It’s time to take back our digital communities

I’ve come to the realization that more attention is needed to create and sculpt the digital spaces where we live

OPINION
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Imagine waking up one day to find that your online community has vanished. Your digital presence, painstakingly built over years, has been erased in an instant. 

This is not a dystopian future, but a reality many have faced in the current landscape of online platforms. It’s a reality I faced, when my previous company, Meerkat, was removed from Twitter’s API and cut off from its social graph. I remember asking Twitter if we had a week or so to prepare after we got the news. Instead, two hours later, we were kicked off the platform. 

We deserve better. To avoid more cases like this, communities should be run and owned from within, by the people.

Do you prefer to rent or own? 

With a background in architecture, I’ve come to the realization that more attention is needed to create and sculpt the digital spaces where we live. I’ve spent my career creating effective, engaging spaces for people, and I feel strongly that the current structure of online platforms hinders genuine connection. Censorship-resistant platforms are the path forward and offer a solution by empowering users with ownership and control, fostering trust, accountability and meaningful engagement.

The current structure of online communities — where we’re essentially renting space from platforms like X and Discord — fundamentally hinders genuine connection and engagement. This dynamic has created a tragedy of the commons where communities struggle to thrive. To address these issues, we need to reimagine the internet’s functions to grant users ownership and control over their communities. 

The problem with current platforms is that they’re essentially landlords with the authority to de-platform users or groups, often without transparent or consistent criteria. High-profile de-platforming incidents on Reddit and X, where controversial figures or entire discussion groups are removed without warning, highlight the precarious nature of digital existence. This power imbalance erodes trust and stability within communities, leaving users vulnerable to abrupt disruptions.

If we keep renting our spaces, our online experiences will continue to degrade. One look at our ad-based feeds on Instagram and X makes it clear where the algorithm’s priorities lie. 

Read more from our opinion section: Hey regulators, here’s how to get crypto right

In the current landscape, revenue always wins. This results in policies and practices that can be detrimental to user experience and community health. Examples of this range from the day-to-day paper cuts felt when Meta feeds you ads based on data they harvested, to Reddit’s more extreme API cost increases that led to last summer’s blackout protests and sent moderators scrambling to find other homes for their communities. 

To address the issues that hinder the development of truly engaged and connected communities, it is essential for communities to be self-owned and self-governed. Ownership naturally fosters a sense of responsibility and care. In the context of online communities, this approach encourages more mindful and intentional collective conversations, leading to a more vibrant and productive community.

The concept of censorship-resistant platforms

Decentralized technologies enable users to govern their digital spaces without reliance on a central authority. 

But the idea is not to remove accountability from the internet. Instead, it’s to introduce a new structure for incentive alignment, one that removes the central platform as the arbiter of a “global truth” and allows governance on a local level by peers. 

Emerging censorship-resistant platforms like Mastodon, Warpcast and various blockchain-based networks exemplify a vision of a decentralized future. By utilizing decentralized infrastructure and operating as protocols rather than services, these platforms create a more robust and self-sustaining online ecosystem.

Tending to internet gardens

When users have a stake in the governance and success of their communities, they’re more likely to uphold and enforce standards that promote healthy interactions. This self-governance model enhances the integrity and stability of online spaces.

Material rewards and ownership also encourage more intentional and positive behavior. By aligning incentives with meaningful contributions, these platforms cultivate a culture of purposeful engagement. Successful community-driven platforms demonstrate that users are more likely to invest in the quality of their interactions when they have a tangible stake in the outcome.

The tides are changing: Over the past year and a half, X’s user base has declined by 23% while Mastodon’s has surged to approximately 9 million users. As we envision a reimagined internet, our industry must seize the opportunity to innovate and prioritize the user experience. By reducing the emphasis on advertisements and increasing user ownership, we can create a future where online spaces are resilient, deeply cared for and genuinely connected.

This shift towards decentralized, user-owned platforms heralds a new era of digital engagement, where communities are empowered to shape their own destinies. 

As we move forward, it is crucial to foster environments that prioritize user autonomy and collaborative growth. Together, we can build a sustainable and vibrant digital community that stands the test of time and ensures that the internet remains a space for meaningful interaction and collective progress.



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