Could we build new social networks on blockchain?

Could we build new social networks on blockchain?

Credit: Ecoconsultancy

Blockchain is favoured by many for its transparency and decentralisation. Could it be a legitimate option to build a more secure brand of social network?

The companies may be based in Silicon Valley but social media immerses your phone in Las Vegas culture. You may as well install a selection of fruit machines on your phone: it’s all flashing red notifications and drag-down-to-refresh gestures. Social media is deliberately addictive. Curiosity is exploited.

Amazon would like you to spend money on cool products they recommend and Spotify wants you to commit to ad-free music with a subscription. Apple preys on a consumer’s desire to be cool and as much as Tesla wants to make a statement about the future of cars, autonomous travel doesn’t come for free. In this technological age, social networks aren’t asking for your money: they just want your time. Oh, how we oblige.

There are undeniable benefits to social media. The ability to share content that you’ve made is a fast-track for the talented to be seen by a huge audience. Keeping in contact with friends and family is easy, yet finding friends and family is an added bonus that we perhaps never considered when we first signed up to Facebook. Even the simple act of scrolling through Twitter on a lunch break can brighten up your day: providing you’re following the right people of course.

For all the reasons that social media first excited us however, it is laden with scepticism roughly a decade on. For many, social media is no longer a portal to a bright, connected future, it’s instead a necessary evil to chat to friends, to date, even to log in to other apps that require your Facebook profile. Social media is now an addiction at its worst, though many who use it feel like they just can’t switch it off, for fear of missing out on something.

Some teenagers these days are rejecting platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. A survey of more than 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds across the United States last year found that 41% feel anxious, sad or depressed by social media. The disillusion is real. How long before it’s commonplace to uninstall?

As the 2010s’ twilight draws closer, we could be edging into the roaring 20s with social media facing its first real evolution, since we all added Tom as a friend on MySpace. These platforms will have to develop in order to keep our attention. After all, that’s what they want from us, isn’t it?

Enter blockchain.

How could a social media be built on blockchain?

Blockchain is synonymous with cryptocurrency. In very basic terms, it is a record of transactions that cannot be edited.

Think of a database. You can share this database across different networks and add in transactions that you make. People can access it but no one can edit it. This is similar to how blockchain works: you add a block to the chain to commit a transaction.

Blockchain can be used for more than just cryptocurrency, though. You can establish smart contracts into blockchain: so instead of just committing your cash into a block, you can commit anything. Blockchain is being used by supermarkets to place uneditable data into and it’s even possible to code into a blockchain.

If data distrust escalates, blockchain could become an ejection seat to save a platform from losing disciples.

Ethereum, for example, can run applications. Writing a smart contract is done by sending a transaction to the Ethereum network: the transaction data becomes the code for the new contract. The contract is bound by the rules of the block. It cannot be changed or edited.

This, at its heart, is decentralisation.

Decentralisation is defined by the lack of a central authority. A comparable metaphor to software decentralisation would be spoken language. Different people can speak different versions of the English language, for example: after all, some of us may spell “decentralisation” with a “Z” rather than an “S”. However, there’s no central authority for how language has to be spoken. There’s no one person overseeing or controlling the rules for grammar or pronunciation. Anyone can invent a new word and add it to the language, just like how you could add a new block to the chain.

This is how blockchain works and this is how it can be used in social media. Twitter, for example, is centralised. It can use your content however it wishes and your data belongs to the company. How much of your chat history can WhatsApp pull up, too? It’s easy to see why it’s a concern.

In contrast, no one central authority controls a blockchain. The rules are set – this is what you could call logical centralisation – but a blockchain is architecturally decentralised.

Why would a social network want decentralisation?

Most things in life boil down to money. That’s a sad reality that most of us face consistently, from our favourite sports stars leaving our beloved teams for pastures new, to family-run restaurants with character being taken over by franchises. Why wouldn’t it be true of the Vegas-like apps on our phones?

On social media, we are the product. Most social platforms use a centralised architecture and ask us to use their service in return for seeing ads. Again, oh, how we oblige. Social networks take our personal data to give us better ads. We all know this by now.

A decentralised social network does not have this kind of control. There is no higher power looking over your shoulder because there is no central server. Decentralisation offers privacy and security too, so there’s no chance of Facebook checking up on you via your webcam, if that’s something that’s worrying you, anyway. There are no breadcrumbs to be followed with a truly encrypted, decentralised platform.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg turned to blockchain when building cryptocurrency, Libra
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg turned to blockchain when building cryptocurrency, Libra / Irish Times

In a blockchain social network, users can choose which third parties have access to their information. Users can even sell their information with advertisers. Unlike our current platforms, blockchain is completely transparent.

Data is a currency, after all. Your browsing habits have value and your curiosity is being exploited.

Choon is a streaming service that pays its artists transparently. Listeners can create playlists and listen to sponsored tracks for crypto tokens: it’s totally unlike ads-reliant Spotify, which goes as far as to offer you cheery adverts, should you be listening to a particularly glum playlist. Likewise, Steemit is a social network built on the steem blockchain, allowing publishers to receive points for the content they produce. These points are stored on the blockchain and can be traded as a cryptocurrency.

With Facebook’s recent foray into the world of cryptocurrency, could we see Mark Zuckerberg’s company becoming decentralised in the coming years? It’s not beyond the realms of a CEO who has consistently turned small ideas into grand, accessible ventures. If data distrust escalates, blockchain could become an ejection seat to save the platform from losing disciples. Twitter, too, has looked into the possibility of integrating blockchain into its heavily criticised structure.

People have more power than perhaps they realise. After all, voting for a new government and kicking the old one out can be a revolution, of sorts. From influencers on Instagram to friends on Facebook, social networks are only as strong as their user base.

Maybe we’re all too addicted to leave them. Maybe we can all drive change and disrupt the institutions, or maybe a less needy, decentralised platform will emerge to ease data concerns, offer transparency and keep us connected.

Luke Conrad

Technology & Marketing Enthusiast

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