Since the launch of the EOS Mainnet, besides their EOS wallet, the primary thing we’ve been looking forward to from Block.One has been the new social media dApp that will be developed to compete with Steemit. Steemit is a social media platform built on the Steem blockchain, and Dan Larimer’s previous Blockchain related project before he left the Steem team to develop EOS. The hope is that Block.One’s considerable resources, experience, and the overall strength of the EOS mainnet will be enough for the new social media project to not only outshine Steemit, but also compete with giants such as Facebook and Twitter.
While Steem and Steemit are incredibly impressive projects for what they’ve been able to achieve, they have so far failed to catch on in any meaningful capacity. This is evidenced by steadily declining traffic as recorded by sites like Alexa.com. Though Steemit is relatively popular for a blockchain project and is among the most used dApps out there right now, there’s not much reason to expect it to compete with any of the larger social media platforms. It is evident, then, that Block.One’s new project will have to be built differently to Steemit if it is to catch on as anything more than a niche product. This is of course assuming that Block.One is building a Steemit competitor. If they are, then there’s every chance that many of the final design decisions have already been finalised, and that the project could be announced at any time. In that event, this article may prove to not be of much help. However as a former user of Steemit, I feel that there are numerous fundamental issues with the Steem ecosystem that I hope Block.One will learn from. I would like to point out a few of those issues and present my view on the blockchain social media model.
The first issue with Steemit is one of marketing, as it is the kind of marketing that infects the way users interact with the site, and forms a reputation around the website that will be almost impossible for the developers to shake. Under every Steemit post are the upvote and downvote buttons, and a number representing the number of upvotes that article has received. Next to that is a number in front of a dollar sign, which represents the amount of money that post has earned from its upvotes. This means that under every post, money is a constant visual that shows you exactly how much a post has made. It also has the effect of very clearly displaying the all too frequent disconnect a user might have just by scrolling down a page of posts. The user will eventually come to notice that the upvotes and the amount of money that post receives have hardly any correlation at all. Worse still, by taking the time to click on and read a few of these posts, they’ll make the further observation that upvotes and money earned have even less correlation with the quality of that post. This UI experience explicitly tells the user that Steemit is a place focused on monetisation first and foremost. Therefore, when this user tries to describe Steemit to a friend, the monitsation of Steemit is all they’re going to be able to talk about in order to make the place sound interesting. This is how a reputation forms.
For many content creators, even well established ones on other platforms, this way of marketing Steemit at first seems appealing. Individual blogs are almost impossible to monetise these days as they require putting advertisements or paypal/patreon links on your sidebar, both unreliable forms of making money considering how difficult it is to get page clicks for the average wordpress blog. Youtubers also have a notoriously difficult time making money amidst constant copyright strikes, demonetisation, low ad revenue, censorship, and algorithms that incentivise the creation of certain types of content. However seeing money being such a constant presence on Steemit makes the platform feel both intimidating and a little disgusting, as if the entire place is driven by greed. Combine that with the plain white backgrounds and lack of customisation options and the place can overall feel very unappealing. The next thing you have to consider is that due to the way Steemit is marketed, many of the content creators coming over are going to be there looking for cash first and foremost. This can range from content creators simply re-posting their work from the other platforms that they still primarily focus on to creators who failed to find success on larger platforms. While you might find a diamond in the rough among such failed creators, the vast majority of the time, such individuals are likely to have failed on other platforms due to either bad content or from having unappealing personalities and opinions. The lesson to learn from this is that with youtube already becoming an unwelcoming place for many content creators, plenty of people will be willing to look for alternatives anyway. One of the most appealing aspects of blockchain is its censorship resistance and its immutability. Market that to people instead of the money making aspect. Incidentally, a blockchain project could theoretically develop a site with censorship resistance in mind without even having to market a fungible token currency to use with the site. This would also help to distance the site from blockchain and crypto in general, which can be intimidating words to the wider world, with many stigmas attached to the the names in some cases, due to crypto’s association with darknet crime and investing.
All that really needs to be done here is to remove the dollar signs entirely from the UI. Still tie post rewards to upvotes and whatnot, but make that a hidden element of the UI that only shows up on your personal account behind a click or two, or even hidden on the blockchain. Without the post reward showing beneath each post, visitors will be much less intimidated, and upvotes will feel like they matter more. One of the major appeals of social media is that one like will always equal one like, no matter who that person is. A like helps the user feel like they are meaningfully contributing to the popularity of whatever piece of content they are liking, same deal with dislikes. With Steemit’s UI as it is, it only emphasises how worthless a like really is, as it becomes evident that those with money have likes that are worth much more than yours. Even if nothing else about the reward system changes, by making it harder to see the rewards a post gets, more emphasis is put on the likes, even if whales still ultimately control where the money flows. For that matter, it would also be a good idea to hide the people who liked your post on the main UI. People act much more honestly when they think their actions are private.
