Study Hacks Blog

Rethinking the Internet, Again

December 3rd, 2020 · 23 comments

In October, I wrote a blog post suggesting a framework for the social internet in which users own their own data, including social links, original content, and descriptions of their interests. In my proposal, social networks would compete to offer you the best experience using this common pool of information.

If you don’t like how Instagram is observing your behavior to sell ads, for example, you can now turn to an alternative site that has access to the same pictures and social connections, and can therefore show you the same material, but now with more privacy.

Similarly, if you don’t like Twitter’s content policies, you can turn to any number of alternative applications that have access to the same mini-posts, but can apply their own house rules about what they’ll display or recommend.

A lot of interesting things can happen, in other words, once individual companies can no longer hoard your information.

As many readers helpfully pointed out in response to my October post, I was not the first person to have this idea. I was particularly pleased to discover an open source project that attempts to implement something more or less exactly in line with this vision, and that’s headed by someone who knows a thing or two about the world wide web because, well, he invented it.

The project is named Solid and it was started by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who I used to occasionally see in the elevator at MIT, as his World Wide Web Consortium was headquartered on the floor below my office in the Stata Center.

The core idea of Solid is that people house their digital data in decentralized servers called Pods. You can run your own Pod server, or use a third-party server hosted by a company you trust. The key is that no one organization controls everything. Instead, as with the classic web, all servers can be accessed using a common protocol.

When a web site or application wants to use some of your data, it must now ask you for permission. Using cryptographic tools, you can then grant the requester access to exactly the information you want it to have, and it can use your permission to go gather this data from the relevant Pods. The reverse can also happen: with the right permission, a service can write new things to one of your Pods, such as adding a new social link, or a note from a healthcare provider.

No one company owns your information, and no company can use your information without you knowing. (Indeed, though not specifically referenced by the Solid project, this scheme might even enable Jaron Lanier’s provocative idea of micro-payments in exchange for monetizing your information.)

My short summary here doesn’t do justice to the complex technology underpinning Solid. You can find out more at the official project web site, or in this recent profile from Tech Crunch, which includes helpful case studies.

The larger point I want to emphasize is that we don’t have to settle for the current configuration of our online existence. There’s nothing inevitable about a setup in which a few mega-companies own all of our data and therefore dictate our digital culture.  We can do more than boycotts and legislative threats.

Thirty years ago, one man, working as a technology fellow at CERN, had an idea that completely changed the trajectory of the internet. Why couldn’t he — or someone like him — do it again?

#####

My friends at Mouse Books (as featured in Digital Minimalism) are at it again. They just launched a kickstarter for a special edition 3-book holiday collection dedicated to the topic of hell. Seems about right for 2020. If you’re looking for a high quality analog alternative to numbing yourself with your phone, check out this new series.

23 thoughts on “Rethinking the Internet, Again

  1. Shilpa says:

    Thank you for this post. I agree that these platforms need more privacy. The concept of them is good but when they first sky rocketed as apps there was no privacy built in and attempts to make these apps more private have failed. People assume that being a friend on FB is like being a friend in real life, but with FB you can hog a person’s attention for much longer. I think that people remember what they see on apps like FB as well for longer periods of time, leading to events like burnt out, depression, and anxiety. I think FB started as an innocuous college thing where people would post events on but then it monopolized so many other areas of the internet. I blame FB for a lot of decrease in productivity due to a lack of privacy. I think like all social media platforms you live and learn, it was a valuable social experiment but I can’t help but feel my college and graduate school experiences would have been much better without Facebook.

    That being said there are studygram communities on YT and IG that can be valuable in sustaining focus. But again if you rely on comments or likes to boost motivation than you can get into trouble if the likes or comments drop off for some reason.

    I personally use YT for memory storage and a place to house my academic notes and random misc. how to topics, but not for money. The introduction of monetization and likes and subscribers on YT have turned YT into a headache to deal with as well.

    I wish there was a time dial fifteen years ago to get rid of FB.

    Have you seen channels like https://www.youtube.com/c/studyign

    These are productive forms of YT.

  2. Shilpa Reddy says:

    I think everyone was better off relying on photobucket rather than FB for picture storage.

    1. I think you are right, but for me it was Flickr.

      Likewise, I just found this article with interesting and compelling thoughts, and got me to thinking of this post here from Cal.

      “That means getting away from huge platforms and moving onto a much more localised plane. Not necessarily localised geographically. Just localised in terms of reach. Whereas small networks within the Fediverse are near useless for ambitious publishers, they can actually be an improvement on the likes of Twitter and Facebook when it comes to making friends. Much smaller communities, with no celebrities or influencers, and fewer distractions. In my view the social media format is itself an inhibitor of real social interaction, but smaller is better.
      And for me, email has been better still. Since I’ve been writing online, I’ve actually found email to be a lot more genuinely social than social media or forums. If you have a blog with a contact form, and your posts become visible on the search engines, people who share your interests will start to contact you. And very often they’ll be people who don’t use social media. Without the distraction of social media’s never-ending bombardment, these email exchanges can become much more reminiscent of an offline friendship, and can even move offline on occasion.”

