Web -2.0: The Public Web
Yes I know, the web is already public. Bear with me.
A few days ago I read this post about the Dark Forest Theory of the internet and it just filled me with dread. This is not the internet that I wanted growing up. Take that into consideration along with current behaviors of Reddit, Twitter, and others, and I've been trying to continue the idea of "What does Web -2.0 look like?"
Web -2.0, of course, is a joke. In the 2000s, the idea that Web 2.0 was all about empowering people to be able to share content and ideas. Wonderful things like Wikipedia came about. And then some things that I thought were wonderful also came about: Reddit, Twitter, etc.
But I have recently wondered: what if the web had not evolved this way? What if in an alternative universe society was much more data adverse? Or if public institutions had taken the lead on "consumer-ing" the web? What would "Web -2.0" look like?
The Public Web
Twitter branded itself as "the town square" of the internet, and for awhile, it was arguably pretty good at it. But what does it mean to have a corporation hold all of the public content, and control what is being viewed by it's user base?
Furthermore, why do public servants (your Congress people) post on Twitter? Or for that matter, why would local communities post updates on Twitter? Your fire department? Or your local city council? Again, the concern here is: should not public entities post on public owned infastructure?
We have public parks, why can't we have public digital spaces? I can't completely take credit for this idea; it was shared forward by a comment on Hacker News. And I think it's a good one.
So what is the use case for public social media?
Tax Dollars and Cat Memes
I argue that it's because social media provides a useful public service: a centralized location for information, discourse, and announcements. I've learned all sorts of random crap on Reddit/Twitter, and some of it was actually useful. So why not have public social media?
I can already hear all the compaints: Who will moderate this? Should not the government not be in the business of moderation? And why should my tax dollars pay for your aunt to post pictures of her cats? Or Tik-Tok-ish "influencers" on "YouGov"? Who's going to fight all the spam bots that arise? And who owns the data being posted to public social media?
So here's my imperfect idea: Public contracts to be bid on by your favorite tech corporations to host public Fediverse instances on their cloud, renewable every 4 years. Basically pre-paid reserved instances, to be provisioned out by your favorite civil three letter agency. Silicon Valley hosts the infastructure, and provides infastructure services to support it ("YouGov: DDoS protection by Cloudflare".)
Semi-public institutions provision, administer, and moderate their own Fediverse flavors: NPR, PBS, University of Whatever, non-profits like Wikipedia, Mozilla, and so on. Practical cost keeping measures could be implemented: allowing only text based communications, or rate limiting posts, or enabling targeted data retention policies (posts deleted after N days), etc.
Here's the kicker: For any institution wanting to take advantage of this program, they would be subject to the following restrictions:
- Their code hosting the social media derivative must be open source.
- The community must establish up front a "Code of Conduct" that clearly defines how content and abuses will be handled on the platform.
- The data being submitted by their users must have a public and easy to understand data governance plan.
- If the user submitted content would be licensed for example as Creative Commons, describe what is being collected, how it may be used elsewhere, etc. For example, if NPR hosted their own Fediverse instance, could the users opt-in in allowing some of their content to be used to train AI models? Etc. This would provide a public data set for companies to leverage.
- The data collected by their social media derivative must be subject to user data rights: Users have a right to read, update, delete their data. They have the right to move their data elsewhere. And so on.
I choose the Fediverse (really, the ActivityPub protocol) because I don't want to tend towards N number of walled sites that can't interoperate their content: I want to try and keep the benefits of centralization and decentralization.
Public Digital Nutrition
Another thought: We as a society put warning labels and guidance on what we consume. We don't ban the sell of cigarettes; but we do put warning labels on them. We don't ban the sale of cookies, but we do put nutritional facts on them.
So why don't we have digital "label" APIs for our social networks?
Things such as:
- A standardized public API that explains for a properly authenticated user what data has been collected on them, and the ability to configure their settings to opt out of each data point? Or to request and move their data around?
- A standardized public API that also explains to users how much of social media content they are consuming? Total hours spent, total posts made, total posts viewed, etc.
Will it blend?
I have no idea.
I should note that countries in Europe are following this above pattern.
- The official Mastodon server of the Dutch government
- The official Mastodon server of the German government
- The official Mastodon server of the European Union