plan for the Twitter of the future



Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash. [image modified]

By Bob Leggitt
© Popzazzle
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On 11th December 2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced in a thread of tweets, that he had plans for at least a partial integration of Twitter into a new, decentralised social networking protocol. There were previous hints that he was thinking along these lines, but the full announcement still hit the web as quite a bombshell.

We can be pretty sure that the protocol @Jack has in mind does not yet exist, because if he had any interest in existing decentralised protocols, such as Mastodon, he’d have explored those avenues before setting up a dev team recruitment drive.

It all sounds very vague. So let’s get specific. What, exactly is @Jack planning to do? And what would it mean for us, the Twitter users?

What @Jack wants to do now is reverse the old 2010 picture. Instead of Twitter being the dumb “warehouse”, around which intelligent apps could profit, he wants Twitter to be a singular, omnipotently intelligent, profit-making app, while outside expendables perform the role of the dumb “warehouse”.


CAN YOU TRANSLATE WHAT @JACK ACTUALLY SAID?


Here’s a link to @Jack’s announcement on Twitter…

Jack Dorsey's decentralisation announcement

Here’s my personal interpretation of what he meant…

“I want to integrate Twitter into a less centralised system of operation. Don't mistake this for: 'I want to decentralise Twitter'.

It may look like Twitter is against decentralisation, because… well, because we’ve shut down nearly all of the features that once extended Twitter’s usefulness beyond its own walls. But actually, despite Twitter doing more or less everything within its power to become more closed and controlling, year on year, for most of this decade, I now want everyone to believe that we’re really into the idea of giving more power to the people.

That’s what I want you to THINK I want to achieve. Here’s what I ACTUALLY want to achieve...

  • I want to take less responsibility in problem areas such as moderation.
  • I want to retain control of the things that can make money, such as prioritised and packaged content delivery, while handing off control of the things that cost money, such as having to host all the content and police literally millions of idiots who can’t behave themselves.
  • With things as they stand I want to scrap Like buttons and other stuff people don’t want me to scrap – because I think they’re fuelling hatred. Decentralisation could allow me to dodge having to make these unpopular decisions.
  • I want to use open source developments for the non-profitable elements of the mechanism (because it’s cheap), then sit a minimal, but highly profitable, proprietary nucleus on top of that – as we’ve done with the current desktop app, but more so.
  • I read a brilliant but idealistic article that advocates tying social media to cryptocurrency as a means of funding and profitability, and I love this idea. This is the main reason why I will not simply do a deal with the existing leader in decentralised social media - Mastodon. I want something designed from the ground up to make money within the core of the system.”

To reiterate, those are NOT Jack Dorsey’s words. That’s what I believe he meant, based on his obvious liking of the ideas in Protocols Not Platforms, and the balance between the spin of his announcement and the reality of his business interests. So let’s now imagine how the Twitter of the future would work…

Decentralisation would favour majority opinion and would not be good news for marginalised communities.


TWITTER THE BRAIN


When you reduce everything down to the basics, you’ve got Jack’s future-world Twitter acting primarily as a content delivery system rather than a content “warehouse”. That’s a very clever strategy, because Twitter is the best socially-driven content delivery system in the world – to the point that no non-proprietary site could foreseeably compete. Twitter can…

  • Make contextual sense of a vast bank of constantly evolving information.
  • Present it according to the user’s personal taste.
  • Make it meaningfully searchable with qualitative priority.
  • Consistently find newsworthy stories and trends the moment they break – again with a personalised bias for each individual user.
  • Encapsulate and highlight major events, and even provide a means for random users to become part of those major events.
  • Mobilise people power, turning massive companies into quivering, apologetic wrecks as customer complaints go viral.

The list goes on. A long way. And this is powerful stuff which you absolutely will not find on an existing decentralised social platform. Or indeed lesser centralised platforms. The only rival to Twitter in terms of personalised content delivery is Facebook, but Facebook doesn't have the all-important pass-it-on system of Retweets, and it comes across as a creep. Twitter is like “Here’s some stuff that might be compatible with your interests.” Facebook is like: “Here’s a guy who’s actually your brother, but your parents never told you they put him up for adoption.” There’s a line, and Facebook crosses it. Twitter is by far the more intelligent resource.

