Decentralized Social Media: Classifying Sites In Five Categories
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Social media censorship has become a pressing issue in the crypto world. Last week, YouTube banned several crypto-related channels. Though the site quickly rolled back its decision, other companies still apply harsh policies. Twitter has allegedly banned crypto-related accounts, while China’s WeChat has banned some crypto transactions.
Of course, the problem goes beyond cryptocurrency. Social media sites have targeted users across the political spectrum. High profile bans have concerned left–wing, right-wing, and international groups alike. Even users who believe that some content should be banned might find themselves on the wrong side of an overreaching policy.
The result is that many decentralized platforms are aiming to reform social media from its current state. Anti-censorship is just one part of this trend: some projects are striving for more open moderation, while others are aiming for better revenue distribution. With that in mind, platforms can be classified in at least five categories, as follows.
1. Centralized Platforms
First, it is important to consider how centralized social media platforms operate. Google, which owns YouTube, operates several data centers, each of which houses thousands of servers. Facebook does the same. Twitter relies on third-party cloud storage as well as data centers, but each company has direct control over data and accounts.
At the same time, centralized sites can defer some control to users. Reddit, Disqus, and Discord rely on centrally-owned servers and platform-wide rules, but they also allow communities to self-moderate. It is unclear whether these companies have a lighter touch, but they share qualities with federated social networks (discussed below).
Additionally, some centralized social networks have a semi-distributed infrastructure. Telegram houses its servers in different legal jurisdictions, and its encryption model prevents it from censoring private chats. However, Telegram can ban public channels, and though it primarily targets ISIS content, it could in theory close any channel.
2. Blockchain-Powered Social Networks
Some social networks are turning to blockchain for decentralization. Users send messages, and a distributed network writes that information to a blockchain transaction permanently. This process typically allows crypto tips and payments as well. The Twitter-like Memo.cash, the blogging site Steem, and the media site LBRY fall in this category.
Unfortunately, blockchains are not scalable for mass data storage, so some blockchain-integrated social networks rely on other systems. Peepeth, DTube, and SocialX store minimal data on their chosen blockchains. Instead, they rely primarily on IPFS for data storage — which is faster, but less permanent, than blockchain-based storage.
Blockchain-powered social networks can also make use of BitTorrent. DLive, a streaming service, announced plans to join TRON and BitTorrent this week. Twister, a self-hosted social network, relies on a Bitcoin-based blockchain and BitTorrent. It is also possible to use just one of these technologies: BitChute relies on torrenting, but not blockchain.
All three approaches have a point of centralization: front ends that can choose to show or hide content. For example, Peepeth does not delete data, but it explicitly moderates content on its website. Since most users will not turn to alternative front ends, a single site can effectively censor content for the general public in some cases.
3. Decentralized Transactions
Many new social networks integrate cryptocurrency payments, which can solve the problem of demonetization — they can compensate users who have not been banned, but who cannot receive funding. Whereas YouTube and Patreon can prevent users from receiving ad revenue and donations, cryptocurrency is relatively unstoppable, KYC aside.
For instance, the crypto-monetized blogging platforms Minds and Publish0x host their content centrally and have control over that content, but pay out Ethereum-based ERC-20 tokens. Coil is similar, but pays out XRP via Interledger. Block.one’s Voice network will also follow this model initially, though it may move to a decentralized content model.
It is also possible to integrate crypto rewards with traditional social networks through a browser plugin. Brave’s Basic Attention Token has been linked with seven social networks — YouTube, Reddit, GitHub, Twitter, Reddit, Vimeo, and Soundcloud. Though Brave requires KYC for withdrawals, BAT can be circulated freely within the Brave ecosystem.
4. Federated Social Networks
Some decentralized social networks do not rely on a blockchain. The Twitter-like Mastodon, the video site Peertube, and other Fediverse projects take this approach. They allow users to create “instances” that are run by servers that only store their own data. Each instance can apply its own moderation rules and block other instances.
The result is a politically intricate system. Mastodon and much of the Fediverse have earned a left-wing reputation while many of their competitors tend to be right-wing. However, the right-wing network Gab has decided to join Mastodon — something that Mastodon cannot prevent. It can only denounce Gab and encourage instances to block it.
The Fediverse is also highly interoperable. Mastodon and other Fediverse apps run on a protocol called ActivityPub, which allows member platforms to communicate with each other. Some have noted that Twitter’s plans for a decentralized social media protocol is very similar. Other related standards, such as OStatus, exist as well.
5. Self-Administered Social Networks
Some decentralized social networks are very modest projects; they can be self-hosted and administered by a single user. Projects that fall into this category include Ethertweet, Newebe, Twister, pump.io, and Libertree. It is also possible for a single user to create a Fediverse instance, so federated platforms arguably fall into this category as well.
Facing the Competition
Each style of decentralized social network has its own advantage. Blockchain-based networks provide a solution to bans and content deletion, while crypto payments provide a solution to demonetization. Federated and self-administered social networks, meanwhile, give communities and individuals control over content and moderation.
Unfortunately, all of these alternative social media platforms will probably find it difficult to gain traction. Social networks — especially Twitter-like discussion platforms — need plenty of users to thrive. Video and streaming-oriented social networks may not need as much adoption, assuming they are used for content storage rather than networking.
The numbers are certainly in favor of traditional platforms. Facebook and YouTube attract about 2 billion active users per month, while Twitter attracts about 330 million active users per month. Mastodon, probably the best-known decentralized social network, has 1.3 million active users. In short, alternative platforms have a long way to go.
Updated Dec. 31 to include news of TRON’s DLive acquisition