So many aspects of our lives today are intertwined with the digital world – consuming news and entertainment, sharing it with our social circles, discussing and debating online. But almost all of it takes place on platforms owned by Big Tech corporations. Whether it’s YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp in the US, or whether it’s Baidu, TikTok and WeChat in China, it seems that all our conversations are going through their servers, and all our media consumption is shaped by their algorithms.
Increasingly, governments and corporations seem to be working together in order to help shape the conversations people have, by promoting some narratives and deplatforming others. The platform infrastructure is concentrated in the hands of a few, and the back-end software that’s running it is under their control, not available to the people at large. Our public forums take place on these centrally controlled platforms. Can something be done to decentralize control back to the people?
We’ve already seen this play out once before. When the Internet was young, many hoped it would democratize access to information, and empower people around the world to communicate and solve problems in new ways. The tech industry went on to develop open protocols powering Email and the World Wide Web, allowing anyone around the world to send a message, or publish information that anyone in the world could consume.
But back in the 1990s, the open infrastructure was still developing and needed a lot of improvement. Most web browsers and email programs didn’t support images, videos, real-time chat, and weren’t user-friendly enough. This created an opportunity for companies like AOL (America Online), MSN (Microsoft Network), CompuServe and others to create closed networks in which people logged into, in order to consume news, to share content with each other, to chat. They were walled gardens which enticed people with free trials, and then charged them by the hour.
But it was these walled gardens that first gave a platform to publishers of news and entertainment to reach their audience online. Until then, they had cable, television, newspapers, magazines and radio, all of which had a limited number of pages or channels. Now, the doors opened to a practically unlimited selection of publishers, to reach an audience which would interact with their content, and with each other. The catch was that everything would be published, consumed and discussed through the closed platforms owned by AOL or MSN. People would read the New York Times by visiting “AOL Keyword NYTimes”, and AOL would make money by charging both sides of the market.
However, as the open Web matured and browsers got better, companies started to set up web sites like nytimes.com with all the content and features users could find inside the walled gardens. There was no longer any reason for people to stay inside, and many downloaded a web browser to get access to this new “wild west”. The Web became the largest open platform in the world, and web browsers came to be pre-installed on people’s computers, and later their mobile phones.
It was precisely the open, permissionless nature of the Web that enabled the next generation of tech giants to be launched, including Google, Facebook and Amazon. They are among the most valuable companies today, collectively serving over a quarter of the people on earth, but they would have likely never been able to get started inside the walled gardens of AOL or MSN.
Among these were the social networking platforms: starting with Facebook, MySpace and Friendster, the industry kicked off “Web 2.0”. Others followed, like Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. They took care of content distribution, real-time chat, delivering notifications, and more. They had slick interfaces, transcoded the videos people uploaded, they attracted advertisers, and they even offered to monetize the content if a channel attracted a lot of attention.
The “Web 2.0” platforms had once again made it easy for anyone to get started, but then they ended up owning all the data, and relationships between publishers and their audience. Now that all the communication and interaction was going through these platforms, they turned their attention to increasing the profits for their shareholders. Algorithms were designed to get people addicted, increasing “engagement” to the point where people spend hours a day scrolling through videos, and interrupting dinner to check their notifications. And to maximize profit, the algorithms started promoting video shorts, and outrage-generating clickbait, herding people into echo chambers. This has led to an increase in sadness, depression and polarization in political discourse around the world.
And with increasingly powerful AI, this may be just the beginning. Facebook (led by Mark Zuckerberg) renamed itself to Meta, and is working on the metaverse – a virtual reality environment for people to spend hours in every day. Meanwhile, Twitter (led by Elon Musk) renamed itself to X, and is working on an “everything app” that people will use for all kinds of everyday things in their lives, the way WeChat is already used in China. These companies have a history of rolling out features that users initially opposed, but have since had to accept. And on the back-end, of course, they collect all the data on centralized server farms, which presents an irresistible target for governments and intelligence agencies.
Just as with Web 1.0, the Open Source ecosystem can help liberate people from these new “Web 2.0” walled gardens. But it needs a software platform that can make it easy for anyone to launch their own social network, channel or community, without the Big Tech corporations.
In 2008, the New York Times went on to invest in WordPress, an open source web site publishing platform started by Matt Mullenweg, that now powers over 40% of all websites in the world. It has empowered many people and businesses to build their online presence outside of the control of Big Tech. Instead, they can choose from a free market of hosting companies that offer “one-click installs” of WordPress and other open source software. In addition, a worldwide ecosystem of WordPress themes, plugins, and certified developers lets people without any technical knowledge quickly put together a website or online store, and pay experts to maintain it. They can do all this in a free market where the providers compete, instead of being locked into a walled garden which maintains monopoly control over their relationship with their own audience.
But WordPress is more Web 1.0 than 2.0. It is based on PHP code dating back to 2004. New open source, decentralized platforms have been growing, although their user bases are still relatively tiny compared to the Big Tech platforms. As of March 2023, the decentralized social media platform Mastodon, started by Eugen Rochko, had about 10 million users. In May 2023, the network Nostr, started by Fiatjaf and Ben Arc, had attracted 18 million users.
By targeting existing websites and web hosting companies, Qbix hopes to kickstart a grassroots movement for people to launch decentralized communities that can’t be deplatformed, empowering people in countries with repressive regimes. Users would be able to have a social experience across websites, as seamlessly as they currently do with Facebook groups or Telegram channels. The platform has been architected from the ground up to safeguard people’s privacy and control. The long-term roadmap is based around what worked for WordPress: growing a decentralized ecosystem of hosting companies, themes, plugins and developers, but also community managers, moderators, translators, matchmakers, etc.
The advent of AI promises to transform our lives yet again. AI is already able to write articles, make comments, and generate multimedia at a scale that previously required armies of humans. Increasingly, communities will need to have their own, private platforms where they can be sure that they’re dealing with real humans and not AI bots and corporate algorithms. In the metaverse, too, people will need open source alternatives they can trust to power their immersive experiences for hours every day. Without them, people will increasingly spend time in corporate-controlled environments, even in the privacy of their own homes.
The same pattern we’ve already described will play out in AI and Metaverse ecosystems as well. The early platforms out of the gate have all been owned by large corporations like Google looking to make a profit – even OpenAI has flipped from being a nonprofit to a for-profit corporation. It’s expensive to train AI models on a computing cluster, and few for-profit companies are willing to give away the results to the open-source community. Thankfully, however, Mark Zuckerberg’s company Meta has ended up doing just that. Originally targeting researchers, their model got leaked and they have responded by embracing open source and many models to the community.
Greg Magarshak, the founder of the Qbix project, believes that there will need to be an open-source ecosystem for online services, whether they are done by humans or AI. Together with Ilya Presman, an AI engineer, he spun off a startup called EngageUsers.ai to do just that. Where WordPress powers blogs, and Qbix powers communities, EngageUsers.ai would enable a worldwide marketplace of “workflows” – various tasks that are broken down and farmed out to people around the world. This can include video post-production, translation, summarizing, community management, product sales, and other services, all done in exchange for micropayments settled in cryptocurrency around the world. While the services would originally be done by people, many might increasingly be offered by autonomous AI.
Today, we’re at a crossroads. The Big Tech platforms will continue to draw people further into their closed ecosystems, to collaborate with governments, and exercise control over what people say and think. But if the open-source community starts to produce platforms that are on par with what Big Tech offers, it may lure people away into a free market ecosystem, just like the Web once did with walled gardens like AOL and MSN in the 1990s. Looking around, those walled gardens are gone – the people have been freed.