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Why Creators Should Care About Decentralization

Protecting free speech is an absolute necessity

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An article on Mashable pinpoints 2018 as the turning point for deplatforming. Designed to combat toxic hate speech online, it’s been used against such heavyweights as Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Laura Loomer.

Jones is famous for peddling a boatload of conspiracy theories, but the one that did him in was repeatedly calling the Sandy Hook incident a hoax. Finally, after having enough, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Stitcher, and other media platforms booted him. Yiannopoulos lost his voice on Twitter and Pantheon, as well as a book deal with Simon & Schuster, simply for being icky. And Loomer lost her Twitter soapbox after a nasty racist rant.

The Internet can be toxic.

Yet, there’s still hate speech, racism, conspiracy theories, and a score of other social ills plaguing the World Wide Web daily. You can find much of it on Facebook, Twitter, and other well-populated avenues of the world’s largest digital mirror.

Free Speech Is Not An Absolute

Of course, no sane person would defend racism, hate speech, wild conspiracy theories, and incitement to violence. But isn’t there a line between providing a platform for such speech and endorsing it? Does it mean that a social media platform is for an idea if they allow it to remain? Shouldn’t Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and every social media platform rid their digital community lounges of the Web’s most decadent evil voices?

Here’s a better question: Is there another way to deal with these issues without giving total power to social media platforms that pretend to be neutral when they clearly aren’t?

These are crazy times, but there’s a thin line between freedom of speech and speech that damages individuals, communities, and society. There are laws, for instance, that protect people from speech that destroys their reputations. Slander, libel, and defamation of character are not protected speech. On the other hand, publishing information that paints someone in a bad light, assuming the accusations are true, certainly is defensible. In other words, free speech is not an absolute, but protecting free speech is an absolute necessity.

Free speech is not an absolute, but protecting free speech is an absolute necessity.

-- some dude named Allen Taylor

In 2021, a former Facebook product manager went public and released internal Facebook documents that revealed the company had conducted research internally and discovered that its algorithms put the personal health of the platform’s users and the public at risk. In a speech before Congress, that product manager asked for legislation that would hold Facebook more accountable and asked lawmakers to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 shields Internet companies from liability for user-generated content (UGC) posted on their platforms.

The problem is that changing the law won’t fix the problem. It may exacerbate it. It could amount to putting a Band-Aid on an old scab, because the problem is the business model itself. The answer is decentralization.

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Decentralization Can Solve Problems Centralization Causes Or Can't Solve

I’m not saying all centralization is bad. However, asking social media platforms to remain neutral in the face of toxicity while protecting them from the natural consequences of UGC on their platforms is a time bomb waiting to explode.

Rather than get into a discussion about politics or policy issues, let’s discuss how technology can solve the problems caused by previous advancements. Smartphones are a step up from those pagers we had in the 1990s, which were particularly annoying when several of them began beeping at the same time as patrons tried to enjoy a meal at their favorite restaurant. Progress depends on technological improvements, and the Web has certainly given birth to new technologies that can enhance social media for all of us, while at the same time addressing the social issues it causes.

Decentralization is the answer to the problems centralization either causes or can’t solve. To be sure, there are problems that centralization can solve. In fact, there are problems that centralization is better equipped to solve. But there are also problems it is ill-equipped to remedy, one of which is human bias.

The 3 Layers of Decentralization

There are three levels of the social media stack where decentralization can benefit everyone. There’s the underlying technology layer, the human layer, and the middle, or application, layer.

The underlying technology layer is the infrastructure that undergirds the benefits any platform or protocol offers. Platforms rely on proprietary algorithms and business practices that can be even more harmful than the toxic culture of verbal waste it tries to curtail. In a word, Facebook and Twitter have failed to rid themselves of fake news, conspiracy theories, and other nasties despite a heavy-handed approach to dealing with them. By contrast, Hive approaches things from a different angle.

