People increasingly rely on social media for news, publication, and entertainment. However, centralized players such as Facebook, Tiktok, and Twitter have come under fire for exploiting users’ data and biased moderation. Web3 solutions have entered the space and competing decentralized social media platforms are now vying to solve this 21st-century problem. With scalability and mass adoption obstacles, questions surround the possibility of a great transition to decentralized social media.
Where are we now?
Today, there are roughly 3.8 billion social media users, and with the proliferation of cheaper mobile devices worldwide, the number of users expands yearly.
While a part of everyday life, social media in its current form is almost as addictive and toxic as it is beneficial. Existing networks face criticism about biased moderation, exploiting user data, addictive algorithms, and siloed ecosystems. Truly ‘fixing’ social media requires a complete paradigm shift, and decentralized social media solutions are the closest we’ve come to a truly democratized social sphere.
Reimagining Social Media from the Ground Up
While web2 companies focus on social media as a single product, web3 expands the idea of social networks into multiple layers. The base layer is a social graph: it maps profiles, followers, and their connections. Next is the app layer, where users can consume content and interact with their social graphs. For reference to web2, think of social graphs as followers and app layers as feeds. Through blockchains, there is no single entity controlling the social graphs. Instead, your social graph becomes an asset rather than a product owned by a corporation.
Obviously, the allure of owning your social graph isn’t enough to convince billions of users to ditch their existing products. There is another gap to fill, given how users are becoming increasingly upset with social media policies and executives. Aside from data ownership, complaints over fragmented followings, censorship, and closed source algorithms offer a chance for Decentralized Social media (DeSoc) to usurp market share. There is frankly no better time for this potential transition to DeSoc than right now. Existing users are demanding a better experience, and DeSoc can act as a catalyst for crypto adoption; the latter is in need of a popular product that can catalyze its early adoption stage.
Tackling the Issues
While web2 followers and connections are siloed within each app, web3 social networks allow you to bring your followers with you to each app. Imagine the simplicity and time saved if you could have all your YouTube subscribers instantly follow you when you launch an Instagram page for your brand. This is the beauty of separating the social graph from the app layer; your graph remains the same while the app layer is flexible. With future customizability, the possibility of a self-permissioned follower transfer, where only select followers are ported over, can be easily implemented.
This idea of owning your connections becomes more significant when discussing moderation and censorship. Donald Trump received a ban from Twitter, then went off to make his own social media application: Truth Social. With that transition, he lost his existing followers and funneled into a deeper echo chamber. It remains far worse for individuals who are not political figures and risk losing their livelihoods from social media bans. Competing DeSoc applications are experimenting with a variety of moderation techniques to remain within legal bounds while also avoiding the overreach of web2 moderation.
Lens protocol, a social graph layer built on Polygon, has arguably the best approach to moderation: they simply leave the moderation up to the app layers, where the content is posted. If users are banned or censored on one app layer, they can simply move to another protocol that offers a similar experience. The users get to keep all their followers and continue as if nothing happened. Now, instead of turning social media companies into the arbiters of truth and hate speech, users get to interact with whatever frontend will accept their content. Truly a free-market experience!
The final piece of the social media puzzle requires solving algorithms. Arguably more valuable than gold nowadays, popular social media apps prevent their algorithms from leaking into the public domain like they are the holy grail. However, these algorithms are designed to be as addictive as possible. Your data is how these companies profit, but your time is how they gain more data. You have no control over the algorithms currently. If you want to see more motivational videos one day, or a less addictive algorithm another day, you have no way to do so. In a DeSoc protocol, individuals can create open-sourced algorithms or multiple app layers with different algorithms to give users greater control over the content they see. Not only is this a step forward in customizability, but also potentially groundbreaking for the next generation of social media users, such that they don’t become as addicted as the current state of Gen-Z users.
Though it seems like DeSoc is the answer to all our problems with web2 social media, there is no perfect solution. Yes, DeSoc solves the problems mentioned above, but it introduces its own set of complications. We’ve coined the term “DeSoc Trilemma” to highlight the tradeoffs made in security, scalability, and user experience (UX) when designing a DeSoc protocol. A slight twist on Vitalik’s “Blockchain Trilemma,” no protocol we’ve reviewed has been able to successfully optimize all three characteristics.
