The Decentralization of Social Media Platforms
As mainstream media becomes less relevant in our polarized Nation, there is no doubt that social media will adapt & shift alongside it. Big social brands like Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, & Snapchat have made strides to apply further restrictions on content in an effort to share factual information, be inclusive & non-discriminatory & be an overall positive landscape where users have both data privacy & protection from hateful speech or false information. Most recently, President Trump has been banned from a plethora of social media platforms with claims about abuse of power & encouraging insurrection at our Capitol during the electoral confirmation process.
Because of these changes, there is now an opportunity for new social platforms to emerge & promote a decentralized communication structure. These platforms will allow for individuals to focus on isolating the content that is relevant & entertaining to them & is more aligned with their individual interests & beliefs. The POTUS himself is claiming he will be creating a platform of his own to be able to communicate with his MAGA followers without fear of censorship.
Will this wider range of social options release the tension between conflicting opinions or further silo users by their individualized content consumption preferences?
First, let’s take a look at some of these emerging platforms:
which was developed in 2016 to be a friendlier, more positive & ad-free version of Twitter. Mimicking the Twitter interface allows for ease of transition, but there are several key differences in this platform experience. Mastodon is a decentralized platform, meaning that all content is distributed across independent servers known as “instances”. Each instance has its own terms of service, code of conduct & moderation policies while working seamlessly together with other servers as a federating network.
- Instead of “tweets”, you’ll “toot” and instead of “retweeting” you’ll “boost”.
- Mastodon also ditches the 280-character restriction giving you up to 500 as well as several options for privacy & content monitoring.
- This platform is 100% ad-free
- They have anti-bullying monitors/admins to effectively provide a safer social media experience.
- There are two home feeds: Local Timeline & Federated Timeline. Local is a stream of publicly posted “toots” whereas the Federated Timeline is a bit more complex involving connection to content off of the platform. For example: you can send an Outlook email to someone with a Gmail account even though you’re not using the same platform — and Mastodon is developed to operate in the same capacity.
- While this platform has steady growth at 2.2MM users & rising, it’s far from being a major competitor to Twitter due to its complex onboarding process & server structure.
- Mastodon definitely sparked a decentralized effort among social networks & will surely play an interesting part of the future of the internet.
This platform launched in 2017 & is targeted towards the far right population in America who have been banned from other platforms due to content & conduct concerns. It “champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online” according to their website and is currently an ad-free environment. As of April 13th, the website has 3.7MM global monthly visitors according to the website’s 2020 SEC filings.
- Very little content moderation or policy restrictions.
- Content & users are geared towards the far right/Republican audience in the U.S.
- The platform also offers an open-source, free-speech-focused web browser called Dissenter.
- This platform has received a lot of criticism & controversy due to its lack of regulation & hateful content. As a result, it’s unlikely they’ll remain a key player in the social space.
- The Apple App store & Google Play have removed Gab from their respective platforms due to “objectionable content & hate speech,” which will obviously negatively affect their growth goals.
- Paypal & Visa have blacklisted the founder & the site due to several criminal actions & unfavorable/hateful content.
- Other content aggregators like Mastodon have blocked content from Gab in an effort to isolate them & discourage growth. Mastodon released a statement in protest, denouncing Gab as trying to “monetize and platform racist content while hiding behind the banner of free speech.
The newest platform in the mix is described as an ad-free place where you can “speak freely & express yourself openly without fear of being deplatformed for your views” according to their website. Their pillars are based around both freedom of speech, but also data security and privacy. User sign ups spiked in mid-2020 after Twitter dropped political advertising & began to implement regulations on Trump’s inaccurate content on the platform.
- They are not currently offering advertising or selling data to third parties.
- They require individual account verification to keep out bots/fake accounts & encourage civil discourse & platform integrity.
- Current usage: 4MM active users, 10MM total.
- While this platform doesn’t specifically target Trump supporters, it does have a large Trump supporter base in their user demographics.
- Parler’s growth nearly doubled since its development. It was downloaded nearly 1MM times the week following Election Day, and was becoming the most popular free app on both Apple’s App Store & Google Play.
- Most recently, Parler lost its place on both the Apple App & Google Play stores for not doing enough to protect the flow of accurate information and prevent hateful content from being produced on their platform. Quickly following, Amazon pulled the plug on the social network by abolishing their cloud web hosting services because the platform did not have an effective process to monitor content in conjunction with the Amazon Web Services policies, terms & conditions.
- Now Parler is in the middle of a suit brought against Amazon claiming the act was motivated by political animus and is meant to reduce competition for brands like Twitter. They are claiming breach of contract and antitrust violations.
So is decentralization a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, it depends on who you ask. First, it’s important to understand what decentralization means in the social environment. The core idea is a shift in the dynamics of data ownership and lack of a central authority by relying on blockchain technology and eliminating data warehousing. Things like increased protection of data combined with the right to speak freely without fear of being moderated are all positive outcomes of decentralization. It’s easy to hope that birds of a feather who flock together will create a more peaceful social environment, but it’s possible (or dare I say more likely) that these siloed social landscapes could actually provoke further civil unrest. Decentralization raises concerns about opinion-based content & the spread of misinformation given more than half of Americans report that they get news from social media often, despite their continued concern about the accuracy of that information (PEW 2020 research study). Niche platforms can easily become echo chambers that promote one opinion & can continue to polarize users with differing views. New platforms hitting the market are more fluid & more message based, which opens up opportunities for passive thoughts to evolve into direct action. Whether that format promotes positive interactions vs. insurrection is tougher to predict or regulate without a central authority.
It’s too early to tell if these platforms will have a substantial impact from a market share perspective. Without advertising structures in place, the user experience consists primarily of user interaction vs. platform content production. Because paid social media has become such a crucial part of any plan, we will have to pay close attention to behavior changes, pricing fluctuation, scale & reach shifts as we continue to vy for our audience’s limited attention. Outside of these standard metrics, time spent on the app as well as shifts in the purpose each platform fulfills for its users will be huge considerations as we move forward.
At the end of the day, tech brands don’t want their platform tied directly to civil unrest. These evolving regulations are less about restricting free speech/content & more about eliminating the probability of these platforms being used as a tool to incite negative action. Emerging platforms who don’t make a concerted effort to protect their users are unlikely to be successful.