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The Evolution of Social Media

social media

Image from Pixabay.

We live in an age of social media. According to Pew Research Center, approximately 60% of adults in advanced economies use social networking sites. In emerging economies, it’s 53%. But where did social media come from, and where is it going? That’s what I intend to discuss in today’s post.

In my last post, I discussed why I deleted my Google+ account. Privacy advocates have been emboldened as a result of last year’s negative impact of social media data usage by the top social websites including Facebook and Google. The news of such events as Cambridge Analytica is what led to Google announcing it would be shutting down Google+ in April of this year. But the rise of this data usage itself corresponds to the rise of social media itself along with the technology that allows for invasive corporate espionage. As I write this, I am aware of the emerging voices that remain hopeful of less spying and personal data breaches in social media going forward even as I remain aware that the technology that makes it happen continues to be improved upon. It makes one wonder, what is to become of the social media of tomorrow?

A Brief History of the Rise of Online Social Media

six degrees

Screenshot of the Six Degrees logo

Most internet history buffs today would point to a website called Six Degrees as the first online social media website. Launched in 1997, users were able to create a profile and befriend other users. The site also allowed non-registered internet users to confirm friendships without joining the site.

Shortly after Six Degrees launched, blogging became a popular medium of expression and bloggers were able to interact with their readers on their blogs through threaded comments. Six Degrees breathed its final breath in 2000 in the wake of the dot-com bust. The web domain is still active, but it’s a virtual ghost town.

Popular free blog hosting website Blogger, now owned by Google, was launched in 1999 and helped to usher in the age of blogging as a social medium. Blogger itself allows users to interact with each other through their blog accounts and even allows for multi-user blogs, putting the “social” in social media. WordPress.com launched in 2005 to compete, but the downloadable blogging software had already been launched in 2003.

Friendster launched in 2002 and morphed into a social gaming website in 2011. They suspended their services altogether in 2015.

friendster

Screenshot of Friendster.com landing page today.

Like Six Degrees, Friendster allowed users to set up profiles and connect with strangers they called “friends.” The concept grew in popularity as other sites began to follow suit. MySpace is an early example of one such site that became very popular real fast. New users were automatically connected to site co-founder Tom Anderson, proverbially known as simply “Tom.”

MySpace became very popular among musicians and musical artists. Several music artists were able to parlay their MySpace reputations into careers. But it quickly grew beyond a niche social site for musicians into something that anyone could use to make new friends, post their favorite musical albums, and even blog. But MySpace would soon be killed off by a new upstart social media site known as Facebook. The site is still active, but like Six Degrees, there isn’t a whole lot going on there now.

Facebook needs no introduction. Launched in 2004, Facebook overcame MySpace in number of users by the end of 2009. Last year, according to eMarketer, over half the U.S. population were Facebook users.

YouTubeYouTube kicked off in 2005 and is now considered the second largest search engine in the world. Owned by Google, its specialty is hosting videos for its base of video content producers and their followers who interact with those producers. Twitter launched in 2006 to be the first microblogging platform allowing users to post short messages of no more than 140 characters. It instantly became a hit. LinkedIn officially launched in 2002 but didn’t become the popular business-to-business social networking site that it is today until around 2006. It has steadily grown since then.

As social media has grown more popular, more specialty sites have popped up to serve specific niches. For instance, Pinterest is a photo-rich site that caters to the visually focused. It’s highly popular among females who share fashion trends, recipes, and more. One of my favorites is Quora, a question-and-answer website that allows experts in any niche to showcase their knowledge by providing detailed answers to top user questions. I’m pretty sure nobody knows exactly how many social networking sites there really are, but PracticalEcommerce lists 105 of the top sites listed by category. I’m quite sure more are on the way.