Security vs Scalability
Foremost, security indicates two things in this trilemma: the decentralization of a blockchain as well as the executor of transactions. Decentralization of a blockchain is simple: with more validators, blockchains become more decentralized and secure. However, this introduces the tradeoff between security and scalability. The more decentralized and secure a blockchain is, the harder it is to scale. That explains why no DeSoc protocol could ever truly live on Ethereum, as the gas fees are too high and the network would become too congested. For the time being until Zk-rollups become cheap and usable, a DeSoc protocol needs to operate either on a sidechain, sub/supernet, or a standalone L1. The most secure blockchains are not the best homes for DeSoc protocols, but in fairness these protocols don’t necessarily need the security of Ethereum unlike DeFi protocols.
Security vs UX
When it comes to the execution of transactions, some DeSoc protocols execute the transactions themselves. For example, a user follows someone and only signs a message to make this happen. They don’t pay the gas fee or actually execute the transaction, instead this role falls onto the protocol itself. This introduces the tradeoff between security and UX. Obfuscating gas fees is a massive step forward in UX. Imagine how horrible it would be to pay a small fraction of Instagram’s AWS bill every time you wanted to post! In fact, the ultimate UX is one where you connect your wallet but never have to deal with metamask pop ups prompting you to sign contracts or pay for transactions. This comes at the cost of giving further permissions and control of your wallet to smart contracts, which run the risk of being hacked. While facilitating mass adoption, it goes against the decentralized nature of web3. UX is arguably the biggest friction point in crypto adoption; in order to facilitate widespread adoption, decentralization maxis may need to look the other way.
In fact, Lens’ gasless API is the industry leader when it comes to tradeoffs between security and UX for executing transactions. The API allows users to perform transactions on a blockchain network without paying any fees. It makes DeSoc comparable with free-to-use web2 social media. Reducing the users’ need to wait until their transaction has gone through, the gasless API allows them to scroll to the next post and continue interactions freely.
The API allows the user to simply sign a message (e.g., as a comment), then a relayer receives this message with the relevant information needed to post the data on chain, completing the transaction. This method is slightly more gas-intensive for the relayer since they must verify a signature and then post the data on-chain. However, it makes the experience far more enjoyable and rewarding for the user. The app layer platform is required to pay the gas fees, meaning it would be the duty of Lenster or LensFrens to pay the expenses. While the downside of using the gas-less API is that users rely on the relayer to post the transaction on-chain rather than completing the transaction themselves, the trade-offs are worth it, given that social media posts don’t require the same security level as financial transactions. Additionally, the relayers have increased flexibility, with an hour grace period for posting the transactions on-chain officially, they can avoid periods of high gas fees.
UX vs Scalability
The tradeoffs made between UX and scalability are trickier to analyze. Take for example, DeSo (not to be confused with the term DeSoc we’ve been using), a blockchain specifically created for social applications. DeSo has scaled to over 1.5 million users (far greater than competitors like Lens, with just over 50,000 profiles) but it lacks the surrounding ecosystem that Polygon users can benefit from, such as gaming and DeFi protocols. Imagine being able to use your Lens profile on Polygon as collateral within a DeFi protocol to take out a loan. This value-additive composability benefit simply does not exist on DeSo or any DeSoc protocols built on stand alone blockchains. Similarly, Cyberconnect is extremely scalable with over a million accounts, as it is blockchain agnostic, allowing you to take your social graph to any blockchain. However, the tradeoff is that Cyberconnect cannot utilize NFTs within its ecosystem because of its design. While saving on compute and simplifying the overall design process, losing out on NFT compatibility is a massive loss. Take for example in Lens, where NFTs represent both your profile and your follows. It enables secondary sales of profiles, creating an entirely new market. Don’t want to create a meme account with a large following? Just buy an NFT profile that caters to that audience already. Additionally, NFTs enable further revenue capture for creators. By making posts collectible, creators can introduce exclusivity and therefore charge a fee for the content.
Can Decentralized Social Media Become a Reality?
Decentralized social media may provide the only realistic solution to the challenges users face with existing web2 social media platforms. But the question remains: is mass adoption even possible? From what it seems, the decentralization maxis will have to waive the white flag in order to prioritize UX and scalability so that DeSoc can finally see sustainable product market fit. The correct approach appears to be the separation of social graphs and app layers to further push customizability and avoid moderation concerns that exist in web2. Finally, prioritizing composability by building on blockchains with ecosystems outside of social media, such as gaming and finance, as well as utilizing NFTs within the design, allows for the best user experience while offering optionalities not found in today’s social media design.
This article was written by Jack McCarthy in collaboration with DeFinci Digital. Jack is a Decentralized Finance (DeFi) Analyst at Polygon, highly interested in designing premier tokenomics designs and real world applications of DeFi. He is currently the Co-President of Boston College Blockchain Club, while studying finance and business analytics at the Carroll School of Management. Feel free to reach out on twitter @offdeblockchain
Cover Picture by: Darshan Adroja