Facebook is an Opium Den, updated. It is a Gossip Machine: it steals your life and subtly poisons society — but offers endless entertainment. Friends on Facebook can pick through each other’s lives and obsess deeply about their own — as the Facebook bosses note down the details of each user’s behavior, sell the notes, and pitch each user an endless stream of ads designed to build on his particular interests and weaknesses.
The problem here stretches all the way back to July 4, 1776. In America, we own our own lives. The information that describes you reflects your personality, your identity. If someone followed you around full-time with a little notebook, writing down your behavior, you’d tell him to get lost quick enough. Or you might call the police, or punch him in the face.
For many people, Facebook is the internet, or a big part of the internet. Facebook has taken over huge plantations of virgin cyberworld. It has turned enormous plains, meadows and mountains of the cybersphere into its own property, its colonies, where you can be tracked and spied on freely; where your life is not your own. Enough. Let’s kick the colonists out of the Cyberphere. Let’s hand over power in the Cybersphere to the settlers who live there. They are the rightful owners.
We have three grievances. We demand redress.
1. Facebook has taken away our natural digital property rights. We own our digital lives; we, not Facebook, own the information that describes our lives. Using Facebook is like writing a letter or making an entry in your diary: whoever built the pen or sold you the paper, it’s no one’s business how you choose to use your pen and paper.
2. Facebook has damaged the idea of a free, public internet. Facebook is a clever tool for using the internet. The internet was built by the American taxpayer, under the auspices of the DoD research agencies and the National Science Foundation. Building a house on federal prairie land is fine — after you’ve worked out a contract that everyone has signed.
3. Facebook has damaged free speech, a basic guarantee of the Bill of Rights. Today, speech in the cyberworld is nearly as important as speech in the physical world. But Facebook limits speech in the cyberworld, and Facebook is politically slanted: everyone knows that.
Who are we to make these charges? We built the first social network, at Yale in 1995 — myself, Eric Freeman and Nick Carriero. I was the first, as far as I know, to describe social networks, in Mirror Worlds, 1991. We had invented and built the first cloud in our work on “Linda” in the 1980s. (And we built the first Twitter-style stream in 1995.) My idea was that social networks would be “The New Public Square” — the name of one section of Mirror Worlds. That section begins like this.
“The Mirror World isn’t a mere information service. It’s a place. You can ‘stroll around’ inside a Mirror World. You can meet and (electronically) converse with your friends.’” Mirror Worlds also saw 18th-century conditions in the modern age, in a different way. “Glancing backwards from a vantage-point two centuries hence, 1991 will look a lot like 1791.” In 1791, the industrial revolution — steam engines powering mines, factories, railroads — was just about to happen. And in 1991, the Web and the social net were just about to happen: so we predicted. We were right.
We are no interlopers in this field. If there’s an interloper, it’s Facebook. But this is no accusation — in America, the best way to solve this sort of problem is not in the courts, not in Congress, but by free competition.
The solution to the Facebook problem is simple. We need a new social network that is better than Facebook — better designed, therefore easier to use and understand. And it must be built on a database that belongs to the public. Anyone who wants to buy information about you must buy it from you. If advertisers are willing to pay for access to people who are attracted by the information you have posted, they must pay you. And our social network will be closer to a real public square than Facebook: it will allow buying and selling. (Was there ever a real public square without buying and selling?)
On our new network, a prospective advertiser pays you when things you have posted attract attention. Of course, most people don’t have many followers. But don’t underestimate the number of stars-in-their-own-worlds, even though you’ve never heard of them. They might be heroes to their fellow second-grade teachers in Woodbridge, Connecticut, or their fellow residents of Fuller Road in Briarcliff, New York, or their fellow guides at local historical houses, or experts on Samoyeds or macaws or English medieval parish churches or the Mets in the 1970s.
A local hero who makes a couple of hundred dollars a month on this new network is unlikely to wind up rich. But he’ll find it convenient to turn around and buy a couple of hundred dollars worth of goods or services per month on this same network.
He might pay for music streaming (and discover new music he’s never heard before), or buy food from local restaurants and have it delivered, or pay for a taxi service or a million other services — all by using money he’s made on the new network. The system has its own cryptocurrency for the use of these transactions. The integrity of each token is guaranteed by a blockchain — a distributed sequential record, in this case, of who’s done what with the tokens that make up the cryptocurrency. Each block in the sequence holds data, and is “locked” to the previous block and guarantees its integrity by holding an encrypted version of that previous block. Tampering with a block becomes impossible. (Blockchains are complex, but this is the general idea.) Every separate user is connected to a potential block in a blockchain.
But what’s really important about this project is the public, distributed database. Each user builds his own new database of self-describing information. The database is public — although each user can regulate the visibility of everything he posts. (Some data might be public, some strictly private and some restricted to specified users or groups, but all at the user’s discretion.) Blockchains guarantee the cryptocurrency, and each user’s personal information is also stored in a blockstream. These blockstreams are stored, in turn, not in central servers but all over the network. Decisions about what’s posted are ideologically neutral. Rules are made by net users as a group, democratically. (Voting is distributed; the integrity of the voting record is guaranteed by a blockchain.)
Our own (distinctly varied) group of four people, who’ve come together to build “Revolution Populi” (www.revolutionpopuli.com), will oversee the building of the blockchain database, but we won’t run or operate it. We plan to earn money as a cryptocurrency exchange. We’ll make zero profit from the new network and its universe of services. And if a democratically-arising group of users wants to kick us out, so be it.
Our group is centered geographically on the east coast. This is not one more Silicon Valley project, this is the north east speaking — with its old-time, ingrained, stodgy ideas about freedom and fairness. They were revolutionary in 1776 and, in the social network business anyway, are still revolutionary today. If we follow those faithfully, our network can’t go wrong.
The basic distributed database is public. Anyone can use it. (Of course, you can only see elements you’re entitled to see.) Our app will feed data into the blockstream — but the data passing through our portal belongs to you, not us. You can allow anyone access to it. Others can use the same database to build their own collection of services and compete with us directly; or they might provide something entirely different.
We advertise “neutrality.” How do we achieve it? Consider the news. Many users will want a newsfeed on their pages. How do we provide one?
If we were Facebook, we would choose which stories each user ought to see. But that’s ridiculous. It sounds like Moscow, 1934.
Instead, we’ll do something like this. Most news organizations provide their news stories in online feeds. Many will want to be available to our users. If a user wants news, he gets a menu of available feeds and checkmarks what he wants. The lucky feeds are then shuffled together into a single stream that flows on the user’s page. Suppose it flows too fast? We’ve developed a method that lets the user see the news at any flow-rate he likes, without throwing anything away. But in most cases, the simplest solution is best: cut down the number of shuffled-together feeds, or run several news feeds on your page in parallel.
In 1754, Benjamin Franklin published one of most famous political cartoons of all time; maybe the most famous.
The serpent is sliced into eight pieces. (One is New England, standing for several colonies.) Each slice alone is worth nothing and can do nothing. But if they came together…. Join or Die. If we act now, we can take the internet back. We can take the whole cyberworld back. If we don’t, we deserve what we get: impotence, and a dead snake. In the world today, no choice is more important.
Take the Net Back Now! Cyberpower to the people! That’s our choice.
— David Gelernter