The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Evan Henshaw-Plath, Planetary.Social

November 03, 2020

Evan Henshaw-Plath (aka Rabble), founder of Planetary.Social and member of Twitter's founding team, joins the podcast to talk about decentralized social media, how context collapse makes content moderation on platforms like Facebook and Twitter impossible, and building a platform that's safe for people like furries while keeping away people like neo-Nazis.

Learn more about Planetary.Social.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

I am thrilled today to have my friend Evan Henshaw Plath, also known as Rabble. He is an activist, a technology-driven organizer, a software developer, a member of the founding Twitter team, and now the Executive Director and high Poobah of Planetary.social. Did I miss anything in their Evan?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

No, that's about right. Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay. So we're asking everybody the same question in the series and it's really pretty simple. It's a twofer. What is wrong with social media, as we look at it now in August, 2020 and what should we do to fix it? And in your case, of course, you're very actively involved in fixing it with Planetary.social. But let's start with this question of what's wrong with social media right now? And maybe take us back a little bit to your role with Twitter and how we got here.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Social media, first of all, we use it all the time. It's transformed the world, it's transformed how we connected, it's transformed culture and politics. And so it's easy to say everything is wrong with it, but actually there's a lot that's super powerful and good about it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And so I think that we are much better off in the world having it than when we didn't have it, even though what we built is pretty flawed. So it's important to understand a bit of the history of where Twitter came from and how it constructed. So the originally the company was funded by Evan Williams, who had been very involved with early blogs and Blogspot and Blogger. And we were trying to build a democratized radio by creating podcasting. And so we built podcasting application and we weren't very good at competing with Apple. Even Apple 15 years ago was a massive company with a lot of resources. And so Apple crushed us and we said, "Oh, well we should build something different," because we didn't win in building this podcasting thing. And a couple of us in the company had been working with Tad Hirsch, who was at the time, a doctoral student at the Media Lab.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And is now teaching over at Northeastern.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Yeah. And so he had created this text message-based social network for protests, where you could keep small groups of people or large groups of people really easily up to date. And so what my friend Blaine and I did was we basically went in and sort of rearchitected the technology so that those text messages could be delivered and we use that during the election cycle in 2004, both for protests and get out to vote.

Ethan Zuckerman:

How do we get from this sort of tool about, "Hey, come to the protest," to Twitter's paradigm of sharing media, sharing snark, all the many layers of things that Twitter is and isn't today, and in some ways is a social network that punches disproportionately above its weight, given the presence of the US president and all these journalists on it?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So what happened was we said that the text mob thing that Tad had built lacked a bit of that, the way in which blogs worked. And so we called Twitter microblogging at the time, and the idea was to make it so that you didn't have to have two way relationships so that I could talk out to the world and then I didn't have to listen to everybody who was hearing me. It's not a two-way friendship, so you could do broadcasts and then you could build an audience around who you wanted to listen to and who they wanted to listen to.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And this is 180 from Facebook, which required reciprocal friendships from day one.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And initially at this point, Facebook had no newsfeed at all. Facebook was closed within each individual university campus. You had to have email addresses and it was not a published to the world.

Ethan Zuckerman:

When some of the Twitter executives now tell the story, they talk about it a little bit, almost like a workflow tool, almost something like what we would think of Slack as. Is that part of the heritage as well?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

No, not really. It was very much text messaging, activism and blogging, like very much has its roots in early blogging culture.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Got it.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And because of that, there was an open API and then there was RSS feeds and all sorts of people built all sorts of clients. And the way Twitter's innovation worked is it happened all at the edges. So the users created everything. They created inline images and short links and retweets and the app, actual at and hashtags. And so Twitter's innovation and social, it's not like someone designed Twitter as it exists today. The users of Twitter created what it became and Twitter, the company, just supported, adopted, cultivated this garden where innovation can happen.

