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How Blockchain Technology Could Change Social Media As We Know It

The Nobel laureate, Herbert A. Simon wrote:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

Attention Economics is a model for information management. It makes a case for the scarcity of human attention in the age of digital ecosystems; a world that is so obviously inundated with content. The phenomenon of Attention Economics is a multidimensional concept that intersects with cognitive science, psychology, and of course economics. From a purely materialistic point of view one of its implications is that human attention is commodified.

This is ironic given the current urgency for emphasis on human-centric aspects of various ongoing and future socio-economic projects. It is not surprising then that the field of Attention Economics has steadily begun generating interest in the Cryptoverse, wherein conversations about tokenizing attention by decentralizing it over the blockchain are gradually gaining traction. But before getting into that, let us consider the niche domain of attention economics today — social media.

Could cryptocurrency change social media forever?

Social Networks and Algorithm-driven Capitalism

The entire concept of social media is based on making you think about what others think.

Thankfully, no one understands their own thoughts completely. Let alone the thoughts of others. Aptly ironic, this is a catch-22 for society as well as the media. Mark Zuckerberg famously started Facebook as an online medium for scoring and comparing physical attractiveness of female students at Harvard. The early iteration of what eventually became Facebook generated instant interest and the social network soon went viral on the newly minted internet. The rest is relatively recent history.

In a short period of time, Facebook has evolved into a category of ‘strange attractor’ applications that are housed on the web to industriously harvest the commodity of human attention from its rapidly expanding user base. Today, there are about 2.8 billion active users that participate on the Facebook network which is continuously redesigned for facilitating virtual social interactions.

Over the years, the algorithms that drive Facebook have been revised many times over in order to offer a better user-experience. However, very few users today would be naive enough to believe that Facebook is unconditionally interested in primarily meeting their needs.

As with every social media network on the internet today, this enterprise is about data harvesting and targeted advertising through centralized mechanisms of information flow. Some of the infamous examples that underscore the obvious downsides of this model include the misuse of data for manipulating mass behavior (e.g., the Cambridge Analytica debacle) and the spread of misinformation that is so rampant in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thinking Outside Pandora’s Box

The conundrum for all Big Tech companies like Apple, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook today is that they have opened up the proverbial Pandora’s box. In an aggressive effort to cash in on the capital potential of social media, these tech monoliths have unleashed a messy web of unscrupulous aftereffects.

Issues such as fake news, mass surveillance, conspiracy theories, hate speech, psychological disorders amongst users, and copyright infringement are only a few of the consequences that have drawn heavy criticism towards these digitized mediums.

Nevertheless, addressing these issues is equally daunting for the folks who run these Big Tech companies. It appears that at least for now, any attempts to regulate their social media platforms is fraught with some basic limitations. For instance, the centralized logic of these platforms makes them inherently cumbersome for implementing protocols for effective content moderation, which conflicts with the right for free speech when executed with bias.

Blockchain Helps Monetize Your Attention

In spite of such obstacles, there are a few signs which suggest that the Big Tech players are sincerely attempting to overcome these limitations.

For example, in 2019, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey initiated efforts to create a decentralized social media project called BlueSky. BlueSky is an open source social networking platform that is housed on a blockchain with the intent of creating a more seamless experience for the users by hosting better governance and monetization capabilities.

Regardless of the future potential of such applications, it is clear that the execution of decentralized networks to deliver the promised landscape of the Internet is far more complex and will require nuanced approaches and solutions. This is particularly true for already established platforms.

Other upcoming blockchain based projects such as SingularityNET show the promise for creating decentralized social networks by espousing principles of using open-source code, and democratic decision-making through explainable AI. The core intention is to engineer social media that transfers the ownership of user data to the users rather than the corporations that currently harvest and sell it for profiteering off the very users who produce their precious data.

Would you not be interested in accessing your own data from social media to enhance your own self-understanding for the purpose of your own self-actualization? I admit that this model is still a remote and future probability. However, it is certainly a vision worth imagining, particularly in alignment with the core philosophy of blockchain technologies and the dream of creating an egalitarian web.

Human Beings Are ‘Social Media’ Animals

Communication technologies have been a core feature of human evolution. A long time ago it was telegraph and radio. Then came telephone and television to further make us more connected to our world. After that it has been the internet and social media that have become the modern substrate for the manifestation of human relationships and politics. Looking further it seems that the tech interfaces are going to disappear by becoming more integrated and embedded into our neurobiology and we are all going to be ‘more’ inside each other’s heads than ever before.

It is therefore crucial that our species enters these rapidly unfolding phase transitions of history with more awareness and empathy. Given such possible scenarios, it seems that the pertinence of engineering newer platforms to house the communication technologies of the future is crucial. Decentralization over blockchain is one possible approach. There could be others too. The underlying message though is that we need to think about novel paradigms if we are to prepare for the long term future of our species. Otherwise we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors simply because we did not upgrade our systemically orthodox world-views in the face of rapidly accelerating change.

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Ankur Dynanmote

About the Author

Ankur Dnyanmote

Ankur Dnyanmote Ph.D. does research involving computational biology and bioinformatics. He is deeply interested in systems thinking and interdisciplinary work focused on a wide spectrum of issues related to science, philosophy, innovation, and technology. His curiosity about blockchain and cryptocurrency is largely driven by these interests.

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