Sunday, January 17, 2021
The story in the media right now is about how extremist groups are looking for alternative social networks. That endeavor is unlikely to be successful, both because it is harder to build social networks than it might seem, and because internet service platforms like AWS and Stripe are blocking access.
What is likely to work in the short term, however, is email.
Deplatformed people and organizations are very likely going to double down on their mailing lists and concentrate on connecting directly to their constituents. Just as creators worried about feed-ranking problems have moved to email newsletters and platforms where they “own” their audience, so too will the deplatformed set.
In the case of President Trump, he has the benefit of starting with an enormous and engaged mailing list in which he will undoubtedly invest.
In the short term, this is going to create a problem for large tech companies that have overcentralized email.
Despite the fact that email is in theory a distributed protocol, in practice several large companies—such as Google via Gmail—have huge control over which emails get delivered and which are suppressed. This is a huge liability because it means that through internal employee pressure or external political pressure, Google may be forced to step back from the central promise of email, which is that you get the messages you want delivered to you.
If under pressure Google starts breaking the central promise of email, will people move to alternative providers? Maybe.
But the thing to recognize is that the internet is largely governed by a set of norms and implicit agreements about how digital traffic is handled, including the right of people to communicate with each other freely. Once those norms start unraveling, the internet can fall apart very quickly.