We talk a lot about reimagining the internet here at iDPI, and that’s because it’s something we spend most of our time at the lab doing. We’re thrilled to share our new, banner white paper with you, and we hope you’re excited by our call to widen your own imagination if what’s possible in social media.
Last week we published our banner white paper, “The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet.” Its a summation of our work at the lab so far, our vision for the future social media, and a road map of what we’re working on the next few years. Ethan invites his co-authors Mike and Chand on the show this week to give you the TL;DR and a some background on the project.
Hey everybody, welcome to a very special episode of “Reimagining the Internet.” I am your erstwhile host, Ethan Zuckerman, and I’m here with two of my very favorite people in the world.
One is quite familiar to you, that’s Mike Sugarman
He’s the Director of Media the initiative for digital public infrastructure. He edits and produces this podcast. He edits and produces our newsletter. He is the master of all the propaganda that comes out from iDPI. Say hi, Mike.
Hi, hello everybody.
We’ve also got Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, who is the Director of Product for the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. What that means is that at the end of the day, Chand is the guy building all the different tools that we’re trying to build here at IDPI.
He’s also my very frequent co-author, including a co-author of a terrific little book called An Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media. Chand, glad to have you back on the podcast.
Hey, it’s good to be back too.
So our reason for getting together is that we released a white paper, which is surprisingly readable as these sorts of things go, but is on the other hand, you know, 30 pages of text.
And we get that not everyone’s gonna read it. And even if you were gonna read it, you probably couldn’t read it while, you know, commuting to work or taking a shower. So we thought this might be our commuting to work while taking a shower version.
Mike, why did we write this paper? And what’s it called and what’s it about?
I will say Chand and I both work basically remotely for the lab, so oftentimes taking a shower our commute to work. So we are our target audience here, which I’m very excited about.
Yeah, this paper, it’s called The Three-Legged Stool. Ethan, I think if I remember correctly, I’m going to have you talk about this in a second, but it came from like this really complicated slide that you showed us that you had in a in a talk a while back.
It’s a pretty consistent metaphor, I think in the American political imagination for a platform that has three components.
Our platform that we’re talking about here is digital public infrastructure, of course, but also a refinement of that idea that we’ve been working on recently, the digital public sphere. And the idea is how do you build an internet that supports the digital public sphere, better than our current one does, has three legs.
Those legs basically are the pluriverse, a loyal client, and the friendly neighborhood algorithm store.
Chand, you’re actually responsible for making sure that Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure builds these things. What are the things that IDPI is actually building as three legs for the stool?
Yeah, so first, when we talk about a pluriverse, that’s kind of our response to the metaverse vision being put forth by among others Mark Zuckerberg.
And so when we talk about a pluriverse, we mean the ecosystem of platforms that make up our digital public sphere. That ecosystem consists of very large platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But kind of what we are focused on is very small platforms.
So things like our project Small Town, which is focused on civic conversations at the local level. Things like our project called Freq, which is a social network for music discovery and curation. And so that really is kind of the vision of the pluriverse and kind of a couple of projects we’re working on on that side.
Secondly, the loyal client. So that’s kind of our vision for an aggregator, cross poster and kind of navigator for your social media presence. And so basically what we imagine the loyal client being is sort of like how you use Google Chrome or Safari to navigate the many different sites on the web. You would use the loyal client.
Our project is called GOBO to navigate all your different social media platforms. So you could use it to check Twitter, Mastodon, Reddit, and pull in all the posts from those different platforms, have some more control over how those posts are filtered, what kinds of posts you’re seeing, and then also being able to post to all those different platforms from one place.
So we think this is a nice way for us to give some control back to the individual, and also a nice way to address these hard questions about the digital public sphere.
So for example, what kinds of content do people want to see? A lot of our debates today are about very minute decisions related to content. So whether we should take this post out, leave it up, whether this counts as misinformation or not. We think that maybe a different approach to these challenges is to give people more choice and control over their various feeds. And maybe then you start to see kind of those questions get answered in different ways by different people. And so that’s kind of our vision for the loyal client.
