Decentralising Facebook with Blockchains and Userfeeds.

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Part 1. The Problem.

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)

  1. 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.

Wrapping up.

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.

The Killer App of Virtual Reality Is Already Here But No One Pays Attention Yet.

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Summary: The most valuable feature of Virtual Reality as a medium is the ability to focus the human brain and direct 100% of user attention to a particular input. In the digital economy of mass distraction, attention is the scarcest asset. Once people realise that VR headsets and VR apps are ‘attention amplifying’ devices, this feature alone can make VR worth billions. Especially in the ‘attention hungry’ industries such as sales, marketing, education, training.

Virtual Reality is quickly approaching an inflection point but it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. The social media buzz around VR emphasises gaming and entertainment but rest assured that VR will be bigger than that. Your relationship with digital information is mediated through rectangle screens of standardised sizes. And VR is going to liberate information from that rectangle you’re looking at right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of VR as a next-generation medium and how the phrase – ‘medium is the message’ applies to VR. This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan in his seminal book ‘Understanding Media’. McLuhan argues that when analysing a medium we shouldn’t look at its content but at the inherent characteristics of a medium itself.

Quote from Wikipedia:

“McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as an example. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.”[1]

More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society — in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example — the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.”

So what is the ‘message’ of VR then? What is the key characteristic of this tech that is content agnostic?

My personal ‘A-ha’ moment came after one of Oculus Rift demos I gave to a C-level executive from a media industry. His comment was something along these lines:

“Wow. Usually my mind is running with thoughts about emails, phone calls, meetings, to-do lists. But this experience got my full focus and attention. I was present in the moment, totally there.”

That single comment made me suddenly realise how powerful & valuable VR technology might become as an ‘attention amplifying’ device.

VR shuts you off completely from anything else – and whatever manifests in VR – becomes a center of your attention. This effect is so powerful that VR experience can even decrease the amount of experienced pain for patients during burn wound treatment. (Source: http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/vrpain/ )

Quote from the study:

“Pain perception has a strong psychological component. The same incoming pain signal can be interpreted as painful or not, depending on what the patient is thinking. Pain requires conscious attention.

The essence of VR is the illusion users have of going inside the computer-generated environment. Being drawn into another world drains a lot of attentional resources, leaving less attention available to process pain signals. Conscious attention is like a spotlight. Usually it is focused on the pain and wound care.

We are luring that spotlight into the virtual world. Rather than having pain as the focus of their attention, for many patients in VR, the wound care becomes more of an annoyance, distracting them from their primary goal of exploring the virtual world.”

So if VR has the ability to direct our attention away from pain, just imagine how impactful it will be across all the other industries – training, education, marketing but also healthcare & well being.

Instead of swallowing a relaxation pill, download an app?

Going to a client meeting to showcase your latest work? Forget your iPad, give your client a short VR experience and present your video on a giant screen.

Want to study for a while and make sure you absorb the learning material more effectively? Put on your VR goggles and sink into the experience.

Because with the ever expanding amount of information out there, one thing remains constant – our daily amount attention. And as competition for our attention is getting tougher in the ‘rectangular media’ and as we become more distracted with media, whoever changes their playing field to VR is going to win big time.

Smartphones combined with the Internet gave us an unprecedented access to information but at the same time made us distracted, unfocused and anxious.

My prediction is that VR tech will give us something equally valuable – the ability to laser focus our attention at will.

People will soon discover hidden and unanticipated feature of VR. It can become a ‘killer app’ in itself. But no one pays attention to it…yet.

This is a fascinating topic and I’ll be blogging about this more soon.

‘A Tuscany house or The Tuscany house?’ – on consensus in Virtual Reality worlds

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TL;DR Web-based Virtual Reality worlds combined with the blockchain-based consensus will create a ‘real’ Metaverse.

Before I begin my post, I have to admit that I’m totally fascinated by the Oculus Rift headset and the Virtual Reality experiences it enables. A couple months ago I’ve tried the DK1 for the first time and it totally blew me away – there were rough edges (DK1 is not a consumer device after all) but the overall quality of the experience was so magical that I became instantly converted.

I’m not sure how long it will take for VR headsets to become mainstream but one thing I’m certain of – people WILL want these experiences, VR is happening and is closer than anyone expects.

So if you’re reading this and you didn’t have an Oculus VR experience yet – then stop reading and try to find someone who can give you a demo. Virtual Reality has to be felt to be fully understood. You’re more than welcome to come back after your first Oculus session and my musings will make more sense to you then.

INTERNET OF (abundant) ‘EXPERIENCES’

Just like the Web enabled us to digitise information and allowed everyone to exchange it at almost zero cost, the VR technology allows us to do the same for ‘experiences’. There’s a qualitative difference between reading about a place, watching a video about that place and ‘being’ in that place. And if you tried Oculus you immediately understand how much more potent the feeling of ‘being’ can be.

Digitisation of ‘experiences’ creates a dynamic of abundance where previously there was scarcity. The best seat at the stadium is suddenly available to everyone in VR, experience of driving the latest sports car model or flying a jet – all available for free, to everyone to experience. And I’m just mentioning the most mainstream experiences.

What about a owning a house in virtual Tuscany…?

A Tuscany house is a interesting example as it is a flagship Oculus demo used for testing purposes. There’s nothing special about it – you can walk around the house, enjoy the view etc.

