Mosaic: A Viable Human-centered Alternative to Facebook
The purpose of this article is to:
- Briefly describe how Facebook is a threat to a free, open, and healthy society.
- Enumerate the challenges in building a viable Human-centered alternative to Facebook that addresses the various problems that Facebook currently presents.
- Introduce the high level approach to building Mosaic, a decentralized and self sovereign human-centered social media network.
- Inspire a critical mass of relevant actors to support and engage in a holistic design process that will produce an actionable plan to build out the network.
The Problem with Facebook
What is the Solution? Mosaic!
Why Haven’t Facebook Challengers Succeeded Yet
A Holistic Design Process, a Next Step
Mosaic’s High Level Design
— A Self Sovereign Architecture
— — Personal Data Vaults
— — Decentralized Identifiers
— — Verifiable Credentials
— Community Spaces
— News Feeds and Peer-to-Peer Messaging
Issues We’ll Need to Grapple With
— Social Health & Mental Well Being
— Fake News & Sensemaking
Business and Organizational Models
— The Mosaic Foundation
The Art of the Possible
Call to Action
— Why Other Efforts Have Failed or Floundered
The Problem with Facebook
While social media has the potential to empower people to share, connect, and act in positive ways, it is now mainstream understanding that the current social media paradigm is taking an unacceptable toll on society. From issues of fake news, civil liberties, mental health, and our democracies, Facebook is fundamentally unequipped to deal with the unintended problems it has created and unable to course correct to foster a human-centered social media paradigm. In some cases Facebook’s attempt to address these issues with censorship tactics may ultimately be worse than the problems they are trying to address. Facebook is not built and operated to lift up humanity, it is tuned to maximize profit for its shareholders. This is not a dynamic that Facebook can unwind even if it wanted to; it’s hands are tied.
Facebook’s power to shape public opinion and even sway elections through the tweaking of algorithms that mediate a substantial portion of global communication is unprecedented. It’s doubtful that Facebook staff are consciously playing God with our political system, but what mechanism do we really have to be sure? Even if they aren’t pulling the levers themselves, they empower bad actors to use their targeted advertising capabilities to effectively spread propaganda, potentially swaying elections and bending the course of history.
With over 2.7 billion users Facebook is almost as ubiquitous as the Web itself and yet it has secret algorithms, data collection practices, and a general design framework that cannot be audited for the purposes of understanding its impact on public health, elections, and civil liberties. Their undisclosed algorithms maximize attention, amplify conflict, and result in a more polarized society. We’re deferring governance of the most powerful public space in all of human history to a highly unaccountable private firm. Facebook and a few other tech giants are slowly taking over the Web and becoming the curators of all things and the arbiters of all truth. This is a structural threat to a free society. This article focuses on Facebook because they are doing the most harm, society stands to gain the most by replacing them, and because we have to start somewhere. Facebook’s incentives are simply not aligned with the public interests. We all know it. Demand for something different spans the political and social spectrum. This isn’t the future any of us want. We can and should do something about it.
What is the Solution? Mosaic!
The Web and social media will continue to be a prominent part of modern life. It is incumbent on us to design, build, and evolve our digital infrastructure towards our highest principles. Mosaic aims to be a human-centered social media platform optimized to preserve civil liberties, address the mental and social health issues associated with Facebook, and enhance our Democracies. It will be a decentralized network that gives total ownership and control of data to each user. The underlying code and algorithms will be available for all to see and thus can be audited. Each person will be empowered to select custom algorithms to shape their experience to their liking.
A sustainable business model and purpose-driven organizational structure will ensure the global public square is innovative, financially sustainable, and aligned with public interests. Mosaic will be supported by an ecosystem of organizations. A non-profit foundation will maintain the core code and for-profit entities can provide a variety of services to the network. The Mosaic Foundation will ensure that Mosaic remains a true global commons.
Mosaic will reconcile the fact that in the modern world there is a digital extension to each individual and if we want to maintain the fundamental liberties that we cherish, like privacy and freedom of association, we’re going to have to build Web technology from the ground up to support those liberties. Mosaic will give people the tools they need to combat cyber bullying and hate speech without performing network-wide censorship like Facebook does. With less censorship Mosaic must do a much better job at helping us sort out what is and is not true, a difficult problem to solve. We can only solve part of the problem with technology, much of the problem is educational and cultural.