Yeah, so to support those, the loyal client and the pluriverse, we’re imagining something we’re calling the friendly neighborhood algorithm store, which is basically a marketplace of different service that would support, you know, very small platforms and loyal clients in their work to keep their spaces safe and also to curate the content on them.
And so right now, you know, platforms like Facebook and Twitter and TikTok, they dedicate, you know, millions of dollars and hundreds of engineers to developing algorithms that, you know, keep, you know, CSAM off of their platforms that identify myths and disinformation, that help up-rank content that you might be interested in, while down-ranking content that you might not be interested in.
And for the very small platforms that we’re envisioning, as well as the loyal clients, which are kind of aggregating and filtering your content for you, they’re gonna need similar types of algorithms, but they likely won’t have the resources of a Facebook or a TikTok to develop those algorithms and services.
And so we think that there needs to be an ecosystem of essentially third party organizations, probably companies that provide a kind of a suite of different algorithms and services that can fulfill a lot of these trust and safety and curation functions for these very small platforms in the lower client.
So yeah, that’s kind of a little more detail about those three legs that we envision in this fight.
Well, yes, no surprise that took 30 pages. There’s a lot in there.
And, Chand, that’s an admirable summary of a whole bunch of different work there.
So, I think, yeah, I agree. That did really sum it up really, really well. I guess we could just end the episode now.
I’m kidding because what we actually get to do in this episode is, you know, give some context. We get to like make the picture a little bit more, right? We do spend 30 pages in this white paper laying out all these ideas, I think. in a pretty even-handed way that’s nice to read and includes a lot of good footnotes, but I think listeners might want to know, you know, how did we get here?
You know, this is the result of a lot of research that we’ve done here at the lab so far. And like I mentioned, Ethan, I think this came out of a talk that you gave. Could you kind of give us some insight and how we kind of got to the point where we had to write a paper like this?
Well, I think the way we got around to the three-legged stool paper was that our mission just kept getting more complicated. So, Chand and I spent a good chunk of the last academic year launching a new social network specific to the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. And the whole idea was, could we have a small civically focused social network for discussions of local, political, and social issues, and nothing else.
And it’s a cool idea. We worked with the town of Amherst. We are now relaunching it this year with Amherst Media, which is a great community organization that provides information to the town of Amherst.
But one of the things that we realized is that you’re never going to get people to break away from Twitter and decide to have all of their conversations on an Amherst Community Media platform.
And frankly, you don’t want that to happen either. You want people to have the ability to communicate on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, whatever other social networks they’re on. But you also want them to be able to join small special purpose spaces to have conversations that they choose to invest their time and energy in.
The problem is in the current media landscape, you’re going to lose track of these conversations. You’re always going to end up forgetting about them because everyone is shouting at each other on Twitter and dealing with the latest Elon Musk nonsense.
And so we started thinking about how could we have a second part of this equation? Basically, could we end up with something that reminded us to pay attention to some of these other conversations going on?
And the idea there was we could have a client which was paying attention to Twitter, paying attention to Mastodon, maybe even paying attention to Reddit, and could let you know about these small social networks that you might want to pay attention to.
What we then realized is that if you build out that client, you’re going to need algorithms to make that client run. Almost everybody follows too much social media to make simply a reverse chronological order the right way to navigate through it.
So at that point, you’ve got small platforms, interacting with large platforms, a client that lets you set up your preferences so that you can say, give me everything from this Amherst small town server and an algorithm store so that you can choose algorithms to sort your social media feed.
For me, the missing piece of the equation was once we saw Mastodon start to take off, once we saw lots and lots of people create Mastodon servers, it became clear that those folks were going to need some algorithms as well.
Whether it was just to block CSAM or extremist content or spam, all those things are coming as Mastodon becomes a more and more popular platform. And so we ended up with what felt to me like sort of the minimum structure to have an alternative form of social media.
You know, the good news is that there’s three components to it. The bad news is that those are three very complicated components.
Given that the first component is thousands of platforms and then the second component is a client that can interact with all of them. And the third component is a family of algorithms that can help you navigate between them.
