How to build a distributed social network and how to govern it?
Thoughts in the context of the #dgov18 First Conference on Distributed Governance in Athens.
The article got longer than initially planned,so I can only advise to grab a coffee before proceeding. Getting your attention as a reader is everything I can ask for.
Note: I believe that the problems described on the example of a distributed social network are the same (governance) issues applicable for any DAO (Distributed Autonomous Organisation) or governance questions around core protocols.
Why do we need a distributed social network at all?
The downsides of platforms like Facebook (also referred to Social Operating Systems) was sufficiently been elaborated in the last months and years. The latest scandals raised awareness and cast more shadows on the already damaged Facebook brand pertaining of privacy exploitation. As it came with no surprise to me — the techniques used are known for years — these became more clear for many users with the Cambridge Analytics disclosures, including the data leak of 50 million Facebook profiles.
I’m deeply concerned over the implications for the two billion people being heavily exposed to privacy exploitation. Even more about the possibility to control what they see and think.
Be aware — Facebook is not only the website Facebook but many applications people around you, your beloved ones and probably yourself may use every day including WhatsApp, Instagram, SnapChat… and many more.
Especially the critics from Aral Balkan resonated strongly with me with his talk “Excuse Me, Your Unicorn Keeps Shitting In My Back Yard, Can He Please Not?”. I highly recommend watching it.
A platform which serves over 2 Billion people could be understood as the biggest communication platform every built by human civilization. The problem of Facebook in my view is the centralized power as well as the business model to inherently exploit user privacy and favoring reality bubbles (echo chambers) to use the principles of a dopamine slot machine to keep people busy doing nothing.
As you reading this article, you are probably aware of those issues, therefore lets move on and jump onto the idea of a free, independent and distributed social network.
As your motivation might vary, I can only guess that some share their motivation to build a distributed social network because of their frustration of their exploited privacy, others might just not be happy with the current limitations of existing platforms and the way they are controlled or governed. Whatever reason you have for supporting a distributed approach, I deeply believe we can do better and that this is a crucial part for the rise of a truly digital society.
I believe that those platforms are the critical backbone for a digital society.
I believe that the social media networks will become the society operating systems of our future. They will serve for coordination, communication and governance. With it they are part of a critical infrastructure for massive global interaction and new forms of governance and collaboration.
I see some crucial aspects and attributes this communication platform needs to serve in order to be widely adopted and accepted:
- Secure data handling everyone likes to be ensured that their data is fully controlled by one-self and that data is shared only with user consent for clearly defined purposes. The social network needs to manage the data in a way that the data is resistant against leakage attacks or data extraction from unauthorized third parties.
- Authenticity usage of distributed consensus technologies (DCT) technology to ensure that communication is trustworthy and the messages which are sent cannot be manipulated or created by malicious third parties.
- Scalable to accommodate 2 Billion or more people means that there is a requirement for way more than 1 million transactions per second.
- Future proof the platform needs to be able to adapt to future needs of the community, regarding system architecture, structuring and provided services. This requires open source development through distributed governance
- Interoperatability and open access assuming that there is no one-design/architecture that fits all needs in all cultural zones and age-groups, it is required to enable different representations of that platform, instances, which communicate seamlessly with each other.
- Modular and adaptable design patterns might be the most resilient approach to build this system. Therefore constructing it out of many separate core protocols with independent front ends might be the fertile foundation for a Societal Operating System.
CORE PROTOCOLS as part of the distributed infrastructure stack:
- Self-Sovereign Digital Identities
- Secure Voting Protocols
- Secure Massaging Protocols
- AND the hardest problem governance functions to distribute decision making and fund allocation for future development (e.g. seen in Bounty Systems). These include functions to coordinate on signaling issues and ideas, proposing solutions and legitimizing decisions while being able to do that fully dynamic in any step of the process.
The need for distributed Governance
The following points are currently widely underrepresented in the debate therefore I want to highlight them here specifically.
- Political decentralization is required to elevate such a dApp to become a publicly owned and shared communication infrastructure, which is understood as a legitimate and trustworthy channel for collective coordination.
- This includes in general the distributed decision making how to control and manage the platform itself. This includes independent distributed development, and distributed moderation.
I want to elaborate on the challenge for distributed moderation to make clear what challenges we face to be able to build distributed social networks.
A good example where a lot of debates become very emotional is if you speak about content which is (unfortunately) likely to be put on non moderated and/or unregulated social networks. If you have no rules, you will see everything including a lot of violence. This includes the very shadows and evils of what humans are able to do.
Murder, rape, abuse, hate speech and much more just to name some of them.
Would you like to see that content on your preferred social network platform? Would you let your children use it if it’s not moderated? I think this answer is pretty clear. For a loving responsible acting parent, any content mentioned above would disqualify the use of the platform for your kids. We would most likely avoid those platforms, as people naturally try avoid areas of violence and misery and or places like the ‘Darknet’ if they are not explicitly searching for this violent content or something which is only available in that realm.
Most people are good. They want to help and they care. There are very few very bad people, and a fewer very evil people out there. But for every evil person there is probably an angel somewhere out there at the same time … But how do you ensure that this 1% very bad people is not poisoning a distributed social network for another 99%?
How do you balance what information is spread and propagated? If content is moderated on which basis would the moderation take place? How to label content ‘illegal’ and who has the legitimization to do so? How to moderate content in a legitimized way without a centralized authority and without introducing power asymmetries where moderators can collude?
How can we arrive with rules we can agree on to enable distributed moderation?
A social contract ‘a constitution’ as the basis for policies in distributed communities
If rules are guidelines to help to serve the interest of the community, how do we derive these policies?
In nation-states this is usually done by forming a constitution representing the basic principles the community has agreed on. I would label that as the social contract — a representation of the common sense, a snapshot of the sentiment of moral understanding by the time the constitution was legitimized by a direct general vote or by votes of representatives of society.
This is where legitimization for the respective political systems come from. Additional policies regulate the structure of the e.g. parliament or presidential systems which then have the power to legitimize policy decisions.
But how do we arrive at something like this for a global distributed network (an widespread potentially global community) where all cultural zones are included with very different historical backgrounds and understanding on their social contracts and core beliefs and values?
What are these core values we share and therefore how could we find consensus on them to form a social contract for a distributed system or platform (e.g. distributed social network)?
How do we form this consensus without representatives but through direct participation of everyone who wishes to participate?
I wrote this article to state the problem, not to solve it. The goal is to have a broader discussion about it. And I’m happy to share my thoughts on how we might be able to arrive there, to push the debate forward.
I hope this makes the scale and the problem clearer why it’s anything but trivial to build distributed social network and have the general support of the members to inhabit them, in line with their cultural and ethical beliefs.
It’s not a technical but a social coordination problem but it is evenly important for the success of distributed systems.
Join the debate!
Discovering and developing the methods and the tools to solve such questions is one reason why I feel it as super important to come together as a community to the First Conference for Distributed Governance. Twitter.
Disclaimer: Everything what I wrote in this article is my limited view and my biased opinion. I understand only a fraction of the infinite complexity of the world we live in and I do make mistakes. I believe in the evolution of ideas through the exchange of thoughts. Please give feedback and share your view on this topic! We are on an exciting journey, where we can only arrive together with rich results and working models of distributed governance.
I believe in humanity, and I love humans. Trust and faith in our abilities to build systems that are more humanistic is and was always the starting point for a societal change towards it.