I’m writing this post at a time when Donald Trump’s social media accounts were closed by Twitter, Facebook and across pretty much all popular social networks. Parler, an alternative social network has been kicked off the Apple and Google app stores and its AWS account was closed. It also appears that many vendors are dropping it and it will take significant time to get back online, if it is able to do so.
I’m not interested in talking about the reasons for this, mind. This is a hot topic political issue, in a country I’m not a citizen of, and I have no interest in getting bogged down with the political details.
I wish I could say that I had no dog in this fight, but I suspect that the current events will have a long term impact on the digital world. Note that all of those actions are taken by private companies, on their own volition. In other words, it isn’t a government or the courts demanding this behavior, but the companies’ own decision making process.
The thing that I can’t help thinking is that the current behavior by those companies is direct, blatant and very much short sighted. To start with, all of those companies are working on global scale, and they have just proven that they are powerful enough to rein in the President of the Unites States. Sure, he is at a lame duck status currently, but that is still something that upset the balance of power.
The problem with that is that while it would appear that the incoming US administration is favorable to this course of action, there are other countries and governments that are looking at this with concern. Poland is on track to pass a law prohibiting the removal of posts in social media that do not break local laws. Israel’s parliament is also considering a similar proposal.
In both cases, mind, these proposed laws got traction last year, before the current escalation in this behavior. I feel that more governments will now consider such laws in the near future, given the threat level that this represent to them. A politician is this day and age that doesn’t use social media to its fullest extent is going to be severely hampered. Both the Obama and the Trump campaigns were lauded for their innovative use of social media, for example.
There are also other considerations to ponder. One of the most costly portions of running a social network is the monitoring and filtering of posts. You have to take into account that people will post bile, illegal and obscene stuff. That’s expensive, and one of the reasons for vendors dropping of Parler was their moderation policies. That means that there is a big and expensive barrier in place for future social networks that try to grow.
I’m not sure how this is going to play out in the short term, to be honest. But in the long term, I think that there is going to be a big push, both legally and from a technical perspective to fill those holes. From a legal perspective, I would expect that many lawyers will make a lot of money on the fallout from the current events, just with regards to the banning of Parler. I expect that there are going to be a whole lot of new precedents, both in the USA and globally.
From a technical perspective, the technology to run a distributed social network exists. Leave aside currently esoteric choices such as social network on blockchain (there appears to be a lot of them, search for that, wow!), people can fall back to good old Blog & RSS to get quite a bit of traction. It wouldn’t take much to something that looks very similar to current social networks.
Consider RSS Bandit or Google Reader vs. Twitter or Facebook. There isn’t much that you’ll need to do to go from aggregation of RSS feeds to a proper social network. One advantage of such a platform, by the way, is that it allows (and encourage) thought processes that are longer than 140 characters. I dearly miss the web of the 2000s, by the way.
Longer term, however, I would expect a rise of distributed social networks that are composed of independent but cooperating nodes (yes, I’m aware of Mastodon, and I’m familiar with Gab breaking out of that). I don’t know if this will be based on existing software or if we’ll end up with new networks, but I think that the die has been cast in this regard.
That means that the next social network will have to operate under assumed hostile environment. That means running on multiple vendors, taking no single point of failure, etc.
The biggest issue with getting a social network off the ground is… well, network effects. You need enough people in the network before you start getting more bang for the buck. But right now, there is a huge incentive for such a network, given the migration of many users from the established networks.
Parler’s app has seen hundreds of thousands of downloads a day in the past week, before it was taken down from the app stores. Gab is reporting 10,000+ new users an hour and more users in the past two days than they had seen in the past two years.
There is a hole there that will be filled, I think. Who will be the winner of all those users, I don’t know, but I think that this will have a fundamental impact on the digital world.