Three Blockchain-Based Social Media Sites I Admire

Online, things can change faster than a teenage girl’s boy crushes. One of the things I like about emerging technologies, however, is this thing called blockchain. You’ve probably heard of it, but in a nutshell, a blockchain is a distributed peer-to-peer ledger secured by advanced cryptography. What makes them special with regard to social media, in my opinion, is the potential to reduce invasive advertising, such as what you see on Facebook, increase the level of personal data security, as opposed to what you have on Facebook and Google+, and create an atmosphere of freedom that allows users to earn rewards based on their contributions, unlike every social media site ever created until now.

blockchain

Image from Pixabay.

In this vein, there are three blockchain-based social media websites I want to give a quick introduction to. If you’ve read my writings on this subject before, this might be redundant, but stay tuned because the best is yet to come.

Here are the three sites I want to introduce you to:

  1. SteemitI’ve been active on Steemit since March 2018. Since then, I’ve earned over 700 STEEM (approximately $240 USD) in author and curation rewards. I’ve done very little in the way of investing my own dollars other than purchase some Steem Monsters cards. The bulk of these rewards, in other words, are based on my actual writing and interactions with other Steemit bloggers. By contrast, I’ve been active on Facebook for 12 years and have earned absolutely nothing from the content I’ve posted there. To be fair, I have promoted by business and some books I’ve authored and edited and have seen sales from those efforts, but Facebook has not shared one iota of the revenue they have earned off my posts since I’ve been active.
  2. TrybeTrybe went live earlier this year (Steemit is two years old) and I joined as soon as I could (about three months ago). Since joining Trybe, I’ve written 12 posts, made 37 comments, and have earned 7,661 Trybe. That’s about the equivalent of $24. Not much, but again, much more than Facebook has paid me for creating content they use to attract advertisers.
  3. NarrativeNarrative is still in Alpha phase, which means that very few people are actually active on it yet. I’m one of them. However, I’ve only earned about 81 NRVE, mostly because the only way I’ve had to earn rewards so far is through referrals. Soon, Narrative will allow me to post to my personal blog. I also own a content niche, which I had to pay about $65 for. That effectively puts me in the hole, but I see clear potential for Narrative. Their unique approach to content rewards is interesting because they allow community members, not niche owners, to choose content moderators of the niches. Content owners earn rewards, but Narrative takes away their power to be little dictators, or, if you prefer, big fish in a little pond. Content creators, moderators, and owners will all earn rewards based on their contributions.

This is a basic summary of the three blockchain-based social media websites I’m excited about right now. Please read on to see where I think social media may be headed right now.

The Future of Social Networking Websites

I’m excited about the prospect of blockchain-based social media. I’m no Pollyanna where these things are concerned and have no pie-in-the-sky notions about privacy, security, and financial possibilities. However, I do believe we can make realistic presumptions based on history, social proof, and the potential of technological advancement.

I’ve already given a brief overview of social media history, so I won’t go over that again. I believe there is ample social proof that blockchain technology has inherent benefits and that blockchain-based social media could have a future. Though, admittedly, two years of Steemit’s social experimentation isn’t exactly proof that blockchain-based social media is here to stay. It is, however, proof that a blockchain-based social media culture can be developed in the same way that Six Degrees proved an online social media culture can be developed. Subsequent attempts to build online communities improved upon the model, and that will likely be the case with blockchain-based cultures, as well.

social networking

Image from Pixabay.

What I’d like to focus on is the potential of the technology itself. Specifically, I’ll focus on the following inherent qualities of blockchain-based social media cultures:

  • Decentralization
  • Peer-to-peer networking
  • Privacy
  • Data security
  • Cryptoeconomics

I’ll state right at the outset that I’m no technological expert here. I’m not a blockchain developer or a coder, nor am I an expert on data security, privacy, or economics–and certainly not cryptocurrency economics. I’m simply an enthusiast who has taken an interest in blockchain technology and the cryptocurrency culture it has given birth to. That said, here’s where I think social media is headed (and I hope I’m right).

Decentralized Social Networking

The history of social media is centralized. That means a central authority, company, or technology provider facilitates the connection between the parties beyond simply providing the technology or the platform on which such connections take place. Take Facebook, for example. The most popular social media site in the world routinely suggests new friends based on your current set of friends, the type of content you like and share, and past interactions with your current friends. Facebook recommends people to you based on your current connections. By contrast, neither Steemit nor Trybe do this (that’s not to say they won’t start doing so in the future).

