We are well aware of the role that technology giants have played in politics, social issues, and even on our mental health.
We understood how Facebook sold our data to Cambridge Analytica to influence voters, allowed Myanmar's army to spread propaganda and hate on its platform leading to the genocide of Rohingya Muslims, and did little to fact check fake news being peddled by various political parties across the world.
We also saw how Trump’s account suspension by Twitter rose a furor over “free speech” on the platform. Some may argue, it was justified in the light of increasing anti-government sentiment, it still raises some serious ethical questions about the power of social media — starting with if the decisions on moderation and take-downs should rest with only a few powerful individuals in the silicon valley? What is the cost of privacy? Why we don’t get any say in how our data is being utilized?
These are big questions and they need to be solved, but it’s not on the tech giants alone to resolve them. They are doomed either way — damned if you do and damned if you don’t — if Twitter would have allowed vicious campaigning to continue, it’d have still faced criticism for allowing offensive content to continue inciting violence and riots.
I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. — Jack Dorsey, CEO Twitter
While the legislation on big tech is still catching up, technology has a solution to solve this problem on its own — the answer lies in the decentralization of social media (and Twitter is also in on it.)
I am no expert on the blockchain or open-source technology platforms, but the recent surge in cryptocurrencies; made me curious to understand more about it and the role of decentralized social networks in addressing the many issues of the big tech presently.
So, let’s dive into the premise of decentralized social networks, the major players in this industry, the competition they face with the big tech, and the future of these apps.
The premise of decentralized social networks — use of blockchain, open-source technology
There are several components of a decentralized social network that sets it apart from a regular social media site. The first key difference is that it isn’t a standalone website that you can access — it is a network of hundreds of different communities who each own an instance of the code. Second, you can choose to be as public or private as you deem appropriate for your instance — you can connect with users on other instances and sometimes even cross-platforms.
You get to do most of what you can do on any existing social media platforms such as post content, share it with others, collaborate, comment, use hashtags, and the like. But their UI is not as appealing as that of the centralized social media platforms. It not as user-friendly as compared to its more mature counterparts. Their major USPs — privacy, freedom of speech, and decentralization.
The best part is they allow creators to monetize and earn tokens equivalent to major cryptocurrencies. So, there is a growing marketplace for selling products in exchange for crypto — it definitely seems like a space to watch out for considering the growing interest in the crypto market of late.
There is an alternative for each of the big tech platforms available today.
- Facebook — Minds, Diaspora, MeWe
- YouTube — Minds, LBRY, D.Tube, PeerTube
- Reddit — Aether
- Twitter — Mastodon
- Instagram — Karma (Mobile-only app)
- WhatsApp — Signal
Open-source code — What this means is that you have access to how the algorithm works — so you know exactly why you see the content you see in your feed.
You might have a general idea of how Instagram prioritizes content in your feed based on user interaction, interests, and relevancy. But what if you knew exactly how the code has been written and you have the power to control how the algorithm should work for you; won’t that be liberating? It exists today — for example, anyone can create and run their own instance of mastodon. That’s what decentralized social networks do.
Decentralized control — There is no central authority (person, server, or company) that dictates the rules. It takes away the power vested in large corporations and authoritarian governments to regulate social media.
The combined market cap of five big tech companies — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook is $8 Trillion — almost equivalent to the GDP of four big countries such as France, Italy, Brazil, and Canada. It’s insane.
When most nations saw a steep decline in their economies, record-high unemployment, and looming health crises in 2020, these tech companies added $1 trillion to their revenues.
I am not sure if this is fair and justified, but it pains me to know a large part of this revenue is generated from the advertisements sold to us using our own data — so clever. The poor-rich divide has only widened because of the pandemic. With such deep pockets, they have tremendous power vested in them to influence policies, regulations that might not be in our best interests as a human race.
Democratic decision-making — decentralized network structure allows for democratic process amongst the players — for example, Mastodon has created a decentralized platform where each instance (think of it as a community of users) own, moderate, and govern themselves without depending on any intermediary.
