Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has called for “people with serious grievances against social media” to go on strike from social media for two days to “demand that giant, manipulative corporations give us back control over our data, privacy, and user experience”.

On July 4 and 5, Sanger is urging users to log out of social media to urge the global developer community to focus on a new system of decentralised social media, encouraging strikers to use the hashtag #socialmediastrike to publicly declare their grievances with social media giants.

Sanger has drafted a “Declaration of Digital Independence”, which calls for individuals to own their own data, the privacy rights of users to be protected, and the ability to publish their data freely. The declaration says social media companies should make user data available to use at the user’s discretion.

In the declaration, Sanger, and the 1,600 people who have signed it, have pledged their commitment to “newer and better networks”:

“We hold that to embrace these principles is to return to the sounder and better practices of the earlier Internet and which were, after all, the foundation for the brilliant rise of the Internet. Anyone who opposes these principles opposes the Internet itself. Thus we pledge to code, design, and participate in newer and better networks that follow these principles, and to eschew the older, controlling, and soon to be outmoded networks.”

Decentralised social media has had high-profile endorsements

This is the latest instance of one of the figures instrumental in establishing the internet as we know it today speaking out against the environment created by social media giants and backing decentralised social media.

A decentralised or distributed social network is essentially a platform that is distributed across different providers rather than being controlled by one single entity. This means that one organisation is not the sole owner of the data generated, but rather users take control of their own data.

Tim Berners-Lee, whose work went on to form the basis of the World Wide Web, is now a well-known critic of his own creation, championing a decentralised approach.

Last year was the anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, and Berners Lee did not refrain from speaking out against the internet, which has “created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”. He was also particularly critical of the power and influence of social media giants, powered by realms of data.

Since 2015, he has been working on a new web infrastructure called Solid, or SOcial LInked Data, which rethinks how websites treat personal data.

A website running using Solid would allow users to determine where their data is stored instead of companies owning it, meaning they can decide if and when a company can access it. In other words, the data would be separate from the website on which it is created, with users storing their own data on their own servers, known as Personal Online Data Stores, or PODs.

As social media companies’ wrong-doings hit the headlines, some are now looking to decentralisation as the future. Sanger is involved in the running of a site called Everipedia, a Wikipedia-style online encyclopedia that has been stored on the EOS blockchain since 2017, and is therefore decentralised.

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Even Mark Zuckerberg has publically supported the concept of decentralised platforms, reportedly saying that he believed “very strongly” in trying to decentralise and put power in individuals’ hands following Facebook’s 2018 Q4 results. However, given Facebook’s reliance on user data, it seems unlikely that in reality Zuckerberg would welcome decentralisation.

Is this enough?

Despite calls for decentralised social media from well-known figures in the tech world, as well as growing fears over user privacy, existing alternatives to social media platforms, namely Diaspora and Mastodon, have so far failed to gain momentum.

With the likes of Facebook and Instagram looking to create “super apps” with all online activities taking place within one platform, it may become even harder for users to disentangle themselves from social media giants, creating barriers for networks looking to attract new users.

Furthermore, entrusting users to manage their own data brings with it security concerns of its own, as having data stored in users’ own homes may make it just as vulnerable to being stolen.

Popular science writer and author of Big Data: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our Lives, Brian Clegg believes that for most internet users, decentralised social media platforms do not offer enough to entice them to make the switch:

“In itself the benefits of using Solid are probably not direct and personal enough for most users to care too much, so there would have to be added value provided in some way. I don’t think having your an app seamlessly combining calendar, to-do list, messaging and music library, say, provides that added value. I can’t see any benefit from having Spotify, say, in the same app as my calendar. History has generally shown that ‘Swiss Army knife apps’ are terrible and aren’t very popular (think, for example, IBM’s long struggle to make the horrible Lotus Notes work). Modern apps work together pretty well, and their separate nature means we can mix and match, rather than take the ‘one size fits all, but not very well’ approach. Academics tend to have too much of a UNIX, knit-your-own software view of the world.”