I have to confess that that using ‘Facebook’ in the title was a bit provocative on my side. The goal was to introduce the idea of userfeeds in a somewhat tangible way and Facebook is always a great target to aim at when talking about decentralisation
But the main idea behind ‘userfeeds’ is more general:
how can we rethink the existing discovery models on the internet using the blockchain?
Bitcoin proved it’s possible to exchange monetary value online without third parties, so can we apply the same model to exchange attention online? (exchange links, traffic etc)
Discovery is extremely centralised today with Google and Apple running their respective app stores, Google running Search , Amazon being the key discovery platform for products, YouTube for videos etc. The key element of social platforms such as Facebook or Reddit is also discovery.
We’ve already explored the disadvantages of closed data platforms and the need for the more open and participatory architectures in the previous article.
So let’s look into potential applications of the ‘userfeeds’ — the decentralised discovery networks based on the idea of WebRings.
Back to the 1990s — the WebRings
Some of you might remember the pre-Google era of the Internet. There was an interesting concept that emerged at that time — the WebRing.
So what is a WebRing?
“A webring (or web ring) is a collection of websites linked together in a circular structure, and usually organized around a specific theme, often educational or social. They were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly among amateur websites.”
The value proposition of webrings was to help website owners to get more targeted traffic to their sites. For users, webrings helped to discover more websites from the niche they were interested in. In the pre-Google era, this was a great way to discover new sites from the same category and many sites grouped together to exchange traffic within the ring.
Webrings required an operator called the RingMaster who was a moderator of the ring and a dedicated server to host the webring.
WebRings were one of the first discovery models for sites when the web was still in its infancy and much more decentralised than it is today. In a way, WebRings were a decentralised and a bott0m-up method of curating the Web before Google’s robots entered the game.
So why this still could be relevant in 2015?
My hypothesis is that the webring idea combined with the blockchain+userfeeds could form a basis for decentralised discovery networks.
Users would announce their actions of joining, leaving or forming the Ring on the blockchain and in userfeeds they control.
Ring Owners wouldn’t have to run the infrastructure anymore (the blockchain would take care of that), they would be just a specified roles on the blockchain responsible for maintaining the Ring.
This could be especially attractive for the creators of:
bots (Slack, Messenger, Telegram)
Virtual Reality worlds
that would allow them collaboratively build alternative discovery mechanisms competitive to centralised stores. (BotRings, AppRings, MetaverseRings? )
There’s lots of potential for experimentation with voting and monetary exchange within and between Rings. For example: participants of the rings would vote to accept new joiners or a joining fee could be split between the existing members.
It’s one of the potential applications of Userfeeds that’s really exciting and we’ll be looking into it in more detail.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the UX of the blockchain apps will evolve and came across this article from Techcrunch.
The linked article argues that new technologies always emerge in a specific context. Forcing old paradigms onto it may result in a ‘technologicall tiller’.
‘Technological tiller’ is a phrase coined by Scott Jenson, who is one of the UX leaders for Google’s Internet of Things efforts. The term refers to first automobiles that used a navigation mechanism used by boats — a tiller — before a steering wheel was invented.
Early car manufacturers applied a steering solution that was not suited to a new technology only because it was familiar to them.
How does it apply to modern UIs and interfaces then?
The article highlights the rise of the messaging apps like Whatsapp, Telegram or Slack and emergence of text bots.
While messaging has become central to our everyday lives, it’s currently only used in the narrow context of personal communications. What if we could extend messaging beyond this? What if messaging could transform the way we interact with computers the same way it transformed the way we interact with each other?
Why messaging is potentially better suited for blockchains from the UX perspective?
It made me think about applying this to the context of blockchain apps.
Are the graphical interfaces (GUIs) suitable for blockchain based applications? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
User expectations will vary depending on the interface they interact through. With the graphical interface, there is an expectation of an instant feedback. When pressing a button to take an action, I’m expecting an immediate response from the interface.
The problem with blockchain interactions is that users have to wait at least 15 seconds (as it’s the case with Ethereum now) for their action to be confirmed. The waiting time will vary depending on how fast miners will discover the next block.
This limitation might disappear once blockchains evolve and achieve faster block times. But for the nearest future, we can’t expect sub-second block times that would be necessary for a smooth blockchain interaction using a GUI.
But what about messaging?
What if we interacted with a smart contract on the blockchain using a text-messaging interface?
Could it be a better alternative if people are comfortably using messaging for so many use cases?
There are a couple reasons this could be a good UX choice:
messaging is an asynchronous form of communication. The same 15 seconds of waiting time, which feels buggy on a GUI, is perfectly fine when using messaging.
messaging as UX is aligned with the underlying architecture of blockchains. Accounts and smart contracts modify their state by exchanging ‘text messages’ with each other. Text messaging is a common communication pattern for blockchains and humans.
users are already familiar with payments over SMS. Most of the SMS payment schemes are simple today, but we can imagine interacting with a cryptocurrency enabled bot using a messaging app.
whatsapp, telegram or slack bots are exploding in popularity.
