The future of social platforms
As the world is changing rapidly, it’s social platforms are transforming with it. A shift is already happening in the awareness people have that they are the commodity for today’s big data vampires. Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’’ surely helps to further shine light on the darkest places of our social media landscape. New platforms are aiming at turning around the data pyramid by offering us to #ownourdata and being able to monetize it. The big data machines are facing rapidly growing issues around privacy, transparency, fakeness, digital violence and hate, lack of community and monetization. Searching for innovation, they are hijacked by their pyramid business models, the hungry mouth of data-capitalism that doesn’t give a shit about people’s personal data and privacy, as long as it can be sold at the backdoor.
The newborn platforms are challenged to take away these pain points. Is the solution to offer full privacy & transparency? Or will token models for the monetization of our data do the trick? Or else the need to evolve around open-source consensus models using blockchain technology? Why not a combination? Imagine a Facebook where the community sets out the direction and is actively part of the development through smart voting mechanisms.
This article presents a few new promising centralized and decentralized alternatives and describes what they all have to offer.
In general two directions are appearing at the horizon of the 21st century innovative social platforms: The niche or lifestyle platform and the tokenized platforms.
What are the challenges, pitfalls and opportunities to free ourselves from the shackles of current big tech data entities that control the data of billions of people and are getting more powerful than nation-states?
Lets start off with some niche-platforms to get into the right mood. I describe them as value-centric platforms, or lifestyle-oriented. They are arising from the need to break down the walls of censorship. Transgender folks maybe like to show bodyparts, and in the feeds, they prefer to see ALL of their transgender friends. People, in general, seek validation and like to be seen, a psychological need that has been smartly exploited to catch our data in the past with the invention of the Like button. People also like to feel safe, don’t want to be attacked when they show themselves and are vulnerable. Moovz promotes itself as “The only Social Network of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Community. Moovz is a world based on real content, real people and real connections, that recognises what you like and brings you more of it”.
This niche platform clearly identifies the issue of fakeness, bots and trolls in the current mega-platforms and positions itself around the value of being real. How to prevent scam and troll attacks in platforms like these is another issue that I deal with further in this writing.
8Chan: Echo Chamber of hate
Lets move to the far right-wing for a moment. It is fair to identify another issue occurring around the Facebooks and Googles of today: The use of these platforms to spread real-life violence, and/or to be a channel for right-wing extremist ideas that more than often cross the legal line. Whatever emotions or anger this fact might bring up in you, they can be considered niches and they created their own channels. 8chan has been the most ultra representation of the digital voice of white supremacy. And not only that. It collected the not so honourable fact of being the platform that hosted no less than 3 hate manifesto’s directly linked to the El Paso Walmart, the Christchurch mosque and Poway synagogue shooters. It seems fair to say that this platform helped to connect, empower and incubate the lonely wolves of this world and strengthen them in their ideas that led to these shootings. Due to massive media pressure and the response of a wide internet community using again social media, the internet structure provider Cloudfare bowed its head and de-platformed 8chan. Some founders are now looking to restart from the Philippines.
As a Dutch person, it is interesting to witness that 8chan could exist in the first place. In Holland, you can be prosecuted for spreading hate, as our right-wing populist Geert Wilders found out after calling out for “less Morrocan” inhabitants in Holland. 6400 private people prosecuted him for this and the process is still ongoing. When our prime minister Rutte would call out to grab women by their pussy, his last days would be counted pretty rapidly. He would be left with nothing much to do than scratching his balls after his swift resignment because big companies would refrain from asking him for high-level positions.
There is a sea of difference between a politician discriminating in public, and frustrated white angry fascists hiding behind the anonymity of fake accounts, fake names and identities that the Internet provides to all of us in fact. This anonymity is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to spreading hate or even manifesto’s with the aim of brainwashing, legitimizing and supporting terrible shootings. It is clear that strict borders and lines must be safeguarded here at all times, the lines of the law that has been set in place by democratic processes.
