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Twitter is funding research into a decentralized version of its platform

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The outside research team will be called Bluesky

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Twitter is funding a small team of researchers to build an “open and decentralized standard for social media,” with the goal of making Twitter a client for that standard. CEO Jack Dorsey announced the news and laid out his reasoning in a tweet thread this morning, although he acknowledged that the process could take years.

The project is called Bluesky, and nobody’s working on it yet. Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal is tasked with finding a lead for the project, who will build a team of up to five people. The Bluesky account’s only tweet quotes Dorsey with the comment “lo” — a reference to the first message ever sent on the internet.

Dorsey says he was inspired partly by a proposal from Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, who has long promoted a standard of “protocols, not platforms” for the internet. He also says that a decentralized system could solve some key problems with social media — especially moderation issues. “Centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term without placing far too much burden on people,” writes Dorsey.

Agrawal tweeted that the ideal candidate will have experience working “in the open on the blockchain,” and Dorsey points to blockchain technology as a way decentralized social networks could implement “open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization.” He doesn’t elaborate on this point, though. It’s relatively easy to see how blockchains could help create a decentralized payment system, but distributed record-keeping — one of the technology’s main strengths — doesn’t offer a clear solution for problems like finding moderators to manage decentralized communities.

Decentralized social networks already exist. The best-known system is likely Mastodon, which is composed of individual- or community-run servers loosely connected through a system called the “fediverse.” Mastodon itself is based on an open-source networking protocol called ActivityPub.

Dorsey leaves open the possibility of using this kind of existing standard. “For social media, we’d like this team to either find an existing decentralized standard they can help move forward, or failing that, create one from scratch,” he writes. “That’s the only direction we at Twitter, Inc. will provide.” Twitter is already a participant in the Data Transfer Project, a nascent effort to allow data to be easily moved between web platforms — and it’s possible Bluesky’s work will dovetail with that effort.

If Bluesky comes up with a viable protocol, Dorsey says Twitter would benefit from using it because “it will allow us to access and contribute to a much larger corpus of public conversation, focus our efforts on building open recommendation algorithms which promote healthy conversation, and will force us to be far more innovative than in the past.” Though Dorsey doesn’t say this, it offers Twitter an escape from its substantial moderation woes — if Twitter is just a client, it’s much less responsible for what people post online. And he argues that social media networks’ value is becoming more linked to providing recommendation algorithms rather than hosting content itself.

If Bluesky bears fruit at all, it could take years to see the effects. But it’s an unusual direction for a social network to take in 2019 — and it at least promises to expose interesting questions about how an internet that’s not full of walled gardens could work.