Evan Henshaw Plath poses at the MIT Media laboratory in October 2022. He discussed decentralized social networks during the Imagination In Action Event. He is co-hosted with Link Ventures, MIT Connection Science, and SME.
When Twitter emerged in 2006, with its revolutionary 140-character microblogging platform, it didn’t take long for it to grow into the most powerful force in global information transmission. The site effectively cut out the middleman, loosening established media’s grip on shaping public opinion. Donald Trump was once the most powerful man in the world. He coopted the platform, until Twitter silenced it in January 2021. Elon Musk was a wealthy man who seriously thought about buying the platform.
But there’s that whole great power/great responsibility equation, and a growing chorus of people from decentralization idealists to governments to ticked-off consumers feel that control of the world’s leading social networks by a few for-profit corporations is bad for society. One of Twitter’s most outspoken critics is Evan Henshaw-Plath, 45, a little-known coder, who was Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s boss at a small tech platform called Odeo when they first started working on what was to become the microblogging site.
Henshaw-Plath also hired Blaine Cook, who would go on to be Twitter’s chief architect, and helped brainstorm an early version of Twitter that could federate with rivals into a decentralized system. This federation, if launched on Groundhog Day 2008 when it was finished, would have stopped Trump from getting such a powerful megaphone. It also gave users greater control over their networks. It would also have taken away a huge part of Dorsey’s ability to censor the then-president.
“If this had taken off and if this had worked, there would not have been a Zuckerberg. There would not have been a Jack,” says Mark Atwood, now the principal engineer of Amazon.com’s open-source program, who snapped a photo of the achievement, captioned “historic moment.” “We would live in a fundamentally different world right now,” adds Cook, who now works at media giant Condé Nast. “The fact that Facebook and Twitter control the business models of so many media corporations, at some point becomes untenable.”
“And those corporations, if they’re smart, will move to models they can control the economic model a little bit more.”
There is a movement underway now to reverse the clock and make future social networks give back control. Fed up with watching from the sideline while others try to make this happen and fail, Henshaw-Plath, who also goes by Rabble, is now the CEO of Planetary.Social, one of dozens of networks being built by developers who have decided the risks of so much power centralized in one company aren’t worth the benefits.
Henshaw-Plath was among 450 others who met at Camp Navarro, a camp in Northern California’s Redwood Forest, to discuss how they could reclaim social media. Representatives of every major decentralized social media platform, including some from as far away as China were there, as was Jay Graber, CEO of Twitter’s decentralized social portfolio company, Bluesky.
“The Trump, de-platforming is fascinating because what was a fairly esoteric, edgy, nerdy concept became central to the public political debate,” says Henshaw-Plath. “The problem is that one institution and one set of businesses decide the speech rules for everybody. The decentralized web community, and the social media decentralized community believe that we should not live in a world where only a handful of people can decide this. We should live in a world where we have many protocols, and many different communities.”
Dorsey was elected to the Bluesky board in 2020. He resigned as CEO of Twitter, and neither the company that he founded nor he responded to multiple requests to talk with him. SMEFor this article.
Danny O’Brien is a senior Fellow of the Filecoin Foundation and Planetary founder. Christine Lemmer Webber was the CTO of Spritely Institute at August 2022’s DWeb Camp.
Long before Henshaw-Plath’s team helped Dorsey write some of the first lines of code for Twitter’s prototype, he worked on the Indymedia project, a publishing platform that let activists organize and monitor police activity. In 2004, the site had 175 global collectives and hosted over 40,000 messages. After licking his wounds when their candidate lost the election, Henshaw-Plath responded to a blog post from Evan Williams seeking someone to help future Twitter co-founders Christopher “Biz” Stone and Noah Glass create Odeo, a platform to help podcasters make money.
When the effort didn’t get traction, Dorsey pitched a pet project he’d been working on for years that used SMS messages to send group texts. “We had such an ability to invent cutting-edge new Web2 websites and technologies, basically because of Rabble’s work,” says Tony Stubblebine, who Henshaw-Plath also hired at Odeo and who was appointed CEO of Medium last month. “Then that translated to Twitter where we got our first Twitter prototype up in three weeks maybe. And I think if it had taken longer than that we wouldn’t have bothered.”
The original decentralized Twitter, which was abandoned, used the same messaging protocol as Facebook Chat or Google Cloud Messaging. However, technical innovation has enabled a much more decentralized and open architecture. HenshawPlath, a young blockchain-based social media network Steemit, took his first job as a Blockchain Startup employee in January 2018. He wanted to get insider knowledge about this technology that connects people.
