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Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey have been talking about a revolution

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey lamented the fact that because of ‘walled gardens’, the internet had lost its way and got increasingly centralized by large corporations, drifting away from the original vision of a decentralized and democratic web (Photo: Reuters)Premium
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey lamented the fact that because of ‘walled gardens’, the internet had lost its way and got increasingly centralized by large corporations, drifting away from the original vision of a decentralized and democratic web (Photo: Reuters)

The Tesla chief’s play for Twitter may signify a mission to decentralize control of internet chatter

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The New York Times had this story about Twitter: More than a decade ago, the platform was in the throes of a future-defining discussion. As new users discovered Twitter, most of the company was focused on scaling the existing business model, reminiscent of other ad-supported models like Facebook, Google, etc., to prepare for this hyper growth. Blaine Cook, a Twitter developer, differed. He argued for a different direction: the platform, he said, should not be a platform at all. “Instead, 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." However revolutionary the idea, Twitter did not support it and Cook eventually left. Twitter remained a walled garden.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey seemed to regret the decision. He lamented the fact that because of ‘walled gardens’, the internet had lost its way and got increasingly centralized by large corporations, drifting away from the original vision of a decentralized and democratic web. “I realize I’m partially to blame and regret it," he tweeted. He also turned the leadership over to Parag Agarwal and started an internal project called Bluesky, an endeavour to give users more control over their data, letting them curate tweets with their own algorithms and logic, build an open protocol for social media, opening the data to other platforms, and integrating cryptocurrency. Basically, Bluesky aims to give the power of data, monetization and control back to the users—the core principle of Web3. “If Bitcoin existed before Twitter existed, I think we’d see very different revenue models," Dorsey said.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk was having similar thoughts. Not accustomed to keep them to himself, he started sharing them with his 80 million-plus followers on the platform: “Twitter algorithm should be open source," he tweeted recently, asking his followers to vote on it. Dorsey voted ‘Yes’. Musk had also been chafing about centralization in tech. He open-sourced most Tesla patents, famously, so as not to own or centralize key EV intellectual property. He co-created OpenAI for the sharing of artificial intelligence research and breakthroughs with the world. The two planets collided when Musk reached out to Agarwal to discuss their shared vision and then announced a 9.2% stake in Twitter, making him its largest shareholder, though he later declined an offer to join its board. However, as this column goes to press, Musk has announced that he wants to buy 100% of Twitter.

Musk is known to shake up everything he touches, whether it is energy, space or crypto. How might he change Twitter, beyond just a possible edit button? The answer may go back to the original vision of the World Wide Web. Its founders wanted it to serve as an equalizer, to empower the long tail and eliminate monopolies and intermediaries. The Web did solve three big problems for us: An information problem with search and wikis, a communication gap with email and messengers, and a distribution one with file-sharing and e-commerce. But it couldn’t solve big issues of trust and disintermediation, and users today can’t be called its primary beneficiaries. In fact, Big Tech companies are more powerful than ever; they own all our data, which even Tim Berners-Lee worries about.

Musk’s vision seems to be around decentralized social networks, user ownership of data and radical transparency, all of which would aid the emergence of Web3. This could be atypical, revolutionary and iconoclastic, words that he identifies with. It would be a different way to create platforms: its basic technologies would be built openly, with every coder around the world able to see it. Users could tailor their social feeds and establish their own rules of what they want to see and do. This would be in contrast with the way Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are built, with “the companies dictating what posts can stay up and what should be removed." This is what Dorsey has been talking about for a while and been attracted to. The decentralized web, he says, has “the same sort of energy" as open source did, “It had the weirdness, it had the punk aspect of it."

A radical remake is a courageous thing to do, and radical transparency is good, but unhindered and uncensored free speech might prove very troubling, with a global clamour over the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories. The business models are unproven too, and there are scenarios where users might have to pay for Twitter access. But, if someone can pull it off, it is Elon Musk.

Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University.

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