There is a strong pent-up demand for better social media, to leave Facebook, however compelling and viable alternatives are lacking. The dysfunction of current social media can’t be addressed solely through legislation, and there are inherent issues with the business model that companies like Facebook have adopted. If we can deliver on social media that is decentralized more like the Web itself, protects privacy and data ownership by default, has a viable business model, and supports a healthy society, it could be compelling enough for the masses to switch to Mosaic.
The solution to the Facebook problem is not just an opportunity to build a viable and human-centered alternative social media platform, it’s an opportunity for humanity to build digital infrastructure on which we can build a more egalitarian society.
Why Haven’t Facebook Challengers Succeeded Yet?
If a far better social media network than Facebook is possible, then why hasn’t one emerged to compete with and even replace Facebook? My best answer is because it is a multifaceted hard problem that requires a strange combination of conventional and unconventional solutions and the audacity to take on a Goliath.
It is difficult to gain network effect — the challenge is to start with zero users and inspire people to leave a network to join a new network that has few, if any, of their friends. There must be more compelling reasons than “we’re not Facebook” to move to a new network. An alternative needs to employ strategies to make the network valuable in the early days when there are few users. People are not going to leave Facebook to join a new network that is just a little bit better, that advertises to them a little less, or is marginally better at protecting the democratic process. A new service has to be an order of magnitude better than Facebook. It has to be inspiring.
Another reason no alternative has emerged is that success requires an organizational and business model that exists outside the norms of conventional thought. Most approaches are on two ends of the spectrum, a venture capital funded shareholder organization or a free and open source network. I suggest that neither can deliver on the promise of a healthy human-centered social media platform. We need a hybrid approach within the realm that some call social entrepreneurship, an organization run more like a social movement, but with self-sustaining business models. Going the route of starting a new profit maximizing shareholder business will fail to align incentives with its users just as Facebook has failed to do and will have a difficult time resisting acquisition by Facebook (Facebook bought Instagram for $1B in 2012). On the other hand, trying to offer a free and open source service with no revenue is not going to work either. It takes real effort to maintain software and resources to operate hardware. It’s challenging to capitalize a not-for-profit organization but innovative financial instruments can provide a return on investment while keeping the effort aligned with the public interests. The organizational model needs to be both purpose-first and economically viable.
Fortunately the core technology required to deliver a new decentralized and human-centered social media paradigm now exists. Various software communities hold different pieces of the puzzle. A well funded and collaborative effort can bring these disparate pieces together into a cohesive human-centered solution.
In short, the reason that no alternative has come along to outcompete Facebook is because it is a multifaceted hard problem that hasn’t received interdisciplinary attention by an appropriate set of stakeholders. If we can manage to bring together diverse stakeholders, the requisite funding to support this work, and sufficiently coordinate our talents it is possible to design, build, and foster life affirming social media.
A Holistic Design Process, a Next Step
To deliver on the promise of Mosaic and “solve” the multifaceted hard problem, we’ll need to bring together diverse stakeholders into a holistic design process to thoroughly explore the critical challenges. We’ll have to arrive at superior approaches to addressing the difficult issues related to civil liberties, the health of society, and psychological well being. In the rest of this article I will present possible solutions to some of these hard problems. I have many more details to share once the holistic design process commences and there are many unknowns for the design team to illuminate.
The holistic design process will be a research and development phase focused on eliminating major unknowns and mitigating risk. It will be a multidisciplinary design process that integrates technical requirements, human psychology considerations, graphical user interface development, and business model exploration. The output will be a comprehensive plan to build a solution that addresses the many deficiencies in the existing social media paradigm.
Previous efforts have neglected one or more critical design aspects and we can’t make the same mistake. What I am laying out in this article are some of the high level topics that must be addressed as part of a design process. I am in the process of reaching out to diverse stakeholders to engage in a six month design process that will lead into the building phase of Mosaic. Please reach out if you are interested in participating or know someone that would be a good fit for the project.
Again, this is not going to be easy but with a well rounded set of expertise and the resources to facilitate a concerted effort, there is a decent chance that we can arrive at an approach that is a massive improvement over Facebook. Without risk there is no reward.
Mosaic’s High Level Design
A Self Sovereign Architecture
Putting people in control of their data and digital identities will radically change data power dynamics and improve social media and the Web. There are emerging Web standards and technologies that when combined would empower this new paradigm. These tools enable the development of decentralized Web applications and encompass what many are calling Self Sovereign Architecture.
