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 everything I can ask for, so thank you for taking the time and please share your feedback with me afterwards, I’m very curious what you think!

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) which likes to operate on a larger scale.

Why do we need a decentralized 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, what I personally very much welcome, as I’m deeply concerned over the implications for the two billion people being heavily exposed to privacy exploitation. And remember, Facebook is not Facebook alone but owns many other of your beloved applications like 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, if you haven’t already.

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 decentralized social network.

As your motivation might vary, I can only guess that some share their motivation to build a decentralized 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 decentralized approach, I deeply believe we can do better and that this is a crucial part for the rise of a truly digital society.

We live in a global world — how to we collaborate globally?

Reorganizing 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
  • Interoperability 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).
What do we really need to archive distributed social networks?

The need for distributed Governance

The following points are currently widely underrepresented in the debate therefore I want to highlight them here specifically and will write about this more in the upcoming weeks.

  • Political decentralization is required to elevate such a dApp to become a publicly owned & shared communication infrastructure, which is understood as a legitimate and trustworthy channel for collective coordination.
  • This includes in general the decentralized political control of the management of the platform itself and more specifically independent distributed development, and decentralized 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 not 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 most of us that we would avoid those platforms, as people avoid areas of the darknet if they are not explicitly searching for this violent content.

But how to we moderate content in a distributed social network? Who is going to label content ‘illegal’, who has the legitimization to do so? Who has the authority to eventually hide this content or “drastically said,” censor it?

And if, on which basis would the moderator do that? At this point we need to ask the question where does our rules and our moral understanding is reflected in our current systems, and how can we arrive with rules we can use for moderation without a central party?

A social contract 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 of the population of a nation state.

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 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 could find consensus on for a 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.

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 on rich results for distributed governance.

Special thanks to the support and the thoughts shared by those inspiring people which drive the debates in the community:

Andy Tudhope, Vlad Zamfir, Lane Rettig, Trent McConaghy, Vinay Gupta, Santiago Siri and many more. Thank you!

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