Big tech isn’t just big anymore. It’s grown into a ravenous Cthulhu-esque beast with its tentacles wrapped around almost every data point in our lives.
But in the light of a House Judiciary report determining that “Facebook’s monopoly power is firmly entrenched and unlikely to be eroded by competitive pressure from new entrants or existing firms,” can blockchain-based social media topple these social media powerhouses, given the unchecked power these giants wield over corporations and individuals? Even beginning to challenge the omnipotence of Facebook, Apple, and Google seems a daunting, nigh-impossible task.
Yet, just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, many a revolution starts with a single voice before becoming a deafening chorus.
The potential for blockchain-based social platforms is unlimited, not least because it’s hard to find a more broken system than social media, thanks to the way we’ve allowed these networks to develop.
“Social media has been designed to target the vulnerabilities of our psychology, damaging our wellbeing through an experience that is highly addictive, divisive and egocentric,” sums up Eric Yang, the founder and executive director of blockchain social media platform Junto. “Its centralization has led to large security vulnerabilities and enables a small number of individuals to censor others and act as a single source of morality.”
Most significantly, our data is being aggregated at scale to fuel algorithms that are becoming increasingly precise at predicting and manipulating our behavior.
How did we get here?
We didn’t realize early on that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. We should have, because our parents long ago warned us there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
But we fell further and further down the rabbit hole and came to love not having to pay for things online. From free news and social sites to file sharing, dating, and streaming, all we had to do was provide a little personal information to get a wealth of digital experiences back.
Free lunches became the norm. Content no longer had monetary value and no one even considered what was happening to their personal details as they flung them into cyberspace with wanton abandon.
While we were busy sharing photos of our holidays and taking geography IQ challenges, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was making a fortune from our data. He sold our profiles to sophisticated data mining firms like Cambridge Analytica to manipulate our behavior and to influence the outcome of elections. It turned out that we were a lot more under the thumb of big tech (and Big Brother) than we previously thought.
“The biggest social platforms are also some of the biggest data miners, routinely violating our privacy in order to sell more valuable ads,” says Ankit Bhatia, the CEO and cofounder of Sapien Ethereum-based social network.
And it’s not only the tech companies misusing and abusing our data; there are ceaseless hacks and breaches spewing our sensitive information all over the internet. In 2019, some 300 million Facebook users had their phone numbers and names exposed online. That’s a ton of personal details floating out in the wild just waiting to be used in phishing attacks, social engineering, and other types of online fraud — and that’s just one example.
It seems that constantly refilling our plates at the all-you-can-eat buffet of free content does carry a price tag after all.
Avoiding data breaches
Blockchain-based social media can help avoid these all-too-common data breaches and leaks. Decentralized systems have no single point of failure in the way centralized servers do, which helps to keep sensitive information infinitely more secure.
“Blockchain architecture provides two things: decentralization and security,” explains Saqib Ahmed Khan, digital marketing executive at Pure VPN. “Since social networks are centralized, there are risks of data breaches, DDoS attacks, and physical attacks. Decentralized architecture solves this issue as there is no single server managing the whole network, that’s why the attack is almost impossible.”
But decentralization is good for a lot more than preventing DDoS attacks. Blockchain-based social media can chip away at the omnipotence of big tech by giving power back to the people.
Ignite.so is a decentralized microblogging platform that values freedom of speech and was designed to fight censorship. Co-founder Vladislavs Semjonovs says most of the issues with social media are caused by centralization. “Blockchain technology can benefit social networks with decentralized governance, transparency of every action, and clear usage of user-generated personal data,” he says.
Junto’s Yang agrees that many problems can be traced back to an over-concentration of power. He claims that:
The centralization of big tech has won them ownership of our data and leaves high impact decision-making like algorithmic design, moderation, privacy practices, and revenue models both opaque and in the hands of a few.
Distributing this responsibility across many more actors through the technical architecture itself is one way to achieve more balance in our digital experience.”
