Decentralize Social Media

Decentralize Everything

It goes without saying, but one of the primary design principles of a decentralized protocol is decentralization. However, the tendency toward centralization is powerful. Centers will form whenever possible, and it takes foresight to predict where they will take root and grow.

Who Controls the Content?

Information is fundamentally different from physical property. It can be duplicated at essentially no cost, so when one talks about “owning” data, it can be confusing. Copyright laws exist to combat this abundance intrinsic to information, to prevent copies of copies (for the benefit of the content creator). So do laws about classification and secrecy which punish people for sharing information they have agreed not to. However, these laws are undermined by peer-to-peer file sharing in the case of copyright and by whistleblowers in the case of secrecy. It is difficult to contain and control information.

Money Matters

Social media platforms bring in tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year. This revenue is generated almost exclusively by ad placement. It would be easy to ignore the issue of money and let DSP service providers invent their own business models and hope that, given users’ low switching costs, providers will behave and cater to the users’ demands. However, this was the assumption built into the protocols that led to where we find ourselves today.

Restructuring Social Media

With the above design principles in mind, let’s look at the relationships between the stakeholders in modern social media platforms and how those relationships should be restructured under DSP.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

What is a Social Network?

So far we have been discussing design principles at a fairly high level. The rest of this paper addresses ideas for how DSP could (perhaps should) work in practice. Consider them a starting point for discussion as opposed to final answers.

  1. Content access
  2. Context

Content type

There is nothing fundamentally different between video, images, audio, text or any other content type. They can all be reduced to ones and zeros and will need to be handled in the same basic ways. Storage, access, context and various metadata — to name a few — should be handled in the same way by DSP regardless of content type. Instagram, YouTube and SoundCloud are basically the same website, varying only by the type of content they emphasize. DSP should be abstracted such that all content — including new content types (e.g. VR, haptic) — can be supported.

Content access

Public tweets, status updates to friends, group chats, private direct messages; they all differ based on who has access to the content. DSP will need to use encryption to ensure that only those with permission may view content but also be flexible enough that a wide variety of schemes for sharing content can be engineered by interface providers.

Context

When it comes to communication, context it critical. Depending on context, a joke can be a threat, or a troll can be a philosopher. All content has a context, so DSP must have a robust way to capture context as metadata so it can be presented as the content creator intended.

Profile Management

Users are what bring life to the DSP protocol. The main challenge for a decentralized protocol when dealing with user profiles is the name space. Centralized platforms handle their name space by keeping a list of all registered usernames in one place and checking for duplication when a user tries to register a new name. (Of course, users must re-register on every platform they use and may find their registered username on one platform is taken on another). For a decentralized protocol, things are not so simple. There is no central list to consult and no central authority to reject duplicates.

Reputation Management

Now that we have profiles, we turn to how those profiles relate to one another. In a perfect world, social networks would be places of civilized informed discussions governed by mutual respect and common decency. Clearly, we do not live in a perfect world. Social media users are more like an unruly mob, and increasing pressure is being put on platforms to moderate content. Platforms find themselves in the impossible position of deciding what content is and is not allowed for billions of users. No matter what they do, some users will be upset.

Value Creation and Transfer

Social media platforms make their money by selling ad space. Their platform is free and open to the public, but along side the content a user has logged on for, there are also ads. Controversially, platforms use users’ personal data and content to categorize them so they can help advertisers better target potential customers. Under DSP, service providers don’t have access to user content, users do. Thus, a reformulation of this successful ad-driven business model will be needed if we are to decentralize social media completely.

Services

Now that users have money, we can talk about how it can be used to pay for essential DSP services in a decentralized way.

Content storage and access

One of the services centralized platforms provide is storing and delivering content on demand. Data centers scattered all over the globe are dedicated to this task. For DSP to be truly decentralized, this service must be decentralized too. There cannot be a single entity in charge. Anyone must be able to offer this service with very low barriers to entry, and the users must be in charge of how their data is handled. With users controlling the ad revenue, a narrow competition can be set up whereby content servers try to deliver content as cheaply and quickly as possible.

User interface

Another crucial piece of the DSP puzzle is, of course, what the users experience as they interact with the network. This is what most of us think of when we think of social media: content feeds, friend lists, inboxes, homepages, logos, forums, chat windows, etc. As we have come to expect, platforms have monopolized the user experience for the data sets they control. There is only one place to see your Facebook profile, for example, and that’s facebook.com.

Edge cases

We know that social media platforms are profitable, so in the aggregate, ad revenue more than compensates for all the services platforms provide. We should therefore expect the ad revenue for the vast majority of individual DSP users to cover the costs of their content servers and interface providers. It is instructive though to look at three edge cases.

The Content Problem

Every solution to a problem sows the seeds for a new set of problems. Take the internal combustion engine for example. It was a dramatic improvement over horse-powered energy. It eliminated equine waste from city streets, freed up capital and vastly expanded our capabilities. No one would want to go back to a time of horse-drawn buggies and plows, but we do have to deal with air pollution, car collisions and other issues. If electric, self-driving cars are the solution to those problems, we can be sure they will eventually be the source of new problems our progeny will have to solve.

Conclusion

Today’s platforms hold tremendous sway over the attention of users and the value they create. With people locked in via the network effect, platforms can cater to the advertisers, even at the expense of their users. Sophisticated algorithms have been developed to exploit common weaknesses in the human psyche. Vanity, voyeurism and outrage keep users glued to the screen, clicking, scrolling and swiping for more, all so more ads can be displayed.

End Note

I have refrained from surveying the state-of-the-art and recent developments in decentralization technology. It is difficult to do in part, and impossible to do in whole, from within a prison cell. I am sure many of the ideas above are not new, but I hope my musings on the matter will be valuable in some way to those building and using the DSPs of tomorrow.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ross Ulbricht

Ross Ulbricht

A minute of your life could save the rest of mine. Please sign the petition for my clemency: FreeRoss.org/petition • More info about my case: FreeRoss.org