But the question I’ve been keeping asking myself lately is – “is there only one Tuscany house (there’s one piece of code defining it) or there’s thousands of Tuscany houses (as there are thousands of individual experiences of that house in VR)”?

NON-CONSENSUAL VIRTUAL WORLDS ARE LIKE DREAMS

What I mean by non-consensual is that during most VR demo sessions nowadays, users experience their own, individual version of virtual events in which they are the only character. Progression of events is relevant only to this particular session and user. There’s no continuity inside VR experience, no before & no after. Only the same scene, relived again & again by thousands of users in their own individual, subjective VR universes.

Experiences in non-consensual VR worlds are like dreams – they can be immersive & fascinating but at the same time are completely individual, subjective and limited to a single participant. No agreement with others is necessary to establish what happened. Some users already report that when they’re able to achieve presence in VR, it results in a ‘ghost town’ feeling (http://www.gamedev.net/blog/43/entry-2260394-vr-lessons-learned-so-far/) as there’s no one else around.

Because VR worlds are defined by computer code, they can be re-experienced again and again but every time a parallel experience is created and flow of events starts from square one.

To use our Tuscany house example – everyone has their own house, in their own, temporary version of the virtual world.

Majority of Oculus VR demos are now in this category but there an entire class of upcoming projects in the VR space – called ‘Metaverses’ – that will allow users to have shared experiences in virtual worlds.

CENTRALISED CONSENSUS IN VIRTUAL WORLDS

Of course, the question of ‘consensus’ is central to any Metaverse project. In a ‘non-consensual’ world I’m the only participant and can experience whatever I want.

In a VR space that is experienced with others we need to agree on a set of rules to determine what happened and in what order – consensus is necessary.

Massively Multiplayer Online (MMOs) games already solved this problem for their own game worlds. Consensus is enforced by the platform operator, who determines the actual state of in-game reality that each player sees on their screens. Player identities, item ownership, order of transactions, the issuance of in-game currencies are all maintained by a trusted 3rd party who makes up the rules, provides entertainment platform and charges money.

This works pretty well for games and it’s an extremely lucrative business with multi-million dollar game economies. That model most likely will be adopted for the first VR metaverses – whether that’s an Oculus Store, or other avatar-based virtual chat rooms & meeting places.

Centralised consensus model has many advantages, especially in terms of efficiency – but introduces a whole set of limitations and problems for open VR worlds. By definition such platforms will have to be contained and restricted in terms of VR experiences they offer and business models they use.

The middleman decides what experiences can be offered and most importantly, controls value flows that take place on the platform. An extreme example of that would be Facebook which socialises content production (everyone creates posts, uploads photos etc) and privatises value extraction (advertising money goes only to Facebook).

But if you tried VR, you already know it has way more impact on our psyches than anything we had before. The questions such as ‘what are we allowed to experience in VR’ , ‘who can decide what experiences others can have in VR’ , ‘who will benefit financially from the value created within the virtual worlds?’ are crucial questions we’ll have to answer in the coming years.

I doubt that a centralised, single consensus will be possible on these matters. Facebook is still debating whether images of nipples should be allowed on people’s newsfeeds so imagine the controversy when the politics of VR enters the picture.

DECENTRALISED CONSENSUS VR – THE REAL METAVERSE 

I’ll cut to the chase now. I believe that VR metaverses will be the killer application of the emerging blockchain 2.0 tech (I’m specifically looking at Ethereum here).

Simon De La Rouviere did a great job describing why VR+blockchain make sense and I fully agree with him on that.

The blockchain is a perfect technology that can provide VR worlds with a consensus mechanism for virtual worlds that is independent of any third party.

Combined with open web technologies such as Web GL for in-browser 3D rendering, we’ll get powerful tools to design, distribute and experience virtual worlds with independent economies based on cryptocurrency.

Today, the blockchain provides a timestamped ledger for financial transactions – a consensual version of the transaction history. Tomorrow, it could keep a record of events that took place in VR worlds. In the same way it replaces the need for middlemen in the banking sector, it can replace the need for centrally controlled metaverse platforms in the VR worlds.

Your VR identity can be cryptographically verified in the same way Bitcoin ownership is verified today.

The virtual Tuscany house could change owners using smart property contracts and this change would be immediately visible to everyone in the VR worlds.  In the same way that the entire altcoin space represents multiple versions of consensus and  transaction history, the blockchain-based Virtual Realities could have competing versions of event history. If that doesn’t sound like Singularity, I don’t know what does :)

DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) could suddenly get a very tangible 3D dimension in VR.

Various forms of consensus could be formed using smart contracts with multiple parallel realities. Virtual worlds with virtual economies could be boostrapped from scratch on a laptop by anyone in world.

It sounds sci-fi even to me writing these worlds now but looking at the open technologies that are already here or will soon be ( WebGL, Oculus support in experimental versions of Chrome and Firefox, Ethereum) I’m convinced that will be reality in the next 5 years.

Virtual Reality and cryptocurrencies are both very experimental fields and at their intersection lies Singularity :)

I’ll be blogging about them in more detail soon. But if you’re hungry for more – listen to the CryptoVR podcast where Wendell from Humint/Hive gives a great intro into these concepts.

Would love to hear your comments too!