The idea of a centralized entity managing our online speech and social connections has soured for many people, especially since Elon purchased Twitter. Free speech and the Internet has long been a point of contention, but some of Elon’s experiments (and reinstatements) have made this discussion more prevalent. Thus, the conversation around decentralized social media (DeSo) has been reignited.
Once again, it’s not a new idea. Building social networks on the blockchain have existed for the better part of a decade in various forms. But now its promise is more enticing.
Some of the leading of DeSo platforms include:
- Steemit – is a Reddit/Medium-style social network that stores user data and posts on the Steem blockchain, as well as utilizes the STEEM token to reward activity.
- Mastodon – open-source microblogging network modeled on Twitter.
- Dtube – decentralized YouTube that utilizes its own token for voting power.
- Mirror – decentralized Medium platform for tokenizing writing and building community.
- DeSo – a dedicated blockchain for decentralized social apps.
- Minds – a Facebook alternative that uses an ERC-20 token to monetize user content.
- Dlive – decentralized Twitch-style live streaming platform.
- Lens Protocol – a composable and decentralized social graph that lets creators take ownership of their content wherever they go.
- Only1 – an NFT-powered social media protocol on Solana.
- LBRY – decentralized video-sharing platform.
- Aether – an open-source, P2P platform for self-governing communities.
- Pixelfed – decentralized Instagram platform.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. I didn’t account for the social networks focused on tokenizing user posts, like Glimpse. The NFT craze introduced many new people to crypto wallets and the idea of digital asset ownership. Late last year (2021), I spoke with the CEO of Glimpse about the idea of tokenizing social media posts and allowing creators to sell posts to fans.
We’re not at a loss for alternatives. We have decentralized innovation. But are the alternatives compelling enough?
The Time Isn’t Right
Mastodon gained well over half a million users in recent weeks thanks to the Twitter fiasco. Lens Protocol celebrated one million transactions last week on its protocol which uses NFTs to create user profiles and posts.
DeSo platforms are getting the runoff from Twitter’s exodus. But frankly, I think we’re a long way from mentioning any of these as viable social media contenders.
One of the main problems is that the technology is too cumbersome.
There’s very little education on why we should use a given decentralized social media platform, let alone how to use them. Especially since you’re adding crypto wallets into the fold, this adds a layer of complexity and friction. The right way to do it is through non-custodial wallets managed by the users, but it’s not an effective way. So many DeSo platforms are the custodians of wallets (thus, not entirely decentralized).
Furthermore, in the case of Mastodon, they operate as a federated network, meaning its servers are hosted by users rather than one entity. The benefit is more optionality on server choice and, thus, different server content moderation standards. The costs of running the network are spread out, and therefore fewer instances of platform manipulation. But the drawback is that the decentralized server system can be confusing, slow, and buggy. Servers aren’t always up-to-date. And often, users miss out on popular features like verified accounts and reposting.
“[T]he world prefers running Windows and macOS over the much more flexible and customizable Linux operating systems. We choose convenience even when it comes at the cost of capability. We want things done for us. And, most importantly, we take a lot for granted with free services like Twitter.” – Vlad Savov for Bloomberg
The other primary problem with DeSo platforms is that they have inferior content.
If it were just about replacing the interpersonal aspect of social networks, sharing photos and comments between the people you’re close to (and actually know), then DeSo would be far more feasible. However, social networks have become entertainment hubs.
It’s the consumption of content from people we don’t know that defines social media today. It’s because these networks (YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, etc.) offer vast, variable, and socially-vetted top-tier content that they’re so successful. Their moat is the masses. And it’s the scale of user bases that makes the content sharing and vetting work so well.
DeSo platforms have a serious content deficit. You can go on the DTube homepage and struggle to find something that really interests you to watch. What’s sad is that it’s been like that since I first heard of it some three or four years ago. The same goes for Steemit, Mastodon, etc.
Scale is their worst enemy because the user-generated content engine just isn’t there yet. It’s a classic catch-22. They don’t have the “Mr. Beasts or Khaby Lames” of the world creating content on DeSo networks because the user bases aren’t big enough to entice them there. The user bases aren’t big there because they don’t have big creators making content that can easily relate to or interest millions of people.
As a future thinker, you’d probably expect me to be all-in on decentralized social media, but sadly I think we have at least a decade to go on this front. It’s more likely we’ll see a major social media platform morph into a DeSo platform (my bet is on Reddit) than see a new DeSo platform reach ubiquity.