Though blockchains’ decentralized infrastructures might seem perfect for connecting friends on a social network, Henshaw-Plath was eventually turned off by their reliance on cryptocurrency. “Our feeling was that the primary social interaction should be based on intrinsic motivation,” says Henshaw-Plath. “If you integrate financial incentives into everything, then it can make it into a financial game. And then all of a sudden, people aren’t there because of their human connection and collaboration.” Users, it would seem, agree. Steemit has fallen 94% since its high of $107 million, which is about $107 millions today.
Henshaw Plath looked for other options. “Eventually,” he says, “I discovered a protocol created by this guy who lives on a sailboat in New Zealand.”
Dominic Tarr is an eccentric open-source developer living just offshore Auckland, on the Wharram catamaran called Yes Let’sHe found it on the side road.. Tired of being unable to send emails to his friends from his Pacific Ocean location, Tarr wrote software that uses technology similar to Apple’s Airdrop to create a protocol that lets anyone build social networks where information moves like gossip, directly from phone to phone—no internet service provider required.
The protocol allows entrepreneurs to design their business model, create their designs, and control how the system works. Users can then move easily from one network network to another. Tarr called the software Secure Scuttlebutt after the cask that stored water on old sailboats, which is also maritime slang for “gossip,” as in conversations held around a water cooler. “Modern capitalism believes that what people want is convenience,” says Tarr. “But I think what people actually want is a sense of control.”
Scuttlebutt itself isn’t supported by venture capital. Scuttlebutt, following the example of Tim Berners Lee’s funding for the World Wide Web, is supported by grants. Like a distributed autonomous organisation (DAO), Scuttlebutt connects people on a Blockchain. There are hundreds of donors and approximately 30,000 people who use one of six social networks. Mastodon is the most popular social protocol. It supports 60 social networks and has a growing number of competitors.
Joining Henshaw-Plath at the Redwoods camp, called DWeb, were 14 other Scuttlebutt developers–including those from the Manyverse social network, designed for free-speech purists, and the Maori social network Āhau. While Manyverse is largely funded by a grant from the European Union and donor support and Āhau by tribal money and other sources, Henshaw-Plath is going a more traditional route.
He raised pre-seed financing of $1.4 million from Stone, his former Odeo boss; the Bloomberg Beta venture capital arm of Bloomberg media giant Bloomberg; and ConsenSys, an ethereum startup, to create a social networking platform where everyone can post, send messages, and share images without having to connect online. Users and their close friends keep the data, rather than being stored by Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media network.
Henshaw-Plath is planning to sell support services, even though decentralized social networking can be difficult. Bloomberg Beta founder Roy Bahat isn’t concerned about short-term monetization efforts. A Planetary investor and early backer of AngelList and Slack, he says that “anytime something has reached mass-market use, the owners of that service have figured out some way to realize business value.” After a slow start, Facebook last year generated $119 billion revenue, almost entirely from selling ads targeted at specific users. Twitter’s top line was $5 billion.
While anyone can create an account on Planetary by generating a private key only they know, similar to bitcoin, if a user loses their phone or the private key is stolen they can recover their identity from other members of their network who store encrypted copies of each other’s information. But even with such user-centric technology, free speech here isn’t entirely free. To conform with Apple’s terms of service, moderators have the ability to ban users who post certain kinds of content.
An important difference between social networks built on Scuttlebutt and Twitter though, blacklisted users can simply pick up and move their accounts to a more lax competitor, such as Manyverse, founded by 34-year-old André “Staltz” Medeiros, a Brazilian living in Finland. “My motivation started with 2016, when I saw Trump gaining power via social media, and I thought of the great power that social media holds for society,” says Medeiros. “I would have made a similar choice that Jack Dorsey did to ban Trump. However, I believe the power to ban Trump is an extremely powerful power. That’s a huge power, I believe. And I’m concerned.”
It turned out that Dorsey, too, was worried, long before the event. In the winter of 2016, as Henshaw-Plath says Dorsey was facing calls to ban the president and far-right extremists, he visited the San Francisco headquarters of Dorsey’s other company, then known as Square (now Block) to advise his former underling on how to proceed. This was an important moment in the history of social media networks. It is not known how much Henshaw Plath was involved in the decision Dorsey made to ban Richard Spencer (white supremacist) and Proud Boys, right-wing extremists.
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Perhaps already seeing the difficult decision he might soon have to make, and even regretting the decision not to federate Twitter with other social networks when he initially had the chance, in December 2019 Dorsey tweeted that the social network would fund Bluesky, “an open and decentralized standard for social media.” With a mission similar to Scuttlebutt, Dorsey said Bluesky would make it easier to comply with rules in multiple international jurisdictions by allowing for more diverse applications and give users control over the algorithms that determined how they view content. “The goal,” Dorsey wrote in a tweetAt the time. “is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.”