      The Very Alternative Guide to Quitting Social Media – https://popzazzle.blogspot.com/2020/12/the-very-alternative-guide-to-quitting-social-media.html

  3. Lucas Davison says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this post all week. Thanks, Cal!
    Very random question, but do you prefer to be called “Cal,” “Professor Newport,” or “Dr. Newport?” Lol

    1. EA says:

      “His Royal Highness Lord Professor Sir Doctor Newport”.

      1. Joe says:

        Your forgot Esquire.

  4. Todd says:

    > horde your information

    https://grammarist.com/spelling/hoard-horde/

    Yeah, I’m that guy.

  5. Bob Riley says:

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention Cal, I hadn’t heard of this before. I started doing some research after your post and kept seeing the competitor project “Elastos” mentioned in the comments of Strong articles/videos. Apparently Elastos is blockchain-based. Do you have any opinion about the pros/cons of Solid vs Elastos?

  6. I’ll look more into this tomorrow.

    BTW, I just bought a copy of the book Stop Reading the News by Rolf Dobelli. I highly recommend people reading that book and curb their news reading altogether in the next year. I’m a recovering information addict and one of the common themes to all the books I’ve read this year is that news media is actually pretty terrible when it comes to informing for a whole variety of reasons. Dobelli’s book is the perfect way to help people kick their news addiction to the curb.

    1. Tyler Morgan says:

      I recently cancelled my subscription to the New York Times and picked up an annual subscription to The Economist (a weekly instead of daily publication), all in an effort to curb my habit of mindlessly checking the news for updates throughout the day. I also feel that it will be better to spend only a few hours a week reading articles that were developed over the course of a week, rather than spending an hour or so a day reading articles that were developed over the course of hours. As someone who has read and subscribed to the NYT for around ten years, I’m curious to see how this goes.

      Dobelli’s book on the topic seems like a good read, and I’d love to see some articles here that explore how to strike the right balance between keeping informed and avoiding distractions / information overload.

      1. Kathryn Romero says:

        Thank you both! I will have to check out the book and the Economist. I also wanted to share a quote from James Clear’s website that I saw yesterday.
        https://jamesclear.com/overrated-underrated

        Pull Quote: By default, any good book that is more than 10 years old is filled with life-changing ideas. Why? Because bad books are forgotten after a decade or two. Any lasting book must be filled with ideas that stand the test of time. Meanwhile, the news is filled with fleeting information. We justify paying attention to the media because we think it makes us informed, but being informed is useless when most of the information will be unimportant by tomorrow. The news is just a television show and, like most TV shows, the goal is not to deliver the most accurate version of reality, but the version that keeps you watching. You wouldn’t want to stuff your body with low quality food. Why cram your mind with low quality thoughts?

        1. Richmund M. Meneses says:

          Since Clear quotes Naval Ravikant at the beginning of Atomic Habits, I’ll use another Ravikant quote,

          “What is timeless is mathematics, physics, philosophy, computer science. News and media are temporary, and fade away.”

        2. Joe says:

          CS Lewis beat him to that concept quite a while ago:

          “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

          https://reasonabletheology.org/cs-lewis-on-reading-old-books/

          As Lewis, and I’m sure Clear, will say, it’s not that the new books are bad, it’s just that the old ones have stood the test of time for one reason or another.

      2. Joe says:

        I do The Economist and Foreign Policy (a quarterly publication with a high quality online presence). I’ll usually gather a month of The Economist and either the print edition of FP or a selection of their online only articles that I think I’ll find interesting (like their recent one on the influence of Turkish drama series on Pakistanit culture) and read them on a weekend morning at a local coffee shop.

  7. palladion says:

    Thank you for your post. I came across solid a few months back and was very excited because I have a passion for privacy and solid seems very promising. Unfortunately there is one important issue I see with the approach. Solid can not protect your data from duplication. What I imagine will happen is that useful apps accessing a pod’s/user’s data will keep a local copy and crawl all the information they can get and then keep on going like before. My guess is that there is some way to disincentivize that or make it infeasible (secure execution, multiparty computation, etc) but I wonder about performance and usability. It is an exciting project and I hope that it will take off—so thank you to bringing it to more people’s attention.

  8. Pedro says:

    A related article by the always thoughtful Fukuyama:

    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-11-24/fukuyama-how-save-democracy-technology

    He mentions some technical downsides of this privately owned information, which has to be abstracted, not peculiar to a specific site, which goes against the complexity of the way social media sites work.

    He proposes regaining control at a different level: middleware. This basically means, keep the data with the social media companies, but get more visibility and choice over the way it is labelled, suppressed, and prioritized.

