Blockchain and Social Media: A Match Made in Heaven?
Social media platforms of the near future will be very different from what we have today, that is if the current trends are to sustain. Social networking is not an old phenomenon. It has picked up in the last two decades. At the dawn of the internet, as it started to gain mainstream adoption in the early 90s, the only thing we could do was view information and send messages via email. Later on, as the decade progressed, online search started to become a big thing, and later microblogging caught on, albeit at a small scale.
Instead of just viewing information, the idea of sharing and forming platforms started to grow. America Online (AOL) could be viewed as heralding this era when it enabled the creation of member profiles that were searchable. Nonetheless, major strides in social networking were not made until after the dot com bubble burst in 2000. The new era of social networking sites began. Friendster was launched in 2002, then Myspace in 2003, LinkedIn also in 2003, and Facebook in 2004. Even Google launched Orkut, a social networking site, in 2004. It has since shut it down.
Facebook and Myspace became the two leading social networking sites until Facebook dominated. Facebook specifically did a few things differently from Myspace that worked—starting by targeting university students, understanding its core product value, etc.—and these things eventually allowed it to increase engagement and capitalize on ads.
Later came Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat—all with one core idea—giving a platform for people to share their daily life experiences. User-generated content became the main thing. To monetize the platforms, the only viable model was through allowing companies to place ads while people used the service for free. As people generated more content, engagement grew. As time went by, more customer data was being analyzed and tracked in order to give better ad placement than TV and other traditional platforms could offer.
This has been the dominant model for social media platforms, but major problems have arisen from this model.
Hacking and data leaks have been a huge problem, perhaps the most concerning. Facebook allows third-party developers to create applications that work on Facebook’s platform. Recently, we learned about how this has been abused, exposing users’ records, names, passwords, comments, etc. It started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. LinkedIn also had a password breach.
Too many ads can lead to a bad customer experience. Many social media companies, in a bid to increase revenue, found more ways to customize ads. The length of time a person stays on a platform became the main metric, and all efforts have been done to increase staying time. The centralized control of social media companies means that they optimize for engagement and ease of use in order to make better targeting for advertisers. Sometimes this comes at the expense of users.
Even with increased staying time, the majority of the value generated accrues to the platforms themselves and not the users who are the creators of the content.
Fake accounts, spamming, and bots are also becoming a menace for current social media platforms. For example, Facebook recently said that in the first quarter of 2019, it had removed 2.2 billion fake accounts. That is a high figure, even though Facebook says it is able to flag fake accounts within minutes of registering. In addition, how to manage privacy in an ad-based model is still a challenge.
Finally, there’s online harassment and hate speech. This has always been a problem but has especially become so in the last few years. The only way a user can really deal with this is by reporting the account; beyond that, the jury is still out on how best to solve the issue of online harassment and hate speech.
The launch of bitcoin in 2009 sought to change the way we view and use money. Satoshi outlined the vision of a decentralized, censorship-resistance internet-based money. Bitcoin has acted as a currency and medium of exchange, enabling borderless mechanisms to store and exchange value. The idea is to reduce centralized control and the single point of failure, which can be prone to manipulation and locks out many, especially those in countries with failing monetary regimes and a lack of ways to transfer value cheaply across national borders. This aspect of decentralized networks has caught on and is now being extended beyond money to other areas.
Ethereum later came in 2015, introducing the idea of a platform to build and launch decentralized applications. Hundreds of use cases have evolved from here: fundraising (ICOs), prediction markets, data storage, etc.
Social media is one of the use cases. As outlined above, some of the major challenges of existing social networks can be solved by decentralized networks if they work as envisioned.
Let’s look at some of the existing projects trying to solve the problems currently plaguing social media.
Steemit was an early blockchain startup that showcased how the technology could be used to benefit content creators. As a decentralized alternative to platforms like Reddit, users are able to create accounts and start posting content. When it becomes popular, they earn Steem tokens.
