Another Billionaire Pushes A Bid For TikTok, But To Decentralize It


from the never-a-dull-moment dept

If you’re a fan of chaos, well, the TikTok ban situation is providing plenty of chaos to follow.

Ever since the US government made it clear it was seriously going to move forward with the obviously unconstitutional and counterproductive plan to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok or have the app effectively banned from the U.S., various rich people have been stepping up with promises to buy the app.

There was former Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with plans to buy it. Then there was “mean TV investor, who wants you to forget his sketchy history” Kevin O’Leary with his own TikTok buyout plans. I’m sure there have been other rich dudes as well, though strikingly few stories of actual companies interested in purchasing TikTok.

But now there’s another billionaire to add to the pile: billionaire real estate/property mogul Frank McCourt (who has had some scandals in his own history) has had an interesting second act over the last few years as a big believer in decentralized social media. He created and funded Project Liberty, which has become deeply involved in a number of efforts to create infrastructure for decentralized social media, including its own Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSTP).

Over the past few years, I’ve had a few conversations with people involved in Project Liberty and related projects. Their hearts are in the right place in wanting to rethink the internet in a manner that empowers users over big companies, even if I don’t always agree with their approach (he also frequently seems to surround himself with all sorts of tech haters, who have somewhat unrealistic visions of the world).

Either way, McCourt and Project Liberty have now announced a plan to bid on TikTok. They plan to merge it into his decentralization plans.

Frank McCourt, Founder of Project Liberty and Executive Chairman of McCourt Global, today announced that Project Liberty is organizing a bid to acquire the popular social media platform TikTok in the U.S., with the goal of placing people and data empowerment at the center of the platform’s design and purpose.

Working in consultation with Guggenheim Securities, the investment banking and capital markets business of Guggenheim Partners, and Kirkland & Ellis, one of the world’s largest law firms, as well as world-renowned technologists, academics, community leaders, parents and engaged citizens, this bid for TikTok offers an innovative, alternative vision for the platform’s infrastructure – one that allows people to reclaim agency over their digital identities and data by proposing to migrate the platform to a new digital open-source protocol. In launching the bid, McCourt and his partners are seizing this opportunity to return control and value back into the hands of individuals and provide Americans with a meaningful voice, choice, and stake in the future of the web.

All along, my big confusion with DSTP was that I never heard anyone associated with the project talk about how it was ever going to actually get users. There always seemed to be a lot of perfectly interesting theory, but less on the practical realities of building something people would make use of.

I guess buying the one of the largest social media systems on the planet, and the one that kids spend an inordinate amount of time on… and converting it to a decentralized system would answer that big question.

Now, again, I’ve made it clear that I think the ban is unconstitutional and think there’s a very strong chance that courts toss out the law as unconstitutional, closing this chapter entirely.

But I have to admit that I’m kind of amused at this new chaotic entrant.

I vaguely recall one of these billionaires once saying, “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.”

This is entertaining.

As I’ve described a few times lately, the path to getting the world to embrace decentralized social media has taken some unexpected twists, many of which seem to involve billionaires making wacky seat-of-the-pants decisions. So, why not throw one more on the pile and see what happens?

At the very least, if this Supreme Court upholds the law, McCourt’s bid could create a scenario where TikTok embraces decentralization via DSTP (or something else). There are many worse potential scenarios than that.

I mean, it’s been about five years since I published my paper on the need to create decentralized social media, Protocols, not Platforms. In that paper, I tried to convince existing social media platforms to consider decentralization over walled gardens, and people told me it was crazy. At the time, the most “successful” decentralized social media platform was Mastodon, which was tiny.

But, since then, Twitter initially announced plans to decentralize (which became Bluesky). Mastodon has grown massively. Meta embraced the decentralized social media protocol ActivityPub with Threads. Interesting other new entrants like nostr and Farcaster have found audiences. And now, while it’s not probable, there’s a potentially amusing storyline in which TikTok ends up decentralized via Project Liberty.

Phew.

Back in October of 2022, I was at a talk from someone involved with Project Liberty, who was talking about how decentralized social media was inevitable and promising catalyzing events that would drive users away from the centralized platforms. I had asked a question about what kinds of catalyzing events might actually do that and didn’t get a very clear answer.

After that session, I checked my phone and saw that Elon had dropped his lawsuit and agreed to buy Twitter.

And, of course, ExTwitter seems to have no interest at all in decentralization (even if Dorsey told Musk that was the only way to save Twitter).

Some things are just not very predictable.

To be clear: I doubt McCourt will wind up with TikTok. I doubt TikTok is getting sold at all. But it’s not impossible. And it could represent an even bigger move towards decentralization.

At least, the world of decentralized social media is not a dull space these days.

Filed Under: decentralized social media, dstp, frank mccourt, social media

Companies: bytedance, project liberty, tiktok

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