The U.S. government published six principles last week for reforming Big Tech. This is the latest example in a growing effort to regulate a handful of companies that have enormous internet influence. It’s difficult to imagine what a better internet might look like, despite the growing desire for it.
In 1990, many believed the internet would make the world better.
It would make it easier for ordinary people to connect over vast distances and help us be more compassionate and egalitarian. This vision is a bit naive today. Regulators are trying to address serious problems that the internet presents.
The large influence of a few companies like Meta and Google over the internet is a key factor in many of these problems. By putting corporate interests ahead of user well-being and society at large, they are key contributors to misinformation, privacy violations, and online harassment and abuse.
There’s increasing interest in regulating these companies and the markets in which they operate, including from the Australian government. However, it’s hard to imagine alternatives to an internet dominated by private companies–they are such a ubiquitous and powerful part of our online lives.
Scuttlebutt is an example of alternative social media platforms, which try to keep the best bits of popular places like Facebook and Twitter while improving on their downsides.
On the surface, Scuttlebutt looks quite similar to Facebook. Scuttlebutt is very similar to Facebook in that users create profiles, add content and comment on other’s posts. There are lots of people chatting about politics, current events, and obscure shared interests.
But compared with regular platforms, Scuttlebutt has some radically different qualities. It is not run by a company. Started by software engineer Dominic Tarr while living on a sailboat in New Zealand, Scuttlebutt is now being developed by an international community of people who run the platform collectively, using grant funding, donations and volunteer labor.
Because it’s not a company, Scuttlebutt doesn’t need to make a profit. Scuttlebutt doesn’t use persuasive design to get you hooked. It also doesn’t sell, process, or sell any user’s personal data. Instead, data are stored on the users’ devices and can be accessed from there. This is done using the “gossip”, a novel protocol that allows users to access and control their data. As it is open source, anyone can see, interact with, and reuse the code it’s built on.
While it’s impossible to know how many people are using this decentralized platform, Scuttlebutt has attracted substantial grant funding, along with the attention of tech luminaries and cultural critics.
Lessons for a better internet
We spent several years studying Scuttlebutt to understand the community building it, and the new models of online participation they’re trying to create.
We found that participation on Scuttlebutt is much deeper and more varied than mainstream platforms allow. Users can participate
on the siteby liking, sharing and posting. They can also help shape the design and operation of the site. Anybody interested is welcome to participate in any way they can.Unlike Facebook users who resort to petitions and protests to improve their platform, Scuttlebutt users have the ability to help shape the design and operation of the online spaces that they use. Scuttlebutt is not like other social media platforms that requires you to give your personal information as payment. So even forms of participation that look the same as on Facebook, such as creating a post, take place under more equitable conditions.
Scuttlebutt’s principles also reflect a view that developing fair and inclusive participation is as much a matter of culture as of technology design.
In contrast to Big Tech’s common focus on technology-first solutions, most Scuttlebutt contributors are as invested in improving the platform’s culture and governance as they are in building better technology. For example, when electing a council to distribute one of Scuttlebutt’s grants, priority was given to people with historically marginalized experiences in open-source communities.
These social elements may not scale to a platform the size of Facebook, but this isn’t a problem for Scuttlebutt, which doesn’t maximize user participation for profit.
The future is already here
We found that many of the Scuttlebutt users believe people need more options on social media platforms.
The future is already here
Scuttlebutt isn’t going to solve all the internet’s problems and, as we discuss in our research, it has its own issues–including the messiness of decentralized governance and ensuring accessibility for people from diverse backgrounds. It does offer a way to explore what the future of internet might look like.
These explorations show the importance of an internet in which no one platform is dominant and users have greater control over the spaces where they gather.
Scuttlebutt shows that platforms that focus on public benefit rather than profit are possible.
Meta’s Quest VR gear allows people to ‘hang out’ in the metaverse
It’s difficult to imagine better social media options, but Scuttlebutt has shown that change is possible (2022, September 15,).
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