Why is a genuine estate billionaire spending $100m trying to fix social media?

22 June, 2021
Why is a genuine estate billionaire spending $100m trying to fix social media?
Frank McCourt, the billionaire real estate mogul and former owner of the LA Dodgers, is pouring $100 million into an attempt to rebuild the foundations of social media.

The effort, which he has loftily named Project Liberty, centres on the construction of a publicly accessible database of people’s social connections, allowing users to move records of their relationships between social media services rather than being locked right into a few dominant apps.

The undercurrent to Project Liberty is a fear of the power that a few huge companies - and particularly Facebook - have amassed over the past decade.

“I never thought I would be questioning the security of our underlying systems, namely democracy and capitalism,” Mr McCourt said.

“We live under frequent surveillance, and what’s happening with this massive accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, that’s incredibly destabilising. It threatens capitalism because capitalism will need some kind of fairness in it so that you can survive.”

Mr McCourt is hardly the only person to feel this way. Others want to reform social media by passing new laws or regulations, waiting for another generation of start-ups to disrupt the current incumbents or pressuring Facebook to look inward and revise its business design. Mr McCourt, along with others such as for example Twitter leader Jack Dorsey, say the answer may be blockchain, the technology underpinning bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Project Liberty would use blockchain to create a fresh internet infrastructure called the Decentralised SOCIAL MEDIA Protocol.

With cryptocurrencies, blockchain stores details about the tokens in everyone’s digital wallets; the DSNP would do the same for social connections.

Facebook owns the info about the social connections between its users, giving it a massive advantage over competitors. If all social media companies drew from a common social graph, the theory goes, they’d need to compete by offering better services, and the opportunity of any single company becoming so dominant would plummet.

Building DSNP falls to Braxton Woodham, the co-founder of the meal delivery service Sun Basket and former chief technology officer of Fandango, the movie ticket website.

Mr Woodham had been toying with the thought of building something similar to DSNP, but didn’t imagine anyone will be interested in investing in it. When he mulled the theory over with Mr McCourt, he says, “I just thought we were discussing our daydreams, I didn’t think it had been something we’d actually do”.

Instead, Mr McCourt hired Mr Woodham to build the protocol and pledged to put $75m into an institute at Georgetown University in Washington and Sciences Po in Paris to analyze technology that serves the normal good. The others of his $100m will go toward pushing entrepreneurs to build services that utilise the DSNP. Mr McCourt calls this his third try to fix social media, after previously investing in tech companies he thought would help transform just how people interact online.

His previous attempts convinced him that entrepreneurs should be supported by academic thinkers exploring the industry’s biggest ethical questions.

The blockchain protocol idea echoes a project Jack Dorsey has been pushing at Twitter called Bluesky. Mr Dorsey has been at the centre 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 decrease the stakes when private companies make user decisions.

“The reason why I have so much passion for Bitcoin is largely because of the model it demonstrates: a foundational internet technology that's not handled or influenced by any single individual or entity,” Mr Dorsey tweeted on January 13. “This is exactly what the internet really wants to be, and as time passes, more of it will be.”

While the power of social media companies makes many persons uneasy, critics also accuse them of not wielding their power effectively, enabling abusive behaviour.

A decentralised method of social media could actually undermine the energy of content moderation, by so that it is easier for users who are kicked off one platform to simply migrate their audiences to more permissive ones. Mr McCourt and Mr Woodham say blockchain could discourage bad behaviour because persons would be linked with their posts forever.

Before Project Liberty grapples with such problems it must worry about attracting enough persons to matter. The existing method of doing things is deeply entrenched and Project Liberty is proposing that the complete internet start doing things drastically differently.

Eventually, the group plans to create its consumer product along with the DSNP infrastructure, and wrote in a news release that the result will be an “open, inclusive data economy where individuals own, control and derive greater social and monetary value from their private information”.

Mr McCourt also believes that recent history has underscored the dysfunction of the existing system, punctuated by the misinformation-fuelled riot at the US Capitol on January 6. What do social media users really have to lose?

“Consider the cesspool that’s been created,” he said. “Consider the reality that the web has become.”
Source: www.thenationalnews.com
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