Frank H. McCourt, Jr.
Chairman & CEO, Unfinished
President, Unfinished Labs
Like so many others, we’ve watched with deepening distress as the very technology meant to provide universal access to opportunity and bring us together as a society has become a primary reason for extreme polarization, division, and inequity.
The two of us had spent years working independently on this issue. We come from very different perspectives—one of us is a builder of social impact networks and physical infrastructure, a business and civic entrepreneur; the other is a builder of technology start-ups and social networking software. We share firsthand experience of the hard work, patience, vision, and long-term perspective necessary to build sustainable infrastructure. At an event on none other than Liberty Island, we made the commitment to build an important new piece of public infrastructure together.
We focused our work with a question: Could we change technology to restore and then scale humanity’s capacity to build trusted relationships, which are the bedrock of healthy societies, economies, and democracies? From the beginning, we agreed that addressing one of the most deeply rooted problems of our time would require far more than new iterations of today’s entrenched and closed models. We needed a bold new model, built by a global collective of diverse, multidisciplinary thinkers and creators. We needed to find a way to embed values in the core technology—the protocol itself—as a way to protect the people who will eventually use it. And most importantly, we needed an open model.
We identified the possibility for just such a model in what may seem an unexpected place: the concept at the core of the social network itself, known as the social graph. The term “social graph” isn’t widely known beyond Internet technology circles, but it is a digital representation of all the relationships between members of a social network. When we use a social network—as nearly 60 percent of the world does—all the ways we connect, learn, transact, consume, and contribute traverse this essential online circuitry. Thus, the social graph holds immense power over us all.
Yet the largest social networks are owned and controlled by powerful, private companies, and each is built on its own proprietary social graph. In this balkanized system, corporations broker our relationships, surveil our movements and interactions, and determine what information we see, amplifying the division and polarization plaguing us today. It has become increasingly clear that these old models have failed us—and the damage being caused is worsening by the day. Society can no longer afford models built on private social graphs that prioritize corporate gain over the welfare of society.
A key to unlocking change at scale comes from building an alternate, open source web protocol that is driven by transparency, economic inclusion, trust, and societal benefit. So, in late 2019, shortly after that first commitment on Liberty Island, we assembled a team and began to build just that. Today we unveil the first phase of our work to the public as Project Liberty, to be followed soon by the release of the open source code and a call for others to learn and build with us.
We now have the opportunity to reclaim the social graph for the benefit of those who use it—to take ownership and control of our digital relationships from a few corporations and make it a part of the Internet itself, for the common good. Ownership and control of data will be returned to the individuals to whom it belongs.
Imagine this: A unified, universally accessible social graph will not be owned by any organization—it will be for all of us. It will be open and transparent, not closed and opaque like today’s social graphs. It will put us in control of our own data—of what we choose to keep private, and what we choose to share. It will generate economic value for people rather than extract economic value from users. It will unlock opportunity for us all to directly benefit from the value our own network generates. It will ensure that we are interacting with other real people, and it will establish barriers against bots, false profiles, and bad actors. As common infrastructure, this new social graph will lower barriers for all kinds of entrepreneurs and social innovators, opening the market for new applications, business models, and algorithms—but built with higher standards for serving society along with shareholders. This new social graph will give us the capability to drive social impact at scale—a shared, decentralized public infrastructure that will support economic and social health.
What’s Different about Our Approach
Our team is not the first to explore the concept of a decentralized social network, but we believe our approach is distinct in its combination of these four elements:
- The protocol is built to be a public good. To become a universally accessible public good, the social graph must be freed from commercial or speculative gain at the protocol level. Thus, while our approach leverages public blockchains, it does not introduce a new token required to interact with the social graph. While there could be token-based models at the application layer, we believe a protocol layer token could create friction and reduce equality of access over time.
- We are not relying on traditional venture capital business models. Traditional venture capital–driven technology models have an important place in our economy, but the focus on short-term interest is at odds with the development and broad adoption of a decentralized, unified, and universally accessible social graph. Instead, we founded Project Liberty with the condition that this core technology will remain a common good—without expectation or need for a financial return. The protocol will be gifted to humanity.Of course, for the protocol to be successful, entrepreneurs must want to invest in innovating and participating in a new ecosystem. Think of the protocol as a road constructed in an undeveloped area. There are no returns from the road itself, but it could catalyze access to a thriving economy built on top of, and alongside, that initial investment in infrastructure. We are working on building the road, but we also hope to later discover some of these business models that can fuel sustainable businesses. Because the protocol will be open source, however—the road will be freely open to all—our team will not have any advantage over other developers.
- We are placing people at the center of the protocol’s design. The design of the protocol will be centered around people and how they want and need to interact with other people in order to build and leverage trusted relationships. This means we are embedding guardrails into the protocol to protect users and their data, as well as require authentication of users and content. We’ve seen a great deal of work that relies on the application layer to provide user protections, but too often these efforts are compromised as a result of trade-offs made to align with shareholder interests.We are designing the protocol with the commitment to provide all people with complete control of the use of their data, their network of relationships, and their identity, including how they are represented on the blockchain. We believe this is a unique approach to decentralizing the social graph—made possible by our decision that the protocol itself will not be monetized or held accountable to deliver financial returns.
- Although our vision is bold, we are focused on achievable innovation. By nature, a social graph is connective tissue: It ties together many of the technology features we use today—from direct messaging to forums to mapping to video serving. A unified, decentralized social graph is thus in a critical position to connect the great work of many teams that are already working on innovative point solutions, and we are seeking to work with leaders across the landscape. It is for this reason that, while we are taking on an ambitious mission, we are focusing our scope in a way that will unlock open, widespread innovation and participation by many others.
We Hope You Will Be Inspired to Join Us
This project is about much more than building a new web protocol. It is about contributing to a broader movement of builders and creators who are coming together to take bold action at a pivotal moment.
The global pandemic has challenged all of us—citizens, institutions, governments, and countries—in ways we never imagined. It has, like no other phenomenon in our remembered history, laid bare the vast structural vulnerabilities and inequities of our societies. Further, malicious actors are manipulating today’s platforms to accelerate the erosion of trust and weaken our institutions. We face a reckoning: Will we continue to look the other way—and accept the status quo? Or will we join together with hard work to change technology and create generative and sustainable structures and systems that unlock real opportunity not just for a few, but for all? We believe building this new technology to support trusted networks of relationships, at scale, is a critical step.
We cannot do this important work alone. It will realize its potential only with the collaborative effort of many communities, developers, thought leaders, and changemakers who are willing to reclaim a new order for our digital lives. Before us, at this moment, is an opportunity to turn away from closed models that have amplified fear, division, and inequity, and to choose an open model that offers a beacon of liberty and real hope for a better future. We invite you to join us in building what could be one of the most important public infrastructure improvements of our time.