Ethan Zuckerman:

How long did you stay with Twitter, the company, and what led you to break away?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So I stayed there for the first two years of the company. But it was, at the time, a very open company. So I still had root access on all the servers for several years after I left. And people who weren't employees would contribute code and people who were former employees would write code. And it was never very defined, like there were people getting paid, but there were people working on it not getting paid as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So it was just a very fluid boundary at that point?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Exactly. And what happened over time was Twitter got big enough that some point people are like, "Hey, we should have a business model." And the business model that was adopted was an advertising model, which has never been particularly successful for Twitter, and it still isn't particularly successful. But in order to make that advertising model work, Twitter had to get rid of some of its openness.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And basically, sort of enclose what was the commons run by a company, but functionally a commons because it was collectively governed and it was a collective resource and collectively created. And by enclosing it, they were able to make a business that was sustainable, and has a huge impact on the world for being a relatively small business.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What is it that's wrong with Twitter now, with social media more broadly, that sort of brought you back to this initial question of how do you build an open social media ecosystem?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So a few things. One, Twitter over its evolution, made a bunch of decisions about this closing things down. They closed down third party applications. They've closed down the project to do structured data that aren't texts in your tweets. They closed down the federated thing, so Twitter originally worked like Mastodon in terms of being federated. And a bunch of us who had been working on it, kept thinking what if that other path had been taken? And so I kept looking at that model and saying, "Well, maybe we should reopen that box and do something there. Can we make the technology work?" And then I came across Elinor Ostrom's work on the economy of the commons, and I realized that what we'd created in social media ecosystems is a kind of public. It's a public that's governed in different ways. So in some parts of the world, it's very heavily governed by the state. And in China, the state is very interventionist about who can say what and what can be said. And the state defines the regulation that the social media companies then implement.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

In the United States, those very laws they fare in which the corporations decide all of the rules of this space and the state does very little. And so the American system is a lot like a shopping mall. A shopping mall feels like a public space. It feels like you have everybody together. But if you try and hold a protest in a shopping mall, they will very quickly say that this is private property and the first amendment doesn't apply in the way you think it applies.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right. It's a privately owned public space. And as such, it has some of the affordances that a public space has, but fewer protections than one might hope it would have. How do you do something different in constructing a de novo social network? What is Planetary and what is Planetary trying to do that's so different from what else is out there right now?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So part of it is Planetary to saying that the space we should have should function like a commons, function like a space which is collectively governed on a certain rules with enforcement that provides economic and social value to the participants of it, but which is not owned or controlled by a single entity. And so in order to do that, you need to have a vision of it which says this isn't a flat public sphere where you're trying to put everybody together in the same conversation. And this is part of the value of Twitter is it's a single public space where I can reply to anyone else, I can have hashtags and everything else. So you create this collective conversation, but you also create this sort of collapsing of context. We need to design something that is both governed as a commons and creates the structures by which communities can run themselves, define their norms and enact sanctions as a collective entity, without going back to a corporation that needs to kind of define the rules.

Ethan Zuckerman:

On a system like Twitter, there's really no transparency about what content is being blocked. There's not a ton of transparency about how the terms of service that you probably haven't read, but have agreed to are being enforced. Everything about the governance is opaque and what you might actually want are spaces that frankly help us understand how to be better democratic citizens, actually help us figure out how we govern the spaces that we are choosing to take part of. So how does Planetary support this notion of multiple spaces and this notion of governance of those spaces?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

We exist within a network of people we know, within social circles, and we normally have heard the conversations within those social circles. And so when you open up Planetary or any of the other compatible Scuttlebutt apps, Scuttlebutt's the underlying protocol, and then what you see is just the subset of the world around you. It's as if you went into a forest at night and you had a really bright light, and you know that the forest might extend for miles, but the part of the forest you see is the few hundred feet around you. And if you move and set up a light somewhere else, then you'll see another part of the forest and [crosstalk 00:12:24].

