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Why every social network should be open source

JackDec 11, 2020, 7:58:35 PM
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Open source software has always been Minds' most important differentiator from big tech and alternative social networks. For many people, however, the term "open source" does not mean much. With this blog I will share my thoughts on the importance of this concept in the realm of social networking technology.

First and foremost, let's understand what the term open source means. 

Wikipedia defines it as "a type of computer software in which source code is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose."

Minds is currently licensed under AGPLv3, a free, copyleft license published by the Free Software Foundation. All of our source code is publicly available at https://gitlab.com/minds where anyone is free to contribute to the project, use the code or inspect the code. This is where Minds conducts all of its software development and project management, all out in the open.

We have reached a point in time where the distribution and availability of information has reached all-time highs. Never in our history have we had such tremendous access to information from so many different sources at the tip of our fingers. Social media is what has enabled this because it  gave every human a platform and a voice.

In the beginning, the concept was simple. Create a profile. Subscribe or follow other profiles and get 100% of the content they post delivered to your newsfeed. But then things changed. A handful of companies exploded in user growth and gained unprecedented control over the distribution of information on the Internet. Platforms began to tweak their newsfeed algorithms to try and serve you that content you subscribe to that is most likely to captivate your attention and keep you on the platform. People saw their reach decline by magnitudes when these changes occurred. 

Platforms started controlling what you see and don't see, not you.

Many people don't realize that the majority of censorship on social media is occurring in the code. The blatant bans and suspensions are obvious, but no one can see what lies in the algorithms. 

What logic is being used to determine the order of content in your feed if not reverse chronological? Why do certain posts get prioritized in my feed while others get hidden? Why was I recommended to follow one person and not someone else? These are the decisions that are shaping our lives and realities, and no one can see how they are being made.

Algorithms are not inherently bad. They are extremely powerful tools that can drastically improve the user experience by providing more relevant recommendations. They keep users engaged and help amplify content or make something go viral. 

The problem in my mind is two-fold. 

First, the algorithms are the default experience for a user. When you sign up for a mainstream social media platform, you are automatically opted-in to extreme surveillance and allowing the platform to leverage that data to feed you better recommendations. This type of service should be off by default and should require a user to clearly opt-in and provide consent. 

Second, and more importantly, is that these algorithms are all hidden from the public. Nobody knows what Facebook, Twitter and Google are doing behind the scenes. Nobody knows what the logic is for why some content shows up and some doesn't. The algorithms are programming our society by feeding the content that shapes our world views but no one can see how. 

Access to information is at an all-time high, but centralized platforms are putting their own corporate bias into the middle of it and not providing you with the full spectrum. This is why open forums based on free speech and the First Amendment such as Minds need to exist. Without them, we will lose the ability to understand truth because we will lose access to certain information. 

This is not to say that everything on Minds is truthful, but rather that the only way to be able to understand the truth is by having access to everything without fear of someone altering or hiding anything. Ultimately, information wants to be free, and I believe it will always find a way to be free as long as we have people like all of you on Minds fighting for it. 

Open source is about trust and accountability. Anyone is free to inspect our algorithms to ensure there is no bias or shady behavior. Anyone is free to contribute to our algorithms to make them work better. And anyone is free to take our algorithms and use them for themselves. Open source breeds collaboration and innovation and forces you to practice what you preach.

The ultimate solution, however, is to create something that is truly "trustless" through decentralization, pseudo-anonymity end-to-end encryption. We are not quite there yet, but we will continue to build software that puts you in control and removes the need to trust anyone with what you see or don't see.

Feel free to share any comments on what you think!

Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay