Imagine a world where the terms “Instagram followers” or “Facebook friends” don’t exist. Instead, your followers on one platform are the same followers on all platforms. After all, aren’t they YOUR followers?

Imagine your brother posts a picture of your nephew on Facebook, and you can see and engage with it on X (Twitter). Your daughter posts a video on YouTube, and you can like it on your Instagram.

Imagine you being at the center of this equation. You decide which social platform to use, not the other way around. You’re not forced into using a platform due to the network lock-in you’ve built over the years. You own your data and decide where to host it for a while, until the platform no longer reflects your preferences. When the magic is gone, you can take everything and move elsewhere.

Imagine social platforms not built around an algorithmic feed. What you see is entirely determined by who you follow. You can take your time to find the people you genuinely like, without being flooded with dopamine-triggering content. When there’s nothing more to see, there’s simply nothing more to see.

Imagine a social platform developed by a non-profit entity, with no profit motive, where intrusive ads don’t exist, and user data is not sold.

Imagine that, even within the same social platform, there’s no single owner by definition. Instead, there are a series of servers run by different individuals or organizations, each with their own terms of service, privacy, and moderation policies, and these servers communicate with each other to serve their communities, their users.

Imagine installing Instagram for the first time, and at startup, you can choose to register with the community that best reflects your values.

It’s funny, really. On one side, it’s a picture so diametrically opposed to our current reality that it feels like science fiction. But on the flip side, it’s something we’re intimately familiar with.

It’s called email.

Would you tolerate an email service where you can only send emails to people registered on the same domain? Where you’re forced to have 10 different email addresses, to essentially do the same thing?

Or where the emails you receive from your friends, family or coworkers, are continually interspersed with emails you didn’t request? In the email universe, we call this spam!

How did we, with our past experience with email, end up in the current situation with social media?

The fundamental difference is that email was born in 1971.

The inception of the internet was a melting pot of diverse protocols — a set of rules and standards that were open for anyone to utilize in crafting a compatible interface. Email, for instance, operated on SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). Chatting was facilitated via IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Usenet functioned as a distributed discussion system, leveraging NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol). The World Wide Web, in its own right, had a unique protocol: the HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP.

Since the commercial explosion of the Internet in the 90s, we’ve seen a shift away from developing new protocols. Instead, the internet has morphed around privately owned, tightly controlled platforms. These platforms might operate in ways that seem similar, but they’re governed by a single entity. And that entity’s primary goal? Profit.

Email and the web are the only protocols that, prior to the Internet boom, achieved such an expansion that it was impossible for any company to replace them. Google, for instance, had no choice but to build Gmail on top of SMTP. Just like it had to built Chrome to put something on top of web consumption. But any new idea? There’s no way we’re turning that into an open protocol!

Well, here we are.

Welcome to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, and the rest of the pack. Welcome to privately-owned, colossal walled gardens, with increasingly indistinguishable features, and a deliberate absence of intercommunication and rights.

In the next post, we’ll try to unpack a potential remedy to this colossal quagmire we’ve collectively plunged ourselves into.

And guess what: it’s going to revolve around protocols, not platforms.