In January 2021 Dorsey bans Trump from Twitter two years later. calling the decision a failure “to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.” Facebook, Instagram and others followed suit shortly thereafter, further fracturing the global social-media landscape. “For a long time, the decentralized social ecosystem was all people on the left, trying to make things more participatory,” says Henshaw-Plath. “And then all of a sudden, we had all these people on the right who were being deplatformed.”
Trump briefly moved to centralized social site Parler, before its internet service was pulled, forcing him to a more open technical standard originally developed by Berners-Lee’s non-profit World Wide Web Consortium. Called ActivityStream–and developed in part by Henshaw’s former employee Cook–the open standard lets developers build an interoperable federation of decentralized applications, similar to Scuttlebutt, but for more than just social networks. It’s like being able send an email from Facebook to Hacker News or Twitter to Meetup.
By the time Trump was looking for an alternative to Twitter, a subset of ActivityStream for the microblogging site’s competitors, called Mastodon, was already powering more than 40 federated, interoperable social networks, or nodes. After its host provider shut it down for supporting hate speech by an 11-year-old gunman, Gab.com moved over to the shared platform.
Using the same platform, in February of this year, Trump Media & Technology Group launched Truth Social, which has now been downloaded an estimated three million times. Blockchain-based competitors include Andreessen Horowitz-backed Decentralized Social, which raised $200 million and whose DESO token market cap is valued at $71 million and Tinder co-founder Christopher Gulczynski’s Niche built on the Near Protocol. In December 2021 Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Ethereum developer Polygon set aside $200 million to invest in decentralized social media.
DWebCamp was hosted by Internet Archive (a non-profit organization) and gathered over 400 participants for four days. The goal of the camp was to discuss how the internet can function differently, with less control by big technology companies.
Social media is not just a political issue in America. Just two months after Trump created Truth Social, Europe followed his lead with two pilot social media networks that were also available on Mastodon. This March, European lawmakers agreed on Digital Markets Act rules that would prohibit large social networks and search engines from sharing customer data with subsidiaries and force messaging services, specifically Meta’s Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger and Apple’s iMessage, to interoperate with smaller platforms. Similar legislation is being considered in the United States and UK.
“In the EU, and increasingly also in the United States and other countries, governments and the general public, too, are starting to think long and hard about the impact and role of very large online platforms in our society,” says Colin Wall, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who co-authored a report in February on the forthcoming Digital Markets Act. “And this is the case for everything from harmful content to anti-competitive practices, to disinformation and trying to understand what the proper balance of regulation is, in order to basically create the best possible public good.”
Michiel Leenaars, who awarded ActivityPub and Manyverse grants on behalf of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet Fund warns that ceding so much vital infrastructure to a few companies isn’t smart. “It’s like a kill switch on society,” he says.
Twitter is a perfect example of this. In August last year, Twitter was fully integrated. appointedJay Graber (31-year-old software engineer) was the CEO at Bluesky. He worked on the privacy-protecting cryptocurrency, Zcash. Graber earlyPaul Frazee from Scuttlebutt spoke to Cook about their search for the revival of Cook’s vision. The project is now known as Authenticating Data Experiment or ADX and it is currently open to developers. “We spoke a bit with Blaine early on, and we’ve had conversations with lots of people in the space,” says Graber. “I’ve tried to come up with something that synthesizes a lot of these perspectives and research.”
Jay Graber (CEO of Bluesky Project with Jeromy Johnson, Advisor and Bluesky Team member Daniel Holmgren), talking to Wendy Hanamura, producer of DWeb Camp, Internet Archive
It turns out, Mark Atwood, the guy who took that photograph of the “historic moment,” when Twitter briefly integrated with a competitor, is also exploring the sector. Bluesky eventually rejected his idea of an protocol to connect any number social networks on Ethereum, but he is not giving up. Atwood’s proposal for a social protocol, called Conundrum, would be built on a cloud service provider called the Interplanetary File System, built by DWeb attendees, that links together individual computers. “It would work from the bottom up. And it could grow slowly and then all at once,” says Atwood.
It’s a common theme in decentralized social. HenshawPlath said that similar to bitcoin (which was initially an idea and fringe technology), decentralized social applications which directly connect users are slowly expanding. At his first meeting in the California Redwoods, the creators of Āhau gave a lecture on how they were going into Maori villages to teach people how to use the technology.
“The software we’re building, when we’re building decentralized social media, when we’re building new social media platforms, they need to be about people and human connection, not structuring our world through algorithms,” he says. “It’s not about machine learning, or AI, generating the perfect viral media, it’s about groups of people getting together and finding meaning with each other.”
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* This article was originally published here