When we move a little away from the outer dark ring of digital fascism and antisemitic rhetoric, we find the predecessor of 8chain, the in 2016 birthed platform Gab. They advocate themselves as: “Raw, rational, open and authentic alternative to Twitter”. What is interesting in this platform is the introduction of self-moderation. In the words of the founder Andrew Torba: “ “We believe that the only valid form of censorship is an individual’s own choice to opt-out.” As a concept, I support the libertarian thought of free will, free choice. But this comes with responsibility. And personally, I opt-in for a better world of inclusion, not a divided one by hate speech and terror.
Are we moving towards a social platform landscape where likeminded find likeminded, where circles of semi-fascists social platforms co-exist with circles of communities based on constructive values, people that strive for a better more sustainable world? When we want to live in a free world, with freedom of speech and thought, these circles should be able to co-exist no? Well apparently not when the former proves to be a breeding ground for terrorist actions and shooting. As it seems, through boycotts and blacklisting its members are more and more pushed to the even darker corners of the Internet. Also, Gab was de-platformed for a while, after the man who killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh appeared to have found his inspiration with his peers on the platform. I only see an advantage here for secret services to infiltrate in these echo chambers of antisemitic sentiment, because they are a honeypot for potential terrorists. What is interesting to witness, is the apparent absence of left-wing extremist social platforms.
Lets move away now from violence, hate and shootings. Although who could have guessed a world back in 2012 where killers would Livestream their acts of terror. It is a real problem to address, and again, in my opinion, it comes down to responsibility. Or maybe it's just a mirror and shows how ‘sick’ and divided our society really is. In The Great Hack documentary, a Guardian journalist concludes that
social media platforms as it stands, have driven us more apart than ever, despite their initial promise to bring us together. So they have become part of the problem. Can they also be part of the solution?
Mastodon, a decentralized approach
I think there is hope at the horizon. In the current movement of decentralization, fueled by Blockchain Technology, we will move more and more away from corrupted centralized power and middlemen. This eventually must lead to more and more individual responsibility and empowerment. And freedom in the long run. This will then be mirrored in our internet behaviour as a result of the constructive game-changing architecture in the new thriving platforms to be. These designs are created as we speak. So lets have a look at decentralized platforms. How are they doing? The first one is Mastodon.
Mastodon looks like Twitter at first glance. Users can post 500-character messages called “toots”, repost or “boost” messages on their own timeline, and follow or privately message other users. But instead of a single site run by a company, it’s a software platform built on the open-source ActivityPub protocol. This makes Mastodon a platform to host social media websites. Since its launch in 2016, Mastodon users have set up roughly 2500 websites. What glues them together is merely the platforms Twitter alike structure, and of course the storage for the content. Don't forget that social platforms need to store your content. The value of Mastodon as described by its founder is to “Move away from hate content and be the friendlier alternative, or the Twitter without Nazi’s”. The Mastodon community managed to keep this flag upright for quite a while, until the beginning of July 2019 when Gab turned its ugly head in exile around the corner.
So here we run straight into the problem of decentralized platforms. Even if the values are set in stone and the community respects them for a while, everybody is welcome to join the family. And now the black sheep of racist Internet knocked on the door. The community called for a hardcoded ban of Gab’s servers. The response of founder Eugen “Gargron” Rochko was according to Verge: “You have to understand it’s not actually possible to do anything platform-wide because it’s decentralized,” And here we are back on ground zero. The main question now becomes: How to ban Nazi content on the decentralized platforms of tomorrow?
A way to protect these platforms against fud, fakeness, scams, Nazi content and trolls is to write these values in the protocols of the blockchain and smart contracts you built your digital community around.
Read more about this in my medium blog about that specific topic. The brightest example of the decentralized space: Bitcoin. The founder Nakamoto’s main value was to never see big banks to be bailed out again by people’s tax money. This core value is written down in Bitcoins first genesis block in the Bitcoin network, even accentuating this with some lines in plain English. It is the first amendment of Bitcoin set in stone in its protocols, never to be changed in its history, or only by consensus of its community. From that 3rd of January 2009, Bitcoin set out on its journey to becoming digital cash and the new digital store of value, a true alternative for a coming financial crisis, a safe-haven currency for people in hyperinflation countries.
