It’s no exaggeration to say that small features in a chat app encode different visions of how society should be organized. If the first reacji in the palette was a thumbs down rather than a heart, maybe we would all be more negative, cautious people. What kind of social vision did Signal arise from?
“Looking back, I and everyone I knew was looking for that secret world hidden in this one,” Marlinspike admitted in a 2016 interview. A key text in anarchist theory describes the idea of a “temporary autonomous zone,” a place of short-term freedom where people can experiment with new ways to live together outside the confines of current social norms. Originally coined to describe “pirate utopias” that may be apocryphal, the term has since been used to understand the life and afterlife of real-world DIY spaces like communes, raves, seasteads, and protests. And Signal is, unmistakably, a temporary autonomous zone that Marlinspike has spent almost a decade building.
Because temporary autonomous zones create spaces for the radical urges that society represses, they keep life in the daytime more stable. They can sometimes make money in the way that nightclubs and festivals do. But temporary autonomous zones are temporary for a reason. Over and over, zone denizens make the same mistake: They can’t figure out how to interact productively with the wider society. The zone often runs out of money because it exists in a world where people need to pay rent. Success is elusive; when a temporary autonomous zone becomes compelling enough to threaten daytime stability, it may be violently repressed. Or the attractive freedoms offered by the zone may be taken up in a milder form by the wider society, and eventually the zone ceases to exist because its existence has pressured wider society to be a little more like it. What kind of end might Signal come to?
There are reasons to think that Signal may not be around for very long. The nonprofit’s blog, meant to convince us of the elite nature of its engineers, has the unintentional effect of conveying the incredible difficulty of building any new software feature under end-to-end encryption. Its team numbers roughly 40; Marlinspike has just left the organization. Achieving impossible feats may be fun for a stunt hacker with something to prove, but competing with major tech companies’ engineering teams may not be sustainable for a small nonprofit with Marlinspike no longer at the helm.
Fittingly for an organization formerly led by an anarchist, Signal lacks a sustainable business model, to the point where you might almost call it anti-capitalist. It has survived so far in ways that don’t seem replicable, and that may alienate some users. Signal is largely funded by a big loan from a WhatsApp founder, and that loan has already grown to $100 million. It has also accepted funding from the US government through the Open Technology Fund. Because Signal can’t sell its users’ data, it has recently begun developing a business model based on directly providing services to users and encouraging them to donate to Signal in-app. But to get enough donations, the nonprofit must grow from 40 million users to 100 million. The company’s aggressive pursuit of growth, coupled with lack of moderation in the app, has already led Signal employees themselves to publicly question whether growth might come from abusive users, such as far-right groups using Signal to organize.
But there are also reasons for hope. So far, the most effective change that Signal has created is arguably not the existence of the app itself, but making it easy for WhatsApp to bring Signal-style end-to-end encryption to billions of users. Since WhatsApp’s adoption, Facebook Messenger, Google’s Android Messages, and Microsoft’s Skype have all adopted the open source Signal Protocol, though in milder forms, as the history of temporary autonomous zones would have us guess. Perhaps the existence of the Signal Protocol, coupled with demand from increasingly privacy-conscious users, will encourage better-funded messaging apps to compete against each other to be as encrypted as possible. Then Signal would no longer need to exist. (In fact, this resembles Signal’s original theory of change, before they decided they would rather compete with mainstream tech companies.)
Now, as the era of the global watercooler ends, small private group chats are becoming the future of social life on the internet. Signal started out a renegade, a pirate utopia encircled by cryptography, but the mainstream has become—alarmingly quickly—much closer to the vision Signal sought. In one form or another, its utopia just might last.