Forgive Blaine Cook at this moment.
Since Elon Musk acquired Twitter in October, the billionaire has ignited the social media app Cook helped create as a founding engineer 16 years ago.
Since buying Twitter for $44 billion, Musk has fired the company’s CEO and board of directors, laying off about half of its 7,500 staff. This includes moderators who have been indicted for fighting disinformation.
Accordingly, users are starting to look for alternatives to Twitter. Now a principal engineer at coding firm Fission and living in Nelson, Cook couldn’t be happier.
“I think it was always inevitable because the idea of a handful of companies controlling all of human communication was always unacceptable.”
In 2006, while Cook was working at a podcasting company called Odeo, his colleague Jack Dorsey pitched him the idea of a new social network. Cook joined the project and later that year he became the engineer for a text called twttr, which he originally launched as a messaging service.
With Twitter’s skyrocketing popularity, Cook suggested a new direction for the app. Not only do people interact with other Twitter users of hers, but it decentralizes the network to allow conversations between users on competing platforms.
Cook believes that Twitter, which had only about 10 employees at the time, was incapable of accommodating that growth. Open protocols mean partners can share the burden of content moderation while fostering innovation.
Cook worked with engineers at another social media company to prototype the concept. However, the pitch failed and Cook was fired in 2008.
In the years leading up to it, Cook had been preaching the possibilities of decentralized social media. Now, when users leave his Twitter to join Mastodon, another social media app that features the same concept Cook once pitched, the moment is “14 years of getting it right once. It’s been proven in the past,” he says.
Mastodon is still not as simple or intuitive as Twitter. New users sign up for a server, also called an “instance”, from which they access Mastodon. Users can follow other users on different servers, but the app doesn’t have a universal verification badge to indicate whether an account is real or a parody.
Finding a specific user is also difficult without knowing which server that user is on, and if a server goes down, all accounts and posts on that server go down.
But it also has some obvious advantages over Twitter.
Timelines are entered chronologically rather than algorithmically, so users see the posts they want, not what the app thinks you want. is also hidden, making it a refreshing experience for those who are tired of seeing their Facebook timeline pop up all the time.
Cook believes Mastodon will overcome its growing pains, just as Twitter once did. Twitter’s timeline initially required scrolling on pre-touchscreen phones, but the innovation he did was through third-party apps like TweetDeck (which he bought Twitter in 2011). was broken.
“There wasn’t a lot of friction on Mastodon,” Cook said. “You develop things with friction.
This evolution excites Cook because of the potential for integration with other services. A decentralized social network allows a user to post to multiple apps from her one account. Tumblr, for example, announced on November 21 that it would add support for user posts to appear on Mastodon’s timeline.
On Twitter, verification, identified by blue checkmarks typically found on celebrity and brand accounts, may also eventually improve with decentralized networks, Cook said.
Individual organizations like Nelson Star, with active Twitter accounts that have never been verified, were able to set up servers and verify their own staff as users. That cost was slightly higher than his provider’s cost of a domain name and monthly host server.
Cook said it would be impossible for a single social media company to verify the identity of every user. Ideally, he says, there should be one verification that can be used anywhere online and provides only the information necessary to verify identity.
To illustrate this point, Cook uses the example of displaying IDs in bars. Identity theft is less common when bouncers are checking cards, but in addition to verifying age, they also verify details that don’t require entering a bar, such as home address and gender.
“What we need is a way to communicate that I am 21 years old. I have proof that I am 21 years old, signed by the Government of Canada, but who I am. I can’t teach you.”
However, Cook doesn’t believe governments should build their own social networks. Aside from obvious censorship concerns, the lack of required infrastructure and competition as seen in Canada’s mobile he wireless market means there is no need for government regulation.
Instead, Cook believes community organizations, nonprofits and cooperatives should consider building networks. Libraries, he suggests, are ideal hosts for networks due to the comprehensive nature of their services.
Will all this actually happen? Will people turn away from Twitter and Facebook for decentralized social networks? Cook isn’t sure. But he hopes they will.
“I don’t know how it will fall. I don’t know how it will feel. I can’t wait.”