The SamizdApp Manifesto
The public square is more than a romantic notion, it is a necessary place in a functioning society. A place where all are free to meet, to speak, and even to argue. A place where, free from coercion and censorship, people of all backgrounds and opinions may gather and converse. A place where knowledge is refined, where wisdom is cultivated, and where a better future is built both by and for everyone involved.
While the ideal public square may never exist in practice, it remains a principled aspiration, and one that never seemed closer at the dawn of the information age. The promise of a true digital public square was rendered poetically by the late John Perry Barlow:
“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity… …We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace."
The Declaration of Independence of Cyber Space, 1996
Two and a half decades later, it is safe to say that Barlow’s vision has hardly been realized. In contrast to a digital public square, we have a digital private square. In exchange for the convenience afforded by large centralized platforms, we have surrendered our ability to speak and associate freely.
Our information feeds are manipulated to maximize engagement. Dissenting voices are silenced in capitulation to the mob, the state, or both. Consensus is demanded, conflict is rewarded, and the contradiction drives us mad. Instead of Barlow’s civilization of the mind, we find ourselves in a tower of Babel. Between the rock of algorithmic manipulation and the hard place of social pressures, we are increasingly unable to communicate productively, let alone collaborate. Yet collaborate we must, if we are to have a hope of addressing the challenges of this century.
When a medium is so corrupting of its message, it is time to construct a new one. A new digital public square, constructed deliberately to render the right to civil discourse inviolable.
It will not be enough to duplicate functionality under a new masthead. Doing so would just create a new boss, same as the old boss. Platforms that arise without addressing the root causes of corruption will invariably become corrupted. Before we break ground, we need to understand the forces that will strike at our foundation.
The standard business model of the private square is ad-support. In most cases, maximizing ad revenue means maximizing the quantity of engagement regardless of its quality. Our attention becomes a commodity to be grown, harvested, and served to the highest bidder. As if by design, these attention farms derange our minds in pursuit of our time. We become users, with the screen as our drug of choice. What’s worse is that among the most potent highs provided by the screen is the righteous participation in social conflict. In this environment, mobs are a profit center, periodically appeased by the removal of heretics.
Increasingly, those with means find reprieve from the chaos of the attention farm behind the paywalls of patronage. Subscription services better align the interests of a platform and its users, but in so doing create a vulnerability to financial pressure in the form of boycotts.
Finally, we have calls for control from state actors. Whether motivated by genuine concern of the dangers of misinformation, or banal corruption, we see increasing interest from governments to "encourage" platforms to keep their servers clean of dissidence.
Taken together, the money, the mob, and the state all contribute to creating immense pressure on platform owners to manipulate and censor the public discussion. The fact that the people running these platforms reliably fold under this pressure is unfortunate, but not unexpected. Any solution that relies on the principled heroism of a single corporation is destined to eventual collapse.
We must build a platform that can operate without single points of failure or control, so that the flow of information is fundamentally immune to censorship. We must take control of our information feeds, recognizing that they are as important to a healthy mind as diet is to a healthy body.
The good news is that we have an immense reservoir of prior art to build upon. Since the dawn of the web, even as commercial activity has tended towards centralization, there has been consistent development and innovation in distributed technologies. For virtually every service in the digital pantheon, there exists a promising distributed alternative. Microblogging, forums, chat, video and audio podcasting, messaging, streaming... All are within reach. With the advent of blockchain technology, even currency need not depend on a fiat monopoly.
These decentralized applications, or dApps, offer an incredible opportunity and promise towards realizing the goals of a truly open web. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry for full technical participation in many of these systems mean that most people rely on third-party services to provide a bridge into the decentralized world. These gateway services then predictably become centralized access points in their own right, and the cycle continues.
The only tenable solution is to enable individuals to become first-class citizens in the dApp ecosystem. We need to solve the practical usability problems that get in the way of self-hosting, so that what is currently attainable by the technically minded minority becomes as easy to use as a Roku or an Apple TV.
In response to widespread censorship under the Soviet Union, dissidents would practice samizdat, or “self-publishing.” They copied writings by hand, pressed discarded x-ray film into records, and passed publications person to person to evade state control over the flow of information. In an environment where even typewriters were traceable, the practice of samizdat proved the will of unimpeded communication to be indomitable.
It is in this spirit, and in the face of the increasingly censorious and propaganda laden platforms upon which we depend to communicate, that we introduce The SamizdApp Project. We seek to assemble a platform owned and operated by the very people it serves, so as to realize the dream of a truly public square.
This list is not exhaustive, but represents a baseline from which we can evaluate potential solutions. Many of these priorities are in tension with each other, and it will be our job to thoroughly evaluate the trade-offs between them.
It is not enough to idealize a system in the abstract. It is imperative that such a system provides an immediate and salient value to the people who adopt it.
This means delivering real use cases from day one.
The platform must be as easy to adopt as possible, both for publishers and for members of the community. Participation should not be gated by technical competency.
This means using well familiar patterns of interaction, with minimal setup obstacles.
The deleterious effects of the digital private square are with us now, and being felt more keenly by the day. We do not have the time to build an ideal platform from whole cloth.
This means re-using and composing the technologies already at our disposal to move quickly.
In the original spirit of the world wide web, we must avoid the existence of any single point of failure or control, so that no single entity can limit the flow of information.
This means distributing the hardware infrastructure of the platform among participants.
Participants must have full control over the data they store and distribute, how it is filtered and presented, and with whom they choose to associate.
This means keeping all associations voluntary, and all content storage opt-in.
The platform must have no practical barriers to scale as participants join, nor should it lose other core properties in the process.
This means making efficient use of bandwidth and storage to disseminate popular content widely.
The platform should be able to support applications of all different types (microblogging, forums, chat, video and audio podcasting, messaging, streaming, etc).
This means having a service architecture that allows new applications to be developed, installed, and shared.
Participants should be free to inspect and modify the platform to suit their needs, and to share their modified versions of the platform.
This means keeping all protocols and code open-source, and allowing all participants to use the implementations of their choice.
For a platform to be sustainable, it needs to operate within the realities of the market. Developers, designers, and creators all need to get paid for the value they create in order for their participation to be worthwhile.
This means providing a business model that is both achievable in the short term and sustainable in the long term.
Head in the Cloud, Feet on the Ground
The best time to have properly decentralized the web was day one. The second best time is today. With terms of service being changed nearly by the day, and another censorious mob every week, we desperately need to realize the dream of the digital public square.
We know that the decentralized web is a vibrant place, and we have no desire to reinvent any wheels. At the same time, we observe that participation in decentralized mediums often requires more elbow grease than most people have patience for.
Just like Roku adapted internet streaming to TVs built around cable providers, we seek to adapt the decentralized web to phones and tablets built around central servers.
Most importantly, if you’re aware of existing projects that align with the vision of a digital public square worthy of the name, please contribute to our Ecosystem Review. The future belongs to those who build it together.
For progress updates, subscribe to this newsletter. As the project matures and access to a platform becomes more and more available, you’ll learn about it here.