Social networks had lofty ambitions when they first launched—to connect long-lost friends and family, offer news from high-quality sources, and inspire informed debate.
But as Facebook users roll their eyes at seeing yet another picture of their second cousin’s newborn kitten, and Twitter users struggle to navigate a sea of bots and propaganda, a new blockchain project has said “corporate social media has failed us.”
The not-for-profit social enterprise Blockchain Commons, along with the decentralized reputation platform Bitmark, have unveiled plans to develop a new social media architecture for the public.
Known as Charter, the platform’s stated goal is to reinvent social media by ensuring every user has autonomy and agency—meaning individuals can control and govern their own personal data, and decide how their online information is shared, used, and deleted. Users would also be given greater freedom over the content they get to see, as well as who gets to read their own posts.
‘The dawn of data independence’
Blockchain Commons and Bitmark said their goal is to allow social media to recover its initial promise—“with new safeguards so that no single vendor can steal it away.”
The two organizations want to build a system that allows individuals to create a graph of online connections under their control. This will build upon Bitmark’s Spring app, which allows Facebook users to download their timeline and its graph of social connections.
In an open letter, Blockchain Commons founder Christopher Allen and Bitmark CEO Sean Moss-Pultz described their approach, rather grandiloquently, as “the dawn of data independence.”
They wrote: “Unfortunately, today’s most popular social networks cut us off from our family and friends with arbitrary algorithms. They sever us from our news services and favored businesses in order to gain favor and advertisements. Their corporate greed led directly to the misappropriation of our personal information, adversely impacting the US 2016 election.”
Allen and Moss-Pultz also accused some platforms of encouraging blatant falsehoods to be shared because this helps them make money, adding: “They have literally sold out our democracy.”
How to reinvent social media
It is hoped that Charter’s more open infrastructure will become a viable alternative to current platforms by allowing users to create groups based on any criteria—ranging from geographical locations and interests to old friendships.
This may sound like the type of communities fostered by the likes of Facebook, but Allen and Moss-Pultz argue there are big differences. These groups will be able to decide the rules of participation for themselves.
Personal data would be stored in a private vault, and the rights to it would be recorded on a public blockchain. Meanwhile, the protocols that drive Charter would be open source rather than owned by any single company—meaning “everyone can use it, anyone can improve it, and no one can take it away.”
“When someone uses Charter, the platform itself doesn’t limit what posts they get to see; it won’t boot people for violations of arbitrary rules; and it can’t sell personal data to advertisers. Instead, Charter is under the control of individuals and the groups that people create and join,” they wrote.
Allen and Moss-Pultz plan to hold a virtual conference where “futurists, developers and social media users alike” can play a part in shaping Charter’s vision further.
From starving publishers of advertising revenue to questionable data practices, social networks have constantly found themselves at the heart of controversy. Most notably, President Donald Trump recently raged at Twitter for censoring several of his posts and is trying to undercut legal provisions that protect social media companies from lawsuits. Meanwhile, employees and advocacy groups are raging at Mark Zuckerberg for not doing this.
Several blockchain-based networks have now emerged to reinvent social media, with each promising to tackle the issues that have plagued these more established competitors.
Back in April, Modern Consensus interviewed Josh Petty, the founder of Twetch. His social media platform pays content creators $0.05 per like, $0.03 per share, and $0.08 for tags—and also allows tips to be given in greater amounts.
And just last week, it emerged that Unstoppable Domains is allowing its users to create decentralized blogs that eliminate censorship. The owners of .crypto sites now have the ability to write anything they please, safe in the knowledge that a centralized entity won’t be able to delete their musings or ban their accounts.
Meanwhile, the social news platform Voice has been given a $150 million investment as it aims to stop the proliferation of fake news.
Although each of these blockchain-based offerings is laudable, there’s a bigger problem afoot: despite Facebook’s shortcomings, it still has 2.6 billion monthly active users, and few of them seem to be in a massive rush to leave.
Dethroning Mark Zuckerberg will take more than a killer idea. These projects will need to be easy to use and easy to understand if they have any chance of punching through.
But it can be done. Just ask MySpace.
Updated at 2:59 p.m. on July 9, 2020 to correct photo credit to www.shopcatalog.com. Modern Consensus regrets the error.