It’s sure better than, you know, not having a roadmap but it’s a complicated roadmap.
Yeah, so I would say, look, we’ve gotten preliminary feedback on this paper from some people in our network. We’ve gotten a little bit of feedback from like the internet overall. It’s not a whole lot.
And I would say a lot of the kind of criticism we’ve heard so far is kind of based around some version of, hey, this paper has a lot of market solutions. Why should I believe that the market would support anything like this?
And I would just kind of say, you know, to kind of get some context about long running conversations we’ve had at the lab— and I think these are conversations that date back to the Center for Civic Media Days at MIT, which Ethan, you ran, I was a part of that in the kind of last days of it—you know, there’s basically three ways you can change things on the internet.
You can use norms, you can use law, you can use markets, right? We’re really used to market changes, right? TikTok comes along, it’s a really popular platform. It kind of sucks up all of the air in the social media space. Suddenly, Instagram is copying its features. Facebook is trying to figure out how much of a threat it is that there’s this huge platform that has all these young users on it.
That’s a market solution. It’s something that things have been pretty well set up to support.
Something that we’ve really struggled with is what do you do on the legal side when it comes to social media. In America, we’re starting to see maybe you force the Chinese company that owns TikTok to sell TikTok and somehow that cuts a Gordian knot of privacy. I think most people listen to this podcast, have a lot of misgivings about the approach and the specific people pushing for it. But you know, in Europe, there’s been comprehensive legislation that has been introduced recently, which we touched on this paper: the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act.
These are early attempts by European Union regulators to kind of set rules for platforms and search engines and ad marketplaces that are a certain size. I think the threshold is if 80% of European internet users interact with one of these platforms, they are considered either a very large online platform or a very large online search engine, VLOPs and VLOSEs. That hasn’t come to the States yet, right?
But what we do possibly have in the States is a also norms-based approach, perhaps best reflected by what’s happening to Twitter. People see that Elon Musk has kind of taken over Twitter, implemented a lot of stuff along his whims, broken things along the way.
Honestly, not a lot of people have left Twitter, but I think there are a lot of people who kind of wish they had something else, kind of wish they could.
And I think that’s a lot of what we talk about in this paper is trying to find that wedge where, yes, in America, the laws just aren’t there right now. The markets have failed in significant ways. Users’ norms, likely, are not, or their values, rather, are not reflected by the platforms they’re using.
So Mike, one of the things I think about when I think about the sort of cultural shift that we might need to imagine a really different internet is the invention of public media, which happens about a hundred years ago.
The BBC starts up in Great Britain in 1922. It’s that country’s response to this brand new technology. And rather than having the sort of creative chaos that happens in the United States, the BBC gets together all the different companies that have an interest in the future of radio and says, look, it would be really good if we created radio programming that was good for the nation. We should find a way to think about the public interest. What does the public need from radio?
And they hired a bunch of smart people and they started inventing a lot of what we understand as programming today. They invented the idea of putting politicians on the air to talk about issues of the day. They invented the radio interview format, the panel show, the talk show.
All of these things have to be created about 100 years ago. And they’re creative with this very specific notion of because this will be good for the public and it will help unite a nation around some common shared media. So it’s a pretty revolutionary idea. There isn’t that notion of media being created, in this case by a parastatal, for the benefit of the population.
The idea gets picked up very differently in different places. We don’t get public media in the United States until the 1970s, and we get it as a way of correcting for market failure. We’re not doing a terrific job on our commercial radio or television of providing children’s programming, providing educational programming, providing local civic programming. And so you see PBS and NPR end up getting formed with support from the US government to fill those holes.
It’s my argument that we might be in the same place on the internet. We’ve got a lot of tools that are really fun. They’re great to spend time with, but they may be hollowing out the ability for news to make money and sustain itself. They are almost certainly straining at some of our political divisions. It’s pretty easy to listen mostly to voices of people you want to hear and ignore people you don’t want to hear. They are probably not doing a great job of helping us find common ground or solidarity.
And so if we believe that the internet could be used for these positive purposes, we might need to steer it in one direction or another.