Decentralization has become a buzzword in blockchain circles. It typically means the absence of centralized organization and planning. More specifically, it means the distribution of responsibilities so that various members or entities within an organization or platform operate independently despite their common goals.

With regard to Steemit, the platform itself does not dictate content standards to the community, unlike on Facebook where any nipple display, no matter how benign, is considered a violation of terms of service. Steemit also doesn’t suggest friends or content based on current or past relationships or interactions. Several communities have developed, such as the reputable @curie and @qurator communities, to discover content on the platform worthy of greater rewards. These communities have their own standards for rewarding content and encourage others to scout out content worthy of upvotes by rewarding those scouts with their own rewards. Decentralization has become a part of the culture and the Steemit economy.

The development of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO) on many blockchains is another trend that bears a mention. A DAO is an organization that has no central organization but that has a mission, goals, and may indeed earn a profit for its members.

While I don’t believe that every future organization or business will be organized as a DAO, nor should they be, I do believe that the millennial generation is so entrenched with decentralized thinking and planning that we will see an increase in DAOs and decentralization across the board. With regard to social media, both Steemit and Narrative are clearly based on the decentralized model, and Trybe to some extent. As interest in blockchain technology grows, we could very well see a shift in social media toward decentralization and away from the centralized model of Facebook and YouTube.

Peer-to-Peer Networking

kickstarterCrowdfunding models like Kickstarter and Indiegogo popularized the peer-to-peer philosophy long before the blockchain earned its headlines. An entire ecosystem of peer-to-peer finance has grown up around equity crowdfunding, marketplace lending, and similar business models. This financial services development has even taken root in the blockchain community with various crypto lending initiatives such as ETHLend and Nexo. The world has clearly bought into the peer-to-peer philosophy.

When it comes to peer-to-peer networking, what is being referenced isn’t so much the person-to-person aspect of networking but the computer-to-computer aspect of networking. Thanks to online technologies in general, such as the World Wide Web, P2P networking is not only a possibility but a stark reality.

The internet itself was founded on the principle of peer-to-peer networking. Over time, however, it has morphed into a centralized system of a few servers that run the entire internet. Those servers are owned by a few large corporations. For a larger, more in-depth explanation of how the internet became centralized, check out this article on Hackernoon.

Blockchain technology promises to make the internet decentralized again. While I don’t think that will happen in its entirety, I do believe its possible that up-and-coming social networks will focus on decentralization as a key feature inherent in their platforms.

An Increase in Privacy (and Anonymity)

There are, of course, dangers to allowing anyone and everyone to develop an anonymous persona online. However, there are also dangers to requiring everyone to use their real names when interacting with others online. What if a person lives under an authoritarian government and wants to communicate about topics that are illegal in their home country without being detected? What if a journalist is working on a sensitive story and wants to remain anonymous until her investigation is completed? These are obvious real-world scenarios that deserve honest discussion.

On the other hand, anonymity allows criminals free reign to do as they please without repercussion. Who wants that?

While most of us would say we aren’t willing to allow criminals to run free, we also don’t want our personal data available to anyone and everyone. In fact, allowing that would give our personal and private information to those very criminals. The backlash against Facebook for last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought these issues to the forefront of many people’s minds. Search engine DuckDuckGo had a banner month in May 2018 as that scandal was coming to light. I believe data privacy advocates are going to insist that social networks respect their privacy concerns, and blockchain-based social media sites are poised to provide it.

More Data Security

At the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is data security. Who should have access to your personal information on Facebook, including your friends list, which ads you click on, what you like and share, and which groups you belong to? In reality, no one but you. Facebook uses such information to share with advertisers to increase their revenue. While I have no problem with Facebook increasing its revenues, why should they use your personal data to do it?

That’s where data security comes in. There are already blockchain initiatives that give people the power to control their own data and sell it to whom they wish while keeping it hidden from others they don’t want to have it.

