ESSAY

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What are Socially Owned Social Platforms and How Will They Solve the Problems of Social Networks?

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Hero

It’s becoming clear that having private corporations own and control our social networks raises (at least) three ever-increasing societal problems: the right to privacy; the right to own your information, attention, and engagement; and the right to publish and interact freely. The technology of decentralization—including blockchain and cryptocurrency—offers a solution: social networks that are owned and controlled by their participants.

Social Platforms as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations)

Today’s social networks are becoming public utilities — not mere fun distractions but constitutive components of the social, professional, political, and financial economies. They are becoming akin to roads, to societal infrastructure. As such, having centralized corporations with a legal mandate to maximize their own profits is not exactly in the public interest.

  • Consider how these social and sharing platforms work. They create nothing per se—they allow people to create and connect—while extracting nearly all the value for themselves. They’re middlemen extracting and keeping almost all the value for themselves—value created by you and me!

  • You need a ride; the driver drives you; Uber keeps most of the money. Yes, Uber built the platform and deserves to see some revenue. But so much of it?

  • Facebook allows people to post content and comment on it while connecting advertisers and “users.” So you provide the content, you watch the ad, but Facebook keeps all the money?

    Even if Facebook —and Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram—wanted to share revenue with you, it would be prohibitively expensive. It costs more that $.20 to send $.20. Such is the inefficiency of our centralized banking system.
    I don’t blame these companies as they’re merely taking advantage of a an economic system premised on extraction with both incentive and legal mandates to maximize profits and hoard wealth. It’s the system and its drivers that are the problem.

Fortunately, thanks to the technology of distributed systems and cryptocurrency, there’s no reason we need these companies to do this work. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations — DAOs — can and will replace the social web (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter), sharing economy (Uber, DoorDash, AirBnB), and eventually media platforms (Spotify, YouTube, Netflix) by building decentralized communities with no governing boards extracting value for themselves.

DAOs displace these extractive, rent seeking corporate middlemen. In their stead, DAOs rely on transparent and immutable code, smart contracts, and a decentralized set of node operators (rather than centralized server farms) to run a platform that allows participants to engage directly and freely with each other — driver with passenger, homeowner with guests, brand with individual, person with person. By eliminating middlemen, these socially owned social platforms have the ability to deliver value automatically and continuously to their participants (what Silicon Valley calls “users”) — creating peer to peer platforms governed by the community itself and resistant to any government or corporate board censorship.

Socially owned social platforms will, alas, solve many problems of both social media and the social in general.

Data Privacy

Privacy, of course, is an issue that is brought up often in regards to social networks — and then forgotten. We share so much of ourselves, both actively and passively. We tell these platforms our names, our phone numbers, and who our friends are. Then we post about our private time in detail, tagging all our friends, adding hashtags about our interests, signing e-petitions and the like.

And then there’s all of our passive data which, thanks to the rise of connected devices and the internet of things, is increasing at an exponential rate. Your phone relates your location, how much you walk and to where, how much you drive and to where. Your browser, what you search, where you visit, how long you spend here and there. Add other connected devices — thermostats, refrigerators, televisions — and the amount of passive data we each supply to corporations (and the government) is astronomical.

Every once in a while, there’s a new regulation that allows us to opt out of certain relays of our data. But such gestures are theater, minor blips in the utter evacuation of our privacy by data corporations (including the government). And ask most people, at least in the United Stated, if privacy is a concern and they’ll shrug and say: Well, I like getting ads meant for me.

But I hope it’s clear that this total surveillance poses all kinds of problems — allowing forces that mean you less than well the ability to know your every move, your every association, and hence can mitigate, mediate, and coerce your behavior and associations. Sure, today for many people, it’s mostly a matter of ads — or so it seems. But now imagine your emails getting searched for “improper” language or your phone calls monitored for key words. Oh, wait, that’s already happening.

Ah, but if we eliminated a central corporation, such as Facebook, we could build it anew on the blockchain. And write it in such a way that your information remained your information — to be shared, or not, with whom you want, when you want. You’d be the gatekeeper of all your data to do with what you will. And just like that, data privacy is secured. (Of course, as the blockchain is transparent, you’ll never have absolute privacy; in the digital, you always leave a footprint of varying proportions.)

Data Property

Web 2.0 was marked by the ascension of platforms that allow people to interact — share content, order a ride, discover music. These services have transformed the world and, in the process, generated extraordinary wealth.

The thing is, these platforms don’t actually create anything. Yes, they have at times been creative about how to connect people and, more notably, how to extract as much money as possible from them. But while you and I, along with manufacturers and advertisers, are creating all the content — including the content that really drives value, our information and creativity — the only people who see real financial returns are the corporations who built the platforms, corporate middlemen.

Every once in a while, some people will get upset about the loss of privacy. While privacy is of course important, the heart of the issue, we believe, is whose property is this data, this attention, this creativity? Who gets to profit from it?

I am not suggesting we legislate or regulate Facebook’s or Google’s use of our data. I am suggesting we disintermediate them by creating decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) as our social platforms. We can create all the functionality you love (or don’t) on Facebook but rather than the revenue all flowing to an executive shareholders, the participants can decide where and how it wants that revenue spent. Perhaps some goes to running and improving the network and interface. And some, perhaps most, flows back to individuals whose content it is — creating a steady flow of income that we might term a bottom-up universal basic income (UBI). And maybe we put some in reserves for needs that the community votes on.

Will there be trust issues that companies like Uber are supposedly managing today? Of course. If I book a ride directly with someone else, with no Uber in the way, I still want to feel safe. But there’s no reason a DAO can’t create trust networks and mechanisms, perhaps some in physical space, to establish trust in these peer to peer exchanges.

Freedom of Speech & Association

Facebook has been accused of eroding democracy through the proliferation of “misinformation.” But who, exactly, gets to decide what’s information and what’s disinformation? I, for one, don’t want either the government of Facebook deciding for me. I’d rather see it all and decide for myself.

Once again, enter socially owned social platforms. People are free to decide what they want to see and what they don’t without having the profit motive of Facebook deciding for them. If someone is publishing something distinctly hateful and malicious, the community can build ways not to censor per se but to deprivilege that content on the platform.

Otherwise, we’re left depending on parties — private for-profit corporations or the government — that are explicitly self-interested to decided what we’re allowed to say and with whom we’re allowed to associate online. A socially owned social network running as a DAO can build its own levers and mechanisms but which don’t have the ability to centrally censor anyone.

The Inevitability of Socially Owned Social Platforms

Socially owned social platforms are coming. The last 20 years has seen a veritable and shameless data grab and value extraction by Big Tech. Indeed, the dominant goal of Silicon Valley investment has been to extract as much value from as many people as possible to be hoarded by as few people as possible (you can read here some of the ways decentralization is changing how innovation happens). That is not a healthy recipe for innovation — at least not for those of us who happen not to work on Sand Hill Road.

We will look back on this time period and consider these companies the robber barons of the 21st Century. And we don’t need the government to intervene, to regulate and legislate. Instead, we can simply build these new socially owned social platforms in which participants can do everything they do now, and more, but with privacy, freedom, and the greatest motivator of all: revenue paid automatically and continuously to them. They will come of their own accord as today’s massive social networks fade into oblivion.

Daniel Coffeen

DANIEL COFFEEN
CHIEF COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER