It's official: Elon Musk will buy Twitter, pending approval of the transaction by the company's stockholders and the U.S. government. While some people are celebrating the deal in the name of free speech, others are worried about the platform’s future. Will the rules change to favor Musk’s personal views? Will trolling, harassment, and disinformation run rampant?
I hope the change in management will improve governance and conversation on Twitter. But I wonder whether an open standard for social media might be a better way to improve social networks.
Think about email. The open protocol SMTP has enabled many companies to provide email services so that anyone with an email address can communicate freely with anyone else, regardless of their provider. A similar open standard could underpin social media.
Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter implement similar features like posting, liking, commenting and sharing. Why not enable key features to work across all platforms, including newcomers? This would permit users to interact even if their accounts were on different platforms, just as people who have email accounts with Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, or any other provider can communicate with each other.
Open standards for social media have been discussed for a long time. Some people argue that only a central gatekeeper can moderate online conversations effectively, so they don’t degenerate into toxicity. This is false. Again, think of email. Spam filters do a good job of eliminating toxic messages, and the fact that different providers filter spam in different ways allows consumers to choose the gatekeeper they like best — or none at all. Meanwhile, adherence to an open protocol has prevented any single company from monopolizing email.
Open standards have driven huge amounts of innovation in computing and communications. They do evolve slowly, by committee. But when a technology is sufficiently mature, setting an open standard makes it difficult for any one company to change the rules to benefit themselves at others’ expense. Any developer can plug into an ecosystem, and the best implementations rise to the top. In contrast, proprietary platforms can change on a whim to, say, charge to reach followers or disallow apps from sharing. This makes it harder for innovators to build large and thriving businesses.
The web is another example. The HTTP protocol lets developers worldwide build whatever website they want. The resulting wave of innovation has lasted for decades. When Larry Page and Sergei Brin wanted to set up google.com, no one could stop them, and it was up to them to make it work. Yes, HTTP has spawned scams such as pushing schemes that lure victims to bogus websites, but competition in web browsers ensures that users have a choice of anti-phishing gatekeepers. This helps keep the web ecosystem healthy.
Creating an open standard for social media and getting many companies and users to adopt it would be difficult. It would require technical contributions from computer scientists and likely an assist from regulators. It would push against the tide of Facebook-style walled gardens (in which a single company sets rules and access to content).
The recent U.S. court ruling that legalized scraping websites is a welcome step toward the free flow of information online. Standards that ensure interoperability among social media platforms would be another, major step.