NFTs and the Metaverse are the hottest topics in the cryptocurrency ecosystem right now, but the next big thing might just be decentralized social media. Like decentralized finance, decentralized social media platforms don’t have a centralized governing body and may, someday, provide viable alternatives to established platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. The technology is currently evolving just beyond the embryonic stage of development.
Yung Beef, or YB — who serves as content lead and community manager at Subsocial — says that centralized social media platforms are unfair to community members and content creators. “It seems pretty obvious that centralized social networks are susceptible to lots of shady stuff, with the mystery algorithms controlling what people see, people getting shadowbanned or banned outright for whatever reason, etc. And it just gets worse when you factor in that a lot of people earn their livelihood on these platforms and their food bill is totally at the whim of the central authority.”
According to Subsocial, the centralized social media industry is plagued by global censorship, a lack of customization, unfair monetization, algorithm dictatorship and a monopoly on network effects.
Stani Kulechov, the CEO of Aave and a decentralized social media developer, believes that content creators should have a permissionless, censorship-resistant distribution channel with their audience. He tells Magazine that “At least the people that are posting the content, creating the content, consuming it, sharing it — they would definitely benefit from decentralized social media.”
Kulechov made headlines in and outside of the cryptocurrency community last summer when he hinted that crypto giant Aave was considering building “Twitter on Ethereum.”
Since @jack is going to build Aave on Bitcoin, Aave should build Twitter on Ethereum
— stani.v3 (👻,🌿) (@StaniKulechov) July 17, 2021
Michael Marra, founder and CEO of Entre — a social media application that runs on the DeSo blockchain — believes that decentralized social media is really about “giving the power back to the people.” According to him, one of the problems with centralized platforms is censorship, while another is monetization, but more on both of those later.
How does it all work?
Centralized and decentralized social media platforms both utilize some type of social graph — a model of a social network that maps everyone on a platform and how they’re related — and allow users to communicate with each other on a front-end platform. Traditional social media platforms are totally self-contained, and the host company controls the data servers. Twitter owns and controls all its content — all your content. The same is true with Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc. Decentralized social media platforms live on public blockchains, and for the most part, anyone, anywhere, can operate a node, access the back end, create an app and curate a feed.
According to its website, “DeSo is a new layer-1 blockchain built from the ground up to scale decentralized social applications to one billion users.” The blockchain is open-source, with the code and all the data stored directly on-chain. There are over 200 apps deployed on Deso, and users who create a profile in any app can easily take that profile and their community of followers along with them to any app on the blockchain.
This new category of decentralized infinite-state applications that we are exploring with DeSo is a huge and untapped market for the crypto space to disrupt.
With DeSo, we can now enable so much more to live completely on-chain and become truly decentralized like never before.
— DeSo (@desoprotocol) March 24, 2022
Entre, short for “entrepreneur,” is a social Web3 application that runs on DeSo. On Entre, the self-employed, the traditionally employed and any other professional can post Twitter-like content and carry out business transactions. They can conduct meetings, host virtual events and hire staff members, with the app functioning like a decentralized, digitally monetizable alternative to LinkedIn, Zoom and Google Calendar — all jammed together into a single product.
While Entre runs on a social blockchain, the Aave-backed Lens Protocol is deployed on Polygon. Kulechov says that Lens is ”actually a decentralized social graph.”
According to Kulechov, when a user of an app on the protocol creates a profile, that profile is tokenized as an NFT. Whenever someone follows a profile, they create a relationship on-chain that can’t be arbitrarily broken by the platform or by anyone else, as those relationships are also tokenized as NFTs that can be viewed in a digital wallet like MetaMask or on the web on OpenSea.
Subsocial doesn’t consider itself a decentralized social network, rather a platform for building social networks. It allows users to create profiles and customize personal “Spaces” and claims to have serverless public timelines, roles and permissions, user governance, moderation, Spaces for DAOs, and a treasury. The platform runs on the Polkadot and Kusama blockchains, and it recently built its first app, a decentralized Reddit–Medium hybrid.
