Decentralized social media.
This new era of data and content decentralization will do for social media what Bitcoin did for money.
Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) is an easy fix for all of traditional social media’s problems, right?!
Except here we are more than 11 years after Bitcoin first broke ground and it is still mostly the play thing of early adopters, speculators, anarcho-capitalists and tech-heads. Not many people are exchanging Bitcoin for goods and services day to day. It is still fairly cumbersome to use (perhaps not for those of us who are tech minded, but still not that easy for grandmas to buy and trade if they intend to store it off exchanges). The value proposition is still arguably developing, having changed a number of times since 2009 when it was heralded in as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system for casual online transactions.
The journey for other use cases of decentralized cryptographic applications is likely to be similar. In 5 years time we could still be working through what the killer app is for Decentralized Finance (DeFi being the latest buzzword of DLT) in much the same way as we could be working our way through how decentralization fits into our day to day use of social media.
That said I think it is inevitable that application of this technology will become commonplace, perhaps even mainstream. So those with an interest in building the future and playing a substantial role in the new paradigm need to be thinking now, testing now and building now, because within 5-10 years the protocols, frameworks and solutions adopted to provide these services may be deeply embedded to the point it will be difficult to challenge them.
Even Jack, CEO of Twitter, one of the world’s largest (centralized) social media platforms, is looking into how they may move to a decentralized social media standard.
Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.
— jack (@jack) December 11, 2019
When you look at what “decentralized” social media (DeSM) offers today, it’s easy to understand how people would wonder why we need it. I use quotation marks here, because many of the proposed solutions and platforms that exist in the market today are arguably not decentralized at all and share the exact same problems as their centralized counterparts.
To understand why we may consider the use of decentralized social media solutions, we first must look at what problems exist with social media today.
We recently reached out to newsletter subscribers (subscribe here if you haven’t already) to ask…
Here are some of the responses:
Many thanks to all of those who took the time to reply (there were many more than we have the space to publish). While we have given the problems around traditional social media a lot of thought, there were new and innovative perspectives and problems provided through the feedback that we will take into account when building our solution.
Here is an expansion on some of the key issues that we know exist in traditional social media.
As touched on above, social media users have very little control over their experience on social media. They are channeled into using accounts on these major platforms which provide minor ability to control their preferences and online identity.
- They can’t control whether or not they see ads.
- They can’t control whether their data and content is levered to serve ads to other users.
- They have no choice to (easily) migrate their content (or audience / connections) from one platform to another.
Social media users on centralized platforms are completely at the mercy of the platforms. Popular voices have had years of hard work stripped away, sometimes having access removed to reach an audience of millions, at the whim of the rule setters.
Consider the plight of creators on social media today, if they want to move between two different platforms they lose all their connections / followers / friends or have to try and import them in some way (e.g. through an email or phone contacts list). Many social platforms are not setup in a way that leads to an audience that a creator has built (often over many years) being portable or contactable outside of the walled garden created by the site. This has led to some social media users seeking unconventional ways of porting their followers out of a platform:
An example of how this can impact a creator was demonstrated in the temporary move by PewDiePie from YouTube to DLive, he had ~100 million YouTube subscribers and eventually built an audience of 800,000 subscribers on DLive. Imagine if followers were tied to a creator’s online identity (which they should be) and could be moved between different platforms with no more effort than the creator / follower opening a different site. An option when setting up and authenticating your account on the site could be provided e.g. Allow ‘connection type’ to automatically follow you if they join this platform? Yes/No. It could put the power back in the hands of the social media user instead of the platform which can demonetize their account or take away an audience built over years with the click of a mouse.
When we connect with people over social media, we aren’t always connecting with people in our local communities, we are often connecting with people across the other side of the world.
In fact the team behind SOCIETY2 all met over social media, despite being situated across 4 continents.
It is easy to understand why a currency that is native to the internet, for use by this global online community would be helpful. A measuring stick against which the value of online services and products can be measured and paid for.
Will Bitcoin fill this role? It is difficult to imagine that a digital currency which has at times cost tens of dollars to send a single transaction, and whose upper transaction limit is less than twenty per second, can fill that role for billions of global citizens, but there are all sorts of second layer and alternative DLT solutions in the works.
Even the social media giants like Facebook can see the need for financial transactions to be more accessible, demonstrated through the introduction of Libra.
Social media in particular could benefit from micro transactions, the types of transactions that become very expensive when you look at many traditional online payment services (especially so when foreign exchange is involved).
A feeless and native currency on a DeSM framework could open up the potential for all sorts of exciting business models, for creators and businesses, that aren’t feasible today.
Moderation is such an important piece of the social media puzzle.
How can moderation of content on social media platforms adapt to visitors from countries with varying laws?
There are no easy answers to these and other problems faced by social media platforms which have a single set of rules.
For the standard social media user, breaking the rules can mean they lose immediate access to their audience and content. In some cases this has meant losing an audience of millions which was built over many years.
Often the rules are ambiguous and applied differently based on the social status of the user.
These and other problems arising from moderation on centralized social media platforms are obvious and have become a public discussion point, touched on by the likes of Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey.
I am reminded of a recent event on a social media site I frequent.
I posted a comment inviting other site members interested in exploring business opportunities to contact me. The post was in the spirit of the discussion, not spammy, but did include links to personal websites which showcased my skills. The post was edited (to remove the links) and part of my post was rewritten in a way I was not comfortable with.
Reports to the moderators to delete my post went unanswered and the forum software did not allow me to do this myself.
I messaged the site owner asking for the post to be deleted and my username to be updated (removing my full name from the site as I had lost confidence to post using it if my content could be rewritten) and it took them three weeks to respond. The owner’s response was that seeking business collaborators on the forum is against the rules. Despite updating my name on the site (removing my surname), he still didn’t delete the post as requested.
Having rules in social media communities is important, being able to enforce those rules is a necessity (e.g. hiding or removing posts), but a moderator having the ability to rewrite the content of your posts is taking ownership over content in a way that should not be possible. Several months on I still avoid posting on this site regularly as a result.
It is easy to see that there are large problems with traditional social media. The introduction of decentralized standards offers an opportunity to revisit how we approach publishing conversations and content online. In future articles we will explore how decentralized social media may solve some of the above problems, what platforms and standards already exist and why we came to believe they weren’t up to the task (hence our mission to build something that is).
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