Personal Data Vaults
Personal data ownership requires data storage. There are emerging Web standards around Personal Data Vaults that enable people and organizations to securely store and share their data when and with whom they choose. Personal Data Vaults can also store one’s app data, rather than on the app provider’s servers, enhancing privacy and data ownership. Storing one’s own app data in standard formats has the added benefit of making it easier to switch to new app providers while preserving user-generated data, such as music playlists. The Solid Team, led by Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the Web, is a big proponent of this general approach.
We also want to securely share some of our data with certain people or entities without the need for a middleman. To do this we need digital identities that we control. Decentralized Identifiers are a new type of globally unique Web identifier under an individual’s control. When you join apps like Facebook they assign you a unique identifier to identify you within their app. Every connection you make on Facebook, your friends, other people, groups, or organizations are all dependent on the identifiers assigned. If you decide to leave or are banned from Facebook, the social connections that you have built and cultivated may be lost or fragmented. Decentralized Identifiers address this problem by giving people irrevocable ownership and control of their Web identifiers. Decentralized Identifiers are already supported by a wide variety of stakeholders; hacker communities, private sector companies large and small, and several national governments.
Verifiable credentials are another important component in the Self Sovereign Architecture ecosystem. Verifiable credentials break the central authority model by enabling anyone to issue cryptographically signed credentials to any other person. Any third party can determine if a verifiable credential was issued to the person presenting it and determine if it’s from an issuer they trust. What results is a more capable Web of Trust. Everyone owns their piece of the credential-based social graph. The resulting network effect is collectively owned rather than centrally controlled by the likes of Facebook.
If Mosaic is successful it will help seed a truly self sovereign Web, a real competitive marketplace where people are not locked in to app providers and can freely flow from service to service. This also means if Mosaic itself is not fulfilling its mission, people can migrate to a new network with as little friction as possible.
Community spaces will play a crucial role in the usefulness, meaning making, and growth of Mosaic. Community spaces are groups, clubs, organizations, effectively smaller networks within the Mosaic network. They are distinguished from the rest of the network by who moderates and governs the space. A global scale social app can’t be expected to have the exact features and administrative tools that specialized groups require. Rather than being like a generic Facebook group the features and governance can be tailored to specific needs and goals of these digital spaces. Examples include:
- Clubs: School, Book, Chess, etc..
- Groups: Sports, Interests, Regional, etc…
- Organizations: Corporations, Nonprofits, NGOs, Government Agencies
- Civic Spaces: Town Halls, Participatory Budgeting, etc..
- Networks: Marketplaces, Mutual Aid Networks, Political Parties, etc…
Access to community sites can be open, closed, free, and/or require a fee. Governance of the community space can be programmed to suit the culture and purpose of the community. Community site templates can be generated so that similar communities do not have to build a network from scratch. Perhaps with some minor tweaks dozens of existing community software offerings could be integrated into the Mosaic network, enabling an integrated network of networks in short order. Notifications from community spaces would aggregate into a users news feed alongside notifications from their friends and others feeds they follow.
Focusing on community spaces also addresses the problem of growing the network in the early days and not having network effect. Community spaces will make Mosaic immediately useful to those using the digital space, whether it be a dozen people who have a local book club or several thousand people running a cooperatively owned business. Over time, because these community spaces are connected, a network effect will emerge making the Mosaic network that much more valuable to everyone using it.
News Feeds and Peer-to-Peer Messaging
In addition to community spaces Mosaic will need to include a news feed as well as a messaging service. People will be able to connect with friends and follow others. More likely than not notifications will come in from connections and community spaces and aggregate into a news feed-like area. These are basic features of modern social media.
Rather than having undisclosed algorithms seeking to hijack and maximize our attention the Mosaic news feed will be more like a social media inbox that you control. You won’t keep seeing the same post unless there is an update and you won’t miss something that the Facebook algorithm didn’t think was important. You’ll be able to custom filter your feed at your discretion, manually in settings or with user-chosen plug-and-play algorithms that help you have the experience you want to have.