The truth is it’s not just a norm’s change. Yes, we want people to imagine a different internet, but it’s also a code change. We’re building systems that work very, very differently than some of the other systems out there. We’re trying to build small interoperable systems, and we’re trying to sort of elbow our way in to be interoperable with systems that may not want to interoperate.
Ultimately, we may have to get pretty good at law to try to force some of those systems open. And if we’re going to do this on any sort of long-term basis, we’re going to have to get the market part of the picture down as well, because we’re not going to be able to do it free forever.
So if we do make this shift, it’s going to be a four levers of change shift. It’s my contention though, that you can’t make any of these shifts unless you imagine it’s possible. And that’s why a paper like this is here to get people imagining how a radically different system could work.
So the problem with the BBC analogy that I just made is that it implies one big actor who’s going to create this new media space. And the truth is we’re actually completely opposed to that point of view. We end up advocating for a pluriverse instead. Chand, what is a pluriverse and how do we get there?
Yeah, so like I mentioned a little earlier, the pluriverse is our kind of response to the metaverse.
Instead of a social media where everybody’s walking around without arms and legs, that a pluriverse, which is a social media where we have platforms that are very large like Facebook, like Twitter, like TikTok, that coexist and interconnect with platforms that are very small and which have very specific purposes like Smalltown or Freq or your favorite, small social media platform.
But we kind of think that instead of a social media where everybody’s walking around without arms and legs, that a pluriverse, which is a social media where we have platforms that are very large like Facebook, like Twitter, like TikTok, that coexist and interconnect with platforms that are very small and which have very specific purposes like Smalltown or Freq or your favorite, small social media platform.
One we like to point to a lot now is Letterboxd, which is a platform for discussing movies. But yeah, basically the pluriverse is saying, let’s get to a place where we have all these really big platforms, all these really small platforms, and people can kind of pop in and out of these different spaces in a fairly seamless way.
So the term “pluriverse” is one that we’re borrowing from the Zapatista movement. And it’s this idea that reality might include multiple different ways of looking at the world, and that trying to get to the one way of looking at the world ends up being colonialist and repressive, and that you don’t want to have one viewpoint, one frame of reference to rule them all.
You actually want the capability of sort of moving between all of these. And one of the big ideas I think that we’re trying to get across, one of the big ideas we’re trying to get across in this white paper is that we are putting ourselves squarely in the camp of anti-abolitionist, which is to say we don’t believe that you have to end Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to have a good internet future. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have beef with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all sorts of other platforms out there, but we also recognize that any transformation that starts with first get everyone to quit Facebook, you don’t really get to the second step.
So instead, what we’re thinking about is what’s a world in which some of these surveillance commercial platforms can exist. And then people can sort of experiment with other ways to connect with one another, other business models, other ways of interaction. And maybe people will find over time that they want to spend less and less time on these huge social media behemoths and more time in these small spaces.
We don’t necessarily need to outlaw TikTok or license social media as the state of Utah is trying to do. What we need instead is to develop a whole variety of different ways of using these tools and give people ways to sort of navigating that space. Mike, one of the things that you added to this paper that I found really helpful is perhaps a justification of why our little lab here in Western Massachusetts might think that we could actually make a contribution on a problem as big as fixing social media. And you introduced me to this idea of the Miyawaki Garden.
What is a Miyawaki Garden and how does it relate to social media?
Yeah, sure. So I really liked this.
It’s not a theory, it’s actually a forestry technique. I found out about it because when I was still living in Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts, I got some newsletter from the city one day that they were starting a Miyawaki garden in Danehy Park.
So I’m always kind of interested in restorative ecology, biodiversity, rewilding, that type of stuff. Just as like a pet interest. I read about whenever I can. And I thought it was cool that they were doing something nearby. I wanted to learn more about it.
And what I learned is it’s this really interesting technique for reintroducing native biodiversity really, really fast. So the idea is basically a city like Cambridge Massachusetts, it’s razed a lot of its natural land. Obviously, it’s mostly buildings, pavement, that sort of stuff. There aren’t a lot of native species that really thrive in a place like Cambridge. In fact, there’s probably a lot of invasive species that thrive in a place like Cambridge, things that people plant and all of that and maintain their garden.