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Conversation. And so by doing that, we scope our social interactions around communities, and you're much less likely to have that sort of random person or the conflating of different communities.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So basically, we're sort of focused in on a subset of the graph. And so we might hear the conversations that approximate to us, we're not necessarily hearing conversations that are all the way on the other side of the social graph. What happens when people in that neighborhood argue or disagree about what the rules should be for what's acceptable in a conversation?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So there's a couple of things that happened. One thing we had on the network is not in our application, but with compatible applications, a bunch of Norwegian neo-Nazis created some pubs, these are servers that relay messages, and they translated some of the open-source applications into Norwegian. And they set up their sort of corner. And the rest of us are like, "Well, we don't really like Norwegian neo-Nazis." And so we found the points at which their network bridged and we set up blocks. So the messages don't relay back and forth.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And so what happened is we created this segmented network and you could either be part of that one or a part of the larger network, and there's social punishment for someone who tries to set up that relay. So if you're like, "Oh no, I really want to get the neo-Nazis into the larger conversation," you can do that. But then there's an awareness of who's doing the blocks and we have this thing called a trust net protocol, which is an actual way of calculating how much you respect and how much you sort of delegate authority to the people around you and who you delegate it to, to make those decisions about how far you want to extend your network in different directions.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We should stop here and just talk a little bit about some of the problems that happen when you create either a distributed network as Planetary is, or a federated network as Mastodon is.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Yep.

Ethan Zuckerman:

These are both ways of trying to take control away from a central figure. And in many ways, this is much closer to the internet, perhaps pre-2000, where it just wasn't all that hard for anyone to connect a server to the net and there was a general sense of you're really only responsible to whoever is providing you the connection. When I teach this, I often talk about the Kremvax hoax. And this was this idea in the late eighties, early nineties, that the Kremlin had attached a VAX mini-computer to the net through Finland. And the reason it worked as an April Fools' joke was that it was totally plausible.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It was perfectly reasonable for Finland to give a connection to the Kremlin and to put Kremvax on there, and people responded to it with, "Okay, sounds good. Let's see how it goes." We see the same thing happen often now within distributed and federated networks. And it's simply a product of releasing open source software and protocols that can be connected to. Within Mastodon, there's been a split over Lolicon. So basically, hand drawn erotic imagery of children, which has a different role in Japanese society than it does in US society, it may be more acceptable, and what's happened is much what you're saying. There are a lot of Mastodon operators who basically said, "Sorry, we are simply not going to federate. We'll be part of the same network. We're using some of the same protocol, but we're not going to route messages to or from you because we don't want that content there." So Planetary has the same ability to do this, even though it's a little different from a federated network. How does Planetary differ from Mastodon and other federated networks?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So federated networks, your account and your identity and the structure of who you're connected to exists on a server that someone is running. And sometimes that's an individual person, sometimes that's a company, sometimes it's a collective of people. Those are the people who have the moderation tasks. And so you don't have direct connections coming into your laptop or your phone. They come into the server and then the server manages your relationships.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

With Planetary and our Scuttlebutt protocol, the way it works is there's no federated servers. There's these relay servers, but they don't have the control the way they do in Mastodon. And so you have a set of relationships of people that you have contacts with. And those contacts have a numeric value between one and negative one.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Zero contact means I am neither blocking them nor following them nor relaying their content on to my friends. And a one means, please relay this on to everybody I have.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And so that fractional number is not just do I want to see this person's contacts, but my judgment about their relations, what I think they should be reflected out to the broader world.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay. So it's a reputation system, but it's also a control over how information passes within the system. Is that all transparent to the user? Can I look at this and say, "Evan, I'm pretty persuaded by this. I'm going to bump you up from a 0.6 to a 0.8"?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

No, no, we hide it. Maybe we need to expose it. And if you are a developer, you can go and connect to people and see what numbers they are and create visualizations of it. And the cross net software we do goes and uses those numbers to handle auto blocking and a bunch of other things about who we should expose you to, who we suggest you follow, that kind of stuff.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And it might extrapolate from my behavior. If I amplify you a number of times, it probably increments your score up or something along those lines.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Yeah. And this is an idea that's not unique to Planetary or Scuttlebutt. One of the things I've been doing is involved in Twitter's new decentralized project called Bluesky, which is basically an attempt to create, and a decentralized version, not of the scoped commons based model that Planetary is building, but of that public sphere. And a critical aspect of that is saying the algorithm about what content you see shouldn't be singly held by a corporation. But rather, that feed algorithm needs to be something that you could plug in different versions of.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I do want to ask you maybe two questions that come up for me out of that. One is just about a peculiarity of secure Scuttlebutt and therefore about Planetary, which is that this network is permanent. Nothing is deleted. Why is that and how is that going to change social interactions?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

