Decentralized social media: Yay or Nay?

As the anti-big tech sentiment pivoted in recent years, ensues efforts to curb their reigning influence and power. In late October this year, on top of minor and major investigations for the past year, EU lawmakers were reported to have been drafting a new legislative package. Expert has split views on this, yet they could guarantee this move will for better or for worse reshape the Internet. I am doubtful that it is yet again another ominously grand headline for click-bait. However, I was curious about the upcoming directions the network could evolve and future power shifting. The decentralized network is one of those directions. For the limited scope, I will focus on online social media.

From China, a blockchain-powered, decentralized Content Delivery Network -  Springwise


The original web 1.0 was initially built as interconnected computer networks. Since its development, it has nevertheless evolved into an ecosystem of large centralized networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter…etc. Being the major service provider means they are the media intermediator, curator, and storage for all data and information. There is nothing inherently bad about the centralized model. The Internet is like a cobweb with billions of users. It is natural for them to take control, as it improves order and usability. Users do not have to be tech-savvy to create and share their content.

Since the break-out of the global pandemic, privacy has been one of the most dominant concerns. Plus the surge of unregulated fake news induces fear of central authority abuse and propriety control. Concurrently, calls for the network re-decentralization are growing more urgent for the past decade with the rise of cryptocurrency. One reason is that it works on the same principle (check out the blogpost by therese). This model helps tackle many of the problems the centralized online social networking platforms pose and potentially flatten the current network hierarchy.

A comparison of different online network model. Source: Twitter


Like Bitcoin, there is no central control. These systems are made up of a network of thousands of user-hosted servers that can connect using the peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing system. Users’ data is stored on a trusted server or local computer. Records of data transmission are kept on a distributed ledger, the blockchain. Blockchains are secured by cryptography. The data, once added in a block, is resistant to modification. On top of that, every record of data exchange, personal information is kept open to access later on. The concern on privacy and censorship would thus alleviate as there is more transparency, and users get full ownership of their data. Furthermore, the current centralized model offers no interoperability, which means users’ data stay on a fixed platform with no chance of sharing or downloading them across platforms. Contrastingly, P2P devices seamless social media experience where users have more decisions on engaging in communities that align with their interests. Therefore, these platforms are ad-free, censorship-free. There is no data gate-keeping and hoarding. Hence the mitigation of monopolizing, manipulative marketing, and propriety control.

Nonetheless, decentralized social networks are facing some difficulty in attracting permanent user and fighting market consolidation. Most users who share the discontent with the current social media ecosystem just want a more user-friendly. As not all of the users are computer-literate, hosting one own social network seems like a lot of commitment. For example, Mastodon, one of the notable open-source network, do not have to verify your account, meaning it is not unique. Which requires extra efforts from users to be informed. Aside from the high maintenance cost, full anonymity will always lead to security problems like online scams, abuses, extreme contents.

File:Mastodon Screenshot.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Mastodon, the decentralized alternative to Twitter. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite many setbacks, changes in legislation and market would directly or indirectly affect the big tech corporations. First, the pressure from governments and users will provide a safer environment for decentralized platforms to compete and develop. Second, strong competitors appear to redefine content consumption and development trend. One of them is TikTok, the exemplary where mindless entertainment is favored (check out the blogpost by isabellebordner). Another one is Ethereum, an open-source platform for community-built decentralized applications. While gaining more popularity, it can give a lot of inspiration and technical support.

All of this potentially takes the full power of modern technology and puts it into the hands of programmers who are working in an environment not much more complex than coding web sites. These simple programs are running on enormously powerful shared global infrastructure that can move value around and represent the ownership of property.

Vinay Gupta, Programmable Blockchains in Context: Ethereum’s Future. Consensys Media.

In brief, 2020 was an eventful and precarious year. To me, the current trust crisis is identical to the financial crisis, leading to the invention of Bitcoins in 2008. People lost their trust in social media giants as they did previously with banks and governments. Last year, Jack Dorsey announced that new technologies have made it possible for Twitter to push for a decentralized standard for social media and interoperable protocol. This development proves that technology is evolving and shaping our lives with immense speed and impact. For these reasons, maybe a brighter future for a decentralized online social network is ahead.

What do you think about decentralized social media? Have you used Mastodon before? Let me know in the comment below!

References

  1. Chelsea Barabat et al. “Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future?.” The Center for Civic Media & The Digital Currency Initiative, MIT Media Lab, August 2017. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59aae5e9a803bb10bedeb03e/t/59ae908a46c3c480db42326f/1504612494894/decentralized_web.pdf
  2. Ching-man Au Yeung et al. “Decentralization: The Future of Online Social Networking.” Decentralized Information Group, Computer Science, and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT, (2009). http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/citations;jsessionid=3270919973C445148EE47489498E8325?doi=10.1.1.190.1487
  3. Matt Ward, “How Crypto and Decentralization Affect the Big Four.” Medium, February 2018. https://medium.com/better-marketing/blockchain-vs-the-big-four-92829cb42bb1
  4. Vinay Gupta, “Programmable Blockchains in Context: Ethereum’s Future.” ConsensysMedia, October 2015. https://media.consensys.net/programmable-blockchains-in-context-ethereum-s-future-cd8451eb421e
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