Community spaces are key to getting moderation right. We want healthy social media spaces that protect free speech while minimizing hate speech, cyber bullying, and misinformation. Truly protecting free speech means protecting speech we don’t agree with. To strike this balance I propose that much, if not all, of the moderation be performed at the community and individual level. This is how society works in the physical world. It makes sense that moderators come from the communities of people they are moderating, that they are embedded in the relevant social context and able to understand and act on subtleties that global moderators just can’t tune into.
Moderation at the person-to-person layer of the network will happen at the individual level. The person posting the content is responsible for moderating the conversation happening in response to that content. If someone does not like the way the thread is being moderated they can say something to the owner of the content. If they don’t respond in a satisfactory way they can disconnect from that person.
Issues We’ll Need to Grapple With
Freedom of speech, freedom to assembly, and freedom of association are pillars of a free society — enshrined in the first amendment of the US constitution. While it is understandable why some think certain speech should be censored, it would be a mistake to relinquish our first amendment rights to Facebook and other large social media organizations. If it’s not illegal it shouldn’t be censored by the main network, moderation should happen at the community and individual level, not on a national or global scale.
It would be irresponsible to overlook the fact that the lack of censorship might do more to empower bad actors than to protect good ones. In some cases false information travels faster than true information, so how are we to protect freedom of speech without succumbing to negative forces? This question is frankly difficult to answer and will have to be thoroughly explored during the design phase of the project.
If we can figure out ways to significantly address misinformation (fake news), disinformation (propaganda), and the breakdown of social sensemaking, then the goals of well intended censorship can be met through more just means conducive to the long-term welfare of society.
Social Health & Mental Well Being
The current social media paradigm has serious negative impacts on social health and mental well being. This ranges from political polarization, social media addiction, to the inability to form healthy relationships. Unfortunately Facebook is built to maximize advertising revenue, which is accomplished by hijacking as much of our attention as possible. Facebook is not tuned to maximize social health or foster positive relationships.
The Facebook model has resulted in a society of people that spend less quality time with their friends and family, is experiencing increased depression and anxiety, and is losing its grip on truth and reality. Our attention is directed towards conflict, because conflict results in greater engagement times on Facebook. Facebook’s business model is playing a significant role in unraveling our social fabric.
Mosaic will give you the information you want and need without screaming for your attention. Instead of a slot machine-like platform that seeks to maximize your attention, we will bake in self moderation tools and defaults that don’t push people toward compulsive engagement. Numerous organizations and research institutions are investigating this topic in depth and should have representation in the holistic design team. A new business model can go a long way to align the incentives of software maintainers with those of the people that use the software.
Fake News & Sensemaking
Knowing what is and is not true is a cornerstone of a stable civilization. When our ability to make sense of the world and our collective understanding of the truth breaks down we lose social cohesion and some capabilities to function effectively as a modern society. Civilization decay, or even collapse, could result from the breakdown of collective sense making.
The current social media paradigm is implicated in the breakdown of sensemaking. Once again, it comes back to a business model optimized to maximize our attention. Targeted advertising, often in the form of fake news, drives polarization, tribalism, and confirmation bias; further reducing critical thinking about the content of our news feeds. As curator of “all the things” Facebook is that much more pernicious.
The fact that false information travels faster on social media than true information was recently popularized through the documentary The Social Dilemma. False information is nothing new, but until Facebook and other Web-based media platforms, everyone was at least seeing the same thing on the evening news. We had some common basis of information about the world, even if inaccurate, on which to agree or disagree. While increased sources of information has its upsides, the sheer volume of information also makes it easier for people to isolate themselves in filter bubbles and go down a rabbit hole of confirmation bias. The outcome is many people not engaging in meaningful or reasoned discourse. Facebook is far from the sole cause, but it certainly plays a big role in generating self-reenforcing group think and contributing to a vicious cycle of division.
Frankly, this is a hard problem that can not solely be solved with technology; however, technology could help foster good media hygiene. We need an immune system and tools to fight the propagation of false information. To the degree that a social media platform can, Mosaic will foster critical thinking, collective sensemaking, and cultural norms that reward changing our perspective based on new information. Daniel Schmachtenberger is innovating in this space, advocating for things like broad adoption of the socratic method to foster a cultural enlightenment. From a technology perspective, we can implement verifiable credentials so we can cryptographically prove where information came from, enabling a Web of Verifiable Trust. This provides the ability for people to readily identify sources of information they trust. It will not however prevent people from relying on untrustworthy sources. Actively assigning trust rating to sources of information exercises the muscles of discretion that will hopefully get honed over time.
