In technology, a protocol is a standard and agreed upon language that allows different systems to communicate with each other. It’s the idea underneath every layer of technology that is allowing you to be reading this right now.
The web is based on protocols. It’s a paradigm that focuses on freedom, on accessibility, and on interoperability.
Protocols grant the ability for anyone to access, use, and build on top of the work of those who came before them. Especially when it comes to the internet, protocols allow anyone to build their own website, or their own app, or chat/email/social-media server. The protocols of the internet make it so anyone trying to do those things is working on a pretty level playing field. We’re all dealing with the same networks, the same rules, and the same bits and bytes. We all start with the same digital Lego blocks to build what we want to build.
It doesn’t matter what browser you use, what device you use, or what what program you use to access a protocol. If you’re using something compatible with the protocol, you’re in. No one is going to stop you from using a protocol, and what you do with those protocols is limited only by your skill and imagination.
Protocols are awesome!
Platforms are different.
Where Protocol means “freedom”, Platform mean “lock-in”.
Most big tech sites are based on the idea of platforms.
Platforms are designed to focus on themselves, at the expense of people who are not a part of the platform. They’re not designed for freedom, or accessibility, or interoperability. They’re designed primary to benefit and profit themselves.
For a concrete example of this, chew on this question: why can’t iMessage or FaceTime be used to send messages or make video calls to Instagram Messenger?
They both do basically the exact same thing, and they’re owned by two of the richest and most powerful companies in the world.
The technology already exists, and it would take less than a week of Apple’s and Meta’s engineers time working on the problem to make a pretty solid experience for BILLIONS of people.
So, why not?
Why aren’t chat systems on different social media platforms compatible with each other?
It would add a HUGE level of convenience and freedom for us as users if we only needed to check one chat app to see who’s messaged us across all our online identities, instead of the current reality we inhabit where we need to open and scroll through a bunch of different apps to see where we’re being contacted. (See XKCD 1810 and 1254 for applicable humor; I don’t even use social media, and I have 8 different chat apps on my phone to contact specific people that I otherwise can’t communicate with. That’s silly. And that’s by design. Because that’s platforms.)
Protocols are better for you and me. And better for startups looking to build something new alongside those who have built before them.
Platforms are better almost exclusively for mega-corporations.
And they know this.
Facebook Messenger actually started as a protocol! Not a platform. It was part of what’s called the Jabber network, a chat protocol still in use today (called XMPP today), which allows you to have chats with people from a bunch of different services. (Think like email. If you have a Gmail address, you can still email someone who has a Hotmail address. You use different services, but you can still send each other messages. That’s because email is a protocol. Jabber is a chat protocol that works the same way. So back in the day, you were able to have conversations between, say email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, and it all worked great!)
Protocols allowed Facebook Messenger to quickly grow into a instant messaging power-house, largely because they were harnessing technology and a network that was already pre-built for them.
It was great!
But, as soon as they had a critical mass, Facebook realized they could make more money by locking people in to only using Facebook Messenger, instead of continuing to allow it to be a system compatible with other chat on networks.
It’s much easier to monetize someone when they feel obligated and locked in to using your product.
So, Facebook Messenger changed from being freedom-respecting protocol-based service to being a locked-down platform that they alone control and monetize.
I think it’s worth thinking through how we can make our tech usage more “protocol-based” instead of “platform-based”.
Just a couple thoughts:
- Stop creating content that gets shared exclusively to platforms. Make what you create at least somehow “protocol-accessible” for those wanting freedom from exploitative platforms. One solution to that might be the POSSE method — “Post On your own Site, and Syndicate Everywhere” — where content gets shared first to your website (a protocol-based tech), but then shared onto platforms like social media for others to discover and read.
- When possible, lean towards protocol-based solutions for new tech problems you experience, and try to nudge people away from platforms when possible. Encourage usage of protocol-based products like Element (or Jabber) instead of WhatsApp. Of Jitsi instead of Zoom. Of RSS instead of Attention-Extraction based Social Media news feeds. Or, you could use a “Social Media Protocol”, like the Fediverse, where you can replace Twitter with the protocol-based Mastodon, or Instagram with PixelFed, or Facebook with Friendica. There are ways to replace just about any platform we use with protocol-based solutions if we want.