Interesting article on the rights of companies to moderate posts, following the recent Reddit furore that, in microcosm, raises a bunch of questions about the future of the social net itself. The distinction between freedom of speech and the rights of hosts to do whatever they goddam please – legal constraints permitting – is a fair and obvious one to make.
The author’s suggestion is to decentralize social media systems (specifically Twitter and Reddit though, by extension, others are implicated) by providing standards/protocols that could be implemented by multiple platforms, allowing the development of an ecosystem where different sites operate different moderation policies but, from an end-user perspective, being no more difficult to use than email.
The general idea behind this is older than the Internet. Of course, there already exist many systems that post via proprietary APIs to multiple places, from WordPress plugins to Known, not to mention those ubiquitous ‘share’ buttons found everywhere, such as at the bottom of this page. But, more saliently, email (SMTP), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Jabber (XMPP), Usenet news (NNTP) are prototypical and hugely successful examples of exactly this kind of thing. In fact, NNTP is so close to Reddit’s pattern in form and intent that I don’t see why it could not be re-used, perhaps augmented to allow smarter ratings (not difficult within the existing standard). Famously, Twitter’s choice of character limit is entirely down to fitting a whole Tweet, including metadata, into a single SMS message, so that is already essentially done. However standards are not often in the interests of companies seeking lock-in and a competitive edge. Most notably, though they very much want to encourage posting in as many ways as possible, they very much want control of the viewing environment, as the gradual removal of RSS from prominent commercial sites like Twitter and Facebook shows in spades. I think that’s where a standard like this would run into difficulties getting off the ground. That and Metcalfe’s Law: people go where people go, and network value grows proportionally to the square of the number of users of a system (or far more than that, if Reed’s Law holds). Only a truly distributed system ubiquitously used system could avoid that problem. Such a thing has been suggested for Reddit and may yet arrive.
As long as we are in thrall to a few large centralized commercial companies and their platforms – the Stacks, as Bruce Sterling calls them – it ain’t going to work. Though an incomplete, buggy and over-complex implementation played a role, proprietary interest is essentially what has virtually killed OpenSocial, despite being a brilliant idea that was much along these lines but more open, and despite having virtually every large Internet company on board, bar one. Sadly, that one was the single most avaricious, amoral, parasitic company on the Web. Almost single-handedly, Facebook managed to virtually destroy the best thing that might have happened to the social web, that could have made it a genuine web rather than a bunch of centralized islands. It’s still out there, under the auspices of the W3C, but it doesn’t seem to be showing much sign of growth or deployment.
Facebook has even bigger and worser ambitions. It is now, cynically and under the false pretense of opening access to third world countries, after the Internet itself. I hope the company soon crashes and burns as fast as it rose to prominence – this is theoretically possible, because the same cascades that created it can almost as rapidly destroy it, as the once-huge MySpace and Digg discovered to their cost. Sadly, it is run by very smart people that totally get networks and how to exploit them, and that has no ethical qualms to limit its growth (though it does have some ethical principles about some things, such as open source development – its business model is evil, but not all of its practices). It has so far staunchly resisted attack, notwithstanding its drop in popularity in established markets and a long history of truly stunning breaches of trust.
Do boycott Facebook if you can. If you need a reason, other than that you are contributing to the destruction of the open web by using it, remember that it tracks you hundreds of times in a single browsing session and, flaunting all semblance of ethical behaviour, it attempts to track you even if you opt out from allowing that. You are its product. Sadly, with its acquisition of companies like Instagram and Whatsapp, even if we can kill the primary platform, the infection is deep. But, as Reed’s Law shows, though each new user increases its value, every user that leaves Facebook or even that simply ignores it reduces its value by an identically exponential amount. Your vote counts!