Facebook is corroding the Democratic process by unleashing targeted advertising into the political sphere, enabling political forces to distribute personalized content that exploits our biases for their benefit. Facebook enables political forces and monied interests to anonymously spread lies, fear, and even hate on an unprecedented scale.
Over time this drives people towards absolutist positions and society in the direction of polarization. We are being exposed to radically different versions of reality. A Biden and a Trump supporter can scroll through their news feeds and will not share a single piece of information. The outrage machine Facebook has built leaves many of us unable to tell up from down, unable to engage with people with whom we disagree in a civil manner.
And as mentioned before, we cannot audit Facebook to know how political ads are affecting the Democratic process. The ads are posted on specific people’s news feeds and then disappear. Facebook refuses to share this information. Brexit, for example, was likely impacted by illegal money spent on Facebook advertising within Britain. Without an audit trail there can be no legal recourse. Thanks to leaks we also know about the Cambridge Analitica scandal where 87 million Facebook profiles were harvested for data to enable sophisticated targeted political ads. Facebook robs the public of a shared narrative and the ability to make sense of the world.
Where is this trend heading? Do we want to continue to defer the shaping of global narratives to a single corporation controlled in great part by a single person? How could a platform be run differently? How might we not just slow the damage that social media is doing to Democracy, but actually improve the Democratic process?
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. A new social media platform must provide transparency into how political advertising is being performed. There must be some ability for the public to audit political advertising. Transparency and the ability to adapt to government regulation, all while maintaining personal privacy, seem like the right set of high level design requirements. This will be a focus topic for the holistic design process, which will not only include how we can help address the damage that Facebook is doing to Democracy, but also explore the use of social media tools to enhance democracy and civic engagement. For instance, I’ve written about the Prospect of a People’s Voice Platform here.
Business and Organizational Models
As previously mentioned, Facebook’s ad-based business model incentivizes them to maximize users’ time on Facebook, not the value users receive from the service. You are not the customer, the advertisers are. We can give Facebook the benefit of the doubt by assuming their negative impact to social health, mental well being, democracy, and civil rights were never intended, that they are natural outcomes of their organizational structure and business model.
Mosaic will not be rooted in the profit-at-all cost shareholder model, rather it will be designed to uplift humanity. The question is, what is the organizational and business model that best accomplishes this and how does Mosaic become financially sustainable without succumbing to corrupting influences? Again, this is another tricky problem to solve and will be addressed more deeply during the design phase of the project. What follows are some ideas and concepts to start with.
In order for the effort to be human-centered, the incentives need to be aligned with public interests and the higher ideals of humanity. It seems appropriate that the foundational layer of an organizational/business model should be a not-for-profit entity that provides stewardship over the network code, similar to the Linux Foundation. The Mosaic Foundation would be responsible for maintaining the base-level code and the standards upon which a myriad of companies build for-profit solutions. The Foundation might charge licensing fees but only to the degree that is required to sustainably fund its operations without the need to depend on “donations” from outside interests whose influence may corrupt the mission of the foundation. This way, the foundation can focus on it’s purpose of fostering a social media network that safeguards and supports the health of its users, society, and our institutions.
If the organization stewarding the software is a not-for-profit, how can we expect it to scale to the reach of Facebook and be a viable alternative to it? Is this possible without the profit motive and without profit-driven firms participating in the ecosystem? My current understanding is we are not likely to succeed without the private sector being an integral part of the organizational ecosystem. If we are indeed talking about replacing a tech titan with a market cap of $800B, there should be plenty of business opportunities in this new ecosystem. With regards to what revenue model each of these niches employs to pay for these services, I think we should be agnostic and let the market decide. I use the term “market” here in general terms. The market of ideas, values, and purpose applies as does the market of prices. Picking a single business model at the outset will reduce the chances of success. Let’s allow various approaches the chance to take root and spread. Some of the many business niches could be:
- Hosting services for Personal Data Vaults
- Hosting services for Community Spaces
- Community Space Design (think wordpress template)
- Community Space Administration (e.g. club management)
- Hardware providers (host your PDV at home or in your office)
Looking at this first niche of Hosting Personal Data Vaults, here are three different business models that could be tried:
- A monthly fee (like a website hosting fee)
- Access to our information (e.g. gmail)
- Our attention (advertisements)
Many may argue, as I previously would have, that we should somehow prevent advertising, however, an advertising option for a hosted service could play an important role in the transition from the existing social media paradigm to a human-centered one. The leap from a free service to paid service might be just too far for too many. The Mosaic Foundation will ensure that even the advertising versions of the service will include most of the benefits mentioned throughout this article. Many corporate brands are undoubtedly concerned that Facebook increasingly controls access to their customers. Some PDV hosting providers may work with these brands/advertisers to offer a free version of Mosaic.
