This blog post is part of a series, looking at the public interest internet—the parts of the internet that don’t garner the headlines of Facebook or Google, but quietly provide public goods and useful services without requiring the scale or the business practices of the tech giants. Read our earlier installments.
How many messaging services do you use? Slack, Discord, WhatsApp, Apple iMessage, Signal, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Instagram, TikTok, Google Hangouts, Twitter Direct Messages, Skype? Our families, friends and co-workers are scattered across dozens of services, none of which talk to each other. Without even trying, you can easily amass 40 apps on your phone that let you send and receive messages. The numbers aren’t dropping.
Companies like Google and Facebook – who once supported interoperable protocols, even using the same chat protocol – now spurn them.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been in this situation. Back in the 2000s, users were asked to choose between MSN, AOL, ICQ, IRC and Yahoo! Messenger, many of which would be embedded in other, larger services. Programs like Pidgin and Adium collected your contacts in one place, and allowed end-users some independence from being locked in by one service – or worse, having to choose which friends you care enough about to join yet another messaging service.
So, the proliferation of messaging services isn’t new. What is new is the interoperability environment. Companies like Google and Facebook – who once supported interoperable protocols, even using the same chat protocol – now spurn them. Even upstarts like Signal try to dissuade developers from building their own, unofficial clients.
Finding a way to splice together all these services might make a lot of internet users happy, but it won’t thrill investors or tempt a giant tech company to buy your startup. The only form of recognition guaranteed to anyone who tries to untangle this knot is legal threats – lots of legal threats.
But that hasn’t stopped the voluntary contributors of the wider, Public Interest Internet.
Take Matterbridge, an free/open software project that promises to link together “Discord, Gitter, IRC, Keybase, Matrix, Mattermost, MSTeams, Rocket.Chat, Slack, Telegram, Twitch, WhatsApp, XMPP, Zulip”. This is a thankless task that requires its contributors to understand (and, at times, reverse-engineer) many protocols. It’s hard work, and it needs frequent updating as all these protocols change. But they’re managing it, and providing the tools to do it for free.
Intriguingly, some of the folks working in this area are the same ones who dedicated themselves to wiring together different messenger services in the 2000s, and they’re still plugging away at it. You can watch one of Pidgin’s lead developers live-coding on Twitch, repurposing the codebase for a new age.
Pidgin was able to survive for a long time in the wilderness, thanks to institutional support from “Instant Messaging Freedom,” a non-profit that manages its limited finances, and makes sure that even if the going is slow, it never stops. IMF was started in the mid-2000s after AOL threatened the developers of Pidgin, then called GAIM. Initially intended as a legal defense organization, it stuck around to serve as a base for the service operations.
We asked Pidgin’s Gary Kramlich about his devotion to the project. Kramlich quit his job in 2019 and lived off his savings while undertaking a serious refactoring of Pidgin’s code, something he plans to keep up until September when he will run out of money and have to return to paid work.
“It’s all about communication and bringing people together, allowing them to talk on their terms. That’s huge. You shouldn’t need to have 30GB of RAM to run all your chat clients. Communications run on network effects. If the majority of your friends use a tool and you don’t like it, your friends will have to take an extra step to include you in the conversation. That forces people to choose between their friends and the tools that suit them best. A multi-protocol client like Pidgin means you can have both.”
Many public interest internet projects reflect this pattern: spending years working in relative obscurity on topics that require concentrated work, but with little immediate reward, under a cloud of legal risk that scares off commercial ventures. This kind of work is, by definition, work for the public good.
After years of slow, patient, unglamorous work, the moment that Pidgin, Matterbridge and others laid the groundwork for has arrived. Internet users are frustrated beyond the breaking point by the complexity of managing multiple chat and message services. Businesses are taking notice.
This is a legally risky bet, but it’s a shrewd one. After decades of increasing anti-interoperability legal restrictions, the law is changing for the better. In an attempt to break the lock-in of the big messaging providers, the U.S. Congress and the EU are considering compulsory interoperability laws that would make these developers’ work far easier – and legally safer.
Interoperability is an idea whose time has come. Frustrated by pervasive tracking and invasive advertising, free software developers have built alternative front-ends to sites like YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Coders are sick of waiting for the services they pay to use to add the features they need, so they’re building alternative clients for Spotify, and Reddit.
These tools are already accomplishing the goals that regulators have set for themselves as part of the project of taming Big Tech. The public interest internet is giving us tracking-free alternatives, interoperable services, and tools that put user needs and human thriving before “engagement” and “stickiness.”
Interoperability tools are more than a way to reskin or combine existing services – they’re also ways to create full-fledged alternatives to the incumbent social media giants. For example, Mastodon is a Twitter competitor built on an open protocol that lets millions of servers, and multiple, custom front-ends to interconnect with one-another (Peertube does the same for video).
These services are thriving, with a userbase in the seven digits, but they still struggle to convince the average creator or user on Facebook or YouTube to switch, thanks to the network effects these centralised services benefit from. A YouTube creator might hate the company’s high-handed moderation policies and unpredictable algorithmic recommendations, but they still use YouTube because that’s where all the viewers are. Every time a creator joins YouTube, they give viewers another reason to keep using YouTube. Every time a viewer watches something on YouTube, they give creators another reason to post their videos to YouTube.
With interoperable clients, those network effects are offset by lower “switching costs.” If you can merge your Twitter and Mastodon feeds into one Mastodon client, then it doesn’t matter if you’re a “Mastodon user” or a “Twitter user.” Indeed, if your Twitter friends can subscribe to your Mastodon posts, and if you can use Mastodon to read their Twitter posts, then you don’t lose anything by switching away from Twitter and going Mastodon-exclusive. In fact, you might gain by doing so, because your Mastodon server might have features, policies and communities that are better for you and your needs than Twitter’s – which has to satisfy hundreds of millions of use-cases – can ever be.
Indeed, it seems that Twitter’s executives have already anticipated this future, with their support for BlueSky, an internal initiative to accelerate this interoperability so that they can be best placed to survive it.
Right now, at this very moment, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of developers, supporting millions of early adopters in building a vision of a post-Facebook world, constructed in the public interest.
Yet these projects are very rarely mentioned in policy circles, nor do they receive political or governmental support. They are never given consideration when new laws about intermediary liability, extremist or harmful content, or copyright are enacted. If a public institution ever considers them, it’s almost always the courts, as the maintainers of these projects struggle with legal uncertainty and bowel-looseningly terrifying lawyer-letters demanding that they stop pursuing the public good. If the political establishment really want to unravel big tech, they should be working with these volunteers, not ignoring or opposing them.
This is the fifth post in our blog series on the public interest internet. Read more in the series: