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, formerly the most powerful person in the world, co-opted the unfiltered platform until Twitter silenced him in January 2021. Elon Musk, the wealthiest person on the planet, seriously considered buying it.
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. If launched on Groundhog Day 2008, when it was completed, that federation would have prevented Trump from obtaining such a powerful megaphone in the first place by giving users more control over their network. 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.”
A movement is now underway to make that happen; to turn back the clock on what might have been and force future social networks to give control back to their users. 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.
In August, Henshaw-Plath joined a group of 450 collaborators, privacy advocates, crypto-anarchists, libertarians and others at Camp Navarro in the towering Redwood Forest of Northern California to plot how to take back social media and the Internet itself. 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. And the decentralized web community and decentralized social media community thinks we shouldn’t live in a world where a few people decide that. We should live in a world where we have many protocols, and many different communities.”
Dorsey, who is now on the Bluesky board, left as CEO of Twitter in 2021 and neither he nor the company he co-founded replied to multiple requests to speak with Forbes for this article.
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. By the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the platform had grown to 175 collectives around the world and hosted 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.”
While the original, aborted version of a decentralized Twitter was built using the same messaging standard as Google Cloud Messaging and Facebook Chat, a number of technical innovations have recently surfaced, enabling an even more open and decentralized architecture. In January 2018, early blockchain-based social network Steemit exploded to its peak of about a $2 billion market value and Henshaw-Plath took his first job at a blockchain startup, seeking to learn from the inside about the technology that connects people without middlemen.
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 fell 94% from its all-time high to about $107 million today.
Henshaw-Plath started looking for alternatives. “Eventually,” he says, “I discovered a protocol created by this guy who lives on a sailboat in New Zealand.”
That is Dominic Tarr, an eccentric, open-source developer who lives just off the coast of Auckland on a Wharram catamaran named Yes Let’s he found on the side of a 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.
Entrepreneurs using the protocol get to choose their own business models, their own designs and how their systems function. Users, meanwhile, can move freely from network to network. 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. Instead, taking a page from the way Tim Berners-Lee funded the creation of the World Wide Web, Scuttlebutt is backed by grants that helped jumpstart the process. Similar to a distributed autonomous organization (DAO) that connects groups on a blockchain, there are now hundreds of users who personally donate to the cause and an estimated 30,000 people using one of at least six social networks on the protocol. An estimated 4 million more use the largest social protcol, Mastodon, which supports 60 niche social networks, with a rapidly growing pool of blockchain competitors in the works.
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.
In 2019, he raised $1.4 million in pre-seed funding from his old Odeo boss Stone; former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan; Bloomberg Beta, the venture-capital arm of media giant Bloomberg; and ethereum startup ConsenSys, to build a social network where anyone can make public posts, share images, like content and send private messages without an online connection. Instead of being hosted by Facebook, Twitter or another social network, the data is kept by users and their friends.
Though decentralized social networking is proving a difficult way to make money, Henshaw-Plath has plans to sell support services. 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. But I think the power to ban a president is a very, very strong power. I think that’s an extremely huge power. And I’m concerned.”
It turns out, Dorsey too was concerned, even before it happened. 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. It was a pivotal moment for social networks. Though it is unclear how much input Henshaw-Plath had into the decision Dorsey briefly banned white supremacist Richard Spencer and right-wing extremist group, Proud Boys that November.
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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 tweet at the time. “is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.”
Two years later, in January 2021, Dorsey banned Trump from Twitter, 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. Imagine being able to send a message from Twitter to Meetup, or Facebook to Hacker News, just like email.
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. Notably, the alt-right Gab.com moved to the shared platform after it was shut down by its hosting provider for supporting hate speech posted by a gunman who killed 11 people.
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.
The splintering of social media goes far beyond just political squabbles in the United States. Two months after Trump launched Truth Social, the European Union followed suit with two pilot social networks also 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. The United States and the U.K. have similar legislation under consideration.
“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.
Even Twitter has come full circle. Last August the social network appointed Jay Graber, a 31-year-old software engineer who worked on the privacy protecting cryptocurrency, zcash, as the CEO of Bluesky. Graber and early Scuttlebutt user Paul Frazee, spoke with Cook as part of their research for the resurrection of his vision, now called Authenticating Data Experiment, or ADX, currently available 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.”
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. And while his vision of a protocol that connects any number of social networks, not just Twitter competitors, on the Ethereum blockchain, was eventually passed over by Bluesky, he has not given 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. Similar to bitcoin, which started as a fringe technology adopted by idealists and computer scientists, decentralized social applications that directly connect users are growing slowly, and largely by word of mouth, according to Henshaw-Plath. 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.”