Not only do existing decentralised social resources fail to compete with Twitter when it comes to the general usefulness and entertainment value of the environment. They actually fail so miserably that there’s clearly no way they could ever compete in the foreseeable future. So even if Twitter were to become part of a decentralised standard competing with many other setups that access the same huge bank of information, Twitter’s “brain” would still make Twitter an inevitable choice for the masses.

You don’t get banned from Twitter for calling @Jack a wanker. But when community bases get smaller, try a few petty insults on the admin and see if you still have your account the next day.


In the early 2010s, third party routines took care of the bulk of Twitter’s “brainwork”. If you wanted to search Twitter thoroughly, you went to Topsy. If you wanted to find people, you went to Twellow. If you wanted to locate and engage with popular content, and build community, you went to Favstar. Even image uploads required the use of third party apps like Twitpic, yfrog or Tinypic…

But the third party app dependency to an extent made a mug of Twitter. Twitter had the burdens of being the central resource, while the meaningful usage was taking place on other people’s domains. And that meant other domains – not Twitter – were lining themselves up for the ad revenue. And of course, those other domains were going to try and keep visitors off Twitter for precisely that reason.

Slowly, Twitter took inspiration from all the third party apps people had used to improve their experience, and in each case did one of three things. All with a view to getting people off those third party domains and onto Twitter itself…

  • Twitter improved its own features to subordinate the third party option.
  • Twitter ‘stole’ the essence of the third party app and built it in as a native feature, in instances where the feature had not existed on Twitter at all.
  • Twitter deprecated the functionality that allowed the third party app to run, so that when Twitter itself had no alternative to the app’s functions, users simply could not any longer obtain those functions.

This process took Twitter from its 2010 role as a dumb “warehouse”, to its current role as something akin to a TV programme in which every user is welcome to participate. And the presentational element of Twitter is now so valuable that the platform can afford to shed many of its “warehouse” properties without losing any commercial clout.

So what @Jack wants to do now, as I see it, is reverse the old 2010 picture. Instead of Twitter being the dumb “warehouse”, around which intelligent apps could profit, he wants Twitter to be a singular, omnipotently intelligent, profit-making app, while outside expendables perform the role of the dumb “warehouse”. That’s a basic minimum of what decentralisation could achieve.

For those who exist in a less conflict-filled area of Twitter, the effect of increasing decentralisation is likely to mean more administrative control-freakery.


THE BLOCKCHAIN PLAN


There are already precedents in social media for generating revenue through cryptocurrency integration. The Protocols Not Platforms article explains how this could generate profit.

For me, this is one of the big two reasons why @Jack wants a means for Twitter to shift towards a decentralised model – the other being re-distribution of responsibility/overhead. I think he desperately wants a way out of ad revenue-dependency.

Advertising is not, at face value, as vulnerable a revenue model on Twitter as it is on smaller websites, because Twitter’s ad integration is native. That means users can’t block ads on Twitter the way they can, for example, on news sites.

But ads on Twitter are problematic in other ways. Because the ads are deeply integrated into the site architecture, users can attack them in ways they simply don’t on news sites. Twitter users can reply to ads, and if you read the replies, you’re probably going to be put off buying. Promoted tweets have become grade-A troll bait, and that’s an obvious concern for advertisers, who definitely don’t need inevitable negative feedback on everything they promote. Twitter can try to hide the replies, or give the advertiser tools to do so, but then it runs the risk of being accused of corruption – perhaps even complicity in scams. And even if the entire reply system is cut off for ads, the concept of trolling ads is now so ingrained into Twitter that users will find workaround methods of attacking the advertiser.

Then you have the issue of growing negativity and hate just broadly across the site. If it gets much worse, will advertisers even want to associate with Twitter at all?

And ultimately, ads require human control, and have a labour cost. Blockchain/crypto monetisation does not. If the blockchain system of revenue production works to plan, it’s passive income for Twitter.

A revenue model tied to the productivity of social communication makes sense. And it doesn’t mean Twitter has to dump advertising. It just means Twitter isn’t dependent on advertising for survival.

Promoted Tweets have become grade-A troll bait, and that's an obvious concern for advertisers.


