Frank McCourt, the billionaire real estate mogul and former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is investing $100 million in an attempt to rebuild the foundation of social media. The effort, which he has proudly named Project Freedom, focuses on building a publicly accessible database of people’s social connections, allowing users to move records of their relationships between social networking services. instead of being locked into a few dominant apps.
The background to Project Freedom is the fear of power that a few large companies, and specifically Facebook Inc., have accumulated over the past decade. “I never thought that I would be questioning the security of our underlying systems, namely democracy and capitalism,” McCourt said. “We live under constant surveillance and what is happening with this massive accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few is incredibly destabilizing. It threatens capitalism because capitalism needs to have some form of justice in order to survive.”
McCourt isn’t the only one who feels this way. Others are trying to reshape social media by passing new laws or regulations, waiting for the next generation of startups to disrupt existing ones, or pressing Facebook to look inward and revisit its business model. McCourt, along with others like Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey, say the solution may be blockchain, the technology that underpins bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
Project Liberty would use blockchain to build a new internet infrastructure called Decentralized Social Networking Protocol. With cryptocurrencies, the blockchain stores information about the tokens in everyone’s digital wallets; the DSNP would do the same for social connections. Facebook owns the data about the social connections between its users, giving it a huge advantage over its competitors. If all social media companies were based on a common social graph, the theory goes, they would have to compete by offering better services, and the chance of any single company becoming so dominant would plummet.
Building DSNP falls to Braxton Woodham, co-founder of meal delivery service Sun Basket and former CTO of Fandango, the movie ticket website. Woodham had been toying with the idea of building something like DSNP, but didn’t imagine anyone would be interested in investing in it. When he pondered the idea with McCourt, he says, “I thought we were talking about our dreams, I didn’t think it was something we’d actually do.”
Instead, McCourt hired Woodham to develop the protocol, pledging to invest $75 million in an institute at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and Sciences Po in Paris to research technology that serves the common good. The rest of his $100 million will go towards encouraging entrepreneurs to create services that use the DSNP. McCourt calls this his third attempt to fix social media, after previously investing in tech companies he thought would help transform the way people interact online. His previous attempts convinced him that entrepreneurs need to be supported by academic thinkers exploring the industry’s biggest ethical questions.
The blockchain protocol idea echoes a project Dorsey has been pushing on Twitter called Bluesky. Dorsey has been at the center of the fight over how companies like his should police their users. He said after Twitter banned former President Donald Trump that a blockchain-based social graph would lower the stakes when private companies make user decisions. “The reason I am so passionate about Bitcoin is in large part due to the model it demonstrates: a fundamental Internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any individual or entity,” Dorsey tweeted on Jan. 13. wants to be, and in time, more of it will be.”
While the power of social media companies makes many people uncomfortable, critics also accuse them of failing to wield their power effectively, allowing for abusive behavior. A decentralized approach to social media could actually undermine the power of content moderation, by making it easier for users who get kicked out of one platform to simply migrate their audiences to more permissive ones. McCourt and Woodham say that blockchain could discourage bad behavior because people would be tied to their posts forever.
Before Project Liberty deals with such problems, it has to worry about attracting enough people to matter. The current way of doing things is deeply entrenched, and Project Liberty proposes that the entire Internet start doing things radically differently. Eventually, the group plans to build its own consumer product on top of the DSNP infrastructure, writing in a press release that the end result will be an “open and inclusive data economy where individuals own, control, and derive greater social and economic value.” of your personal information.”
McCourt also believes that recent history has underscored the malfunctioning of the current system, accentuated by the misinformation riot at the US Capitol on January 6. What do social media users really have to lose? “Look at the cesspool that has been created,” he said. “Look at the reality that the internet has become.”