This way, spam content is eliminated. Users can exchange tokens with other cryptocurrencies or fiat on exchanges. Started in 2016, it has now amassed 1 million users. However, it has not yet achieved scale to rival any of the existing social media platforms.
Block.one, the company behind the EOS cryptocurrency, announced on the first anniversary of EOS mainnet on June 1, 2019, that it was launching a social media platform called Voice.
The information available from the launch says that the platform will seek to eliminate bots through a special authentication process when onboarding users. If successful, that would eliminate one of the main challenges of managing fake accounts and bots on traditional social media.
The Voice token will be at the center of the network whereby users receive Voice tokens based on the content they share and by collecting likes. The token cannot be obtained in any other way, such as mining, but only through the platform, and it can be spent promoting users’ own posts.
Even the existing social media platforms such as Facebook are realizing that this is not a passing façade.
Facebook first came out in support of blockchain in 2018 when its CEO said that they were looking into blockchain as possible solutions for their privacy woes. Later in December 2018, it has heavily been reported by various new platforms such as Bloomberg that, finally, Facebook is launching its own cryptocurrency, Libra. The announcement came on June 18, 2019. and Libra is expected in 2020.
Libra is to be in the form of a stablecoin for facilitating payments on Facebook’s platforms. According to the whitepaper, the project is a collaboration of 27 other partners which form the Libra Association; each partner contributes $10 towards the project and hosts a node. Facebook formed Calibra, which is to be Facebook’s own representative in the Libra Association. David Marcus, head of Calibra, says that members are expected to grow to 100 by the time the launch.
Libra is meant to facilitate payments across the world. Facebook would benefit by enabling its 2.2 billion users to have a way to make payments easily and cheaply. Further down the line, Libra could be used to enable users to pay for ads on the platform.
This is not the first time Facebook has experimented with digital tokens, having launched Facebook credits in 2009 to enable users to purchase items such as games on the site before terminating the project after it failed to gather traction. However, with the rise of cryptocurrency tokens, could this social media platform have now found a way?
Telegram, the messaging platform, is also building the TON, or Telegram Open Network, which will enable users to undertake e-commerce.
Telegram raised $1.7 billion in 2018, making it one of the biggest ICOs ever. In February this year, The Block reported that the project was 90% complete and would be launched in Q3 of 2019.
Telegram aims to launch GRAM, the native token powering the TON. To add to messaging, the TON is expected to enable payments via GRAM, a decentralized marketplace, and peer-to-peer file hosting as explained in its technical whitepaper. The project is speculated to be in testing mode currently, and more details will be availed when the project is fully launched later this year.
With 200 million monthly users already, the launch of TON could radically change messaging as Telegram is already one of the most widely used non-blockchain based messaging platforms, particularly for ICOs, mainly because of its privacy features. If TON is successful, this could solve the monetization challenge of the platform, since the founder Pavel Durov has publicly said that Telegram will never allow ads as a method of monetization.
For the majority of the new and upcoming blockchain-based social media platforms, incentivizing good behavior, payment channels, and rewarding users for sharing content seems to be the core tenets of blockchain-influenced social media.
Until now, the only viable way to make money by being on social media as a user has been growing a following or fan base to high numbers, having some level of influence, and then endorsing or sponsoring products through which the user can earn a commission based on set metrics.
However, for the majority of the remaining users, there is no incentive not to troll, spam, and so forth. With tokens, the idea is to reward those who spend more on the platform, sharing updates, pictures, stories, and the like. Social media giants such as Facebook have come under pressure for generating billions of dollars in ad revenue based on content created by users while users do not benefit directly. Native platform tokens could unlock this problem. The extent to which this will work remains to be seen, but at the core, it challenges the fundamentals of how not only social media but also by extension, the internet has been built so far.
Privacy, payments, and control over data seem to be at the core of how the future of social media is going to work.
Time will tell.
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