Why do we need decentalized social media?

Exploring the problems with traditional social media
Figure with travelling backpack location icon on tablet
Photo of Joseph Skewes in black and white
Joseph Skewes
Author

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.


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…

What is a problem that exists with traditional social media that is

Here are some of the responses:

➼ Bots 🤖 (mainly Twitter)
➼ Scams (As in trying to get money from other people)
➼ And the obvious, using my/your Data to profit

➼ I can't see what *I* want to see, FB (Facebook) curates content for me based on its own interests which are driven by advertising.
➼ I can't get my content (e.g. using Facebook groups) to the people who want it unless I pay, but I don't derive any financial benefit from it so if anyone should pay it's my users, not me.
➼ My content is very event-based and since events are managed by my users on FB I can't easily move the group elsewhere. It would lose considerably in ease of use and people wouldn't be bothered.
➼ More generally, I hate both the subscription and ad-based models, eg streaming, news... I am willing to pay but on a per-item/per-use basis only as I don't make enough use of any one service to justify the subscription.

➼ My problem with social meda is that they are not interoperable.
e.g. I have an account on Telegram and I cannot have a chat [end-to-end encrypted] with a friend who has an account on Whatsapp.

➼ Opinion is controlled e.g. Cambridge Analytica
➼ A lot of idiots around (haters, trolls, paid trolls)

➼ One authority called all the shots and told me what I could and could not post.

➼ I’ve long wanted to create a small publishing platform that allows me to charge per article, so that readers can pay only for what they find value in rather than be forced to buy a term subscription.

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.

Privacy

The personal data of users is compromised on the major social media platforms. Whether public or private data, it is all used to make a profit off you, typically by serving you ads, but sometimes in more nefarious ways. On most platforms there is little choice, but to accept this. Our friends, family, colleagues, favourite public figures and personal heroes all use the popular platforms, what choice do we have other than to accept the invasive platforms which exist? These major platforms don’t provide an option to pay for our access so we can stop having our personal data compromised and the rules often change after signing up.

Twitter has removed a privacy feature that allowed all users to stop sharing some private information with advertisers. The setting prevented Twitter from sharing information like the ads you saw or interacted with and the tracking identifier for your phone. For most users, that information will now be shared by default and can’t be turned off.

Jacob Kastrenakes @ The Verge
Privacy is additionally at risk by the potential for user data to be compromised through these centralized social media platforms. With the data of hundreds of millions of users stored in one location, breaching and downloading this database is a major honeypot for hackers. Hackers have been successful on many occasions.
Image showing LinkedIn data breach details
LinkedIn is just one of many social media websites breached in recent years, via haveibeenpwned.com

Online identity

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.

We have to go back to the beginnings of the modern internet to understand the flaw that brings us here. Establishing and persisting an individual identity was never addressed, but eventually became important. One response to a proliferation of logins is the OAuth API: open authentication. If you go to a site like Medium, you might notice you can sign with your Google or Twitter account, for example: this is OAuth in action. OAuth is a good response to the problem of a lack of identity in the design of the Internet, but its implementation still relies on companies to be the broker of your identity. The status quo we experience on the Internet today is that social media companies and others own our identity, and quite literally own our private data, the details of our lives, from the mundane to the deeply personal.

Ben Royce @ SOCIETY2

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.

Payments

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.

The world needs a reliable and interoperable payment system that can deliver on the promise of “the internet of money.” Securing your financial assets on your mobile device should be simple and intuitive. Moving money around globally, and in a compliant way, should be as easy and cost-effective as — and even safer and more secure than — sending a message or sharing a photo, no matter where you are, what you do, or how much you earn. New product innovation and additional entrants lower barriers to access and facilitate frictionless payments for more people.

Now is the time to create a new kind of digital infrastructure built on the foundation of blockchain technology. The Libra mission is to enable a simple global payment system and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.

Libra White Paper

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

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.

Social media needs moderation to function. But regardless, there is a valid dichotomy on the topic between deleting genuinely illegal content / content that merely destroys the forum’s ability to function… and the stifling of free expression.

Ben Royce @ SOCIETY2

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.

Centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term without placing far too much burden on people.

The value of social media is shifting away from content hosting and removal, and towards recommendation algorithms directing one’s attention. Unfortunately, these algorithms are typically proprietary, and one can’t choose or build alternatives.

Existing social media incentives frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation which informs and promotes health.

Jack Dorsey @ Twitter

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.

Conclusion

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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Through our blog and newsletter we want to let you know what we are building at SOCIETY2 and why we see a need for social media which provides the opportunity to own your digital life.

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