By Kate Conger, The New York Times Company
In 2008, the handful of employees working for Twitter reached an impasse. Some were focused on preparing for a surge of new users to their social media platform. But one developer argued for another approach: Their platform, he said, shouldn’t be a platform at all.
Instead, Blaine Cook envisioned Twitter as a backbone for online chatter, one that would allow its users to freely exchange messages with people on other social media platforms instead of locking them into conversations among themselves. He hacked together a prototype to demonstrate his idea.
But the other Twitter employees dismissed it, and Cook was eventually pushed out of the startup. Twitter remained a tightly controlled island on the internet and eventually drew in hundreds of millions of users.
Now, more than a decade later, Twitter is reversing course. The company is pursuing the sort of decentralization that Cook championed. It is funding an independent effort to build a so-called open protocol for social media. It is also weaving cryptocurrency into its app and opening up to developers who want to build custom features for Twitter.
Its newly appointed CEO, Parag Agrawal, has championed decentralization inside the company, hiring cryptocurrency developers and prioritizing related projects. Twitter executives now believe that decentralizing the social media service will radically shift online power, moving it into the hands of users, and pose a fundamental challenge to the walled gardens of companies like Facebook.
A decentralized Twitter could take years to emerge and might look much the same as it does today. But it could allow users to set moderation rules for their own communities and ease the pressure that Twitter faces from lawmakers over how it moderates content. It might also open new revenue streams for the company.
“If bitcoin existed before Twitter existed, I think we’d see very different revenue models,” Jack Dorsey, a company co-founder who stepped down as its CEO in November, said in a recent Twitter audio chat. “We wouldn’t be so dependent on ad revenue models.”
But the changes raise questions about how Twitter can reach its goal of doubling revenue over the next two years, even as it cedes some control over the currency by which social media companies are valued — users and their data. Twitter also faces some doubts from the communities it hopes to unite: slighted developers, web3 acolytes and enthusiasts for open-source software.
The impulse to build decentralized systems is rooted in the foundation of the internet, with open protocols like the one that Cook envisioned for Twitter at the heart of everyday technologies like email. Twitter is looking back at how the company started and how it strayed, and it is trying to tap into that old idealism for a new kind of business.
Dorsey said he was drawn to decentralized technologies like bitcoin because they reminded him of the ethos of the early internet.
“It had the same sort of energy, it had the weirdness, it had the punk aspect of it,” Dorsey said in the Twitter audio chat.
In a recent interview, Cook, who is now an engineer at Condé Nast, said, “It was obvious that we could decentralize Twitter.”
Over the years, he watched as the company grappled with many of the problems he thought could have been avoided through decentralization: regulatory challenges, debates over acceptable speech and fights over which features to develop.
In 2019, Dorsey decided to decentralize Twitter, after discussions with Agrawal, then Twitter’s chief technology officer, about the challenges facing the company.
That December, Dorsey announced his plan to fund the Bluesky project.
“Twitter was so open early on that many saw its potential to be a decentralized internet standard,” Dorsey tweeted. “For a variety of reasons, all reasonable at the time, we took a different path and increasingly centralized Twitter.”
The Bluesky project would eventually allow for the creation of new curation algorithms, which would show tweets at the top of users’ timelines that differed from what Twitter’s own algorithm showed. It would give users more choice about the kinds of content they saw, Dorsey said, and could allow Twitter to interoperate with other social media services.
Bluesky grabbed the attention of many technologists who were already working on decentralization. Soon small groups of them were meeting with Agrawal and Dorsey on Sundays to discuss the project, according to two participants who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings, while others traded ideas in an online chat room.
Some Bluesky participants proposed a single app that piped in all their social media feeds. Others wanted custom algorithms that could, for instance, block them from seeing spoilers about their favorite TV show. And some were focused on making their online identities portable, so that an account could be moved between social media companies the way a phone number can be moved from AT&T to Verizon.
“One of the things that Bluesky would offer is curation and filtering experiences that are independent of those offered by the social media proprietorships,” said Tim Bray, an internet software pioneer and a former vice president at Amazon who participated in some of the discussions.
Jay Graber, a cryptocurrency developer, was selected in August to lead the Bluesky organization. And in February, Graber announced that the project had officially registered as a public benefit corporation and was building a prototype.
The project caught the attention of engineers at Reddit, who had preliminary discussions with Twitter engineers about how their sites might someday interoperate, two people familiar with the conversations said, but the companies have not formally agreed to any plans to work together.
Some skeptics believe that Twitter is jumping on the web3 bandwagon, joining a trendy movement in tech to shift many services, including social media, to so-called blockchain technology. But executives say that Twitter is catering to what an overwhelming number of users want, while following the decentralization mandate laid out by Dorsey before he departed as CEO in November.
“The crypto community lives on Twitter,” said Esther Crawford, a staff product manager who oversees Twitter’s web3 efforts. “To ignore that community or disregard it is a missed opportunity.”
In September, Crawford led Twitter’s expansion of its tipping feature, allowing users to pay one another in cash or bitcoin. And in January, the company began allowing paying users to display NFTs — cryptographic collectibles that represent pieces of digital art — as their profile pictures. (Lest anyone mistake a regular profile picture for an NFT, Twitter displays NFT profile pictures with a unique hexagonal border.)
In December, conversations about NFTs made up 1.2% of the entire conversation on Twitter, a company spokesperson said. Users sent more than 220 million tweets about NFTs in 2021, making them a larger conversation topic than movies, which generated about 207 million tweets.
Crawford added that Twitter’s embrace of cryptocurrencies had a practical explanation. For years, the company has been growing more rapidly outside the United States than within it, and allowing users to exchange money across borders will help facilitate that growth.
In November, Twitter expanded unpaid access to its fire hose of data, inviting developers to create new ways for users to interact with the platform. Tracy Chou, the CEO of the anti-harassment tool Block Party, uses access to Twitter’s data to build features that filter abusive messages out of a user’s Twitter notifications. Her work represents the kind of custom experience that Twitter might not build in-house but still wants users to access.
“If we just look at where the platforms are now in terms of addressing online harms, they are not doing a very good job,” Chou said. “An algorithm that is the best overall, an average best experience, definitely is still going to leave out a lot of people who don’t like that experience.”
But while Twitter has given developers like Chou the data they need to build custom experiences, the company has also yanked it away. It has locked down the kinds of data developers can access several times, most recently in 2018, when it limited access to its application programming interface, or API, effectively breaking a number of smaller companies’ apps.
Anil Dash, who helped found a company called ThinkUp that relied on data from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, recalled telling Twitter executives that they had effectively killed his company by cutting off data access.
“Developers do not trust them. You are Lucy with the football and we are Charlie Brown, and you have pulled the football away 100 times,” Dash said.
Dash, who is now the CEO of Glitch, said that Twitter’s decentralization strategy hinged on its ability to woo developers back.
“It’s not insurmountable, but it’s the fundamental condition of this entire strategy succeeding: convince the most skeptical audience to trust them again,” Dash said.
Amir Shevat, Twitter’s head of product for developers, got the job by offering similar criticism to Dorsey and Agrawal. At the time, he was a top executive at Reshuffle, a developer platform. But after discussions about developer access, the Twitter executives agreed to acquire Reshuffle in March 2021.
“Talking to Jack and Parag, they recognized that Twitter before was a lot more open,” Shevat said. He added, “I think what you’re seeing is a move back into that.”
“If you decentralize your platform and you give developers more powers to make richer experiences and better, safer timelines, then everybody benefits from this,” he also said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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