But the Miyawaki garden, it’s a way to take a hectare of land and basically get it to grow about 10 times as fast as a commercially grown forest.
And how did they do that? They pack that hectare as densely as possible with as much native plant life as they can. And they just let that one hectare grow. And basically, the trees grow really fast. They provide good cover to all of the other plants that don’t want to be exposed to the sun all the time. That real tight closeness, it creates a place where fungal and bacteria cultures and moss cultures that help all of that gain proper nutrients from each other and from the soil work.
And I thought that’s a nice model, right? It’s the idea that you don’t have to revise an entire ecosystem by taking it on at the ecosystem level. You can start small, you start at the hectare, and once that becomes successful, it grows out from there.
So what we think we could possibly do here is we can do our little hectare of internet. We can do our little Miyawaki garden. Some of that’s Smalltown, another project that we’re trying to do that with is something I’m in charge of.
It’s called, Chand has mentioned it a couple of times. It’s called Freq. Freak is short for frequency. And we hope that users will call themselves Freqs. And Ethan, you’ve proposed that the underlying software for Freq, we will call Supefreq.
Well, not until the 2.0. The 2.0 will be Supefreq. We’ll release Freq first.
But basically what Freq is, is it is a way to discover music. So I could go on really forever about this, but one of the main ways you can discover music online today is through Spotify, through YouTube, through Apple Music, through Tidal. Basically these services where you pay them for access and they feed you stuff. That’s pretty new and pretty weird as far as the internet goes. For basically the entirety of the Internet’s existence people have been using it to talk about music and share music with each other. This goes back to the 80s when some of the most rabid early internet users were Grateful Dead fans who were kind of giving each other their addresses to send bootlegs back and forth.
But it’s our way of saying, hey, how do you kind of like reintroduce this ancient way of using the internet? How do you create a purpose-built, non-commercial space that gives people the opportunity to do something that the current music market online doesn’t let them do. And frankly, how do you build a good example of how a platform tailored for a bunch of small communities can be designed, can function, can set in some kind of macro sense, good systems of rules, good systems of self-governance, good technology that help those communities do what they want to do.
We’d love to see a world, a pluriverse, in which people are playing around with lots of small social platforms and using the sorts of tools that we’re proposing to get there.
At the same time, it’s fine if the outcome of this is that we have a healthy local discussion about Amherst town politics or an excellent new site for music discussion. And part of what we’re trying to celebrate is we don’t know that Letterboxd or an Archive of Our Own or all of these other small social networks that Chand and I have been celebrating in our writing for the last couple of years—we don’t know that any of them have a model that could conquer the Internet and sort of solve all the problems of social media.
But for the individual groups that they help, they’re enormously helpful and they’re enormously beneficial, just as that garden in Cambridge is likely to be enormously beneficial for the people who end up living near it.
But I want to get out of the territory of metaphors and talk about what’s actually getting built. And, Chand, at the end of the day, you are the guy who ships software. What have we shipped? What are we going to ship? What should people sort of expect from this new universe from us?
Yeah, so our first software project was Smalltown. So we shipped that, I think, a little over a year ago now.
And that’s an open source project. It’s on GitHub, it’s a fork of Mastodon that we adapted to local civic conversations. So we made a number of changes based on our conversations with stakeholders and some of our own brainstorming.
And that fork now is live, as we said, with our Smalltown instance in Amherst. So that’s one of our software projects that we’ve launched.
In the pipeline now is Gobo, which is our attempt at building a loyal client We are hoping to have an Alpha version of that released in the next couple of weeks and hopefully a more public beta in the next month or so. And so keep your eyes out for that.
And then following that release of Gobo, we’re going to start work on Freq, which Mike talked about earlier. We’re hoping to have an alpha Freq by this fall and a public beta maybe a month or two later.
We’ve got a lot of good stuff in the pipeline now that we’re hoping to get out there for people to use and give us feedback on and hopefully start putting into practice a lot of different ideas that are in this white paper and some of our earlier research.
