Stories, the Blockchain and the chance for a reboot of social networking

Here is a German version of this article.

Currently it looks as if the Stories format invented by Snapchat and copied and popularized by Instagram will become one, if not the major component of social networking. While predicting its exact adoption trajectory is impossible, one can not rule out that in 2018, the number of users who consume other people’s Stories or who contribute with their own, will cross the 1 billion mark. It would be a shame if this growth segment would be completely left to the 2 currently dominating, centralized and rather closed players.

But even suggesting that an open alternative to Snapchat Stories and Instagram Stories is desirable likely puts many people off – understandably. After more than a decade of failed attempts to create successful social networking services based on open principles, decentralized infrastructure and data portability, one has to be a hardline optimist to still believe in such a possibility. It seems as if the common approach of centralized, ad-financed and data-hoarding platforms has unequivocally won.

Or maybe it hasn’t. With the rise of the Blockchain technology, there is reason for hope. With the Blockchain – in simplest terms a distributed database managed by a peer-to-peer network – new approaches to developing and operating a social network are becoming feasible.

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A Blockchain could be utilized to create a decentralized and continuously updated contact database for each participating user. Thereby, not a single entity such as a company like Facebook or Snapchat would “own” the user’s social/interest graph. Instead, it could be operated in a way so that any third party approved by the user could have access to it.

Another use case of the Blockchain for new social networks are crypto tokens. An ambitious player in this field could launch a so called Initial Coin Offering (ICO), which means selling crypto tokens for “real” money to curious individuals and institutional investors. While the cash is being used as capital to fund the development and expansion, the owners of the tokens are betting on a value increase of these tokens, which can roughly be compared to a rising stock price. The crypto currency on which the tokens are based on might also act as the official “currency” of the social networking service, enabling platform (micro) transactions and encouraging third party developers to build apps on top of the core infrastructure even during a very early stage.

ICOs have a reputation of being a risky way to raise money and to speculate, as this practice is pretty much unregulated. However, many advocates consider the token approach to be a promising way to mitigate the “chicken and egg problem”, which poses one of the main obstacles in establishing a new social network. Since buyers of tokens want its value to appreciate, they are expected to show high levels of activity, engagement and evangelism, thereby increasing the chances for reaching a critical mass of users (and developers, if a platform approach is chosen). The famous network effect becomes the “Token Network Effect”.

The messaging pionier Kik is currently planning to launch its own crypto currency and to perform an ICO. While this will be fascinating to watch, I’d favor if a non profit such as Mozilla or Wikimedia would operate the core infrastructure of the type of solution I envision.

I am aware that this text sounds like buzzword bingo. But that doesn’t disqualify the ideas described. In a time in which acceptance of the status quo (= Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp, a bit Snapchat, a bit Twitter) is the default, any optimism-fueling hype should be welcomed, buzzwords notwithstanding.

The current transformation of user patterns from vertical news feed consumption to watching and creating Stories marks one of the few turning points in the history of social networks. I find it reasonable to speculate that, while users are anyway in the process of adapting, their willingness to experiment and to even switch platforms might be temporarily higher than usual. This coupled with the enormous potential of the Blockchain and the increasing capabilities of smartphones – which nowadays can run many processes locally – opens up for new radically different solutions.

I hope that I am not the only one who sees a rare opportunity for a technological and philosophical “reboot” of social networking.

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