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Meta considers a new social network, as decentralized model gains steam

The parent of Facebook adds to growing momentum for platforms that let users control moderation policies

Facebook parent company Meta joins other tech companies in hoping to build an alternative to Twitter. (Nicolas Asfouri, Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Facebook parent company Meta is considering building a new decentralized social media network, joining a movement of other tech companies hoping to lure users away from an embattled Twitter with alternative internet platforms.

The company is exploring creating a stand-alone text-based social media network where “creators and public figures can share timely updates about their interests,” Meta spokeswoman Seine Kim said in a statement on Friday.

Meta’s latest product investment adds to the growing momentum for decentralized social media networks, where decisions about the platform aren’t in the hands of a single company or website, but instead controlled by communities of users themselves. In recent months, companies and media platforms have been announcing their own decentralized social media networks or expanding their reliance on and integration with existing ones.

Those companies want to expand their audience by offering everyday users and high-profile creators more freedom to shape their own experiences on social media while Twitter struggles to retain its influence as one of the world’s most important digital public squares under new owner Elon Musk. Advertising plummeted on Twitter after civil rights groups called for a marketing boycott in protest of Musk’s decision to lay off thousands of employees and loosen the company’s content moderation practices. Meanwhile, user growth appears to be stalling and is projected to decline nearly 4 percent in 2023, according to data from analytics firm Insider Intelligence.

“It’s a smart, aggressive move by [Meta chief executive Mark] Zuckerberg to try to disrupt the Twitter ecosystem,” said Dan Ives, a financial analyst with Wedbush Securities. “I think there’s an opportunity to gain share as users look for alternatives outside of Twitter.”

In many ways, Zuckerberg is following a path paved by others.

Bluesky, a decentralized social media company founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, recently launched in Apple’s App Store, though the platform is only accessible to invited users for now. As part of the project, Bluesky is building AT Protocol, a decentralized social media network that would allow individuals, businesses and organizations to host their own sites that will be able to communicate with one another. The group says users will be able to transport their accounts from one provider to the next and have some control over the algorithms that determine what they see.

Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York, said decentralized social media networks not only let users broadcast their views directly to a large audience, but also give them the ability to control their own experience of consuming content online.

“It allows far more people to speak and be heard than was ever enabled by mass media, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Jarvis said. “But the difficulty then becomes how the hell do you listen to all this? How do you find the good people? ”

Other platforms are building on the early success that seven-year-old Mastodon experienced last fall after Musk took over Twitter. Mastodon’s layout looks similar to Twitter, including the interface for responding to and sharing others’ comments in a news feed littered with hashtags. But Mastodon is a network of thousands of sites — called instances or servers — instead of a website controlled by a single company such as Twitter. Each server, often run by volunteers, sets its own rules for the type of content allowed on that particular instance, although users can see posts on other servers and interact with members of those communities.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing on Mastodon. Since its recent boom, some users have said they would prefer a company to play a more active role in curating what they see. Users also complained that it was hard to find their friends and family, and said sometimes the service was confusing.

Online publishing platform Medium announced in January that it would create its own instance on Mastodon so that its authors have access to a vetted, reliable social media space. Medium CEO Tony Stubblebine said at the time that the new instance would allow Medium’s community of authors to bring its traditions to social media.

“This ecosystem has existing community norms that are especially focused on avoiding the toxicity that have plagued other social media platforms,” he wrote.

Other established companies appear to be bringing ActivityPub — the open, decentralized social networking protocol that powers Mastodon and other social media platforms — into their existing networks. Last year, microblogging website Tumblr announced that it would support ActivityPub. Meta’s new social media network reportedly will include support for ActivityPub, according to financial news site Moneycontrol, citing people familiar with the matter. The app will require users to log in with their Instagram credentials, according to Moneycontrol, which first reported the project.

Mastodon’s creator sees Meta’s adoption of ActivityPub as a “very positive signal” and “validation” for the notion of decentralized social media.

“It also tells me that they don’t see themselves as strong enough to keep users locked inside their walled garden anymore,” Eugen Rochko wrote on Mastodon. “It means the tide is really turning for interoperable social media, and that’s always been the goal.”

It’s unclear whether volunteers or company staffers would help run individual servers or communities on Meta’s new platform, Jarvis said. There is also the question of how Meta plans to make money with it.

“There’s some trepidation about companies entering,” Jarvis said. “I think there’s value potentially in it.”

Will Oremus contributed to this report.