To protect the values
Every creator of a new platform should ask this question: What are our core values? what is our Genesis block? What is our first amendment? That is when you want to go neutral. You will most likely attract people that feel aligned with these values. When Nazi content is not part of this value-driven content, it will be banned by the community or even smart contracts that will in favour of the community, or both. So in that case, there is a choice for Mastodonts founder and community.
Tokenization of social media
Now let’s make the small jump from decentralized platforms to tokenized centralized and decentralized platforms. A good example of a centralized tokenized platform is Steemit. It started off in 2017 with the ideology of creating a non-censorable monetization layer of digital content. Great, your content is going to earn you money, so the better your content, the more Steem tokens = Money? In the beginning, it looked like this, until the founders introduced the system of Voting Bots. When sending money to them, they would automatically upvote your content, regardless of the quality. Whenever the upvoting would earn you more than your investment, why would you not use this so-called “Steem Power” automatically created accounts? The Steemit community didn’t respond, didn’t shut it down so Steemit basically got overrun by the get the rich quick sentiment, by trolls filling their Steemit pockets and at the end of the day a lack of high-quality content. Steemit is the result when you buy your popularity, not when the community of bright minds decides over quality. And where ever we see money taking over, not so great things seem to happen.
But we learn as we go. Eos is creating the Voice platform backed up by $150m. Voice is positioned to become a platform where the incentives of the platform and the user are aligned. Great, you won’t be seen as the product anymore, and you will have a voice. Sounds like the consensus model mentioned in the first paragraph while earning VOICE tokens with your content. Voice fights fakeness and bots and trolls by connecting one real person to one real account. For doing this, KYC is needed, so a ‘control’ mechanism for the new user to enter. There goes true decentralization and anonimity. Starting to see the dilemma?
Maybe a truer place for the bright minds of the world has become the platform Minds. Through a peer-driven, incentives-based system, users can actually be compensated directly for their content on Minds, which is a change of pace from traditional centralized social networks. Great! It seems that both platforms use the so-called network effect.
The Network effect
The network effect is the where utility to the founders and members of a social network comes from the financial upside from the token value rather than from the application or platform itself. This is a completely new way to share in the benefits of creating a new digital circle, or community together. But again, the Token Value seems again to be the incentive here to join. this is quite the opposite of the niche platforms where people truly want to connect to peers because of lifestyle/values. Here, subscribers don’t really care about a possible token value.
I subscribed to Minds. The platform seems to take off where Steemit was left behind by many people. You can’t use a boost to reach other users. Your post instead gets shared to 1,000 random people for each token you spend. And you get paid tokens for your time. The same concept the Brave Browser and native BAT token use to pay you for your attention. Sounds cool and appealing, its the Facebook model finally reversed by getting paid tokens for my attention. But I lost my appetite after the initial week. The values are neutral, you can find Nazi content when you like using hashtags. But more importantly, I needed to import Ether first into the site, instead of being granted tokens by entering, as Brave Browser does.
When we look to the set-up: The platform itself and what you see evolves around the hashtags. Probably because I didn't enter the token-game, I failed to see the innovative ground-breaking potential of the Minds platform. It has an appealing decentralized feel, the site works flawlessly. But no sense of community, just people reposting and up paying their youtube channels, Medium blogs and other content.
It feels too much like first world competition where eventually you will have the platform heroes versus the grey sheep followers that hope to have their moment of going viral one day: except they will have to pay now for that moment to arrive. At least with YouTube in the old days that could happen pretty much organically.