I think just a couple of important things to say about our timeline and all of this. We’re a small academic lab. We work with some amazing design and coding partners to be able to pull this all off, but we are sort of small teams putting this together.
We’re also doing this all open source and everything we’re building, we’re releasing, it’s up on GitHub, but you can download it, you can play with it, you can work with it, you can build your own instances of it.
Particularly folks who are listening to this broadcast or hanging out on the newsletter, this is where the opportunities to beta this software are going to sort of come into play.
So if you’re excited about all of this, this would be a great place to fool around with it.
One thing I do want to clarify is that the first version of Gobo that we’re going to release is a pretty limited version of what we want put out there. Ultimately, Gobo is going have an architecture where you can use a lens and a lens lets you sort your feed via various different criteria.
In the first version, all Gobo is really letting you do is bring in feeds from Reddit, from Mastodon, from Twitter, and put them either in the same place or put them in separate streams and then potentially post out to all of them.
What we ended up doing was fast tracking that product in part because the changes that Elon Musk is making to Twitter have led a number of people to sort of split their social media presence between multiple different platforms.
So in a very real sense, we’re trying to build a tool for people like me who are posting on Mastodon and on Reddit and on Twitter and trying to keep up with all that social media at the same time, which turns out to be very, very difficult. That project has also gotten harder in that Musk keeps threatening to disable Twitter’s API unless you play extortionate ransoms for it.
So we are looking for ways to build a tool that will be resilient, even if Twitter turns off API access to most of us out there.
This is our attempt to think really hard about a set of problems that we collectively care an awful lot about. I think everyone who’s been involved with these projects is someone who believes that social media can be a force for good in society. I think all of us feel like social media could be a lot better than it is today.
And that we’ve seen examples of how social media could be better and we’ve been trying to learn from those models to come up with a new architecture. Whether or not what we’re specifically putting on the table will work, we’ve got no idea. It could go wrong for all sorts of reasons. It’s really hard to get people to pick up new tools. It’s really hard to build online communities.
And a lot of what we’re doing kind of requires existing social media platforms to have a sense of humor about our experiments and not seek to legally incapacitate us on day one.
Again, I think for me, my contention is the hardest part of this whole equation is imagining that something else is possible. And this is one of these places where I actually think it helps to be old. I remember the world before social media. I helped build some of the earliest companies that were active in this space. And having watched this whole space evolve, I have a sense for just how small and fragile and new it actually is.
Part of what I’ve actually quite enjoyed about watching Twitter decay is just remembering how fragile ecosystems these all are. and how quickly they might be able to change for better or for worse. I think if we can get people to think about this possibility that we deserve and we could build social media that worked radically differently, that’s probably the hardest part of this whole equation.
I would just jump in there. I would say something that I think maybe we’re doing ourselves a disservice not remarking on. So we’ve talked a bit about the Metaverse, Facebook’s new product that’s supposed to be their ultimate walled garden for how you interact with people on the internet.
The main product in the Metaverse right now is this game called Horizon World. It’s Facebook’s big banner thing they’ve put so much money into. It has 300,000 monthly active users.
And I think it’s just a really nice thing to keep in mind that even the people who seem like should be the most powerful in the space, don’t necessarily have a very good idea about what people are really craving when they use the internet.
And yes, we are proposing something kind of like wide-eyed and wild, but I think Ethan, you put it so well without calling for something ambitious and positive and exciting, the most we can hope for is that Facebook iterates and figures out how to go from 300,000 people in the metaverse to like 3 million people in the metaverse and then 3 billion. Why should we be waiting around for that to be the future of the internet?
Not to mention, if you’re listening to this podcast right now and you and 10 people end up joining our version for a pluriverse with loyal clients and choose your own algorithm, will be as big as Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion-dollar corporation.
Well, Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, our Director of Product here at the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. Mike Sugarman, our magnificent producer, editor, and king of all media at Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. I remain Ethan Zuckerman, a host of Reimagining the Internet. We really hope you will give this white paper a spin and as these tools become available. we hope that you will try them out and more than anything we really hope that you will join us in imagining a better internet.
Thanks for being with us.