According to YB, Subsocial plans to remove the profiles in the future. To save space, all content uploaded onto Subsocial (pics, videos and text) is hosted on the InterPlanetary File System, with an IPFS content identifier uploaded to the blockchain. Each IPFS node is hosted by one or more people, and those node operators are in control of what they host on their servers.
While developers at Lens Protocol, Entre and Subsocial build out the next generation of decentralized, Web3 social platforms and apps, other platforms such as Theta and Audius are integrating social media tools into decentralized video and audio streaming services. Theta is a peer-to-peer network operating on its own blockchain, with users sharing bandwidth to relay video to one another. On its website, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen is quoted as saying the project can bring “improved video delivery at lower costs.” Like on YouTube, brands and creators can stream content as followers comment in real time.
Audius, meanwhile, is a decentralized audio streaming platform that runs on Solana and hopes to afford everyone the freedom to distribute, monetize and stream any audio content. Artists can easily upload musical clips to the platform, while fans can listen to original compositions and mixes, curate libraries, and repost, follow, like and share content. It offers the same amount of fun but without middlemen throwing trivial ads your way and then taking a hefty cut from content creators.
What about the bad guys?
If creators are expected to monitor their own content on a completely decentralized platform like Subsocial, how can the distribution of illegal content and disinformation be controlled? Social media moderation has been a controversial topic for years, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter haven’t always done a good job both filtering out dangerous content and maintaining a commitment to open dialogue.
YB explains to Magazine that Subsocial is censorship-resistant, while Kulechov says that Lens Protocol “is built completely to be agnostic in the sense that it’s a technical solution, basically to build social media applications.” Entre’s Marra says:
“If it is open, that means anything kind of goes. You can control it to some degree.”
Marra believes that blockchains can be built to facilitate the community’s ability to report things. Community members, especially those with higher authority — like those with lots of followers or a good reputation — can signal that a bad actor is posting dubious content. The offender’s content should then go way down in the feed. Marra argues that blockchain verification will also prevent a lot of “this stuff,” saying “You will instantly know that this person is not legit.”
According to Kulechov, moderation is all about creating choices for everyone. Lens Protocol has a common social graph where all user information is actively linked, and unlike traditional social media, that social graph is decentralized. Kulechov believes that decentralizing the social graph so that everyone has access to it provides more opportunities to moderate more humanely.
This accessible interconnectivity affords developers opportunities to create algorithms focused on content moderation. It essentially puts the front ends of the protocol, the applications, into a position where they compete to offer accessibility to accurate, appropriate information. Kulechov says:
“Maybe the right type of content moderation might be community-led, where the community’s site people announce themselves and moderate or select the algorithms.”
Subsocial has three levels of moderation. To start, every post is made in a Space. “Think of Spaces like a subreddit, a Facebook group, a Twitter profile or a blog,” YB says. Each Space has at least one owner who can moderate its content. Also, each IPFS node is hosted by at least one community member. Those operators can control what they host on their servers. Lastly, anyone can build a front-end social application on the platform. A front end connected to one of the Subsocial blockchains can read all the content on the chain. The operator can control what is distributed on the front end.
Learn the difference between moderation and censorshiphttps://t.co/zb923stv1o
— Subsocial (@SubsocialChain) March 22, 2022
Still, if a front-end operator and a group of bad actors were determined to disseminate misinformation or illegal content, YB says it could be shut down with an on-chain vote. “[That] would be a big deal and likely a big hassle, but it also would be pointless, as those people could just make another Space right away and continue on.” YB argues that people use the internet to coordinate violence and share illegal content all the time — it’s just hidden, which it still would be, as large social networks built on Subsocial wouldn’t show that stuff.
One thing to note, however, is that centralized social media platforms with the power to shut down a creator or community with the click of a button have struggled for years to contain the distribution of illegal content and misinformation.
