Decentralised social media: The future beyond traditional networks
This post was originally posted on the MAJOR website.
We are witnessing the slow implosion of social media as we know it.
Threads has lost more than half of its 100 million users inside a month.
Facebook has never really recovered from the privacy scandals that have rocked it for years with young users in particular jumping ship, whilst parent company Meta wonders the metaverse desert following mass layoffs.
Studies have linked Instagram to depression, body image concerns, self-esteem issues, social anxiety, and other problems.
Even the latest juggernaut in TikTok is undergoing restructuring to try to stem its advertising slump.
Countless other players have attempted to enter the space in the last few years, fragmenting a disillusioned userbase even further.
Social media has been an integral and often critical part of our lives for the past decade-plus, offering unprecedented connectivity and access to real-time information, whilst also giving rise to data privacy violations, providing platforms for hate speech and the mass dissemination of fake news.
It cannot continue in the form it is currently in - so what does the future hold?
How we got here
The use of social media has radically changed from the mid-00s and the peak of the personable MySpace pages with their custom CSS, music-focus and the savage friend group ranking that was the "Top 8".
An era of standardised but accessible social media in the form of early Facebook was radical in changing the landscape and opening up social media to a broader audience - especially compared to the more youth-centered MySpace. Facebook began to expand its feature-set and therefore core usage to include Instant Messaging, Games, and Events, before eventually expanding into eCommerce with the Facebook Marketplace.
Similarly, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+ (remember that), and many more have seen a significant rise from small initial bases, to then either fall away entirely or go on to become juggernauts within the social space, ever-expanding their reach, feature set and desire for engagement.
Whilst many of these platforms have either had immense success or continue to do so today, they all have one thing in common - they are closed, centralised platforms. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach - when done right. However, 2023 has seen the full emergence of decentralised social media.
Rising from the ashes
Decentralised social media platforms are gaining traction as a viable alternative to traditional networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These platforms utilise blockchain technology, distributed ledger systems, and peer-to-peer networks to create a new paradigm of online communication. Unlike centralised social media, which relies on a single central server, decentralised networks operate on a distributed system, making them resilient, censorship-resistant, and highly secure.
Users can either join "nodes" setup by other users, or set up and run their own to have full control over their data and identity.
Mastodon, a Twitter-like social networking service, is probably the most mainstream software this year, especially after the BBC announced they're now experimenting with the platform. As a "federated" social network, Mastodon is not controlled by any single individual or organisation, but by all of its server hosts. Think of it similar to email, you can have a plethora of different email providers (Gmail, Outlook, AOL, PlusNet, or your own custom one) and they can all talk seamlessly between each other.
Key benefits of decentralised social media
No single central server: Decentralised networks lack a single point of control, eliminating the vulnerabilities associated with centralisation. This also means no single entity has the power to censor content or manipulate the flow of information.
Hosts multiple networks within one platform: Decentralised social media platforms can host various interconnected networks, catering to diverse user interests without compromising user privacy and data.
Increased security: Decentralisation reduces the risk of data breaches and cyberattacks. Since data is not stored in one location, hackers would need to compromise numerous nodes simultaneously to breach the system.
Increased user control: Users have full ownership and control over their data. They can decide what information they share, who can access it, and how it is used.
Privacy: With data spread across the network, users can maintain their privacy and reduce the risk of being tracked and targeted by advertisers or malicious actors.
Economic neutrality: Decentralised social media platforms often use cryptocurrency or blockchain-based tokens for transactions, ensuring a more equitable distribution of wealth and avoiding the monopoly of profits by a single entity.
Decentralised networks can be more meritocratic: In decentralised platforms, the visibility and reach of content are not solely determined by algorithms controlled by a central authority. Instead, content's popularity and relevance are often determined by community engagement and merit.
More likely to be open development platforms: Decentralised systems often encourage open-source development, fostering innovation, and allowing developers to create applications and features that enrich the platform for the entire community.
Despite lots of positive benefits, there are some key challenges and drawbacks with decentralisation.
Discoverability: With content spread across multiple networks, finding relevant and interesting content might be more challenging for users compared to the streamlined experience of centralised platforms. Think of the email scenario again, you need to know someone's email address in order to communicate with them - this is the same.
User experience: Decentralised social media platforms might initially lack the polished user interfaces and features offered by established centralised networks, potentially hindering user adoption.
**Moderation: **Whilst increased meritocracy has its benefits, it introduces issues around moderation, especially at scale. This isn't a "censorship" issue, more around how to deal with hate speech, illegal activities and other legally challenging aspects.
The slow implosion of traditional social media has paved the way for the rise of decentralised networks. The emergence of these platforms promises increased privacy, security, and user control while challenging the dominance of centralised giants.
Despite some challenges with discoverability and user experience, decentralised social media presents a vision of a more democratic and transparent online social space. As these platforms continue to evolve, they hold the potential to revolutionise the way we interact and communicate online, ushering in a new era of decentralised and user-centric social media.