By Danny Brown Wolf, Head of Partnerships at Orbs and COO at Hexa Foundation
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s announcement that he will fund the development of an open blockchain public network is a big deal for the blockchain industry. While excitement overflooded Twitter and caught the attention of mainstream media, industry veterans know that distributed ledger technology is not a panacea for all the internet’s problems.
Still, blockchain’s unique value proposition as the next generation of open-source — offering users and partners verifiable guarantees — has the opportunity to make social media platforms more transparent and accountable, reducing the harm caused by the abuse of centralised power and the ad-centered business models that have resulted in today’s unhealthy online community.
In his announcement thread, Jack outlined some of the problems social media platforms face. He identified: 1) the scalability challenges for a centralized enforcement of health (fake users, fake news, offensive and contentious content) and global policy to address platform abuse, 2) the inability to choose or alter proprietary recommendation algorithms, and 3) the problematic ad-centered business models that enable an unhealthy environment.
I would also add to this list of issues the lack of user portability (would you leave Facebook for an identical platform that does not have your friends or feed history?) and the powerlessness of users in face of abuse by monopolistic power (i.e. the monetization of personal data and others’ content by the platform owner).
So how can blockchain technology help with all these problems? The unique value proposition of blockchain technology is two-fold: Network effect with the next evolution of open-source and verifiable third-party guarantees to users and partners who are non-operators in a multi-player system.
Guarantees, Not Promises.
Blockchain takes a multi-player system and provides a set of guarantees to the players in this system. Whereby in almost all such systems not all players operate or participate equally, the technology allows for third-party verification for how the system is run, providing every member of the group of non-operators with a set of guarantees of auditability, forkability and governance.
The Opposite of a Black Box
Auditability allows for algorithmic transparency into the rules of how the system operates, where every member is able, at will, to examine and audit the output of the system by themselves to verify the rules have been followed. This characteristic uniquely allows for any user or developer to provide feedback on the algorithms, and thus, make social media platforms more accountable in real time.
For social networks, this means ensuring targeting algorithms aren’t being manipulated and user data isn’t being abused. When Jack says he wants to “focus our efforts on building open recommendation algorithms” he is calling to create new business models that are built with a new standard of auditability.
Forkability means anyone could operate a new copy of the system that is identical to the original. This means that all the data and code required to operate the system are guaranteed to be available. This is especially relevant to the growing criticism around the lack of portability and locking-in users who may wish to migrate to a new system.
Jack’s email reference highlights developer and user portability – anyone can create a version of email and compete for clients who can switch over at any time. If Facebook users, for example, could switch to a competitor with their feed history and friends list in tact, it might make Facebook more attentive to the needs of users. A blockchain-based protocol not controlled by a single entity would best serve this guarantee as an open standard for all social media.
A Clear Set of Rules
Governance is the highest level of guarantees, and the process by which decisions that change the rules of the system are made. Governance must be declared and enforced, meaning all players are shown the process for how rules can change and those the mechanics are guaranteed to work as promised.
This is the answer to single-party governance where one player can change the rules at any time without notice (think Twitter or Facebook changing APIs on a whim – a developers worst nightmare). This does not mean that participation in the process is permissionless – it does make sense for professional committees and stakeholders to govern the protocols, but it does allow for complete transparency into the process. A healthy governance structure should include an inherent balance of power that prevents abuse of the system by the large players.
The Network Effect of Blockchain as the Next Evolution of Open-Source
Today, open-source is dominating developer infrastructure. Yet 20 years ago, the movement was considered an anarchistic niche. Similarly to blockchain today, open-source was originally hailed as the enemy of corporations. Why would an enterprise give up licensing revenue and control?
Just look at what happened with Google and Android for your answer. As a latecomer to the mobile space, Google feared a gloomy future of Apple dominance. In response, Android was launched as an open-source project foregoing licensing revenue and control in exchange for quickly capturing 75% market share of the mobile world.
The open standard succeeded because it created a network effect, allowing partners to create their own versions and inspire a community of developers to contribute to the project. This is the opportunity for blockchain – at warp speed.
Blockchain is the next evolutionary step of open-source since it includes data and live instances on top of source code. Developers around the world can contribute to the protocol and build apps on top of it for the benefit of all social media platforms and users.
Combating the ‘health’ problems that are the top priority for social media platforms like Twitter, requires authentication of users and content. But as Jack mentioned, this cannot currently be done at scale on their platforms.
Blockchain protocols around user and content authentication could produce immediate results to fight fake users, fake news, toxic hate speech and targeted harassment. For example, users would have the ability to tell if a video or images sent from an official source with the hash that proves it hasn’t been tampered with. Additionally, digital and online identity that is portable across platforms can scale online reputation using blockchain. Some notable tech leaders already working on such solutions like joinHUB by Linkedin co-founder Eric Ly.
But similar to the debate open-source faced, why would for-profit companies–especially market leaders–ever opt to decentralize any part of their business? The power behind open-source is mainly due to the concept of forks. Anyone can take the entire source code of any open source project and make a copy that they control, at the click of a button. For example, if Facebook were to make React incompatible with Google Chrome, Wix.com could fork React to create a new, compatible version. Then, the community can choose to adopt this new fork over the one Facebook is maintaining, becoming essentially “the” React in the eyes of the public.
This delicate balance keeps large corporations like Facebook in check so they can maintain a position of influence as long as they don’t abuse it. This earned role of being “the” default choice of the public is much stronger under blockchain.
Trust as a Competitive Advantage
While a single standard for social media is extremely ambitious and would take years to produce while most likely affected by regulation, a number of immediate steps to improve the health of social networks can be taken now, without the need to wait for a ubiquitous protocol.
Platforms that understand trust makes them more competitive will look to adopt blockchain for its unique value proposition and provide these guarantees.