News & Analysis

Mozilla Bats for Decentralization

The folks that created the first open source browser say social networking too needs to outside the ambit of Big Tech companies

In case you have tried out Mastodon, a free and open source software to run self-hosted social networking services, here’s a clarion call to do so. And it comes from none other than Mozilla, the entity that created an open source browser nearly two decades ago. These folks believe that social networking needs to reinvent towards a customer-first approach where all authority isn’t centralized with the CEO of a Big Tech company. 

An interview with Mozilla Senior Director of Content Carolyn O’Hara published by TechCrunch says there’s a dire need to rethink social networking from the ground up. The company, which already has several open-source apps is pitching “Fediverse” that is nothing but a decentralized social networking applications that communicate over the ActivityPub protocol. 

While the technology monoliths have always believed in capturing, storing and then owning customer data (with or without a by-your-leave), what seems to have prompted this call from Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation could be inflection point engineered by Elon Musk’s acquisition of of Twitter and turning it into a toxic network that thrives on money and for it. 

Shift from profit-driven to consumer-driven

Social networks today are run by large corporations where advertisers pay the bills, O’Hara noted, adding that this has resulted in social networks being profit-driven with lesser focus on consumer needs. There could be a better way forward and Mozilla wants to take the lead and plunge in at a time when public angst over the profit-first approach is peaking. 

The company, which announced Fediverse last December and launched Mozilla.Social on private beta in May, has made all its social efforts available via GitHub. O’Hara said Mozilla came forth after looking at the profit-motivated social networking models that put engagement rates over the fact that toxic content was being shared more and more. 

“They aren’t putting forward the kind of standards that are good for people, but are just good for their bottom lines,” she says in the interview while noting that consumers are feeling the vibes that these platforms aren’t working for them. Several friends and colleagues of our team confirmed that they’d gone off Twitter (now X) after the Musk takeover and commercialization. 

Why the opportunity for change is right now

This discontent is what presents the opportunity to create a social networking space ground up. “We’re not seeking to get, like 2 billion users on our instance. We want people to have choice and agency,” she said. Of course, the priority focus now is to tackle some hurdles that may have prevented users from joining and participating in the Fediverse. 

Users, including this writer, found it tough to set up a private social network, onboarding folks on to it and finding others to follow as part of efforts to discover interesting content. Now, O’Hara says, users would be able to join with their Mozilla accounts that provide access to Firefox, the VPN, Pocket and other products. 

What’s Mozilla actually working on?

Though these upgrades aren’t live yet, they’re being tested by hundreds of users. “We’re keeping the number intentionally small and we’re prioritizing the groups that we’re proactively reaching out to. The communities we’ve worked with previously will have first access to the private beta, some of which will include folks from the waitlist,” she said. 

For now, there aren’t any timelines for a possible public launch though the company says it plans to continue with experiments through next year. There’s Mozilla’s Discover feed that hopes to surface engaging content and keep gathering signals from the Fediverse to determine what works for whom. By integrating its Pocket app, the company could also store links to content that users have signaled as a read-later option. 

The idea is to make Content the King again

Another focus area is to target creators and publishers seeking to broaden their audience. The idea is to seed conversations and experiences with high-quality content. O’Hara considers this segment a key constituent of the Fediverse journey with originators of content that leads to engaging conversations (minus the toxicity) coming into sharper focus in the journey towards building this new social network from ground up. 

The official noted that Mozilla was discussing these aspects with publishers with a call to them around Mastodon as a must-have for future networking and not something that flickers briefly. Using the inputs from these customer segments, Mozilla intends to build features and drive efforts that could help better audience reach and broader engagements. 

“The baseline is just better onboarding, better connecting with accounts and communities,” says O’Hara while noting that it is about accepting that users have the right to choose the kinds of conversations they want to have, trust and practice safely. And content that spurs them must be perceived as the seeds that germinate good content. 

And to top it all, Mozilla is also looking to create spaces where consumers can have direct conversations in a civil manner across smaller communities. However, O’Hara isn’t clear about the contours of these spaces and says only experimentation will tell us. But she’s unequivocal about the need for trust and safety with strict measures enunciated in policies around hate speech, impersonation, harassment, sexual content and misinformation. 

Of course, all of this begs the question around how many people actually want safety online and are willing to forego their brief moments of fame in the toxic world of networks such as X that prioritized free speech managed by crowd-sourced moderation. Studies have shown that hate speeches and toxicity have indeed created more engagement. 

Maybe, the human race has just turned more toxic and doesn’t really require safe spaces so long as they can shoot-and-scoot on a public network. Only time will tell whether Mozilla’s efforts work or go the Pebble way. 

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