Bespoke but fragmented, trustworthy but permissioned, profitable but paid; all built on Blockchain protocols. Future of Social Media is nothing like you have seen so far.
Facebook was not the first social network I joined. Long long time ago in a galaxy far far away there was “Orkut” and I was on it, as were most people I went to school with. Orkut breathed its last four years back; all of us had moved to Facebook already. Google+ came with a bang, and ended with barely a whimper this month. It was fraught with a misguided proposition – why am I on Google+ when I never signed on? – and data breaches. As the headline read on The Wall Street Journal “RIP Google+. We hardly knew Ye”.
Better call Saul the Undertaker, Larry the Google Guy is no use here.
I looked up Orkut.com today and its epitaph had all the words you’ll expect. “We are living in a strange time. We hide behind our devices, ignoring the people around us. We stay with locals when we travel abroad but we don’t even know our neighbors at home. We click through feeds of updates from our friends from under our covers in the dark. Our lives are splinters of anonymity and isolation. Too often, we are lonely. Too often, we are afraid of what we don’t know. Too often, we are hateful toward what we don’t understand.” Touché. Orkut Büyükkökten is building the next generation of Orkut he calls Hello as “a social network built on loves, not likes”.
Love may not be all you need, sugar.
Like most, I personally use it as a “public” poster for things I want people to know about, connect with people so I know the same about others. Social media is akin to a glorified online bulletin board that has since expanded its scope manifolds – storage of pictures, scheduling sidekick, a gaming console, and so on. Self-curated existence on social media – even amongst our generation that was not digital native at birth – has become an identity of sorts.
That is not a snarky comment snuck-in, it was inevitable to start with.
Identity is nothing but a publicly available ledger about all things concerning us. Identities can have Avatars just as we can choose to maintain many ledgers; assuming no inconsistencies that will be just fine. We can choose to put what goes where. My professional identity contains information not directly related to my identity as a father and a husband, my identity amongst college buddies contains rumors that may never leave the room, my Avatar as a family man sees a side of me that is not visible anywhere else; all of these do coexist in harmony. Identity once created can be changed in due course, but it is very difficult to erase a path dependent existence. As importantly, you have very little control over how your identity is shared by third parties – people talk constantly behind your back. That said, society is willing to accept multiple personas of yours so long as they are not glaringly incongruent or factually contrasting.
No wonder then that social media has become the omniscient identity protocol for most individuals as much as a go-to place nefarious agents to steal our identity.
Even before Cambridge Analytica and its ilk, I could send you a Friend invite, which you would’ve likely accepted, giving me a full view of everything you thought was important about you. Even if you did not accept, your timeline contains a treasure trove revealing much about you, even before sophisticated data mining / pattern recognition / geospatial + social clustering algorithms kick in. Do not blame Facebook or data vendors, it is you who put it in in the first place. If you want the bots to not find you do not accept their invite. If you want political messaging to not to cloud your thought process, find a way to not have your “likes” to be not visible to most everybody.
That, of course, you cannot do, or at least incented not to.
Social media apps have been spectacularly successful in being a Las Vegas Buffet and free for all, even better. You do not have to stay in the hotel, you do not even have to stand in a queue to join; just have an email account that works, and, sometimes, a mobile that is connected. I have heard the story a thousand times – marginal cost of an additional account is near zero while multiples accorded for eyeballs/time-spent makes expansion more than worthwhile. Be all they want you to be, said the Big Book of Business for Social Media. In the end, all you end up being is a free Utility, which of course, goes against everything a Business 101 course taught you.
An obvious way around is customization. My Amazon landing page probably looks very different from yours, it has over a decade of curated representation of my purchase history, lists, browsing preferences, media viewing log – as much as all credit card info and addresses I ordered delivery to. It is a good thing Amazon is not a public bulletin board, and that it has proven reasonably trustworthy thus far. Personalization to that level in any public bulletin would amount to outright invasion of privacy rights.
What if that were not the case? What if Social Media were bespoke, and thereby fragmented?
A good alternative might be a Permissioned / Closed Social Media. In principle it is nothing more than breaking up your utilitarian “public” bulletin board profile into several “mini” bulletin boards, each accessible to a (perhaps overlapping) different set of people, not unlike “closed” groups in any social media.
One obvious flaw to that approach is that you are almost required to part with a whole lot more info in the cumulative. At the same time, the collective is only as safe as its weakest link. Assuming each fragmented social bulletin board to be safe is akin to living in fool’s paradise. Unless of course, the infrastructure itself is designed to be nearly hack-proof/trustworthy. And that is where Blockchain protocols come in.
Distributed Ledger technology (aka Blockchain) is a perfect tool to disrupt an industry built around a public ledger of all things around an entity. Blockchain protocols are, by definition, nearly hack-proof. Any social media created on Blockchain will intrinsically alleviate worries about leakage beyond what one agreed to share in the first place. Which makes it easy for an end client to divulge more, which in turn makes personalization more appealing to an end client.
Another obvious flaw is pricing. Arguments for scale fall by the wayside when you make a product bespoke, even if personalization is primarily driven by technology. It is inevitable that at a certain point social media – personalized and trustworthy – need be priced, at an explicit cost to the end-client. Either that, or we will have permissioned/closed social networks – both possibilities are unlike the “all things to all people” format we are used to.
Monetization can go the opposite direction too. Blockchain world is now agog with the concept of Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI). SSI, and its enabling Blockchain protocols, allow any individual to be in full control over whoever accesses their data (e.g., updates, likes, friends list); in theory an individual can demand payment for each such use. A celebrity can demand payment from Adidas if Adidas wants anything to do with their public profile update of a morning run in Adidas apparel, for example. Such monetization potential makes it more likely for Blockchain enabled social media to be widely adopted.
In summary, future of Social Media is nothing if not glorious. It is built on Blockchain protocols, and is infinitely more personal/bespoke, and therefore, fragmented. Social Media is more likely than not to be permissioned / closed but they will be more trustworthy just as a private club is supposed to be. None of which will be possible without the inherent security blanket of Blockchain and protocols that might bring additional benefits. All of it will come at a cost to the end-client, though mechanisms for payment will vary widely.
If Facebook is none of that, an epitaph is being written on Blockchain as we speak, to adorn a space not too far away from the tombstone of Google+.
[Partha Chakraborty is CEO of Switchboard Systems, an early stage Blockchain startup. Opinions expressed in this article is the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect that of Switchboard Systems. The author is solely responsible for any error or omission.]