Let’s come together
The challenge is to bring the two together. The niche/value-centric platforms and the bigger token centric platforms. When a bigger platform like Minds drifts too much away from core values, they become identity-less and just another more neutral environment where people want to showcase themselves and by doing to earning tokens. This then becomes like another competition, like in real life, where it’s about success, being seen and get rewarded by tokens instead of likes. Then the token reward system can start to have a life on its own, driven by greed or even wales pumping up the value on exchanges to later drop it. In my opinion, this will self-suffocate in the long run because it will become a new Facebook where likes will bring you money, not specifically authentic content or content that benefits the eco-system. The content will become money-driven, not content-driven. Steemit is the best example of this mechanism.
The challenge as it seems is to get the balance working between the token reward eg network effect, and valuable, authentic and true content, while having a voice
Remember that almost anybody with some technical background and investors believing in their whitepaper, scan start off with a highly centralized platform, wrapped in misleading ideological high values. They then create a few hundreds of millions of tokens out of nothing and do some smart marketing to get the platform filled with initial content. In fact, the early content fillers will obviously get rewarded with some free tokens. Next step is bringing the token to an exchange, this will cost somewhere between 2–5 million and is included in the marketing budget. This will boost the trust in the ‘community’, some more million will buy-in because of the hope of the token will rise to the moon, some wales come in, the price pumps.. people cash including the founders, and the token than embarques on a painful descent into oblivion while the founders are nipping their cocktails in the Bahama’s. Sounds familiar?
Writing this down, and looking at the hundreds of past projects that are now part of the growing graveyard of deceased tokens, I more and more come to the believe that the ones that will succeed and thrive, including social platform token driven platforms, should be either truly decentralized with no central authority or power to create tokens out of nothing, or have a strong community making consensus-based decisions on things like Voting Bots Or Gab alike racists wanting to join the happy family. There can be a middle way of starting of centralized and sticking to the values Like Medium did in the past. But remember: the future will be decentralized and tokenized. And once you start centralized, it is actually quite impossible to become decentralized because of your blockchain protocols.
Let’s add a third condition for the birth of successful, thriving new platforms that bring authentic, true, quality content on the long run that enriches the soul and the tokenwallet, inspires and informs being an honest representation of the dream of a true-er Internet we all once had. New strong value-based platforms, decentralized or not, that have solved the issues around privacy, transparency, data-monetization and lack of real community that is now haunting the super platforms like Facebook. Because they have a community of real people behind them that make real decisions.
This third condition is responsibility.
We are all responsible to make this happen. This is not the era anymore to look to any government or other centralized entity and to file our complaint there. It is not a matter of fighting against the big tech mologs and their data-vampire business models. It is about creating alternatives that are aligned with the future. And Yes we can! We now can turn to technology, that has created the design of going truly peer to peer again, to embarque on a decentralized journey where more and more circles will arise of people connecting authentically in real life, and in digital realms that are designed around those core values. Where smart contracts and the blockchain are built around protocols that translate those values in permissioned and permissionless structures that eventually make us monetize our data and block concent that lies too far outside of the community values.
To #ownyourdata is closer than you think. Where do you put your content?, are you still happy being a product on Facebook or are you ready to try out some of the new platforms that might fit your values better? I hope with this writing you feel motivated to do so. I will see you, write and hear you over there! Or maybe I will meet you in real life.
Do we really need social platforms?
I haven't looked at one future possibility yet. The real most simple solution for all of the platforms. Maybe at the end of the day, social platforms will die off, having been de-masked as the smartest marketing tool of the 21st century, the biggest addiction for billions of people after the invention of the television.
Some days I dream of a future where, indeed, we don’t need these platforms anymore altogether, because we get so much more nurtured and joyful from real-life peer to peer contact in the real world. We feel and are part of a real community, where real people care for us and where we find our calling by bringing our gifts. For as it stands, this is for me the nr. 1 solution for the social platforms.
Social media platforms have been sold to us in such a clever and psychological way. Don’t you get sick sometimes in a restaurant, or a metro, to see more than 50% of the people hiding behind their smart screens? In the core of my heart, I feel that this is unnatural, unhealthy, and its sold to us as initially as an innocent tool to connect to each other while in fact, it has driven us miles and miles apart. Its time to get together again in the platform that is called real life.
Lucien Lecarme, August 26th