What would Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn look like if they were on the blockchain?
Maybe you haven't thought about it, but the concept of blockchain-based social networks has been gaining steam for a while now. And for good reason.
While modern social networks have done a lot to enable human interaction, their infrastructure and operations leave much to be desired. Widespread censorship, arbitrary algorithm changes, privacy violations, intrusive ads, and undue exploitation of creators are some complaints leveled against legacy social networks.
Can blockchain technology correct the ills of centralized social networks? Well, many people think so. The idea is that blockchains can help create decentralized social media networks that are user-controlled, censorship-resistant, and private.
In this article, we look at decentralized social networks and their implications. We'll also consider challenges preventing We3 social media platforms from gaining mass adoption.
The Problem With Legacy Social Networks
When social platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter launched, they opened up new opportunities for human interaction. People could communicate across borders, exchange information, build communities, and distribute content seamlessly.
The revolutionary nature of social networks is evident in their astounding growth figures. Large social networks have billions of users combined—Facebook (2.91 billion), Twitter (290.5 million), and YouTube (2 billion).
Modern social networks wield enormous power in society. For instance, studies show that people are spending significant portions of their lives online. As such, social networks can significantly influence our views and behaviors through the content they feed us.
With great power, they say, comes great responsibility. However, social media companies have opted to prioritize profits ahead of user experience, safety, and wellbeing.
They implement algorithms that promote negative content to provoke user activity. They harvest user data and sell it to advertisers, who then populate our feeds with intrusive ads. They may even snoop on messages transferred between individuals.
But that's not all.
Social media companies earn huge profits from user-generated content but hoard a large percentage of this money. Worse, content creators can be de-platformed without warning, leading individuals to lose their means of livelihood.
Moreover, vague content moderation policies and centralized control have made it pretty easy for social media companies to arbitrarily censor users. This is why major platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been criticized heavily for a perceived attack on free speech rights and suppression of opinion.
The centralized storage of user data by social media networks is another problem worth noting. In recent years, we’ve seen hackers breach some of the world’s biggest platforms, stealing enormous amounts of personal information. Not only does this increase the risk of identity theft, but it also makes for an unsafe online experience.
Social networks have seen large data breaches in recent years. Source: Visualcapitalist.com
What Are Decentralized Social Networks?
Decentralized social networks are content creation and distribution platforms running on the blockchain. Many of these platforms attempt to correct the problems of Web2 social networks as highlighted in the previous section.
So, how might a Web3 social media application work? Thankfully, we have enough examples of blockchain-based social networks to show us how these platforms may change how we interact in the future.
Steemit, blockchain's answer to Medium, is a content curation platform that allows users to earn cryptocurrency based on the views their content gets. Readers can also tip content creators using the platform's native token ($STEEM).
A decentralized version of Twitter may make it impossible to delete or modify tweets. Once the information is live on the blockchain, no one—not even platform owners—can take it down.
This is how Peepeth, a Twitter-like service running on the Ethereum blockchain works. By design, posts (called "peeps") cannot be deleted or altered once published. Such solutions will likely reduce censorship and prevent the stifling of opinion rife on centralized social networks.
Web3 social networks may reward users for their time through watch-to-earn, learn-to-earn, play-to-earn, and other incentive programs. Some may even allow users to monetize their data and exchange it for crypto—as opposed to companies solely profiting from user data.
Some decentralized alternatives to popular social media apps. Source: Twitter.com
Why Blockchain Technology is Perfect for Social Media
There are many reasons people want a blockchain-based version of Twitter or LinkedIn. But what really makes the blockchain ideal for running social media applications?
Let's start with the basics. Blockchains are distributed across multiple computers in a peer-to-peer system that's difficult to shut down or hack. To take down a blockchain like Ethereum, you'd need to find a way to control thousands of nodes running the network.
With blockchain technology, we can build robust social applications that can run forever without interruptions. Dictators would be unable to censor public opinion by banning social media applications. Neither would server crashes stop billions of people from interacting like Facebook's crash did late last year.