How the blockchain can add value to the messaging apps and bots?
In this context the blockchain acts as an:
interaction layer for bots operating between various platforms — it provides interoperability and value exchange.
audit layer — everyone can audit the bot behaviour as the open data is public. So the bot activity data is not again locked to the hosting platform (slack, whatsapp, telegram) but is publicly accessible on the blockchain+IPFS stack.
Not all bot activity would be time stamped and public. But as discovery of content is moving to virtual bot assistants, we need an open data backbone for these bots to interoperate on. The blockchain can provide that.
Today, we have one giant Google bot crawling the web and serving results via a proprietary interface.
Tomorrow, we might see it replaced by a mesh network of thousands of bots, serving results and providing discovery services via mobile text interfaces.
The blockchain would provide the common language and exchange layer for these bots and users interacting on various platforms. Similarly to Bitcoin being the independent ledger for user facing financial apps.
And the incentivization model I’ve outlined in my previous article could be used as foundation for ‘AdWords For Bots’.
Almost two years ago I wrote a blog post ‘Why the next Facebook will be owned by you’. It became clear to me at the time that the core invention behind Bitcoin, the blockchain, is much bigger than just sending money online. I argued that the concept of decentralised digital ownership, which Bitcoin applied to money, can be extended to other forms of value.
What I realised at the time was that owning bitcoins meant owning a stake in the underlying network. Holders of bitcoin not only owned a particular number of currency units. These units, apart from being a unit of exchange, were ‘shares’ in the future success of the entire network.
For the first time in history, millions of people around the globe could align their economic incentives by downloading and using the same software. This realisation blew my mind.
What if we could use the same technology to align our incentives in other forms of digital value exchange?
To illustrate the point, I let’s use the example of Facebook. Facebook as a company is a hybrid entity.
It uses a 21st-century technological stack that allows a decentralised creation of value — people create value for each other on Facebook by uploading millions of posts, photos and videos. If you want to access this content — you have to join Facebook.
But economically Facebook operates on the 17th century ‘legal stack’ of a joint stock company. It has to generate returns for its shareholders and legally that’s the primary purpose of its existence.
So value created by millions of users is extracted and converted into capital returns for a small group of FB shareholders. The mechanism used to achieve that is simple — sell users’ attention to advertisers.
I use Facebook as an example here but what I described is a general economic model of the Web 2.0. Leverage technology and free communications to aggregate users attention (forums, social networks, apps) and then convert it to capital via ads, to generate returns for a few shareholders.
But there’s a growing misalignment between the interests of users and companies operating the Web 2.0 platforms. It’s caused by the exponential growth of information while our attention stays limited. Getting attention and converting it to capital (by making people click on ads) becomes also exponentially harder.
To counter this, publishers and platforms respond with more clickbait, sensational headlines and intrusive advertising.
If users then start blocking ads, advertisers move away from banners into the ‘native ads’. So the game never ends.
To address this problem, we would have to reimagine the economic foundations of the Web 2.0 and design proper technologies around them.
Such reinvention was technically impossible even a few years ago. But today with the evolution of the Bitcoin ecosystem and new technologies such as the Ethereum blockchain & IPFS decentralised storage we can start seriously experimenting with alternative models.
There’s a lot of questions that come to mind when you start exploring this topic.
How to build a system where various centralised components of Google or Facebook can be ‘uberized’?
Is it possible to design incentives in decentralised social networks to achieve similar alignment that Bitcoin did with digital money?
How to reward contributors with a stake in the network that’s proportional to their contributions?
Authorship, content monetization & advertising — what is their meaning in this new context? Do old definitions still apply?
How to address the issue of subjectivity in the evaluation of users contributions.
How to combine technology, economics, UX to create experiences that are easy to understand and feel natural to the end users.
What metaphors should be best suited to define and explain this new techno-economic model? Decentralised apps, decentralised websites? Or maybe something else.
Together with Kuba Kucharski, one of the most talented developers I know with experience in Bitcoin and Ethereum, we spent many hours discussing these topics and we came up with the concept of ‘userfeeds’ that might form the basis of decentralised social networks.
While we’re still prototyping the PoC we thought we’d share our thoughts with the wider community.
While it’s not a technical whitepaper (we’re working on that), but we believe it should be still valuable to share it at this point.
Part 2. Decentralised Userfeeds — the architecture for a decentralised ‘Facebook’ (and much more)
The web experience today is organised around streams.
Your Facebook wall, Twitter stream, Instagram feed, Reddit’s subreddit or even a notification center on your smartphone are all streams.
Essentially, these streams or data feeds are all series of time stamped events, recorded in platform’s databases, assigned to authors and content.
