Tomorrow’s Digital Public Squares
How Decentralizing Social Platforms Could Give Ordinary Users More Control
Social media platforms have become the lens through which we frame our subjective reality. Our memories are filtered and captioned, allowing us to doctor our experiences before sharing them with our friends and followers.
These platforms have shortened the distance between loved ones and enabled oppressed populations to mobilize against corrupt regimes. However, the pace at which they have grown has made it difficult to prevent their darker elements from emerging. “Filter bubbles,” “fake news,” and “echo chambers” have entered our collective vocabulary as a means to describe the various ways social media apps are being abused. Both established players and young upstarts are waking up to the fact that, when it comes to social, “the future is private,” as Mark Zuckerberg declared at the recent F8 developer conference.
Whereas Facebook and others have begun to embrace the privacy-centric design of cryptocurrencies with the recent launch of Libra, Block.one’s announcement of Voice shows that the blockchain industry does not intend on playing catch-up in the race to design the popular social media platforms of tomorrow. Decentralization has the potential to realign the incentives of ordinary users, advertisers and content creators in a way that would maximize the total utility of social networks for all parties.
It’s About Incentives, Silly
Social media giants have incentives that are sometimes at odds with the best interests of their users. Their business model depends on the ability to serve precisely targeted advertising to users based on their digital interactions. Therefore, they are incentivized to hoard information by encouraging consumers to spend a greater proportion of their waking hours interacting online. Engineers building these platforms are able to capture user attention by designing a set of feedback loops and reward mechanisms that influence the behavioral patterns of their users. The jolt of excitement that accompanies a social media notification makes it psychologically difficult for users to ignore these alerts. However, additional screen time can be harmful to the mental well-being of users. Studies have shown that spending time chatting with virtual friends and scrolling aimlessly through their highlights often comes at the expense of building stronger in-person relationships.
By shifting power away from the hands of centralized, for-profit companies into the hands of their active communities, decentralized social media apps give users the opportunity to influence the direction of these platforms in previously inconceivable ways. For example, Karma is one such platform on EOSIO that incentivizes benevolent real-world interactions using a tokenized reward system. Giving users an active stake and say in the apps they use ensures that the incentives between them and the creators remain aligned.
Legislators from across the political spectrum are growing concerned with the power accumulated by social media platforms, raising the possibility that these platforms could be broken up by new anti-trust laws. While excessive regulation may reign in some of the powers of social media platforms, the average user does not gain materially from having their internet services fall under a different corporate entity. However, regulators are correct in raising the alarm at the monopolistic practices of these platforms. Content promoted by their algorithms has the power to shape the public discourse and alter the course of democratic elections.
Furthermore, the arbitration around which ideas to censor and users to ban rests solely with their management teams. Moderation and quality control is either the responsibility of arbitrary committees or gets delegated to algorithms which are unable to consider the specifics of each circumstance. The process by which content promotion and moderation decisions are made is incredibly opaque and involves very little input for those most affected by the outcome: the users.
Decentralization seeks to advance the interests of ordinary users more than legislation will.
Users will have the ability to engage with digital content directly, rewarding the creators through microtransactions without the need to cut in a rent-seeking middleman. Not only would the publishers gain financially, but the users themselves also stand to benefit from transitioning to a decentralized architecture.
Currently, centralized platforms harness every search query, post engagement, and application download to build more comprehensive profiles of their users, which are then sold to the highest bidder in automated ad auctions. As Brendan Blumer observed upon the release of Voice, “It’s the platform, not the user, that reaps the reward.” On decentralized platforms, any value accruing to the network as a result of targeted advertising will trickle down to the user instead of being entirely captured by the creators of that particular platform. Users can receive tokenized rewards in exchange for sharing their data with advertisers, researchers and data aggregators.
Furthermore, the code of conduct governing interactions on these platforms can be determined via a community governance model. The decision to censor content or revoke privileges for a user could be undertaken in a transparent fashion that takes the opinion of the average user into consideration.
The DAPP Network: Enabling the Social Media of the Future
Network limitations are preventing base-layer blockchain protocols from housing transformative applications such as a viral social media platform. The DAPP Network has the potential to bridge the gap between the dreams of decentralized social media applications and reality:
- Social media dApps could use the vRAM System to store their relevant data more affordably and efficiently.
- LiquidAccounts could streamline the user-onboarding process by offering potential new users free virtual accounts instead of having them pay to create an account on the EOS mainnet as is currently the case.
- Social media apps also need reliable sources of external information, which they can retrieve using trustless LiquidOracles running on the DAPP Network.
Complimenting the EOS blockchain as a trustless secondary layer, the DAPP Network contains tools and features that could accelerate the ascent of scalable decentralized social media platforms.
In his best-selling book Zero to One, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel observes that “the next Bill Gates will not start an operating system. The next Larry Page won’t start a search engine. The next Mark Zuckerberg won’t start a social network company. If you are copying these people, you are not learning from them.” Those anticipating “Facebook on the blockchain” or “Twitter on the blockchain” should keep in mind that the Web 3.0 iteration of social media may look nothing like its predecessor. Yet regardless of which decentralized social media platforms eventually gain significant adoption, users will own their data directly by means of a private key instead of entrusting it to centralized guardians.
A decentralized architecture promises to transform social media apps from being controlled by large corporations into digital public goods with equal rights, access, and privacy for all.