What most people understand as “social media” is actually the closed social web (CSW). We have an opportunity to begin an era of the open social web (OSW) - if we move fast enough.
What makes the CSW “closed” are strict limits that we’ve come to accept as natural:
You can’t leave without losing your social graph.
Outside developers can’t innovate by building with your social graph.
Moderation and algorithms are centralized and standardized.
The wall of the walled garden sits between you and your followers, requiring payment to prioritize your visibility.
Consumer experiences are mostly stagnant.
These limits can be fixed. Social media can become open like email and the web, whose smooth interoperability we take for granted because they run on shared protocols.This is the view of many social media professionals, including all the founders of Twitter, social media researchers and analysts, and others.
But for the past decade, nobody could advance the OSW vision. With users concentrated on a few major platforms, there was no way for any new OSW platform to gain scale. Then in October 2022, Elon Musk created that opportunity by purchasing Twitter and alienating a large portion of its users.
Growing the Open Social Web
Now is the first opportunity in over a decade to bring a large mass of users to the OSW. We see this from explosive growth in OSW microblogging platforms.
That explosive growth is critical, because here’s how I believe the OSW reaches scale:
More users join the OSW
More users attract more developers
More developers and users attract more funding (if needed)
More developers and more funding create new compelling experiences
I’m still learning, but my current best guess is that society needn’t care which platform or protocol wins out - as long as that platform and protocol are part of the OSW.At the moment, it's very unclear which platform or protocol will win; I don't see any clearly in the lead or moving fast enough to meet the moment.
(Readers not working on the OSW may want to stop here; the rest is very much in the weeds.)
I think there are two big things that would help the OSW seize this opportunity to reach scale:
If the OSW were a well-funded company, it would be working to onboard all sorts of users: Celebrities, Politicians, Companies, Organizations, Governments & agencies, and probably more. There would be PR and direct outreach to each of these segments, plus support to help them create and manage accounts or servers. There would be publicly available materials to help individuals pitch people and organizations in their orbit. There would also be “developer relations for the OSW,” to bring in new developers and build confidence in the OSW’s future.
None of that is happening because no one project has the budget or incentive to take on all of that work. So this would be a useful role for philanthropic capital.
2. Project funding
OSW platforms have long operated on a shoestring budget, with most labor coming from volunteers. So most existing platforms are much smaller and less developed than they would be otherwise. Mastodon has by far the largest budget of any fediverse platform, at $600k/year (up from $120k last year).
Funding could accelerate projects like the following:
The OSW needs a fully-featured Twitter competitor, and it needs it now. It’s not clear which of the current platforms (Mastodon, BlueSky, Calckey, etc.) will get there first; it might be that they all get surpassed by another.
New and better experiences that only the OSW can provide. This includes:
User-selectable custom algorithms (announced by BlueSky and likely to follow in fediverse clients)
Topic-focused clients (for example, if you follow 100 accounts related to sports, imagine a sports-focused social app that structures your feed around the games, players, or news that those accounts are discussing).
Cross-platform clients (imagine having a single feed that includes your accounts on Mastodon, Twitter, and BlueSky; and being able to post once to all three, and seeing all of your post’s engagements in one place).
The other immediate need is infrastructure to support the ecosystem broadly, including:
Moderation support, including “moderation as a service” for anyone running OSW servers
Platforms and tools that support safety for marginalized groups on the OSW
Resources and community for developers working on the OSW
Tools for onboarding social clusters to the OSW
Bridges between OSW protocols
Search tools that respect user privacy
New OSW methods of identity verification
New OSW methods of revenue generation
Hosted server providers
New media that covers the OSW
A major challenge is that the projects above mostly don’t have a clear path to either huge social impact, nor to venture-scale returns. Therefore neither philanthropic nor for-profit investment has begun to flow.
One solution would be to engage some very large funders who could support this entire basket with (say) $15 million. While the success of any one project is hard to predict, it seems more predictable that funding a basket of the projects above would result in faster OSW growth.
Open protocols are why you don’t need GMail to receive email from firstname.lastname@example.org, and why you don’t need Google’s Chrome browser to access google.com. In contrast, you can’t access or use your own social graph on Facebook without going through Facebook’s own app or web site. More depth is in this writeup.
The most well-known are BlueSky and Mastodon, but there are many others; some open (Calckey, Misskey, Nostr) and others closed (Post, Substack Notes).
Like many, I have open questions and concerns about the AT Protocol being so closely linked to a single for-profit company. I take preliminary comfort in the fact that people who know Jack Dorsey and BlueSky teammates believe that BlueSky is a good-faith attempt to create a truly open social media protocol.
I don’t have any other one in mind. Rather, in my opinion, none of the existing platforms is clearly moving fast enough to meet the moment.
A startup non-profit called IFTAS (Independent Federated Trust & Safety) is moving in a great direction here.
It's not gonna be one winner.
Forget Web 2.0 experiences, decentralized means new paradigms, and by definition it won't be ONE protocol that wins.
Attracting early adopters is the key to success. Early adopters will try new platforms based on their size, unique features, content quality, or buzz. Substack has content quality but lacks size and buzz. BlueSky has buzz but is throttling its size.
Unlike Substack, BlueSky has an open protocol so an ecosystem of apps can grow around it. I'm sure talented developers are hard at work building those apps, but if a bigger team was needed, why not Mozilla Foundation?