Social Networks Should Be Interoperable

Dan Froomkin:

The concept is known in tech circles as “interoperability,” “competitive interoperability,” or “adversarial interoperability.”

It doesn’t require the government to regulate speech. It doesn’t require you to delete Facebook, disconnect from your friends, or migrate your data. It doesn’t require there to be one algorithmic solution to all things.

It’s an appropriately decentralized, open-sourced, technologically elegant way of fixing the problem.

You or I could focus on the specific details of why this may not be a slam-dunk solution — money, probably — but I think it has legs. It is worth exploring, at least.

You can get a glimpse of this with Twitter. It remains one of the few big social networks that allows third-party clients. If you like and use the official Twitter app, that is cool, but you can choose from other ones for specific reasons. I use Twitterrific on my Mac and Tweetbot on my iPhone because they feel nicer to me, and always default to a reverse-chronological view.

But there are plenty of clients that do more than reproduce the Twitter experience: I use another app called Macaw to see great tweets from people with my orbit.1 But Nick, you may say, the official Twitter client does that too. The difference is that it is deliberate and separated. I can choose the experience I want — sometimes it is the first-party client, but most of the time I prefer these discrete third-party apps. And there are other Twitter clients for specific purposes: I have found some that only allow you to post and not read tweets, some that only allow the reverse, and one that is a client for direct messages only.

Every so often, I will see some tech commentator say that, actually, algorithmically sorted feeds are good. I get where they are coming from; I do not think they are wrong. But I want to be able to make that choice. I get to make that decision with my Twitter browsing experience and I am happier for it, and I would be less happy if I could only use the first-party client. Here’s another example: Instagram’s website is a better browsing experience than Instagram’s app since it shows photos from everybody I follow, instead of just the ones it thinks I will engage with.

The thing is that we have tried decentralized and interoperable networks before and, aside from email, none have amassed the user base of something like Facebook or YouTube. Historically, that could be due to the nascent days of the web only representing a small audience. There used to be websites that listed every other website on the web — that is how small it was. Now, it could be because networks like Mastodon and Pixelfed are built by technologists for technologists or, at least, a technically savvy niche audience.

But it could also be due to the network effects of massive siloed platforms. One way we can find out is to turn them into protocols.

  1. I just found out that Macaw is being integrated into a product called Clay. Watch it get shut down like Nuzzel and all the other apps for finding great tweets. ↥︎