  9. Kathryn Romero says:

    I don’t really understand a lot of the technical side of this but I am concerned about privacy. I recently watched documentary The Social Dilemma. I think that people are focusing too much on the fact that these companies “know” things about you and target ads toward you. For the most part, this is what television (and newspapers and just mass media) does in general. The tech just allows it to be far more focused. This focus can be a benefit. If I am not interested in something, I do not want to see ads for it. If I am interested in something, I may not mind seeing an ad for it and I may even be glad to see it.

    It isn’t the “knowing” that bothers me. It’s the judging. To give a recent example, every post with “election” in it on Youtube and Facebook are being labeled. That is disturbing to me.

    I guess the best analogy I can provide is this. Imagine that you are sitting in the student union with your friends wearing a Beatles tee shirt. If someone came over and handed you a flyer for a Beatles-tribute band that would be playing downtown later, you would happy that they saw your shirt, and decided to approach you with that information. But if they approached you with a pamphlet titled “35 Ways the Rolling Stones are Better Than the Beatles” you would not be happy about it. Or if they butted into your conversation with your friends to correct your grammar, etc.

    I’m struggling to get my thoughts on this topic together. But my point is that advertising may not be the biggest issue with social media.

    1. Nicolas Beaumont says:

      The problem is the filter bubble, you should read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. When we enter a filter bubble we allow the companies that build it to choose options that we are not aware of, personalization can lead us to a certain type of informational determinism in which what we click on in the past determines what we are going to see then, a web history that we are doomed to repeat again and again.

      1. Kathryn Romero says:

        Okay. Thank you!

  10. Seb says:

    Dear Cal,
    I am a long time reader, thank you so much for your content, its amazing to see you grow.
    It seems to me, that you might enjoy a lot of ideas that are discussed in the blockchain space. what do you think about the blockchain? what would be alternative technologies that would allow for micropayments or ideas like solid ?

  11. Luke Isbel says:

    Hi Cal, really great to see a whole post dedicated to Solid!

    @Palladion I understand your worries about others keeping local copies of data that they shouldn’t and misusing them, and concerns that technical mitigations piled on top of each other could hobble usability and performance.

    That’s definitely a challenge if we limit ourselves to technical solutions.

    But it’s a solvable (and solved) problem if you layer it with industry standards, regulation, and business models.

    Financial Services (whatever other criticisms you might aim at them) have largely got this right. Standards like PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) aren’t regulations, but are enforced with teeth. Regulations like Open Banking enable real world data sharing, Solid style, with regulatory backed controls. Each one has chinks in their armour, but together provide layered protection and a culture – supported by user expectations – that organisations will take financial data protection extremely seriously.

    Social media companies have a huge self interest in promoting the idea that there is no alterative to their way of doing things, which says that enforcement or government regulation can’t possibly address technological inevitabilities – the “Inevitabilism” strategy of surveillance capitalists described by Shoshana Zuboff. Financial Services is evidence it’s not “inevitable”.

    Another factor that can help is transparently ethical business models, as Cal alludes to in the Jaron Lanier micropayments suggestion example and as shown in the decision to build an openly (and legitimately) profit making startup built on top of, but separate to, the Solid open source project. Ethical businesses need to make enough money to survive so that people can use them at scale. Other examples are organisations like NextCloud and ProtonMail who are open about how they make money, what they share as Open Source, and that they choose not to harvest your data and use it against you.

    So I think there is hope all round, and real world counterexamples of where this stuff can work, or be made to work through refining it. We just need to keep insisting on it.

  12. Aviv Kotek says:

    Cool notion & writing, thanks cal!

  13. Miguel Amaral says:

    I have three concerns about the ideas offered:

    In regards to “switching” to alternative applications/sites for more data privacy, I don’t think most people would do this quite so easily as people like to congregate where their friends are. You don’t leave a popular network for a unpopular network without some strong nudge from your already existing social connections (or some other enticing reason), just the same as you don’t leave an good bar for a quiet boring one (perhaps initially) without a very convincing friend!

    Secondly, in regards to people having their own data Pods, there is the problem that once companies gain access to your Pod, they simply copy and store a local copy of your data on one of their servers. The concern is that they store more than agreed upon. But I suspect there is some cryptography magic that can be done to restrict access only to important data necessary for the “transaction” to take place. This may only be a minor issue to solve.

    Lastly, while the data Pod sounds great, it may be too much work for the average consumer. I may be pessimistic, but I don’t think most people have the ability or desire to track all of their data and its connections through the web. If we could make the user interface of this data Pod “hub” easy to navigate (perhaps like a personal library, where you know who has checked out which books – pieces of data in this case – !), make it feel like home, or like a personal journal, then people would be open to using this platform. I wonder how much more complicated this will turn out in the backend.

    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts Cal 🙂

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