As such, even though relying on the community to moderate itself is egalitarian and sounds good in theory, it may not prove effective in practice. Self-moderation on censorship-resistant platforms would likely require fully engaged community members. That may not always be the case in the Web3 environment, as active members of communities need to be present in significant enough numbers to monitor bad actors on any given decentralized network. For example, a recent analysis ranking community engagement in DAOs showed mixed results.
How might a censorship-resistant platform respond when an extraordinarily large community goes off the rails? Considering the massive amount of disinformation that could be generated by an organized, well-funded army of bots, could a universally adopted, decentralized network moderate a community of thousands of such propagandists?
Show me the money — all the money
Equitable monetization for community members and content creators is one of the key features of the decentralized social media ecosystem. Juxtaposed against unbalanced monetization schemes in traditional social media, decentralized social earning could be a game changer for content creators and magnetize universal adoption efforts.
YB tells Magazine, “Personally, I think the monetization stuff will be much more attractive to content creators than any censorship resistance. YouTube, for example, takes 45% of ad revenue, which is pretty insane.” He adds further, ”I’m really interested to see what happens with the tips. I hope we see the emergence of a micro-tipping economy, since it will be so easy. Scrolling through the timeline and see a joke that brightens your morning? Why not tip them $0.50 in a second or two?”
Lens Protocol is taking a hands-off approach to monetization. “We wanted to touch monetization as little as possible and give a lot of space for our developers to come and solve that,” Kulechov says. Lens is currently building a very basic monetization function around content collection and amplification. Whenever creators post music, text, audio or video, followers can then collect that content as NFTs. There are different collection modules, and followers can mint the NFTs themselves. If those followers then amplify that content, the creator collects mirror fees, which is like monetizing a retweet on Twitter.
On the DeSo blockchain, the DESO token can be used to purchase creator coins. BitClout, Diamond and CloutFeed are Twitter-like applications that allow followers who support a particular creator to invest in their coin, exponentially increasing its value. Although not recommended, the coins can be converted back to DESO and actively traded or cashed out for fiat. Entre, according to Marra, isn’t “into creator coins” and is more focused on allowing creators to earn DESO through tipping when they livestream.
Entre users can also sell tickets to in-person or virtual events and charge for private one-on-one services like consulting and coaching. The app offers a Slack- and Discord-like community feature where membership fees can be charged and users can offer services like graphic design. Currently, DESO is the only cryptocurrency accepted on the app, but Marra intends to offer multiple tokens in the future.
Theta has been in the monetization game for some time and offers crypto rewards for creators, fans and hosts. The platform has two tokens: THETA and TFUEL. Owners of THETA, its native token, can participate in governance and earn more THETA by staking or running a node. TFUEL is essentially a utility token for the platform and can be earned by community members for watching streams on Theta.tv or hosting Guardian and Edge Nodes. They can spend TFUEL on real-world merchandise in the TFUEL Shop or use it to buy subscriptions to paid content.
Just got Presessence vol 1 up on @AudiusProject ! LFG – thanks to everyone sharing It on there Right now!
— Domino △ (@dominosmusic) March 8, 2022
Audius, meanwhile, uses its AUDIO token to help artists monetize their work and fans support them. Community members can earn AUDIO for uploads, invites, going mobile, linking social media accounts and sustaining listening streaks. Fans can send AUDIO directly to artists.
Decentralized social media certainly has the potential to tip the equity and privacy scales in favor of users and content creators. It could reshape the social media industry and redefine an era of digital free speech in the Web3 era. But in order to achieve that, it may still need to find an elusive solution to content moderation, and it will need to achieve universal adoption. Thought leaders in the space have their eyes toward the future, with Kulechov saying:
“Adoption is gonna be a long game, for sure. It might take years to adopt. It’s basically one application at a time.”
Ray Schuetz received a Masters Degree in computer science from The University of Texas (Austin). Ray has been working as a full-time blockchain consultant for the past 3 years. In his spare time, Ray enjoys writing for EthereumCryptocurrency.com and other crypto news publications.