The Case for Decentralizing Content
Centralization has always been a necessary evil when it comes to content.
The reason for this is that there was no other way to properly manage the exchange of value.
Then the internet came along and provided a revolutionary tool for the frictionless uploading, exchange, and dissemination of information. This development has fundamentally changed humanity…however, when it comes to online transactions of value, whether that value is money, titles, real estate, etc., we still rely on the same centralized intermediaries, such as banks and governments, that we’ve relied on for decades or even centuries.
Attempts to decentralize content were some of the notable innovations of the early web due to the relative ease of uploading files. Nevertheless, peer-to-peer file sharing applications, such as Kazaa and BearShare, failed due to being too centralized or clunky (read my friend John Backus’ “Fat Protocols Aren’t New”) and more censorship-resistant platforms like BitTorrent never went mainstream due to a lack of proper incentives and Spotify and iTunes’ “better-than-free” models.
With the advent of blockchain technology, the exchange of value can be decentralized, and made as frictionless as sending an email. There are many ways that decentralized platforms will affect crucial parts of our lives: from finance to healthcare, from real estate to the government. However, I’d like to discuss one area that sometimes gets overlooked, but is just as important: content. (Read John’s “What if BitTorrent had a Token?”)
The Problem With Centralized Content Platforms
If you’re an independent content creator today, you’re left at the mercy of platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts — effectively, a small oligarchy. You depend on distribution through Facebook, Twitter, and other highly-centralized distribution channels. These platforms are essentially middlemen that take a huge chunk out of your earnings.
For consumers, most of these distribution channels appear to be “free.” In reality, the product is the consumer.
Internet users shouldn’t have to accept the outsized role of data aggregators and arbitrators like Facebook and Google. But today, consumers have basically no choice. If you want to keep tabs on your friends around the world, you use Facebook. Then you’re forced to opt into their ecosystem and surrender meaningful personal information.
We should have an alternative option where advertisers specify the data they want, and you can volunteer whether to sell it to them. Then the advertisers get much better data about you and they cut out the middleman.
How Can Blockchain Solve For This?
Before blockchain technology, there was no way to get around centralized platforms if you wanted to monetize content. Now that such a decentralized protocol is possible, how do you incentivize someone to curate and maintain it?
With blockchain-based incentives, we have that answer: Cultivate a “cryptoeconomy.”
If you upload music, podcasts, or create playlists, and others want to listen to and value that content, you could theoretically receive crypto-tokens that are issued out programmatically and exchanged in a well-designed economic system. Then you don’t actually need YouTube or Spotify— ad-ladened and limited platforms.
Imagine if early Facebook users were rewarded for creating profiles, generating meaningful content, and getting other people to sign up with a small token denomination? That token could represent a small ownership interest in Facebook. Initially, that tokenized value would not be worth very much. However, seven years later, when the company IPO’d (and subsequently increased in value) those tokens would equate to a meaningful amount of value for the platform’s top curators.
This is the approach that platforms like Audius are using in music. You issue tokens at the beginning, with a collectively agreed upon value, and that’s your incentivization layer for people to maintain the system.
If someone goes viral on a current platform, they often don’t make a penny from it. If someone goes viral on a decentralized and properly incentivized platform, they stand to reap the rewards immediately (even if they’re charging pennies for content.) They’re in control of their data and how much people are paying for it.
Decentralized platforms are a winning solution for both a) data miners, and b) the people that are having their data mined. Right now, we live in an age where data’s the new oil, but the only people not yielding the rewards of that oil are the people creating it.
Content doesn’t need to be free if people value it and are willing to pay for it (especially if the price is less than that of say, a Spotify subscription.) But previously, there hasn’t been a feasible solution to create positive feedback loops for content creators, curators, and consumers. Now there is.
How a Decentralized Content Platform Can Compete
By default, consumers will always go to the least decentralized, most usable platform. This is what John Backus calls “minimum viable decentralization.” We saw this in the first era peer-to-peer music streaming.
For any decentralized content platform to compete, it has to fulfill two important requirements: quality curation and usability. It has to compete with fully centralized (and thus easier to maintain) competitors.
Without creating a solution that is substantially better than what exists today, nobody will adopt it. And you have to get mass adoption from mainstream artists if you want to have any hopes at real success.
The other major challenge that a newcomer will have to tackle is censorship. Life is about trade-offs, and nothing is perfect. The more freedom of expression you afford, the more likely that someone will get hurt.
What we can control is who makes those decisions. Right now with Youtube, Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter, centralized authorities are deciding whether content can or cannot be on a platform, and who is “discovered.”
For decentralized systems, it won’t be easy: participants will have to coalesce around those decisions. The positive is what makes it difficult: there won’t be a centralized authority deciding whether the content can or cannot be on a platform, and there will be far less ability for a lightly sampled song to cause a lengthy DJ set or an up and coming rapper's new track to be taken down.
While a fully decentralized platform like Audius has a clear path forward for becoming the dominant content sharing and curation platform over the long-run, there are implementations of blockchain technology that will have a broad impact in the short-to-medium-term. With platforms such as Stem, decentralized rails will allow artist payments and data to be streamlined on centralized services such as Spotify and iTunes. Ujo Music and Poet use blockchain technology to create a transparent and decentralized database of rights and rights owners.
Content can and will be decentralized, if content creators and curators want to maximize the value they capture— it’s just a matter of time.
Blockchain technology gives us the opportunity to create decentralized services that enable a frictionless exchange of value for anything online, and potentially offline as well. Within the content ecosystem, there is immense potential for both creators and consumers.
We need solutions where users aren’t forced to be exploited for their information, and creators can be compensated fairly. We’re still in the early days, and not every prospective solution is the most viable. But I’m extremely excited for the platforms that are working to revolutionize different aspects of content distribution and look forward to the changes they’ll bring.