If you were around in the 1960s, you’ll remember the controversy regarding how lenders rated people’s credit scores. It was all kept a secret. However, in 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act gave consumers the right to request their credit reports so they could see what banks and financial institutions see.  With blockchain technology, such legislation can be backed up by security measures that are in the control of the person who owns the data–the individual. Future social networking sites will realize just how much personal information they should have access to for each user and not even request what isn’t necessary.

An Introduction to Crypto Economics

To me, this is the most exciting aspect of the future of social media. Each social media website has its own culture and its own cryptocurrency. Steemit has STEEM, Steem Power (SP), and Steem-Backed Dollars (SBD). Each currency serves a unique purpose within the ecosystem. However, users earn these cryptocurrencies based on their participation on the platform.

Trybe has its own currency, called Trybe. Since the social media platform exists on the EOS blockchain, Trybe is essentially an EOS token (there is a difference between a coin and a token).

Trybe

Narrative also has its own cryptocurrency, called NRVE. Unlike Steemit and Trybe, Narrative is its own blockchain. Steemit sits on the Steem blockchain and is considered a decentralized app (Dapp) on the blockchain. Narrative is the blockchain, and the social media platform is baked into that blockchain technology. These details are significant when analyzing a crypto economy. For all useful purposes, Narrative can have its own walled economy. Steemit, on the other, is a part of a larger ecosystem that includes other Dapps and with which it can interact. Users of those other Dapps can earn STEEM, SP, and SBD just like users of Steemit can.

Central to any crypto economy is the means by which blocks are created. Blockchain developers choose a consensus protocol that dictates how blocks are created. With each of the current blockchain-based social media websites, the content created by users is rewarded when the content is published and interacted with by the wider community. With Steemit, blocks are discovered by witnesses, each of which owns a node that creates those blocks. The cryptocurrency created when those block are made are shared by witnesses, content creators, people who interact with that content (called curators), and the blockchain itself. Trybe and Narrative have their own models.

From a content creator’s perspective, the user builds a following, publishes content in their preferred medium (photo, video, text, etc.), and other users interact with that content. Over time, as the user gets better at promoting their content, interacting with other users and their content, and produces more of it, they begin to earn more rewards from each piece of content they create. I have seen this personally on my own Steemit account. Initially, my posts earned just a few cents. After a short while, they began earning more than a 50 cents per post, then over $1 per post. Gradually, that number increased to over $2 per post, and this gradual increase occurred as the price of STEEM and SBD declined in the markets.

Just like online social media sites have improved in user experience, design, and functionality over time (barring prejudices having to do with platform features), I expect blockchain-based social media platforms to do the same. Steemit may not survive over the long haul, but future blockchain-based social networking sites will learn from its mistakes. We could say the same about Trybe and Narrative.

What all of this has to say about crypto economics is that every aspect of the social experience for users can potentially be within user control. That includes identity as well as data privacy and security. It also means computing resources and whether or not advertisers have the right to interrupt users with their brand messages. Imagine a social networking site where users can charge advertisers for the right to load ads on their content pages based on the permission settings of their readers, instead of this being controlled by the centralized authority of Facebook or YouTube.

Another aspect of blockchain-based social media that can be in the control of the user is digital rights management. Instead of YouTube being subjected to constant Digital Millennium Content Act (DMCA) take down notices, content rights management can be baked into the platform. Future blockchain-based social media sites can allow users to offer other users the right to republish content as well as outline the nature of that right through executable smart contracts. The copyright owner can allow republishing under certain conditions and deny it under others, charge an agreed-upon fee based on the rights transferred, and even approve or deny copyright privileges to other users based on specific demographic data. All the control is in the hands of the copyright owner.

We are still in the early stages of crypto economics and the early stages of blockchain-based social media. Steemit, Trybe, and Narrative are pioneers. They may or may not be the Facebook and YouTube of tomorrow. But whoever does end up being the dominant social media players of the future can look back on these pioneers as true innovators, path explorers, and tutors. It’s a brave new world and I’m ready for it. Are you?

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