The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.
As anger has grown over the facility wielded by internet gatekeepers like Facebook and Twitter, many blockchain advocates argue we could fix social media if it were built on decentralized, consensus-based networks rather than corporate-centralized platforms.
Some developers, like those behind decentralized social media platform Steemit and therefore the cryptocurrency-driven journalism solution Civil, have even started putting these ideas into practice.
Developers will still got to resolve thorny problems of privacy, identity and inefficiency if these new networks are to prove successful. Nonetheless, the principles behind the technology offer a framework for redesigning a broken system. This framework focuses the reform effort on the worthwhile goal of getting more of the worth generated by the content and data traveling over these networks accrue to those that produce it and fewer so to gatekeeping platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
But to urge there, we'd like to know the character of the matter . And, right now, there’s an enormous misunderstanding across society, one that’s captured during this one tweet, from none aside from Twitter itself:
I hate to interrupt it to those that don’t yet catch on , but we are most definitely paying for Twitter. In fact, collectively, you'll say we are abandoning the proverbial farm.
To be fair, the tweet was a winking regard to an in-joke among Twitter users, who often write “I can’t believe this website is free” when conversations on the social media platform take entertainingly absurd turns. (The anachronistic use of the word “website” to explain a service most users access as a mobile app is deliberate.)
But the very fact that numerous assume they're getting their yuks for free of charge speaks volumes about how the knowledge behemoths of the web 2.0 era have hoodwinked society – and maybe their own staff, who could believe they're making a gift of a “free” product. the great news is that the tweet gives us a pleasant thanks to range in on the character of the matter .
To me, it’s encapsulated within the concept , in 21st-century digital capitalism, data may be a commodity, the foremost important commodity of all. We’re paying Twitter and other social media platforms with our data.
The gold of our era
Data is that the gold of our era. It’s the core source useful within the online “attention economy,” and it’s bought and sold during a Wild West-like context.
Data is trafficked, ruthlessly acquired, repackaged and bundled, then sold for other sources of value: audience, services, and fiat currency. And there’s precious little transparency on how that entire enterprise is being managed.
This data-commodity economy is dominated by opaque, centralized aggregators of data , most prominently by a gaggle sometimes mentioned as GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple – but also involves smaller firms like Uber, Netflix and, of course, Twitter.
These entities play a task not dissimilar to those other big centralized gatekeepers of valuable information: banks. And it’s therein context that the disruptive, disintermediating precepts of blockchain technology apply to the present problem.
The goal is to decentralize the trade this data-commodity, to make alternative models of trust that don’t require the maximum amount centralized coordination in order that data’s value are often harnessed by those that create it. the target for the user, to paraphrase a bitcoin saying, is to “be your own (data) bank.”
‘Mining’ the info
Other crypto analogies are useful, too. This data-commodity is “mined” into existence and that we do the mining. We do so in two ways: 1) by producing and distributing content (posting and sharing tweets and standing updates, uploading photos and videos, making comments) and 2) by allocating to certain content and ads a specific amount of a scarce, vital resource: our attention.
But we’re more just like the indentured, impoverished miners of Bolivia than wealthy bitcoin miners with giant ASIC farms. After mining this data-commodity, we hand it over to the centralized data aggregators, no questions asked. they're those who extract all the downstream value from it by analyzing, bundling and repackaging all this information as a product to sell to their advertising clients, their real customers. (Remember, to paraphrase a famous quip from cybersecurity guru Bruce Schneier, “You, user, aren't Facebook’s customer, you're Facebook’s product.)
Sure, the platforms do give something reciprocally for this commodity: they deliver back to us a variety of content generated over their network and that they create a way of community and connectedness among all those sharing it. But the high valuation of companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google tells you that the worth at which they “buy” this commodity is extremely low, a price defined by the quantity of control they allow over the composition of the content and community experience.
We create our own follower and friend networks within the belief we are creating a desired stream of content and a tailored community for ourselves. But, to varying degrees, the platforms’ algorithms make a mockery of that “free” choice. They choose our newsfeed designs on our behalf and in so doing define the echo chambers during which we increasingly spend our online lives.
In truth, for many of its existence, Twitter paid a better price for our data-commodity than, the more stingy Facebook. Its newsfeed was less manipulated, more of a raw, straight-up chronological stream of tweets, whereas Facebook went out of its thanks to create what its ad sales team called “like audiences.”
Facebook extracted users’ data to deliver a carefully selected mixture of friends’ photos, corporate-promoted posts and sidebar ads to groups of individuals whose data trails had shown them to be highly likely to share that content with one another . These echo chambers, deliberately forged and explicitly marketed to advertisers, are the basis explanation for the “fake news” problem, more so than the very fact that Russian operatives or Macedonian kids exploited them.
More recently, the disparity between Twitter and Facebook has narrowed because the former has manipulated its feed response to shareholder demands and therefore the latter has pared back its algorithmic distortions in response to the general public outcry of knowledge abuses. Regardless, these models persist for all social media platforms and most online applications within the attention economy. “What is your data play?” may be a standard risk capital question to startups seeking investment.
The challenge, then, is to style an architecture that permits the producers of knowledge – we, the users – to subsided beholden to those centralized aggregators and make a more decentralized digital economy during which we will trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it. Having more say over what information is extracted, instead of just passively accepting the manipulated feeds and shopping tips of the social media platform, should, in theory, end in better economic and political decisions for all.
A blockchain mindset matters
This is where blockchain concepts might help.
To be sure, the instinct toward centralizing information flows will persist, since centralization establishes efficiencies and network effects. Nonetheless, blockchain technology raises the potential for a system that logs cryptographic proofs of existence and data about the authorship of media content in distributed consensus-based ledgers. This, in theory, would enable trustworthy peer-to-peer transfers of that content without the intermediation of a gatekeeper.
From there, the hope is that this blockchain-like structure gives more bargaining power to the creators of data and fosters a more reasonable distribution of the data-commodity’s value. this is able to not necessarily manifest as direct dollar payments, but could enhance users’ ability to extract insights directly from their data. The goal would be for users to possess greater say in what information they read or view, and Facebook’s ad sales division less.
How information is curated on these more decentralized systems remains being found out . Steemit et al. are building cryptocurrency reward systems to incentivize story placement decisions that reflect the community, instead of advertiser interests. But they’re still deciding the way to get the reward and incentives system right, in order that the interests of token-holding curators, who too often are solely curious about stories that support their favored cryptocurrency, are better aligned with those of readers.
There also are challenges regarding privacy and identity which will remain an obstacle to the event of real, decentralized social media solutions. How does one onboard real citizenry and stop bots from gaming the system without a centralized, permissioning authority?
Nonetheless, a blockchain mindset that identifies how, within the current model, centralized gatekeepers unevenly extract valuable information from our activity, may be a powerful place to start out when brooding about reform.
At the very least that mindset can assist you call social media giants’ bluff once they tell you, even with a touch of irony, that their services are “free.”