If you create new content on any of these platforms it’s saved to your personal feed and then depending on the indexing and ranking rules of a given platform, it becomes visible to other users.
The issue is that your data is locked up in the platform silo and can’t be ported elsewhere. Only the platform operator has full access to your data and can offer indexing, filtering and UIs that can’t be offered by third parties. Third parties are only allowed to access data via APIs which are limited to secure the operators monopoly.
So even though you create your own data feed and store it on Facebook, you can’t use this data outside of Facebook.
The emergence of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning exacerbates this imbalance even further. Platform operators can gain competitive advantage by training their AI models on huge datasets created by their users.
In the case of advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook, users effectively train the platforms to serve them more customised advertising.
Because it’s impossible for competitors to access the raw data layer and create alternatives, we’re stuck with the systems that will always direct our attention to content that’s ‘monetizable’ for the platforms.
Is there a solution then?
The Bitcoin experiment proved that it’s possible to create open data platforms which are not controlled by any single party. So in the case of Bitcoin, the blockchain contains the persistent, immutable ledger of transactions. Users can only add new transactions to the ledger but the history cannot be changed. The blockchain is public, readable by anyone and contains the objective version of what transactions took place and in what order.
The idea of Userfeeds is to run a similar ledger, on top of existing blockchains, but instead of time stamping transactions users would timestamp links to content stored on the IPFS storage layer.
The main difference with the financial transactions on the blockchain, is that the blockchain wouldn’t verify the content of these links. The blockchain layer is ‘dumb’ — for it just proves that a particular user time stamped a set of actions at a particular time.
The ‘meaning’ of this actions would be interpreted on the layer above.
By announcing their actions on the blockchain each user over time accumulates a unique footprint of behaviours. All their actions are persistently stored on the blockchain and visible to the indexing bots.
This is what we call a Userfeed. A unique history of actions such as content uploads, likes, votes etc, recorded on the blockchain and controlled by a particular identity.
As thousands of Userfeeds run in parallel on the network, adding new content and actions to their history, a new type of the social open data layer is created.
How we then evaluate these actions and present them to the end users?
This happens on the layers above the blockchain with decentralised indexes and interfaces.
Similarly to how Google indexes the web and offers a search engine UI to the end users, multiple parties could run their own equivalent of ‘Google bots’. These bots would scan, index and filter the public userfeed layer.
The same mechanism would work with UIs. A marketplace of UIs could emerge offering users competing views into the open userfeed layer.
The key difference though is that the ‘transaction data’ would be owned by the users at all times.
Users could switch to a different UI at any time and maintain their reputation and history. Because switching costs would be negligible indexes and interfaces would have to provide the best possible ‘return-on-attention’ for their users.
Why this model aligns user incentives better than the existing one?
By contributing to the underlying open data platform, users build their reputation stake in the entire system. If the platform grows and and receives more attention, the early joiners have the the longest ‘reputation chains’ and therefore will be more visible than the new joiners.
Attention is valuable so users with a lot of attention (high visibility) will be able to monetize this attention directly. Right now, Google and Facebook have monopoly on monetizing attention that’s aggregated by their platforms by inserting advertising into interfaces and indexes they control.
Users don’t participate in proceedings generated from the attention that they attracted with their content. With Userfeeds monetization is built directly into the protocol.
How users can monetize their userfeeds?
Userfeeds can incentivize each other to include certain actions using simple smart contracts and underlying value token of the blockchain (most likely Bitcoin or Ether).
So let’s imagine you are Kim Kardashian and you’re popular on the userfeeds based version of Instagram. Today, if a brand wants to promote their products in your Instagram feed they have to approach you directly or through a middleman and arrange a deal.
With Userfeeds they can directly send a bid offering money for being included in your feed. This way your Kim Kardashian persona can directly monetize their attention and fame in context of a decentralised Instagram.
How would this work? (the bitcoin token is used only as an example — depending on the chain used this would be Ether or other token)
User controlling the userfeed #1 sends a bid to the user controlling the feed #4
2. In this example, user #4 performs a moderator role and user #1 wants to incentivize the moderator to review their submission earlier.
3. Smart contract escrows the money and checks whether the content hash specified by the user #1 appeared in the user #4’s feed.
4. User #4 reviews the content, posts its content hash into their own feed and pings the smart contract.
5. Smart contract verifies that content hash in moderator’s feed matches the one that was submitted by user #1. It releases money from escrow to the moderator.
This article is just an introduction to a much larger set of challenges related to building decentralised social networks.
In the following posts, we’ll look into possible applications and dive deeper into the economics of attention that the concept of Userfeeds is based on.
We’re aware that this outline is missing many technical details. These will be published soon in a more technical whitepaper.
Our goal at this stage is to get feedback from the community and possibly secure funding for further research and validation.
Let us know what you think and stay tuned for more.