Is now the time for decentralised social media?

By Ian Silvera

As Elon Musk’s $44bn acquisition of Twitter continues and his plans to promote more free speech on the platform have been partially unveiled, a very public debate has been triggered about the role of social media in society and its relationship with the rest of the internet.

It should be of great interest that cryptocurrency exchange Binance is one of Musk’s backers, and the company has previously stressed – when it put forward a stake for Forbes – that it was keen to help bring Web1 and Web2 businesses into the next era of the internet, Web3.

In comparison, Facebook is ahead of the game, rebranding itself as Meta and seeking to concentrate its own efforts on the Metaverse and Web3. But in some of the quieter corners of the cryptocurrency industry, a range of projects have been trying to promote decentralised social media.

Many of these upstarts use similar terminology – like Donald Trump’s own network, they promise to promote ‘free speech’ and ‘spread the truth’. Others meanwhile, go heavy on the claim that centralisation is an inherently bad thing, and that social media users should have data sovereignty. Important concerns, of course, but it is hard to see these features as top selling points for most consumers.

One of the more interesting projects however, is the Decentralized Social Blockchain (DeSo). Like Bitcoin or Ethereum, it’s a layer-one blockchain, but its main focus is on scaling decentralised social applications to one billion users, which would amount to around one fifth of the internet’s total usage globally. To try and fulfil that ambitious goal, the project has raised $200m from Andreessen Horowitz, Coinbase Ventures, Sequoia and other VCs.

The main problem DeSo solves is the amount of data it can handle in real time (each block on DeSo holds 32 megabytes of information), something that other blockchains don’t do a very good job of managing.

It is also open-source, meaning developers can easily build and develop on it, promoting innovation. DeSo’s flagship application is Diamond (formerly BitClout), a Twitter-esque platform which enables users to reward creators with diamonds/cryptocurrency. The feature is similar to Twitter’s own tipping feature, something that Twitch popularised on its streaming platform, and a modification YouTube later embraced when it sought to attract more gamers to the Alphabet-owned platform.

Where DeSo substantially differs, however, is that each creator can have their own coin, which other users can buy into. DeSo and Diamond founder Nader Al-Naji has stated that his projects have the jump on 2010s social media networks, because they are not reliant on adds and are fundamentally “money-enabled”. “The business model is just to maximise the number of transactions flowing through the chain, which maximises the value of the coin,” he has explained.

Another decentralised social project of note is the 4.4m user-strong Mastodon network, another Twitter-like project founded in 2016, along with Mirror, the Web3 answer to Medium and WordPress. Mirror allows content creators to publish their work for free, but it also has the ability to turn books, articles and other publications into NFTs. Dirt, an entertainment newsletter focused on the internet, previously used the protocol to raise $100,000 to help fuel its growth and pay additional contributors.

If anything else, these projects are enabling content creators to raise revenue in new and exciting ways. However, they still face some perennial issues Web2 social platforms haven’t fully tackled, namely verifying usership and content moderation.

For the former, decentralised social media users could have multiple wallets and therefore multiple accounts, and a consensus would have to be built on the levels of free speech an online community allows (Mastodon achieves this by taking an approach similar to Reddit and allowing moderators of ‘instances’/groups to decide).

And, finally, from a commercial perspective, what is the big user experience/scalability feature of the new decentralised social media networks? If they are just clones of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, they might not get much traction at all, especially from the general public who may be uninterested in the philosophical debates which sometimes bog the Web3 community down.