This need to seize back control from centralized entities is particularly timely right now in the light of the U.S. Congress Antitrust hearings held over the questionable practices of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, which have already yielded the recommendation that Facebook be forced to undergo “structural separation” — possibly including divesting itself of WhatsApp and Instagram.
Decentralized platforms that are run by users and reward users could present a real alternative to multinational companies that prefer to buy the competition rather than compete with them, and which insist on siphoning off 30% of the profit of every single app in their store.
Apple may have become the first public American company in history to hit a value of $2 trillion lately, but it’s done so off this hefty imbalance of power tilted in its favor.
Eliminating online advertising fraud
Centralized social media also has a major problem with fake accounts, bot traffic, and a slew of other fraudulent practices that cost advertisers some $23 billion a year.
The way current social media platforms are set up is also “destroying local news and independent journalism,” according to Salah Zalatimo, CEO of Voice tokenized social media platform.
“Existing platforms are leveraging inflated audiences to take away ad dollars and their opaque algorithms force news organizations to bend over backwards to try to reach audiences,” he explains.
Voice doesn’t pay its users to watch online ads like crypto-powered Brave browser, but it does provide transparency into how Voice tokens spent on advertising and promotion are used. This, according to the platform, means that “promotion and advertising on Voice are more engaging and less manipulative.”
This transparency allows advertisers to obtain honest metrics about where their budget is being spent, eliminating the advertising fraud that is rampant elsewhere on the net. It also enables users to have some agency over how they are being targeted.
“We’re building Voice to be social as it should be … Human-first: From the start, every user is a verified human (no bots, no burner accounts),” he adds.
This notion of transparency is a common thread among blockchain based social media projects. At Sapien, Bhatia points out the technology allows them to eliminate the middleman between creators and audiences and enable direct payments, subscriptions, and more.
“Deploying a smart contract means that the rules of exchange are absolute and transparent, unlike with mainstream social platforms which hoard most of the value and constantly move the goalposts for getting your due piece of that value.”
Rewarding content creators is a very different strategy to simply using them to generate likes and shares.
Zalatimo explains that the Voice community is “empowered to self-govern, to launch communities, and to curate so that quality content rises above.”
“Creators are rewarded, not exploited: We’re a tokenized social media platform which means we’re creating a new content economy where creators are valued for the content and engagement they provide.”
We are putting the power back in the hands of content creators … No opaque algorithms, no hidden agendas.
Junto has similarly lofty ambitions to put the focus back on people, rather than profits.
“We hope to create a digital culture that inspires authenticity, deeper human connection, and positive mental health,” Yang says. “We’re building on a distributed technology called Holochain, providing our members with ownership of their data and a censorship-free experience.”
Content censorship is a fiery issue that frequently comes up for debate. The ongoing censorship of crypto-related content on YouTube, for example, has given rise to blockchain-based platforms such as D.Tube, a decentralized video platform, built on top of the STEEM blockchain that can neither censor videos nor enforce guidelines.
Ignite is built on the premise that “even unpopular opinions deserve to be heard,” and Junto sees censorship as one of the key problems with existing platforms. Decentralization can defeat censorship — but come with the attendant problem that totally unmediated systems are ripe for abuse.
Earlier this month, for example, a 10-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped by her uncle, was stalked and harassed online by religious extremists who posted her personal details on Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to prevent her from having an abortion. A Court eventually ruled that the networks must remove her information — after she’d already been forced to fly 900 miles to another clinic.
“It’s horrendous what has happened to that young girl in Brazil and Facebook and Twitter should have been more proactive from the start, instead of relying on a court to justify moderation,” says Jonathan Goodwin of Sapien. “This is yet another example of their lackluster content moderation standards and practices.”
Yang acknowledges that “there’s certainly a real danger of malicious content” but that ultimately, there is no way of stopping people from sharing what they want, when they want. “Censoring content on specific platforms will simply push these individuals towards other pockets of the internet and opens up a host of other concerns,” he says.
“Enabling any form of censorship from a centralized party opens the door for that power to be corrupted, and for us to rely on a small number of people to dictate what we can and cannot see. This has far more dangerous implications than allowing people to be fully free in their expression, whether we like what they say or not.”
