Today we’re going to talk about Jack Dorsey’s surprise tweetstorm
about potentially decentralizing the service — but first, some history.
Death came to the Twitter developer community on August 12th, 2012. In an infamous memo, the company’s head of product divided potential uses of the Twitter API into four quadrants. In the past, developers had been able to make any sort of Twitter app they wanted to — including a full-featured, ad-free Twitter client that they could customize any way they wanted it to.
It was a policy that led Twitter to become, briefly, a design playground
for some of the world’s most talented user interface designers. But the policy also ran counter to the vision of Dick Costolo, who had become Twitter’s CEO two years previously. Costolo had come from Google, where he learned how to build advertising businesses. And so not long after he became Twitter’s CEO, he set about turning Twitter into an ad business
Among other things, that meant aggregating as many eyeballs as possible into one place. A third-party Twitter client might be prettier and more functional than Twitter’s own client — shout out to Tweetbot! — but it certainly would not be more profitable.
A more ruthless company would have shut down API access to Tweetbot and its brethren. Instead, Twitter opted to let the third party clients bleed out over time — denying them access to new features, such as polls and group messages, and capping the number of users they could have.
That was good news for people like me, who prefer third-party clients for various reasons that I would happily share with you in person until you run screaming from the room in boredom. Every once in a while, Twitter would ask shellshocked survivors of its developer community
for suggestions on a path forward. “Re-establish robust APIs that once again allow third-party developers to build full-featured Twitter alternatives!” I would weakly shout back.
Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.
This five-person team, to be known as Blue Sky, will be charged with the project — effectively turning Twitter the platform into Twitter the protocol. In such a world, Twitter would be to tweets as Outlook is to email: one client for reading and writing messages among many.
Why does Twitter want to do this? Dorsey seems to feel less comfortable with the idea of a single, centralized network with one global set of rules. He notes that it places terrible challenges on content moderators. He argues that Twitter’s value lies in directing your attention toward valuable tweets — not hosting all the content. (As critics have noted, this direction could allow Twitter to avoid responsibility for some of the platform’s unintended consequences. If it doesn’t “own” every tweet, it’s no longer accountable for moderating them.)
In any case, this move toward protocols was one that many developers hoped Twitter would take back before the four-quadrant memo of death. And it was a direction that others would try to take in the wake of that memo: most notably App.net
, a Twitter clone that set to build an open standard and somehow build a business around it. It was built by a guy named Dalton Caldwell, who began work on it after writing a popular essay called “What Twitter Could Have Been
To understand both the promise and the perils ahead of Twitter as it pursues decentralization, you ought to read Caldwell’s follow-up to that essay
. He writes of the reaction he received to his Twitter critique:
The responses to my post largely fell into two camps. One group is of the belief that a non-commercial, open source, open standards federation of real-time protocols is the solution. The opposing group has pointed out that these decentralized efforts never work out, and the API-focused service I wish existed is the fevered dream of navel-gazing geeks.
You could see those takes repeated all over Twitter today as geeks imagined what Twitter might look like as a protocol. Many people pointed to the quick collapse of App.net
, the service that Caldwell founded to embody the ideals in his manifesto; and the relatively slow-growth of Mastodon, a decentralized Twitter alternative that I profiled for The Verge
Mastodon’s challenges give you some idea of what Twitter is up against. Decentralizing a network makes it harder to find people, and half the appeal of Twitter is the sense that everyone is there
. Organizing people back into tribes can do wonders for a social network — it’s why, for example, Reddit is my personal social network of the year. But it can also mean that you’re enabling the formation of hate networks. Does anyone doubt, for example, that a decentralized Twitter would have a fork that closely mirrors the right-wing service Gab? Mastodon sure does
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At the end of the day, all we have to go on is a tweetstorm. (Well, two tweetstorms
.) Twitter’s historic pace of development has been glacial
, and the act of converting a public company into a decentralized protocol sounds extraordinarily difficult. Former employees I spoke with today were intrigued, if not exactly optimistic.
“Well it’s Twitter,” said one, “so nothing will happen for 20 years.”
YouTube takes a fresh look at harassment
At the time, I laid out what I wanted to see from YouTube
: to hold big creators to a higher standard of behavior generally; to hold creators accountable when they incite harassment campaigns; and for YouTube to begin discussing its decisions in public, on the record.
Anyway, today YouTube published its revised harassment policies. And I got … one of the three things I wanted? One and a half? Here I am at The Verge
One, the policy expands the types of threats that are now banned. Historically, YouTube has banned direct threats like “I’m going to kill you.” Now, more veiled and implied threats will be banned as well. That means no brandishing a weapon while discussing someone, or altering a violent video game to put someone else’s face on a murder victim.
Two, the policy now bans targeted harassment campaigns. In an interview, the company told me that harassment on YouTube often doesn’t come down to a single insult. Instead, it’s a sustained effort over many videos. Under the new policy, YouTube will now take a more holistic view of what a creator is saying on their channel. Even if individual videos don’t necessarily cross the line, if they still contribute to the persecution of another person or creator, they’re eligible for removal.
This expansion of the policy directly addresses an omission that contributed to Crowder’s harassment campaign, which Maza illustrated with a viral supercut
of the times Crowder had targeted him. At the time, YouTube said that because Crowder’s insults came within the context of longer videos about many other subjects, it would be unfair to remove them. The new policy should make it harder for other bad actors to use YouTube the way Crowder did.
Three, the policy now bans insults on the basis of a protected class, such as race, gender expression, or sexual orientation. So: no more “lispy queer” slurs. The policy applies to all individuals, whether they are creators or not, and even if they are public figures, where social networks have historically tolerated much more offensive speech.
Taken together, the changes would make the sort of harassing that Crowder became famous for against YouTube’s policies. But arguably, it already was. As Maza said today
: “‘Malicious insults’ were already prohibited under YouTube’s anti-hate and anti-harassment policies. YouTube rolls out policies like this to distract reporters from the real story: YouTube’s non-enforcement.”
Or as I am fond of saying: your policy is what you enforce.