Importantly, with the self sovereign architecture users can migrate their data from free advertising-based hosting services to paid ad-free services or to a home or business server they have physical control over. Data portability means that people and organizations have agency over their information and digital connections. If their service provider of choice fails to exist or meet customer needs people can easily migrate their data. This pattern of individual agency reflects in the new digital world the same liberty we expect in the physical world.
The Mosaic Foundation
I suggest that the not-for-profit that maintains the core code for the network be the Mosaic Foundation. As the design process progresses an initial stewardship council, similar to a board of directors, will be formed. This stewardship council will relinquish power as a new governance system evolves.
While from a partisan political perspective neutrality is prudent, there are some fairly universal values that I think the Foundation should be designed around, including protecting privacy, civil liberties, the democratic process, and empowering the marginalized in society. We want to actively empower new labor movements, enhance democracy, improve public discourse, and have fun doing it!
The Mosaic Foundation will also ensure that even itself can be replaced. Since the data is distributed with its users, the network effect is collectively owned, and the software is open source and/or standards-based, new governance should be able to emerge to replace Mosaic with as little friction as possible if the Mosaic Foundation should happen to fail.
The Art of the Possible
Like society itself social media is inherently messy but certainly we can create a social media platform that is a massive improvement over Facebook. Without the profit maximizing directive in the way, we can prioritize the public interest. Not only can we build a social media that is better for our mental health, it will simply be more enjoyable and useful. We’ll have transparency for reasons of social health and democracy, and protect our civil liberties by baking in data ownership and control. Ideally Mosaic will be digital infrastructure that helps enable a global movement to create a more just, regenerative, and meaningful world.
If Mosaic is successful, along with other sister efforts, it establishes network effect with this newfound self sovereign infrastructure. Suddenly we control our data, we the people own the social graph and we can come together and coordinate at scale to create new types of organizations, economic relationships, and even political systems. Imagine for instance if a new labor movement decided to create democratically governed and cooperatively owned sharing economy alternatives to Uber and AirBnB. Or if small and medium scale regenerative farmers teamed up as a franchised cooperative gleaning the benefits of sharing a brand and logistics while distributing the benefits equitably to those creating the value rather than to hedge fund managers on Wall Street. Imagine if each adult citizen could easily exercise their civic power and responsibility by engaging in an online space designed for civic engagement. What if we had the tools to realize the ideas laid out by the Next System Project. I am sure there are tens of thousands of content creators that would rather distribute their media through channels they control rather than YouTube, as long as the channels have similar reach. Once we’ve established a Self Sovereign digital infrastructure these dreams become more possible. So let’s not get stuck in the mindset of just counteracting the dark side of Facebook and social media, let’s aim to unleash the positive potential social media and the Web. Another world is possible.
Call to Action
We simply cannot allow the current trends to unfold, further damaging our personal and social health, our democracies, and infringing on our civil liberties. The long term health of our nation and world are at stake. The longer we wait the harder it will be to reverse the damage. There may be a temptation to switch to an existing platform rather than building something new as proposed here. I believe we ultimately need new digital infrastructure that bakes civil liberties into the core of the solution and prevents society from getting locked into a proprietary monopoly like Facebook ever again. If you are interested in this project I invite you to join me in doing the hard work to get this right, to advise, design, and launch Mosaic.
We are in the process of bringing together diverse stakeholders to participate in and financially support the holistic design process to address each facet in this challenging set of problems. I estimate that the design process will take 6 to 12 months and require $500k to $1M in funding. The outputs of the design process are expected to be a multidisciplinary design plan addressing all of the topics in this article as well as a short promotional video to start communicating the idea to the public and potentially raising funds via crowdfunding. Fundraising, build-out, and public communications will follow.
