But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas. -Tim Berners-Lee
Social media has become a huge part of our lives. We turn to it to form groups, foster relationships, and keep in touch with long-distance friends. We use it to share our hopes, our fears, our vacation photos, and our cat videos. And we use it to stay on top of local, national, and international news and politics.
But centralized social media continues to breach our trust. Seemingly benign quizzes and games leak our data and our friends’ data to huge organizations with vote-garnering and money-making motives. News feeds don’t provide accurate and well-rounded perspectives on current events. Advertisers stalk us from one website to the next.
Fortunately, a wave of visionary computer programmers are developing new services that circumvent the dangers of our current social media framework through decentralization. Here’s an overview of the problems with the most popular platforms and how they might be solved.
Danger 1: Users are the product, not the customer.
Centralized social media is not a benign way to connect people to one another. While Facebook may connect people better than any other service, it does so at a cost: it gathers troves of data on participants and uses that data to sell targeted advertising.
Advertisers are not just companies that want us to buy their goods and services, but also ones that want us to think a certain way about a political candidate or a social issue so that we’ll vote a certain way. With centralized social media applications like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube, advertisers are the customer, and user data is the product.
Danger 2: Algorithmically curated feeds can increase bias and polarization.
Many of us get at least some of our news, or links to news stories, from our Facebook and Twitter, feeds. So it matters how our social media feeds present information to us. The Wall Street Journal’s 2016 application, Blue Feed, Red Feed, shows how different a user’s news feed might look based on what Facebook knows about that user. Someone categorized as liberal will probably see dramatically different news stories than someone categorized as conservative.
It’s true that users sometimes seek out biased news sources that support their worldview. But it’s one thing to make a conscious choice to do that; it’s another thing to have Facebook do it to you because its advertisers, which include media outlets, have identified you as a certain type of person based on your likes and other data the platform has gathered about you, analyzed, and packaged up.
Facebook user data shapes algorithms that determine what users see in their news feeds in a way that can present a one-sided, echo-chamber view of the world. A view that only affirms and never challenges our views can increase divisiveness and social unrest.
Danger 3: Centralized services are easy to hack.
You’re probably familiar with this argument if you’ve been reading about blockchain for a while. When a company uses centralized storage for user data, any breach of that system exposes enormous troves of data in one fell swoop.
We’ve seen it happen to Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn, not to mention the Securities and Exchange Commission, Equifax, Deloitte, Anthem Blue Cross, Sony, Target, and many more companies that store our data this way. The question no longer seems to be if but when a given database will be compromised. We’re all vulnerable: every company, every organization, every individual.
Decentralized Solutions to Centralized Problems
Developers have been working on decentralized alternatives to centralized social media. These decentralized alternatives are not owned by major companies. Because of that, they don’t have shareholders whose interests might not be aligned with those of users. They also don’t store data on those centralized servers that create an irresistible target for hackers.
Mithril has created an app called Lit that aims to be the blockchain-based version of Instagram or Snapchat. Lit compensates users who generate popular content with MITH tokens as a reward. MITH tokens are based on a concept called social mining and are valuable both within Lit and outside of it: they can be exchanged for other cryptocurrencies or for fiat.
Lit does not sell user data to advertisers. Instead, advertisers can buy MITH and use it to pay content creators directly for their audience’s attention. You can download the Lit app to your phone, though judging by user reviews, it’s still buggy. We are, after all, in the early stages of creating decentralized solutions.
Solid is a Web 3.0 innovation by Web 1.0 inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He describes Solid as “an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.” Though not blockchain-based, it empowers users to wrest back control of personal data from “digital giants” and decide where their data will be stored and who can access it.
If you want to keep your calendar or the number of miles you ran last week private, you can. You can also store photos or whatever other data you want in your personal online data stores (PODS). More importantly, you can decide what information you want to share and with whom. Solid aims to provide trust and functionality through a decentralized, open-source platform without spying or advertising. But right now, Solid’s PODS are only accessible for “a highly technical audience of developers.”
Steemit has been called a decentralized Reddit. It pays users in Steem for curating and posting content that other users find valuable. Steem coins can also be purchased on cryptocurrency exchanges, traded for other forms of cryptocurrency, or exchanged for fiat currency; one Steem coin is worth 59 cents at the time of writing. Steemit believes the users of a platform should reap the rewards, not the shareholders of a company behind a platform. Steem is powered by its own blockchain.
Mastodon is a decentralized, open-source social network that resembles Twitter. Users may post status updates of up to 500 characters, links, photos, and videos, with no advertising or data mining. Its feed is chronological, unlike Twitter’s and Reddit’s feeds, which display algorithmically ranked “best” posts first by default. These non-chronological feeds often cause users to miss the posts of people they follow. As a result, posters don’t know when or if their followers will see what they publish.
Similar to Twitter, Mastadon users have handles beginning with @, and you can search for topics using hashtags. It is funded through user donations. Unlike some decentralized platforms, it has a low barrier to entry. It does not use cryptocurrency or private keys. What it lacks is a large user base.
… and many more
What else is available? Indorse offers a LinkedIn alternative, and Foresting offers a Facebook alternative. Synereo aims to decentralize the publishing, distribution, and monetization of user-generated content and empower those users instead of empowering the platform. And there are still more decentralized social media platforms in the works.
Decentralized Social Media Challenges
Challenges with new, decentralized platforms include creating user-friendly interfaces, helping people understand how to use tokens, and building up network effects. A bigger one is teaching users to manage their own security because some platforms require private keys, which unlike traditional usernames and passwords, can’t be recovered if lost or stolen.
Further, some blockchains, including bitcoin and ethereum, currently can’t handle enough transactions to support a widespread take-up of decentralized platforms (CryptoKitties is a case in point). Developers will also have to get new users on board with the idea of paying small network fees for their transactions (such as gas, in the case of the ethereum blockchain).
It’s one thing to choose to share your interests with advertisers, and get paid for sharing that information. It’s another thing to have a website that you use to keep in touch with friends and family sell data about your interests to advertisers. You deserve to have knowledge of and control over what data is sold, to whom, and for what purpose.
Some social media users resent these violations of their privacy. Others just feel resigned to this ‘new normal.’ Opting out of all social media seems like the only way to avoid the associated data market. It shouldn’t be.
By shifting to decentralized, open-source social media platforms, individuals can regain much of the power they lost when using centralized social media. We don’t have to accept the status quo of giving up our privacy in exchange for the ability to interact online with friends, family, colleagues, groups, organizations, and businesses. Though many decentralized social media solutions are in their infancy and are not yet ready for non-technical consumers, they have lots of potential and visionary developers working on a web 3.0 solution to our web 2.0 problems.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only. Investing in ICOs, cryptocurrencies or tokens is highly speculative, and the market is largely unregulated. Anyone considering it should be prepared to lose their entire investment.