We've already discussed the censorship-resistant nature of Web3 social media networks, but it bears mentioning again. Blockchain-based social networks are decentralized, meaning a small group of people cannot decide what can or cannot be said online.
Web3 social platforms would rely on decentralized identity, you wouldn't need to reveal sensitive information, like your email address or location, when creating a social media account. You'd only need to connect your digital wallet to prove your identity—and that's it.
Users won’t need to submit personal information for social media logins. Source: Coingeek.com
We could use blockchain-powered cryptography to encrypt messages, enabling secure and private peer-to-peer communication. No one would read messages between you and your buddies, so you'd feel safer sharing what you like in chats.
A discussion of the benefits of running social networks on the blockchain would be incomplete without discussing token economics. Many decentralized online social networks have native tokens, which members buy to unlock features, tip creators, or access certain services.
The token economy creates as much value for users as it does for platform owners. In some cases, especially when social networks operate as Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), tokens give holders the power to vote on the direction of the project. This users-as-members system makes people more committed to the network and ensures its long-term survival.
Users can tokenize content and sell it to other members of the community. For example, Mirror is a Web3-native publisher that allows writers to mint their articles as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and sell them.
Mirror users can sell articles as NFTs. Source: Medium
Influencers and content creators could further maximize earnings by creating subscription-based content. Using built-in micropayment systems like Lightning Network, content creators would be able to create steady streams of income instead of relying on platform owners for earnings.
Because blockchain projects are (mostly) open-source, users can inspect the algorithms used to control our social media feeds. No longer will Big Tech implement secret algorithms built to exploit user attention or promote divisive and harmful content.
Decentralized social networks spread the hosting of user data across multiple nodes (computers) instead of storing them on a central server. This makes it harder for anyone to aggregate and sell your data, while protecting it from hackers.
Benefits of decentralized media networks. Source: Disruptordaily.com
Challenges of Decentralized Social Networks
Decentralized social networks get a lot of hype, but they are not without downsides. As we have seen, the very features that make blockchain technology ideal can also create problems.
Censorship-resistant social applications are good until people start to spread dangerous messages. It would be difficult, if not downright impossible, to moderate such harmful content and protect users.
While decentralized social media networks promise security and failure-resistant operation, low transaction speeds may harm user experience. Imagine having to wait 10-15 minutes for your tweet to go live on the blockchain. Or waiting for 20-30 minutes for your YouTube video to upload because the network is clogged.
The immutable nature of blockchains would erase the ability to control your online activity. Today, you can delete a tweet, edit a Reddit post, or trash old Facebook pictures that may harm your reputation.
In a decentralized social media landscape, your reputation lives on the blockchain. There's no deleting tweets or archiving old LinkedIn posts that you'd rather not have a future employer see.
Every information that's put on the blockchain is permanent, always there for everyone to check.
However, the biggest problem with decentralized social media networks has to do with the technology itself. To replace centralized client-server systems, blockchain networks need to solve several design issues.
On-chain data storage is one of those problems. Blockchains were primarily developed to run applications with minimal data requirements. For example, the only information stored on the Bitcoin blockchain, or even a DeFi platform, is data related to transactions and user balances—which is negligible at best.
Social media apps require larger data storage, given the amount of data users generate. Have you wondered why your Twitter or WhatsApp seems to take up more space the more you use it? It's because you're creating more data—creating posts, uploading images, streaming videos, etc.
To truly scale and accept more users, decentralized social networks would need innovative solutions to solve blockchain data storage issues. Potential solutions include storing data off-chain on decentralized servers like Arweave, InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), and Filecoin.
Another interesting solution is using blockchains, like Deso, built specifically for social media applications. These blockchain networks typically have better on-chain storage, faster transaction speeds, and other features necessary for scaling social media applications.
Decentralized social media networks are undoubtedly one of the most exciting applications of blockchain technology yet. Blockchain-powered social applications could create a safer, private, valuable, and better experience for users and fix the broken system we have currently.
However, there's still a long way to go before a decentralized Twitter becomes widely accepted. Issues, such as poor scalability, data privacy, and on-chain storage, must be addressed fully before Web3 social media becomes a reality.