The chaos at (and on) Twitter is emblematic of the state of social media today (Illustration by Adam Cholewa)
One morning over the summer, unsuspecting social media users swiping groggily at their devices’ home screen, perhaps in an effort to find the snooze button on their alarm app, came across an unfamiliar icon. The little blue bird that had symbolized social media giant Twitter for more than a decade was now an anonymous black and white X. The change precipitated a substantial drop on the Apple App Store’s ‘Top Downloaded’ chart but it was only the latest bit of drama for Twitter. Since being purchased by Elon Musk in 2022, the platform has been at the centre of a series of lawsuits, high-profile firings and controversies over the reversal of bans against posters who use it to disseminate dangerous misinformation and petty insults on a rotating basis.
The chaos at (and on) Twitter is emblematic of the state of social media today. Once touted as online spaces where communities could grow, connections could be forged, and conversations could be had, our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds now have us on a diet of reposted video content, self-promotion and ads. Trolls and reply guys creep like fungus and harassment makes the leap from online to IRL with fatal consequences.
In 2019, a regional level German politician who supported open immigration policies was hounded on social media before being murdered outside of his home by a neo-Nazi. It’s an extreme example, but social media platforms have become open channels for extremism, hate speech and misinformation. Also: ads. Even those of us who still get some utility or enjoyment from social media can probably agree that these platforms aren’t “good.”
So, what’s next? Cryptocurrency.
No, really! Not the volatile financial system of digital tokens and coins, but the principle of decentralization—and the technological structures that support it.
“The history of the internet basically swings back and forth between centralization and decentralization,” says filmmaker Dylan Reibling, whose current project is a documentary titled The End of The Internet. “We have a lot of preconceived notions about the internet being this decentralized Wild West where anybody can communicate with anybody in a hierarchy-free manner, but that’s a theoretical idea based on some of the original technology. In reality, the internet that we experience on a day-to-day basis is highly controlled and highly centralized under corporations like Meta, Google and Twitter.”
The way that the internet is structured, Reibling explains, favours corporate control over both information and our online identities. When Meta launched Threads, for example, they simply shuttled their massive cache of user data (our digital identities) from Instagram into the new app—whether some users wanted it there or not.
“This new wave of decentralization is basically people taking the lessons learned from Bitcoin and blockchains and starting to find new uses for them,” says Reibling. One such use is the establishment of decentralized online communities. “Instead of Twitter, which is everybody everywhere all the time [and] everyone is in communication with everyone else, maybe it looks like smaller ‘dark forest’ communities or ‘cozy web’ communities.”
The Dark Forest theory of the internet comes from Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, who defines these emerging communities as “spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments” and says that the cultures found in these communities is more in alignment with the communities we build in the physical world.
These spaces come in varied forms: newsletters, podcasts, Slack channels, and invite-only message boards or Telegram groups. “Discord is a good example of what the future probably looks like,” says Reibling. “Maybe people wear a bunch of different hats there. They have their little niches in the same way that people have their group chats. Maybe they go to this platform to talk about sports, and that platform to talk about science.”
Reibling sees both upsides and downsides to this scattering of users spending less time on platforms like Twitter and more time in their niche communities. “I think it’s easier to build a stronger community with fewer people,” he says, citing the private discord server, Friends With Benefits. Applicants are carefully vetted by insiders already using the platform.
“That model can be used for other communities like local Antifa or local Black Lives Matter movements,” says Reibling. “You can have a strong, cohesive group with shared values where you’re presumably not under the surveillance of trolls or law enforcement or intelligence agencies.”
The catch is that FWB is a crypto-based digital co-op and charges a 75 $FWB full membership fee. At one point in 2022, that amount was equal to $3,400 USD, a huge barrier to entry for most people. The other downside is the potential for these gated spaces to become enclaves in which racist or misogynistic ideas concentrate and accelerate. There isn’t a simple ‘centralization is good/decentralization is bad’ dichotomy. “It’s complicated,” says Reibling.
“The fundamental dynamic is that things tend towards centralization because centralization allows for scale and scale is very profitable,” he explains. “While there are a lot of people doing interesting work and putting their money where their mouth is in terms of building these decentralized platforms, they just can’t be as profitable as monopolies. Decentralized apps, hardware and software resist scale, resist monopoly and resist profitability. Decentralization is an uphill battle.”
One that, if we want it, we may have to pay for.
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