The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet

cover image for white paper "The Three Legged Stool" featuring four stools depicted in the style of an Andy Warhol portrait

“The Three-Legged Stool” is the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure’s banner white paper: the culmination of our work here at the lab so far and our roadmap for our efforts in the coming years. It was written primarily by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Michael Sugarman under the editorial direction of Ethan Zuckerman.

Access “The Three-Legged Stool” here:

Brian X. Chen wrote about this paper in the April 20th, 2023 edition of the New York Times. His article appeared on the front page above the fold as, “Social Media As We Knew It Is Long Gone.”

Executive Summary

At the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, we believe that a truly sustainable and resilient digital public sphere is possible and is actively being created. We envision a public sphere supported by these three legs:

  1. Consists of many different platforms with a wide variety of scales and purposes; 
  2. Users can navigate with a loyal client that aggregates, cross-posts, and curates;
  3. Is all supported by cross-cutting services rooted in interoperable data.

In this paper, we illustrate our vision for a healthier digital public sphere by exploring what we believe are its three constitutive parts.

First, we propose a pluriverse consisting of existing platforms alongside a flourishing ecosystem of Very Small Online Platforms (VSOPs) that serve conversations and communities that are poorly served by today’s digital public sphere. Just as we do not exclusively gather in shopping malls in the physical world, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not the right place for every community and conversation online. We argue the need for civic-centered VSOPs like our platform Smalltown. We highlight existing VSOPs like Letterboxd and An Archive of Our Own and discuss what it takes to develop a new VSOP, using our work on Freq, a VSOP dedicated to music discovery and discussion, as a case study. 

Second, we sketch out a “loyal client” for navigating the digital public sphere. Akin to an email client like Apple Mail or a chat client like ICQ, our loyal client aggregates, filters, and posts to a person’s various social media feeds, be those VSOPs or established platforms like Twitter or Reddit. Such a tool depends on people being able to delegate authority to a loyal client, which comes with challenges related to privacy, adoption, and usability.

Third, we introduce the “friendly neighborhood algorithm store.” This is a marketplace that VSOPs and loyal clients can rely on for curation and Trust & Safety, tools which no single VSOP or loyal client could develop on their own, and which large platforms have developed over decades with significant resources. These include recommender systems, spam detection, anti-abuse tools, and powerful filters for CSAM and terrorist content.

We believe this moment, when people are so dissatisfied with the platforms that have dominated for the past decade-and-a-half, presents a unique opportunity to build a digital public sphere where people and communities with different preferences and purposes can participate accordingly.



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