So I think it's a mistake. And what we did with building it is we set it so that you can run it either a permanent or in a mode where you can opportunistically delete stuff, but you don't have to. If I send you an email, you don't have to keep it forever.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

But I don't know whether or not you keep it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And you don't have any control over whether I keep it forever. This is simply a property of distributed systems. You've put something out in the world, it has your cryptographic signature on it. As long as I retain a copy of it with your legitimate cryptographic signature on it, that content cannot be deleted.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Yeah. And so what we did was we took the cannot be deleted and continued to sign it and made it so it can be deleted, but you never know whether or not the people you're requesting deleted do delete it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Got it.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

We call it a soft delete. It's asking politely for people to delete stuff.

Ethan Zuckerman:

When you sign up for Planetary now, you're running an iOS app. The signup is really weird. It asks you just what you want to be called and a question about what year you were born in, presumably to have some bar for minors. And then I assume that what's happened behind the scenes is that I now have a private key stored on my phone that I'm going to be using to sign messages, right now on Planetary. But at some point in the future, I could open up cosmic.social, and if it speaks to Planetary protocol, I could build different spaces with different affordances or norms, but it would still be open to people who have the Planetary key pair on their phone.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Yeah. And in fact that already exists. So you could go to the Feedless.social, and create an account, and it will store your key pair in your browser like local storage.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And you can then redeem an invite or follow someone who's on Planetary.social on their phone and see each other's posts back and forth.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

If you're using Feedless and you decide that you would rather use Planetary, you can take your keys and you can move them over to Planetary and all of your followers and all of your content move with you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Talk to me about how Planetary grows and gains users. Obviously it's in an early beta right now. It's clearly changing a lot, but you're going to be moving into a world where Twitter is also trying to build something highly decentralized. How do you see Planetary attracting users? Are you going after individuals? Are you going after communities? What are the use cases for the people you're trying to bring into the project?

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Really we're going after communities of people, because people are social animals and building social software for individuals doesn't make a ton of sense. We're looking at communities of people who have particular needs in terms of not being satisfied with the existing system. So there's communities of people who are violating the rules on existing social media platforms, who we don't want, just like [inaudible] folks went over running on the ActivityPub Mastadon protocols. We're not seeking out those people and we don't want them using our application, but we expect they will. They do use the protocol. Then there's the class of people who everybody who got kicked off of Tumblr, who were basically queer and sex positive youth who were doing things that Verizon didn't want to see.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

There's a whole world of people who are not OnlyFans paid pornography, but are also not things that fit corporate America's ideas of morality.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So yes to furries, no to Nazis.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Exactly. And then people who are using Mastodon, but want to build a different class of social applications, people who are using Signal and they want privacy, we support scalable private groups. So your messages could be public, they could be directly individual to individual, encrypted or in sort of a scalable private group of encrypted messages. And so people who want a signal style encryption, but not for chat, for social media.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

And then the last group we're looking at is media companies that want to control their relationship to their audience.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Evan Henshaw-Plath:

Newsletter publishers to media outlets with hundreds of employees, they're publishing on Apple, Facebook, Google's platforms and those companies are sometimes giving them a lot of money and then changing the algorithm and then pulling away and then deleting accounts and then charging them 50% of their revenue. And so they want a kind of sovereign control over their relationship to their audience over social media. And right now, they can build their own app or they can run their website with a paywall, or they can put their content out on these platforms where they don't control the relationship.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So much to think about in here. Really exciting to see it taking off. So many of the same problems and questions that we're facing over at our project, we start from aggregation as our first step, precisely for the reason that you're talking about. One of the things I really have to get my head around is how we aggregate into Planetary, given that you're using a very different approach to URLs and the ability to share posts. But that's a technical conversation we have to have at some point. In the meantime, though, this notion of true decentralization, identity that resides on the phone or on the device and this vision of many different spaces with many different rule sets is so aligned with what we're trying to do. I hope we're going to have a chance to keep talking about this as we both go forward with these projects.