Opinion

The Coming Decentralized Decade

By Marvin Ammori
January 6, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Twitter is exploring whether its service can be a “decentralized internet standard” built on blockchain, a small corner of the internet was incredibly excited. And a much larger corner was left scratching their heads about what the decentralized internet means for them.

People get Twitter — it works — why change it? What does a decentralized internet standard look like? And how could it be better than the amazing Twitter we know and love?

The new decentralized web could in fact be much better. Decentralized internet standards will define the next decade, redistributing the power of the internet, improving content quality and increasing competition. We’re standing at the precipice of the next generation of the web.

What would a “decentralized” Twitter look like?

A decentralized Twitter would be built on an entirely different technology.

The building blocks of the decentralized web are open-source software, communication protocols and shared databases. While these things are less well-known than TikTok or Snapchat, we rely on them every day; in fact, they’re central to our lives and economy.

First, open-source software is software that anyone can read, copy, modify or share without asking for the owner’s permission. Prominent examples include Mozilla Firefox (a popular browser with over 244 million monthly active users), WordPress (content management software that powers 30 percent of websites), Android (operating system for 75.9 percent of smartphones) and Linux (operating system for 70 percent of websites). These are the software equivalents to a tasty recipe, which any cook can copy, reprint and use as she or he wishes. Today, Twitter’s software is secret — not shared — and owned only by Twitter.

Second, protocols are simply languages that let computers speak with one another. The computer on your desk (or in your pocket) is powerful, but what makes it much more powerful is the ability to share information with other computers. The most famous protocol is the Internet Protocol, which allows the millions of very different computers out there to speak to one another in a common language, like a digital Esperanto. Other famous protocols include HTTP, for anyone to provide hyperlinked websites, and SMTP, which permits anyone to build an email application. You don’t need anyone’s permission to speak Esperanto — or IP, HTTP, or SMTP. Today, Twitter does not have an open standard.

Third, the newest technology in this mix a set of shared databases that Dorsey and others refer to collectively as “blockchains.” If you have heard of blockchains, it’s probably because of hype around bitcoin and other digital currencies. At its core, bitcoin is not much more than a database or spreadsheet keeping track of who owns how many bitcoin. The same way your money in a bank is essentially a number on the bank’s spreadsheet (one that you expect to stay accurate), bitcoin was originally designed as a money spreadsheet for people who didn’t trust banks or governments. To make bitcoin work, its inventor created a new kind of database, one that a collective group of people could update without relying on a central authority. Today, you can think of Twitter (like many applications) as a slick interface built to present content stored in a giant database — a database of user profiles, shared tweets, images, videos, links and direct messages. Today, Twitter is the central party that hosts and maintains that database.

So, what could a decentralized Twitter look like? It would be open-source software enabling computers to network with one another to present content stored in shared databases. On the blockchain, the newsfeed could be a database that is collectively updated by a network of computers and users rather than a central actor. When someone sends a new tweet, the network of computers could validate that the tweet is less than 280 characters and agree to add the tweet to the newsfeed. (Generally, a small block of tweets will be added every few seconds or minutes, in a “chain” of “blocks,” hence “blockchain”).

Anyone on the web could use a common protocol to “speak with” (receive and post information to) the newsfeed. And anyone would be able to create or download open-source software for people to read or create tweets on the newsfeed. As Jack Dorsey said, Twitter would ultimately be just one of many clients using that open standard.

Why will these decentralized standards be better for me?

Decentralization means each of us can choose among competing clients — all of which will allow you to follow, read, and share tweets with access to the same underlying firehose of the newsfeed. The same way you can use any email client today, each with different spam filtering, shortcuts, and displays — such as Gmail, Outlook or Superhuman — you would have a choice of Twitter clients competing on speed, aesthetics, user interface and spam-fighting. Competition tends to keep players on their toes, so they improve their software and experience. If your chosen client starts falling behind, you can export your tweets to another client, as with email.

Unlike email, the clients on this new Twitter network would also compete along another dimension: the best algorithms for surfacing content in your feed. Today, the world’s governments use social media to interfere with one another’s elections and politics through propaganda, fake news, bots and disinformation. They’re flooding your feeds on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to change what you believe, pit you against your fellow citizens, divide you, and weaken you. With a decentralized standard, anyone could build (and likely monetize) a set of tools to target these efforts and hopefully better counteract them. Competition and diversity of solutions will increase because innovation costs will be dramatically reduced: Rather than rebuilding the entire Twitter experience soup-to-nuts, developers could piggyback on open tools and focus on their own product’s key value-add.

But Twitter would not be the only decentralized standard on the internet. In fact, Dorsey’s announcement is inspired by other decentralized standards highlighted in Mike Masnick’s well-argued piece “Protocols, Not Platforms.” Anyone building applications today can build them using open protocols like HTTP and IP, but they still need a lot of Lego pieces from dominant companies: data storage, computing power, and video encoding (Amazon Web Services), identity authentication (Login with Facebook or Google), and also payments (Paypal) and advertising markets (Google). Rather than rely on these centralized platforms for key web infrastructure, we should be able to rely on open protocols.

Many of the web’s pioneers, including its inventor Tim Berners-Lee, have been pushing for a return to a decentralized web philosophy. and protocols to supplement Lego pieces dominated by giant companies. Today, there are projects to create these open protocols: Filecoin and IPFS for data storage, Dfinity for computing power, LivePeer for video encoding, Blockstack and others for authentication, bitcoin for payments and BAT for advertising. If these projects succeed, they could provide what Dorsey calls “open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization,” for the decentralized Twitter standard.

Each of these decentralized web standards do a little bit to tear down the competitive and entry barriers enjoyed by the largest companies. For example, if the filecoin standard is successful, then data storage should become much, much cheaper, and new social media competitors may be able to afford to compete with the giants (rather than sell to them) and to monetize with fewer ads and privacy intrusions. And if the Twitter web standard is popular enough, it may generate enough content for social media or video clients to build compelling competitors to other, even bigger social networks, with smart algorithms, interfaces, and pro-social behaviors.

The internet does it what it does best when it serves as a democratizing force, breaking down barriers and bringing us together in new ways. Considering its recent dark uses in elections and its tendency to foment rage and divisiveness, it’s up to us today to rethink how we network and engage online and reclaim our data. And it starts with decentralization.

Marvin Ammori is an executive at Protocol Labs, a company focused on improving the internet and computing generally through decentralized web protocols such as IPFS and Filecoin and also served as a technical consultant to HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” His views are his own.

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