So far most of what I’ve been suggesting has all been UI based. This is because social media is all a matter of psychology, the fundamentals actually matter a lot less than you’d think so long as the website feels good to use. However I do think a few fundamentals of Steemit could benefit from changes. Namely, as I’ve hinted at many times already, the correlations between post quality, likes, and financial payouts should really be more aligned. Right now on Steemit buying upvotes from big whales or bots is a very common practice, as the vote can give you a larger reward than the money you used to buy it. Some people innocently use these services to promote their own posts that might otherwise get buried, because they genuinely just think their work is good and they want it to be seen. These services are often used instead of the already built-in system of post promotion that Steemit offers, because the developers made the mistake of putting promoted posts in a seperate tab that nobody will ever click on. But of course the main issue is that this system is also abused by the wealthy or the selfish to build up their wealth further. Not only does this have the effect of inorganically pushing certain posts to the top of trending pages, it also takes vast amounts of cash from the daily reward pool, which is issued at a fixed amount per day. The upvotes and voting weight merely determine where the rewards from the reward pool are distributed. This essentially means that everyone who doesn’t use these services earn less and less money over time, even if they do manage to develop a loyal audience who will read and upvote their content.
Content curation groups such as Curie have tried to come together to promote what they feel to be good content, content that is created by users who aren’t abusing bot systems. While they are a decent counter balance with good intentions, their upvotes are not consistent and there’s no way of knowing which posts appeals to them or who rates them, as they don’t make their discussions public. Even if they did do so so that you could cater your content to them for reliable rewards, that would also lead to an environment that feels more like a job than a social space that one can escape to to talk about whatever they feel like and relax. Upvoted Curie content is also not guaranteed to show your posts to an audience, since very few users search out other content creators among a sea of crap, and those who do are usually either looking to promote their own content or receive upvotes on their comments. I believe this is also a result of money managing being such an omnipresent, un-ignorable part of the site, so discussions can feel decidedly sycophantic with an underlying tension as both parties ignore the elephant in the room that is the money. This makes it difficult to relax when having any conversation on the site.
The solution to this problem is one that is much more complex, and I can’t say that I have a perfect answer that I’m fully satisfied with. I will say however that my philosophy is that the power of a social media account should be determined by that account’s social clout, ie their followers/subscribers, views, likes, reputation etc, and little else. On Steemit, turning your Steem tokens or Steem dollars into Steem power is how you build up your voting weight. However, I think that the ‘Steem power’ concept should be done away with entirely, and that the reward pool should be distributed based purely on likes. A system that allows dislikes to have value as well can also work, as they basically do nothing on Steemit. If a posts has more dislikes than likes, it could be removed from the reward pool, as an example. A dislike system would have to be carefully designed to prevent abuse, in any case. While this wouldn’t necessarily stop vote buying, I feel that by changing the UI to put less emphasis on the cash rewards, and a system that gives less voting weight to whales could combine to make a much more appealing website.
So, with all these problems in mind, why should we even bother with anything like Steemit, anyway? Perhaps Block.One should do something totally different? Well, for all we know, they are. But assuming they will release a major social media project, I feel like Block.One could develop not just a meaningful competitor using a model similar to Steemit, but also a platform that could be seen as the next stage of evolution for social media as a concept.
The major issue with all social media platforms is that they are run by centralised entities, and these entities can ultimately decide what gets shown on their platforms, what gets popular, and which content is suitable for advertisers. Less content-creation focused sites such as facebook simply use users to farm data. These companies decide what speech is permitted, and in a world where what we see on social media comprises almost all of the speech we listen to or speak on a daily basis, the power they have at their disposal is frightening. The solutions Block.One could bring to social media are the exact same solutions Bitcoin brought to finance in the first place. Censorship resistance and total control over your data and finances. The flow of money and our speech are very closely intertwined. By allowing users to put up content without fear of it being removed, without fear for their finances, and the content itself being beholden only to the wishes of the creator themselves and their fans, there’s potential for magic in this concept.
Steemit may not live up to those goals, but it is a worthy prototype. I see it as the result of a team putting more emphasis on marketing the money one can make with blockchain over the freedom of speech it provides.