Blockchains Alone Won’t Fix the Facebook Problem

Even before the questions began, one early image from Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional appearance confirmed that the hearing would focus on all the wrong things.

The crush of photographers clamoring for a shot of the Facebook CEO was a reminder that Congressmen would frame their inquiry into the social media platform’s use and abuse of its users’ data around the man himself. We have been hurt, goddam it! We must find the villain and make an example of him.

I do not wish to position myself as a defender of Zuckerberg here. I think he is responsible for building a truly odious machine, a black-box algorithm that deliberately steered human beings, lemming-like, into echo chambers of like-mindedness.

The platform he oversaw has killed inquisitiveness and open-mindedness, promoted form over substance, undermined the journalistic pursuit of facts and damaged our democracy – all in the interest of gathering and organizing our data so that we could be sold off as packages to platform advertisers.

My point is simply that, if not Zuck, someone else would have made a business out of user data in the same way. And unless we fix the underlying problem, someone else will do it.

What’s more, in calling for the CEO to take certain actions, politicians could do more harm to the core tenets of an open, democratic society, particularly their demands that Facebook up its censorship of hate speech and disinformation.

Zuck as data-lord is bad enough. Zuck as censor-in-chief is downright scary.

We need to tackle the root structural problem of the social media industry: the centralization of control over data and content and the reason why the internet economy has insidiously fostered it.

Here, the decentralizing ideas and trust-minimization principles that underpin blockchain technology offer glimpses of a path forward.

Blockchain’s potential, and limits

At CoinDesk and elsewhere, I’ve posited before that blockchain and token technologies could help with massive challenges like “fake news,” the exploitation of user data and a rearrangement of Facebook’s business model to better reward users. Others have pointed to self-sovereign identity as the killer app to solve the Facebook problem.

And it’s not just talk. The tokenized, decentralized social media feed Steemit has been up and running for two years and a variety of decentralized journalism projects are now being launched on the ethereum-based Civil platform.

Their idealized vision is that of ownerless content platforms based on fully open-source software models. They seek to put users in control of their data, reward content providers based on fair, objective metrics of audience engagement and community priorities, and apply reputation tokens or other skin-in-the-game staking mechanisms to foster greater accountability and honesty in information production and distribution.

But let’s be clear: blockchain-based models are nowhere near ready to subvert the entrenched social media industry.

Any truly decentralized blockchain won’t have the on-chain capacity to handle the masses of data and billions of posts that any large-scale system would run.  What’s more, on its own, the technology won’t protect us from many of the maladies of the current scenario.

One limitation can be seen with the upvoting model in Steemit, which rewards top voted stories with steem tokens and which invariably results in posts about Steemit itself rising to the top of the trending ranks.

The model, intended as a decentralized, censorship-free way to distribute funds for popular content while allowing advertisers a way to buy more favorable positions in the feed, appears to have created another self-reinforcing echo chamber. It’s not composed of Trump voters or Trump haters but of steem HODLers…

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