He believes that a better solution is to create tools that allow individuals and communities to govern themselves. “To me, this form of distributed governance is the only way to achieve moderation at scale while respecting the differences and philosophies of all walks of life.”
Goodwin of Sapien agrees. “A decentralized social platform would be built on self-moderating communities that could weed out malicious content, including doxxing, before it could take root in a given community,” he says.
But, is it really workable in practice? Are all blockchain social media platforms following this model? And how exactly do these communities self-moderate? These questions still need to be answered as blockchain social media grows.
The tech is not quite there yet
While blockchain brings advantages, the tech is still in its infancy and it’s a long way from being bullet-proof.
It may be totally impractical to launch a 51% attack against Bitcoin due to its enormous hashrate, but that’s not the case for smaller blockchains. Take LBRY, a content sharing platform that enables users to publish material and get paid for doing so. Built on a PoW blockchain, a malicious actor could gain control of the network by renting hashing power for around $100 an hour.
Then there’s the issue of scalability, which remains a challenge, particularly for those platforms built on Ethereum like Sapien. Reaching a Facebook-style user base of two billion people certainly isn’t on the near or even mid-term horizon when 100,000 DeFi users can bring the network to its knees.
And, while we’ve moved way beyond the days of the Parity hack, smart contracts are still only as smart as the human who wrote them. The possibility of data disasters isn’t entirely obsolete with blockchain, especially if opportune hackers are dead set on taking a platform down.
Even once the technical problems have been solved, overcoming the network effects of current platforms like Facebook will still be a mammoth task. Blockchain security consultant and writer Reuben Jackson believes this is the biggest obstacle facing social Dapps.
“Despite all of its brand issues, Facebook has ridiculous market share and recognition,” he says. “Everyone else, from Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat to LinkedIn and beyond, is small change compared to Facebook, but they’ve all been at it for several years.”
Centralized platforms are easier to use
Established platforms are currently faster, more convenient and user-friendly than decentralized alternatives. Users don’t face a steep learning curve to educate themselves about private keys and Metamask just to hang out with a handful of users when the bulk of their friends are still on Instagram.
And, as difficult as it is to hear, most users simply aren’t as passionate about decentralization, or care as much about the abuse of their personal data, as the creators of these solutions.
“Social media users do not usually care about the issues addressed by these decentralized social media projects and/or are often too lazy to spend time and effort to switch and use something more secure and fair,” says Michał Szachno, a blockchain security expert and co-founder of VAIOT.
He doesn’t believe blockchain social media will topple current platforms any time soon. Instead, he says:
The social media space needs a “deal-breaker,” something that will excite users and encourage them to make the change.
It’s interesting to ponder just what that deal-breaker would have to be, given that having our profiles scraped for data to manipulate us into taking unconscious actions hasn’t yet sparked wholesale change.
So, should Zuckerberg be worried?
Jackson says that Dtube, Steemit, and MeWe have shown impressive user growth momentum and sparked important conversations. “But if you’re going after the big boys, then you need to offer more than simply being a YouTube clone that runs on distributed tech and isn’t owned by Google,” he says.
While many blockchain social media platforms have introduced innovative tokenized economies, there are still many battles to be won. Overcoming user apathy and educating people to care enough about their data and the abuses of big tech is probably the largest hurdle to overcome.
While the backlash against big tech and its monopolistic, opaque practices is growing, is it enough to topple Zuckerberg from his throne? Maybe not right now. It will probably take several years for blockchain social media to grab even a small proportion of the market share.
But the world is changing fast and the optics are beginning to shift. With big tech now on the U.S. government’s radar and growing awareness about the value of our personal data, there seems at least a glimmer of hope the oligopolies can break down just enough to allow for meaningful gains to be made by decentralized platforms.
It wasn’t easy for David to take on Goliath armed with just a slingshot, yet we all know how that story turned out. Zuck may not be losing sleep over blockchain social media right now but you can bet he’s paying attention.