The cold hard truth is that this effort is more likely to fail than succeed. However, given the current appetite for a new social media paradigm, the chances of success are higher now than ever before. In a world so divided, and apparently unable to meet the major challenges of the day, we need more moonshot efforts for social change. It would be a shame not to try and it would be amazing to succeed. I hope to have the honor of working with you on this project!
Why Other Efforts Have Failed or Floundered
There have already been many efforts to improve on Facebook. I thought it would be useful to touch on some of the most notable and address why they haven’t succeeded, or aren’t likely to succeed, in supplanting Facebook. I share these shortcomings as a person that hoped each would succeed and for the purpose of learning from these experiments. It’s possible that one of them may yet succeed in taking over Facebook.
From my perspective there are some general mistakes that these efforts have made:
- No sustainable business model
- Poor marketing and/or fringe audience
- Only marginally better than Facebook but fundamentally the same
Diaspora is a decentralized social network started in 2010 by four college students after being inspired by Eben Mogle’s Freedom in the Cloud presentation at the New York Chapter Internet Society event. The fact that these four raised over $200K over ten years ago, way before the deep issues with the current social media paradigm were well known, demonstrates there was an appetite for an alternative even back then. I am sure there are numerous reasons this well intended effort fell short of it’s aspirations, some include that it was not well enough funded, the founding team’s lack of experience, and no business model to fuel growth of the effort. It also shares some of the downsides of Mastodon below, including being hub centric rather than user centric and it does not allow data migration and preservation of identity if a hub shuts down.
Mastodon, is a decentralized social network that boasts over 2 million users. While this pales in comparison to Facebook’s over 2 billion users, it’s pretty impressive for an open source, free, and voluntary grassroots network. Mastodon consists of various servers, or hubs, in a distributed network. To join Mastodon you have to join one of these hubs. The good news is that you have a variety of hubs with a diversity of moderation rules and cultural standards to choose from. The bad news is that if that hub is shut down for any reason, or you simply want to move to a new hub, you lose your profile on the network along with all of your social connections and have to start over. Mastodon is doing a lot right but we need to design a network with self sovereign architecture (aka user-centric) rather than hub centric, and a sustainable business model is essential.
Ello started in 2014 and gained massive attention later that year when Facebook began enforcing it’s real name policy. Ello may have started out intending to be an alternative to Facebook but it has become a niche community dedicated to artists. It’s also taken on venture capital funding which may not fully align it’s incentives to be the global public utility we need. Communities like Ello could be networked with other communities through the Mosaic Network.
MeWe started in 2012 and positions itself as a privacy protecting alternative to Facebook. It says it passed the 5 million user mark though it’s hard to know how many of these users are active. It’s gaining users quickly of late following the release of the documentary the Social Dilemma. MeWe has a free version with paid tiers but because of its silicon valley backed venture funding model it’s hard to say how they might change their business model over time. MeWe does not deploy self sovereign architecture where you own and control your data and identifiers — if they go out of business you lose your social connections.
There are also a variety of projects that aimed to leverage cryptocurrencies to solve the business model problem. As they have been implemented to date, most speculative cryptocurrencies are toxic. Projects like bitcoin and other “token networks” have only recreated the very maldistribution of wealth and power in their networks that we are trying to address with these new tools. Bitcoin for instance, has worse wealth distribution than the United States and at one point consumed more energy than the country of Ireland to secure the ledger. Aside from all this, concentrated bitcoin mining in China could undermine the distributed security of Bitcoin, it’s strongest feature.
Blockchain is a compelling tool and it has its place. I work in the blockchain industry after all, so it’s not like I don’t share an affinity for the tool. It would be a mistake however, to bake a crypto currency into a Facebook alternative, there is just no good reason to do so as far as I can tell and many reasons not to. Cryptocurrencies are interesting cryptographic architectures with complex and unpredictable emergent characteristics that we are still in the early days of learning about. There is simply no need to inject a speculative cryptocurrency into the heart of an alternative to Facebook only to likely find that the pyramid wealth distribution of other popular cryptocurrencies repeated itself and undermined the entire egalitarian ethos of the project. Mosaic should be cryptocurrency agnostic, able to interface with cryptocurrencies, but not have them be baked in and be dependent on their stability. If an organization wants to run a PDV hosting service based on cryptocurrency, more power to them, as long as each user can migrate to a different service if they choose.