War is breaking out on social media, and it could radically change how the internet works and how we experience it.
Last week, Meta rolled out Threads, a social media product similar to Twitter that quickly got over 100 million sign-ups. This is more than just a tech founder cage match — it is the latest incident in a pattern of increasing chaos. Large parts of internet community site Reddit went dark recently in a user protest over its decision to charge other companies more for using its data. This came right after the livestreaming platform Twitch walked back restrictions on creators after boycott threats. There’s change in the air in social media, and it is spreading fast.
I spent most of the past decade working at large social media companies. I briefly helped Elon Musk after his acquisition of Twitter, in which my firm is an investor. My firm is also an investor in Substack, Reddit and other social media companies, and our general partner Marc Andreessen is on the board of Meta.
I believe the skirmishes of the past few weeks are connected to one another and are worth paying attention to. They represent a fundamental rejection of how the internet and large tech companies have worked for several decades. Instead of being limited to a few large companies, we may be at the start of an era of many online spaces, where consumers could have more power and rights than they’ve ever had.
Think of the current large social networks as various European nations at the dawn of the 20th century. Often ruled by monarchs and autocrats (C.E.O.s), they exist in an uneasy balance with their own users and with one another.
Users and social networks have an unspoken agreement: In return for entertainment, utility and an audience, users hand over control. If the network chooses to kick you out, you’re out in the cold. Choosing to leave one platform means losing your audience forever. You can’t take it with you.
Large social networks act like geopolitical neighbors in an uneasy Westphalian peace with one another. They often move in lock step, swiftly introducing similar features. Stories on Snap? Copied by Instagram and YouTube. TikTok reels? See Reels and YouTube Shorts.
They are also aligned ideologically on what content to censor. Major companies agreed on how to handle theories on the origin of Covid or stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop, leading to what Evelyn Douek, a Stanford law professor, calls “content cartels.” In many ways, there has been a prevailing monolithic culture on how things get done.
In 1914, Europe seemed to be at relative peace, but there were cracks and tensions emerging. All it took was an assassination, initially seen as insignificant, to plunge the world into conflict. Similarly, in the first half of 2023 there has been a succession of online dominoes smashing the status quo of social media to smithereens, causing uprisings in several places.
The first domino was economic. As interest rates started to rise, social media companies discovered they weren’t immune to macroeconomic forces. C.E.O.s reacted with an increased emphasis on products that make money directly from the consumer and reducing employee head count.
The second domino was the introduction of A.I. assistants like ChatGPT. While many were blown away by their possibilities, they forced social media websites to re-evaluate how their data is used externally. Historically many websites like Reddit and Stack Overflow allowed some of their content — especially the discussions among their users on various topics — to be available free. This was typically done to allow search engines to find this content and send users back to these sites. Want to compare two highly recognized San Francisco restaurants? Enter their names and “Reddit” in Google, and recent Reddit conversations are likely to appear. Click on one of the links, and you’re now in Reddit (thereby boosting its business). Third-party developers also tapped this data to build useful tools on top of this content.
A.I. assistants rely on enormous amounts of such data and would hoover up that conversation about San Francisco restaurants. So if you ask an A.I. assistant for the names of San Francisco’s best restaurants, it could well use that Reddit discussion to generate its answer. But it won’t tell you that Reddit was a source for its answer. It won’t send you to Reddit. And as of now, it pays Reddit nothing for the help.
The third domino was Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Musk’s moves after he bought Twitter, they have sparked a chain reaction. Reddit’s C.E.O. cited Twitter as a template for how to cut costs. Meta’s Facebook and Instagram followed Twitter in charging for verification of individual users. Meta introduced Threads, the Twitter alternative. While it’s early days to see how this plays out, it is clear the social media landscape has shifted quickly and profoundly.
This takes us to the first key shift that may reshape how the internet works: decentralization. For over a decade, all major internet platforms have been “centralized” — services are run by a central team, often based in Silicon Valley.
Decentralized services try to bring modern democratic ideas to internet platforms. While social media giants endure a constant stream of accusations that they curate their content in a way that furthers political agendas, the goal of decentralization is a network that is credibly neutral in the way it works. The network should be able to resist attempts by any party to seize power and become centralized. Most important, no centralized gatekeeper can delete a user’s account or data — and you should be able to take your audience with you wherever you go.
Interest in decentralized services has been increasing for some time, as various groups have disagreed with the management of the platforms they use. One such service is Farcaster, a decentralized social network in which I’m a direct investor. Others are apps like Bluesky and Mastodon. Instagram has said Threads will support some flavor of this in the future.
The second major development is that large internet sites are fighting back against A.I. models with the internet equivalent of raising the castle drawbridge. The coding site Stack Overflow, Reddit and others have raised the prices for their data to be used. In Reddit’s case, the change had the effect of blocking some popular third-party applications, setting off continuing protests and blackouts.
We will need a fundamentally different mechanism for websites to exchange value with A.I. assistants. Otherwise, expect more raised drawbridges and more user protests. Some industry experts believe the answers are in legal action and older sites forming content alliances.
As a technologist, my hope is that the answers lie in code rather than lawyers and that we see creative technology solutions to help keep the internet open.
For far too long, the online world has been in stasis limited to a few options dominated by a few large companies. Technological breakthroughs and unrest were needed to shake things up, and that has happened. A pessimist might say that this is going to lead to chaos and challenges. As an optimist who invests in technology entrepreneurs for a living, I believe we are in for an age of major innovation, with all of us having more options and say in how things are run online.
Either way, it’s going to be one heck of a ride.
Sriram Krishnan is a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, and a co-host of the podcast “The Aarthi and Sriram Show.”
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