In Aether, they have taken the concept of democracy further by allowing users to select a moderator based on votes.
Transparency of AI — Recently, I saw a TedX video of a software engineer who talks about how he let algorithms randomize the choices that he was shown. So instead of selecting one of the top five hits on the internet, he devised a mechanism to select something completely random.
That got me thinking about the concept of “free will” which renowned author Yuval Noah Harari often discusses in his books.
Most often, we rely on Google to tell us the best restaurants in a particular location — unfortunately, Google knows us better than we know ourselves — it would recommend us content based on our history, interests, and relevancy. It’s amazing for a user, but imagine if you are a new cafe owner trying to get to the top of the search results — how much money will you need to shell on SEO to get your cafe some attention it deserves?
Now imagine, if you have access to this AI, it would not only allow you to understand how the recommendations of content, connections, and commercials work, it would help you in controlling it the way you want to — that would distribute the power in hands of the user as against the corporation that owns it.
That’s exactly what alternative social networks aim to do.
Major players in this area — Mastodon, Minds, Diaspora, etc.
There are several alternatives to the big tech such as Minds, Mastodon, Diaspora to name a few. These aren’t new — some of them are more than a decade old, like Diaspora which was launched in 2010. And for comparison, Facebook was launched in 2006, so just four years prior to Diaspora.
Yet, Facebook has over 2.8 BN users as of Dec 2020, whereas Diaspora has slightly more than half a million users as of date. I bet most of us don’t even know these platforms exist. And it’s not us to blame for it entirely — it’s the eco-system of the big tech that doesn’t allow any competition to flourish. I got to know of Signal only when Elon Musk tweeted about it, just after WhatsApp announced its data-sharing plans with Facebook.
You will never hear of the alternative platforms on the traditional social media platforms — at least not as often and as much as you should.
These decentralized networks offer several advantages over their traditional counterparts such as data privacy, decentralized ownership, shared profit model, and ability to exercise freedom of expression.
Then, one begs to understand — why there’s such a wide gap in the adoption rate of these platforms?
Why they aren’t as popular as traditional platforms — the tussle with big techs like David and Goliath
Based on the subscriber base, revenues, and investor backing that the big tech enjoys, they definitely seem like Goliath in the ‘David and Goliath’ story, but they are not all that bad — few of them are exploring decentralization themselves, to avoid being entrenched in legal battles over content moderation, censorship, and takedowns.
For example, Twitter has formed a small team to develop as Jack Dorsey says “open, decentralized standard for social media” called “Bluesky,” wherein Twitter would be one of the many applications that would be using this standard protocol.
If that idea sees light, then there will be many decentralized social networking sites joining this ecosystem such as Mastodon, Activity Pub, Happening among several others. While they are still in the research phase developing the protocol and gathering ideas on the standards from the decentralized tech community, this is a significant step in the right direction.
While the problems facing the big-tech are well known, the solution ain’t easy. Embracing decentralization might mean forgoing power they enjoy — and they may not be willing to share this with anyone, at least its users.
Considering blockchain has been around for over a decade now, why haven’t any of these big four platforms explored it thus far?
The future of these alternative apps
We can’t predict their success, especially with the uncertainty surrounding them — ownership-accountability model, user adoption rate, and competition with big tech.
However, we can say a few things for sure:
- There is a need for an alternative ecosystem that serves the interest of its users first and that of the businesses second.
- The use of blockchain in the financial services industry can be a game-changer in how we transact globally
- With the increased adoption of bitcoin as a mode of payment, its value has appreciated 5x in the last six months and is predicted to reach almost $400,000 by the end of 2021.
It might seem either ‘too good to be true or ‘hilarious,’ depending on whether you are a fanatic or a critic — but whatever be the direction, (upward or downward) one thing is sure — cryptocurrencies are here to stay. And so is the alternative tech ecosystem powered by blockchain.