- The Internet has increasingly become a less tolerant place for radical ideas
- Large social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube enforce censorship based on protecting their users’ right not to feel ‘uncomfortable’
- Decentralized social networks are the only possible solution to this problem. However, the current class of crypto platforms – Steemit, Minds, BitTube face significant challenges in convincing people to migrate away from these social media giants. Decentralized social networks will need to offer much more than the ability to express ideas freely.
Over the past 10 years, the Internet as we know it has changed rapidly. What was once a free and unfiltered space for people to share radical ideas has now become commoditized and controlled. This is an unfortunate byproduct of a once-fringe technology becoming mainstream. This is not to say that we aren’t experiencing the best the Internet has to offer. It has never been easier to access unlimited quantities of information on any topic, connect with friends, earn degrees, and find jobs all through the click of a button and the help of the most advanced search algorithms ever produced.
However, this progress has proven to be a double-edged sword, as the more comfortable people get with calling the Internet their ‘home’, the more uncomfortable they become when things they dislike intrude into that home. This phenomenon is no more evident than on social networks like Facebook, which has captured the loyalty of billions around the world due to its ability to allow us to personalize the Internet in ways that have never been done before.
On Facebook, I get my own profile, I can create my own network of friends, receive my own tailored recommendations. I can earn validation the more I share my content, everything about it leads me to believe that the Internet is a vast cyber world built just for me. The same personalized features extend across virtually all social media platforms, creating a level of comfort that ensures that, as users, we remain glued to our screens for several hours a day.
It’s easy to see how the constant push from Google, Facebook, and Twitter for more personalization and comfort over a span of 10 years has led people to believe the Internet should be a ‘safe space’, and that ideas you don’t agree with are somehow a threat to your existence.
Worst of all, these same tech companies have now taken it upon themselves to be the arbiters of what is considered good or bad speech, censoring users with large followings simply for making a vocal minority feel uncomfortable.
The word ‘responsibility’ is critical when assessing the case of free speech online. Depending on how one interprets that word, it shapes their opinions about the current climate of Internet censorship:
- Who is responsible for fake news? The publishers or the platform?
- If a fake news piece causes someone to act in a criminal way, who is responsible? Is it the fake news publisher? The platform? Or the person who reacted without first verifying if the news was true?
- Who is responsible for responding to an offensive joke? The platform? Or the person who deemed it offensive?
- How many people need to be offended by a post before the platform labels it offensive? A thousand? One hundred? One?
The fundamental question of responsibility is what drives the current debate over Internet censorship. Yet the answers seem very clear when we consider how social media companies have worked to strip away the feeling of control people online once had to dictate who they could be, what they could consume and how they could react to it.
Ultimately, the raw, anonymous, and unfiltered nature of millions of free people connected around the world has been suppressed for the sake of bringing mainstream access and increased profitability to Internet companies. Fortunately, blockchain technology is giving us a chance to hit the reset button on this grand cyber social experiment we call the Internet. New platforms like Steemit, Minds, and BitTube are emerging as decentralized alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Their operating model is simple; a social network free of censorship, where users can monetize their content by earning cryptocurrencies when people upvote their posts.
In many ways, these platforms aspire to take what we value most about our highly advanced social media apps while bringing us back to a time when interactions were peer to peer, anonymity was cherished, and corporations were unable to impose their will as intermediaries or advertisers. Unsurprisingly, many have jumped onto these platforms to discover better ways to earn a fair wage for the content they produce, escape the threat of data exploitation (as seen in the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal), or simply share ideas that may be deemed to be ‘unsafe’.
After only 2 years, Steemit has acquired over 1 million users and is ranked as one of the top 1,500 websites on Alexa. Minds has been around for 3 years and currently has 1.25 million registered users.
Yet even with a fast-growing user base, these platforms have a long way to go before they can ever compete with giants like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. It’s also very likely that they will never come close to achieving the same user numbers as these sites. This is primarily because the type of user who is interested in exploring alternative forms of social media will always be in the minority. After all, outside of gaining access to potentially controversial content, there’s really not much that separates Steemit, BitTube, and Minds from the current menu of social media platforms that offer the same random collection of videos and memes on the Internet.
If these decentralized social networks wish to survive long-term, they need to function as a hub not just for interesting content that has been rejected by the mainstream, but also to be interesting for the people that produce this content.
At a time where members of the Intellectual Dark Web (a collection of scholars, scientists, and philosophers who often debate ‘dangerous’ ideas about politics, morality, and society) are quietly being demonetized or censored on the big 3 social media platforms, many have suggested that these people should come together and form their own network to promote the free expression of intellectual ideas.
Minds, BitTube, and Steemit could serve as exclusive networks that host content shared by the Sam Harris’, Jordan Petersons, Richard Dawkins, and Eric Weinsteins of the world. Not only would their content exist in a place free of censorship, but the token economic models that exist within these platforms would ensure that content creators earn a healthy and sustainable income online (something that has become less of a reality for the vast majority of online content creators).
The biggest challenge to successfully migrating dozens of the most influential public intellectuals onto relatively obscure platforms is convincing them that the opportunity cost is worth it. Despite the fact that the IDW often complains about being a target of platform censorship, they also realize that the reason they’ve achieved such a high level of popularity is due to the very same platforms that threaten to censor them. At a certain point, some, or all, of their members will need to decide when to jump ship into the ‘wild west’ world of crypto. At the same time, platforms like Steemit, Minds, and BitTube will have to take a page out from the playbooks of YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix by luring influencers in with large bonus checks to launch their channels on crypto-based social media sites. Tatatu, an Ethereum-based streaming platform has already managed to do this with Johnny Depp.
It remains to be seen whether a decentralized network of autonomous individuals can coordinate and accomplish what is needed to draw in the intellectual rock stars of our age. However, if we continue to move down the path of ‘big brother’ platforms offering more protection and comfort in exchange for less freedom to share or confront uncomfortable ideas, it’s only a matter of time before all the smart people who dare to think differently are loading up their crypto wallets with STEEM, MIND, and TUBE tokens.