In the 1993 film Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm (played to totemic acclaim by Jeff Goldblum) utters the memorable phrase “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”, as a rejoinder to the idea that it would be a wasted opportunity not to use the power of genetic engineering to bring back the dinosaurs.
Fast forward to 2021, when social media companies have become giants more outsized than the biggest dinosaurs of our childhood imaginations. The extent to which social media platform puppet-masters influence our lives at an individual level and as a society has been documented extensively, along with the problems it has engendered.
In retrospect, it has been one of the greatest and wildest experiments in human history; twenty-five years ago, the idea of talking to a human being on a computer was a novelty – today, a suburban teenager can build a following 100 million strong.
The path we took to get here has had its share of turns through dark alleys, but in our collective defense, it all happened so fast that we barely had time to process the change.
It only feels natural that a movement behind decentralized social media aims to solve the systemic issues wrought by our current state of affairs in social media in the same way that DeFi has taken aim at legacy financial institutions. In the way that DeFi has breached the world of central banks and financial intermediaries, DeSoc is staking a claim in a space where algorithms, content farms, murky armies of moderators, and the whims of tech royalty have ruled.
Maybe, in a best case scenario, decentralized social media is our chance to take another shot at building a social infrastructure that’s better for humanity, taking into account the lessons we’ve learned from history.
Benefits of Decentralized Social Media
The primary and most obvious potential benefit of decentralized social media is that it can be regulated by and for its users. That’s a big deal; decentralization within the space has implications large enough to shape our conversation about fundamental rights like privacy and freedom of speech. For the sake of progress, we more or less delegated the protection of those rights to the builders of our infrastructure, with mixed results.
Now, we’ve gotten to a point where 3 out of 4 Americans believe social media companies have grown too powerful. Concerningly, 72% of Americans also believe that social media companies actively censor political views they find objectionable.
It would appear that there’s a clear consensus that we need to shift some power away from Big Tech C-Suites. But there’s a catch, of course: what happened to Jurassic Park when the fences went down?
Will a Lack of Oversight Hurt Decentralized Networks?
Decentralization of power in social media means freedom from heavy-handed oversight – by definition, a decentralized social network has no overarching authority to exercise censorship over what users are saying.
That doesn’t mean that they would or should be completely unregulated spaces; any user or group of users could, in theory, take it upon themselves to target and identify undesirable content (the parameters of which would have to be defined), attempt to create a mechanism for limiting its exposure, or at least disincentivizing it, and then share that mechanism with the wider network. If that sounds like a much more roundabout way of policing bad actors, that’s because it is.
Given our collective track record when given the freedom to mold discourse sans guardrails, the task of keeping decentralized networks from devolving cesspools of hateful and inflammatory content figures to be a major challenge – and perhaps the biggest.
A decentralized framework does present a potentially different set of consequences for those with malicious or irresponsible intent – once recorded in the blockchain, anything that’s posted would be irrevocable, for better or worse.
That fundamental reality paired with a robust identity verification apparatus could create some strong checks against bad behavior. Of course, it’s likely that decentralized social networks will have to climb a steep hill to gain adoption in an environment dominated by a trillion-dollar behemoth, and that’s without the self-imposed limitations on growth that would come with identity verification.
Subsocial published a blog post acknowledging the vexing tradeoff between censorship and the proliferation of inappropriate content, but did not pose any concrete solutions for its own network.
Like other companies currently in the space, Subsocial is more or less forced into a contorted stance, on the hand extolling freedom from censorship as the core of its value proposition while promising that the same freedom won’t beget the kind of problems proto-decentralized Mastodon has already faced.
Bill Ottman, CEO of Minds, has talked about making his network uncensorable and espouses the “Daryl Davis philosophy”, which holds that airing out controversial viewpoints in an open forum is ultimately less harmful than silencing them altogether.
It’s an argument that’s somewhat reminiscent of the one for legalizing narcotics – forcing illicit activity underground certainly has its well-documented drawbacks.
Whether or not decentralized social media is actually good for society may ultimately depend on forces beyond any of our control. In a contest between Big Brother and the forces of anarchy, which is the lesser evil? Do we really need censorship to keep us safe, or if it’s simply a false perception of security that we’ve come to rely on? It’s a question that’s worth a deeper discussion, to be sure.