In light of Elon Musk’s recent offer to buy Twitter, Inc. (“Twitter”) there has been a resurgence in the desire to develop decentralized social media platforms. In efforts to avoid being at the whim of a single company or individual, the promise of user autonomy and control in a decentralized social network has spurred recent developments in the space.
What is a Decentralized Social Network?
Decentralized social networks are not a new concept. A decentralized social network, as opposed to its traditional, centralized counterpart, runs on multiple independent distributed servers rather than one centralized server. This difference results in decentralized social networks operating in fundamentally different ways than centralized social networks—especially in aspects concerning user autonomy and control. On one hand, decentralized social networks are not controlled by a single individual or entity. On the other hand, traditional, centralized social networks are owned by a single entity or individual that possesses the ability to unilaterally control and make changes throughout the network.
As a result, decentralized social networks are more resistant to censorship and provide users with more control over their personal data and content. For example, many decentralized social media platforms allow participants to directly monetize their content by compensating participants based on positive interactions from other users on the network. For example, the likes an individual receives on a post could correspond to the amount of money that individual makes from that post.
Decentralized social networks represent a small part of Web3 technologies. Web3 follows on the heels of the previous iterations of the World Wide Web: Web1 and Web2. Web1 was the first iteration of the World Wide Web and focused on content delivery to end-users and largely consisted of static webpages. Web2, the current iteration of the World Wide Web, incorporated more end-user-created content allowing for a greater interaction and collaboration, thus resulting in a more social internet. Web3, often regarded as the up-and-coming iteration of the World Wide Web, is a version of the World Wide Web that is implemented on decentralized blockchains. Web3 represents a shift from the traditional centralized environment used in Web1 and Web2 and instead adopts a decentralized peer-to-peer structure. This decentralized set-up allows users to fully own and control their digital identities by providing users with the authority to decide how and when their data is used.
Aave, a decentralized finance lending platform, is one of the most recent innovators in this space. Last month Aave announced that its Lens Protocol went live and included around 50 applications that debuted with the platform. The Lens Protocol is a social graph providing an underlying protocol to build social apps upon. Instead of using emails and usernames like traditional social media platforms, the Lens Protocol leverages crypto addresses and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to authenticate users and facilitate monetization. Stani Kulechov, founder of Aave, expresses the vision for the Lens Protocol stating that “[o]wnership over not only the content you create online but also your profile and social network is long overdue. Empowering users is what Lens aims to achieve.”
A few of weeks ago, Twitter’s own decentralized social network project, BlueSky, released its “Authenticated Data eXperiment” (ADX) protocol code in a blog post. The blog post is titled “Working in Public” to signify that the developers at BlueSky intend for the development process to be transparent and available to the public. ADX is still a work in progress but the fundamental goal is to leverage self-authenticating data to create portability between different ADX services. This feature would allow a user to change hosting providers while also transferring data created on one ADX service to the next. The result would be a larger, more interconnected network.
DeSo, short for “decentralized social”, is another decentralized social network with major developments lately. Recently, DeSo surpassed 67.5 million transactions in a little over 14 months since it was created—a feat that took Ethereum, a blockchain-based platform funded by the Ethereum Foundation, a little over 26.3 months. DeSo users have a “DeSo” identity which is a portable profile that transfers across multiple DeSo applications. DeSo allows anyone to build and run a decentralized social media platform within the DeSo ecosystem. The multiplicity of social media platforms in the DeSo ecosystem gives users the opportunity to choose which social media platforms they interact with. In this way, users in the DeSo ecosystem have the power to control what type of content they receive—often by choosing to participate in social media applications that do not derive revenue from ads.
The shift to decentralized social media platforms creates an environment ripe for innovation causing pioneers in this space to seek and secure patents on new technology. For example, just recently a patent covering blockchain-based content engagement platforms was issued to Artema Labs, Inc., a block-chain based Web3 start-up located in Venice, CA. Another pending patent application filed by an individual inventor and published in 2020 teaches “a system, method, and apparatus for an online content platform and a related cryptocurrency.” As this space grows, there will likely be an increase in similar patent filings.
The emergence of decentralized social media networks also signals an emerging issue in litigation—who should be held liable for the content on these networks? A class action lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California on May 2, 2022 analogizes decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) similar to the decentralized networks discussed in this article as being akin to traditional general partnerships in which every member is personally liable for the actions and obligations of the network. Because the law is still unclear as to who will be held liable in these networks, the outcome of this case and other emerging litigations in this space will have a major impact on the future of decentralized social networks.
The Future for Decentralized Social Networks
Decentralized social networks present the potential for a major paradigm shift for social media platforms. However, the growth of these networks largely hinges on the widespread adoption of Web3, the upcoming decentralized iteration of the Internet. While the major social media platforms likely won’t be losing followers en masse to their decentralized analogs any time soon, it is worth watching this space as concerns over ownership and control rise in these traditional platforms.