Meta is building a decentralized, text-based social network
Is this the Twitter replacement we've been waiting for?
Today’s edition is a bit late as I wrangled some late-breaking news. Sorry about that!
Twitter’s decline is paving the way for other platforms to build next-generation replacements. And now the biggest player in the game is getting involved: Meta is in the early stages of building a dedicated app for people to post text-based updates.
“We’re exploring a standalone decentralized social network for sharing text updates,” the company told Platformer exclusively in an email. “We believe there’s an opportunity for a separate space where creators and public figures can share timely updates about their interests.”
News that Meta has been exploring a text-based network was first reported Thursday by MoneyControl. The app is codenamed P92 and will allow users to log in through their existing Instagram credentials, the outlet reported.
Details about the project are scant. The product is still in its earliest stages, sources said, and there is no time frame for it being released. But legal and regulatory teams have already started to investigate potential privacy concerns around the app so they can be addressed before launch, we’re told.
Adam Mosseri, who runs Instagram, is taking the lead on the project, sources said.
The most remarkable aspect of the project is that Meta plans for the network to be decentralized. While the company would not elaborate beyond its statement, in a decentralized network individual users are typically able to set up their own, independent servers and set server-specific rules for how content is moderated.
Building a decentralized network could also give Meta the opportunity for its new app to interoperate with other social products — a previously unheard-of gesture from a company known for building some of the most lucrative walled gardens in the industry’s history.
The move comes at a time when Silicon Valley as a whole is re-thinking the value of forcing users into centralized services.
Services like Facebook benefit from relative ease of use, and a data collection model that enables lucrative advertising services. But they have also drawn massive regulatory scrutiny for their top-down approach to content moderation and their efforts to thwart competition by making it harder to switch networks. (In December, for example, Elon Musk temporarily blocked Twitter users from linking to their Mastodon profiles amid heightened interest in Twitter alternatives.)
These and other reasons led Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to call repeatedly for a decentralized version of the network. Among other things, Dorsey has said, a decentralized network would be more resistant to censorship efforts from governments, and would enable users to choose from a variety of ranking algorithms that better reflect their desired experience. While still CEO, Dorsey funded Bluesky, a decentralized alternative to Twitter that launched last week on iOS in private beta.
Building a decentralized social network could let Meta experiment with an app that pushes back on standard criticisms of Facebook and Instagram. Individual servers would let different groups set their own community standards, though likely with a “floor” of rules set by Meta, in a fashion similar to how Reddit’s individual communities work. And making its network interoperable with others could help Meta as it faces ongoing scrutiny over whether it has maintained its market power through anti-competitive acquisitions.
Still, no one has yet built a profitable, global-scale decentralized network. The Fediverse had around 2.6 million users last month — a rounding error for a company like Meta, which has more than 2 billion daily users across its family of apps.
Among the challenges for developers is that basic social-network functions like following users become complicated when accounts are located across a vast network of servers. More than one person I know quit using Mastodon forever after it asked them to log in to a different server in order to follow someone.
It’s also unclear what the most successful business model is for such an app. In 2021 and 2022, cryptocurrency enthusiasts promoted decentralized networks heavily, arguing that they could be funded with network-specific, non-fungible tokens. But the ongoing implosion of the crypto economy, coupled with the staggering inability of crypto developers to build safe, stable, or accessible networks, has made that approach look much less attractive.
Mastodon, the crowd-funded, open-source Twitter alternative, has arguably led the charge in building decentralized, interoperable social products that are detached from cryptocurrencies. Mastodon belongs to the Fediverse, a network of connected servers that enable web publishing through shared protocols like ActivityPub. The P92 app will support ActivityPub, MoneyControl reported.
Last week, the venerable magazine app Flipboard announced that it is joining the Fediverse, allowing users to browse Mastodon posts within the app and creating its own instance for select users to publish on. The move followed a similar effort from publishing platform Medium, which set up a Mastodon instance in January to host discussions about its writers’ work.
Tumblr also plans to add support for ActivityPub, the CEO of its parent company said in November, suggesting that soon Tumblr posts could be cross-posted to Mastodon and vice-versa. Photo-sharing and storage site Flickr has said it is considering adding support for ActivityPub as well.
Of course, just because companies build these features doesn’t mean people will flock to use them. Facebook’s New Product Experimentation division has built or prototyped dozens of social products in hopes of discovering the next big thing, only to shut down almost all of them.
At the same time, with Twitter’s revenue collapsing and the site itself going down for hours now on a regular basis, it’s no surprise that other platforms smell blood in the water. A decentralized social network with top-notch design and user experience, a functional trust and safety team, and Meta’s skilled growth hackers could be just the thing to disrupt Elon Musk’s ailing, brittle network.
That would be particularly true assuming Meta leverages the power of Instagram, which is already at global scale and counts among its users most of the public figures that would be necessary to kick-start a new text-based network.
For the moment, it’s impossible to say whether Meta’s latest exploration will be truly disruptive. But few other companies have the teams and the track record in place to credibly try. Whatever Meta winds up launching here will bear close scrutiny.
Coming Friday morning on the podcast: Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) joins to tell us why he went back to school at the age of 72 to study artificial intelligence. Then, the New York Times’ David McCabe stops by to explain how banning TikTok in the United States would actually work.
Hard Fork Live! If you’re going to be in Austin this weekend for South by Southwest, Kevin and I are interviewing Department of Justice antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter on Saturday. Please stop by and say hello!
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From this quote "A decentralized social network with top-notch design and user experience" a claim as a software engineer.
Code creation tools (such as GitHub Copilot and ChatGPT's ability to write code) will elevate the role of user experience researchers, user experience designers, and product managers. As a result, software engineers who "just code" will be increasingly left behind by software engineers who learn those skills.
(This is also my bias, it drives me nuts the number of engineers who don't have basic user empathy when they code.)
Soooo.... Facebook is building another Facebook