WHAT WOULD ALL THIS MEAN FOR USERS OF TWITTER?


Decentralisation would favour majority opinion and would not be good news for marginalised communities. Decentralised networks look like a great option for “unpalatable” subcultures (like the sex industry), or common victims of gang hate (like LGBT+ people and certain races). But what decentralisation actually does, is severs such groups from the mainstream, stunting their reach and prospects.

Decentralised networks comprise many relatively small registration points. Rather than everyone registering on a central database, with one network-wide ToS, registrations are distributed across different component sites. The approach to content moderation on decentralised networks is for each individual registration point to dictate its own policies. So, for example, some registration points ban sexually-themed posts, whereas others welcome them.

Actual people are not so much banned as stifled out of the picture through their alignment with an ethos. Technically, anyone can sign up to the network, so no one can be outright deplatformed. But equally, any registration point can place any other registration point on its block list. If your posting habits are only compatible with a minority of registration points, and those registration points are blocked by the rest of the ‘fediverse’, you’re not going to have anything like the same potential reach as someone with populist views. You’re not banned from the network, but you’re severed from the mainstream.

Centralised platforms like the current Twitter can actually protect some communities from being marginalised, because the Terms of Service can overrule majority opinion where it’s ethical to do so. If someone maliciously deadnames and misgenders a trans woman on Twitter and a million people like the tweet, Twitter will still suspend the offender, because that’s the policy, and that’s the power of centralisation.

But on a decentralised network the outcome is far less clear. If the person deadnaming and misgendering is registered at an access point that supports their right to deadname and misgender, they’ll be applauded rather than suspended. So it’s then down to the trans woman’s access point to fight back. If that gets her access point blocked, the trans woman is simply further marginalised. Decentralisation does not have the central, universal rule of law to prevent the processes that cause marginalisation in the first place.

For those who exist in a less conflict-filled area of Twitter, the effect of increasing decentralisation is likely to feel more like a return to the forums of the 2000s. More subject-specialised divisions, more hands-on moderation by human beings, and more administrative control-freakery.

Whatever you say about the big centralised social platforms, their moderation policies do at least have consistent intent. Anyone who remembers the small forums we all used before Twitter became a big thing, will know only too well what happens when you place moderation in the hands of untrained, non-professionals who harbour grudges and don’t know the law. They’d ban people for disagreeing with them. Ban people for saying anything contrary to their commercial interests. Ban people because their favourite member asked them to. Delete posts because they got out of bed the wrong side. However bad mainstream centralised social has been at moderation, it’s been way above the pettiness of smaller community admin.

You don’t get banned from Twitter for calling @Jack a wanker. But when community bases get smaller, as in a decentralised network, try a few petty insults on the admin and see how you get on. I doubt you’ll still have your account the next day.

Even if Twitter were competing with many other setups that access the same huge bank of information, Twitter’s “brain” would still make Twitter an inevitable choice for the masses.


ALL DOWNHILL...


I can absolutely see why Jack Dorsey wants to shift Twitter away from the universal centralisation that currently defines it. Whilst the current Twitter desktop app, made default in 2019, was not particularly well received, it proved that open source development can be used to support the proprietary nucleus of Twitter without any major problems. That will have given @Jack the confidence to press ahead with something much bolder.

The saving grace is that “decentralisation” for Twitter, if it happens at all, will not happen tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. And it’s a saving grace because a shift away from central control will be bad for most users.

I’ve got accounts on several decentralised networks, and whilst the sites are technically nice, they don’t have the vibrancy and passion of Twitter. There are no ads, as such, but there’s a lot of spam, the feeds are of vastly lower quality than those on Twitter, the search facilities are a joke, and the annoyance of ads is replaced by the annoyance of people pitching for donations.

Whilst some of these issues would inevitably be resolved in Twitter’s vaguely proposed system, nothing ever becomes easier when you break it into fragments. @Jack does not want social media to become more competitive so he has to compete harder and creates a better product. Nobody in the history of the world has ever genuinely wanted to make life harder for themselves. So let’s bin the spin. What he really wants is to outsource the dirty work and make easier money. In the end, you can be sure that if this plan comes to fruition, the party that gains the most, will be Twitter.
Bob 'Interesting' Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact Details]