Twitter is trying to build a new decentralized social media service that could transform its business — or present new kinds of headaches

  • Twitter is trying to build a new decentralized social media protocol, CEO Jack Dorsey said.
  • Developed by a new team called "Bluesky," it will take inspiration from email and try to offer an alternative to traditional, centralized social media platforms.
  • In other words: Twitter wants to allow anyone to build their own interoperable social networks — and will surrender some control over the products it builds in the process.
  • The ambitious project will present significant challenges around content moderation and harmful material, issues social media firms have struggled with for years.
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Twitter has formed a new engineering team dedicated to building a new decentralized social media system.

The initiative, named "Bluesky" as announced by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday, is an ambitious project that, if successful, would fundamentally transform how the company operates, and present a major new model for social media services going forward — while also throwing up thorny challenges around harmful content and moderation.

"Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media," Dorsey wrote on Twitter. "The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard."

Bluesky will take inspiration from email, an open "protocol" that anyone can implement to build their own email service capable of communicating with others. It's why Yahoo Mail and Gmail users can email between one another, or why a user can build their own email server and contact others. In contrast, every major social media service is a closed platform, meaning users can't communicate with users of another, or build their own social media service that is interoperable with an existing player.

It will take the Bluesky team years to develop this protocol, Dorsey said, and the aim is for Twitter to be ultimately rearchitected on top of it, in what would be an unprecedented demonstration of the viability of a decentralized social media protocol's viability.

Context matters

There have been previous attempts to build such social media protocols, notably Mastodon, but none have ever seen significant mainstream adoption. Twitter, in contrast, has more than 300 million monthly active users. 

The challenges facing the effort, however, are extensive. Social media firms have been pilloried relentlessly over the past two-plus year over issues around illegal and harmful content, moderation failures, and the spread of misinformation and propaganda. An open protocol will make content moderation even harder by moving much of the network permanently out of Twitter's reach — a design choice that may expose the company to unprecedented scrutiny from lawmakers and critics.

Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer of Facebook, weighed in on Thursday, writing on Twitter: "When I look at Twitter's challenges, I don't think to myself 'They would be so much better off if Tweets could never be deleted and every participant in the system had 100% visibility into everybody's interactions with no possibility of data protection.'"

Dorsey said that the project would "force" Twitter to focus more on developing systems that promote "healthy conversation" on its own service. 

"Why is this good for Twitter? It will allow us to access and contribute to a much larger corpus of public conversation, focus our efforts on building open recommendation algorithms which promote healthy conversation, and will force us to be far more innovative than in the past," he wrote. "There are MANY challenges to make this work that Twitter would feel right becoming a client of this standard. Which is why the work must be done transparently in the open, not owned by any single private corporation, furthering the open & decentralized principles of the internet.

"We'd expect this team not only to develop a decentralized standard for social media, but to also build open community around it, inclusive of companies & organizations, researchers, civil society leaders, all who are thinking deeply about the consequences, positive and negative."

Twitter declined to make Dorsey available for an interview.

In a statement, a spokesperson said: "We've long demonstrated our commitment to doing critical work in the open and empowering people to build off of the fundamentals of our service. Apart from the technical elements outlined by Jack today, this is about exploring the fullest and most participatory vision of our service. In 2020, we will be raising our voice more prominently to support and foster these values. We're excited to share more."

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