Rather than rely on nameless, faceless algorithms, Hive gives users tools to cast their votes for or against content they like and don’t like. The result is a system that rewards participants for their contributions to the ecosystem through incentives, while giving the community the power to send bad apples to the waste bin where they belong.

Another thing Hive gets right is that it empowers builders, entrepreneurs, and developers to create decentralized applications (dapps) on top of the open-source technology. The result is a decentralized middle layer of front-ends that ensure no one can dominate or dictate the priority of content for all users.

Witnesses on the blockchain ensure that the underlying tech stack remains operational by distributing computing power across several hundred nodes while incentives ensure they remain honest and diligent in maintaining the blockchain.

These three layers of decentralization don’t result in nirvana. But there’s not one or two individuals, or a group of elitists, who determine what is right for everyone while inconsistencies in judgment remain. Dorsey, for instance, loves bitcoin. He also reportedly loves decentralization despite making billions of dollars building one of the largest centralized platforms on the Internet. If you can appreciate that irony, then you understand the importance of the three layers of decentralization.

How Protocols Can Decentralize the Internet Again

In 2019, Dorsey tweeted that Twitter was funding research into a decentralized social network called BlueSky. Unlike Twitter, BlueSky is a protocol. A nonprofit initiative, it isn’t owned by Twitter but is led by Dorsey and Twitter’s former Chief Technology Officer and CEO, Parag Agrawal. The idea is to develop a protocol that multiple social networks can tap into in a decentralized way. In other words, Dorsey wants the benefits of Web3 without calling it Web3. He calls it “Web5.”

Much of the conversation around decentralization is about the difference between protocols and platforms. TCP/ IP is a protocol. No one owns it. No one controls it. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, are platforms and we know who controls them.

Whoever controls the platform controls the content. Facebook, for instance, controls everything within its domain through algorithms and human moderators. Twitter controls the content within its domain. Google controls which websites rise to the top of its search results and which ads are displayed. Amazon controls the products in its marketplace.

Since these organizations are businesses, no one questions whether they have the right to control what happens on their Web properties, but how they wield their power as centralized entities affects all of us one way or another. As a creator, don’t you want more say in who benefits from your creations?

Blockchains, like the Internet, have protocols. Some of the popular blockchain protocols include Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, EOS, Litecoin, and Polkadot. Like a database, a blockchain is a way of storing data; however, it offers a more secure way of doing so.

Each blockchain protocol includes a set of rules that govern how data is stored, communicated, secured, and monetized. In short, blockchain data is immutable and can’t be tampered with, deleted, altered, or changed—not even by the person who created it. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be buried and tossed into obscurity through distributed downvotes.

Unstoppable Domains is a company that sells blockchain domain names. These domain names allow people to synchronize their crypto wallets into a single Web address. Each domain name has a private key. If the private key is secure, whoever controls it controls the domain name and no one can unpublish it, delete it, remove it, ban it, confiscate it, or hide it. Of course, browsers can stop people from seeing a website or domain name, but since end users can choose which browser they use and tweak the settings on that browser, that puts the power into the hands of Web users rather than centralized entities like Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Web hosts. Unstoppable Domains showcases the power of a decentralized Internet.

Legacy social media platforms are beholden to their advertisers. Anything deemed a threat to advertiser interest is subject to editing, blocking, deletion, demonetizing, and deplatforming. Creators can lose their entire means of income just by running afoul of policies they didn’t agree to when they joined a platform, and that’s happened multiple times in recent memory.

More than a few YouTubers have found themselves demonetized for violating terms of service that weren’t explained to them, only to be notified weeks later that YouTube had made a mistake. The platform did not reimburse them for lost income.

Decentralization turns this threat of loss to livelihood on its head by returning the Web back to its natural roots through powerful protocols. Social media will be a part of that effort and give creators the ability to protect their content assets while monetizing them on their own without reliance on centralized decision-makers and anonymous algorithms. That’s what Web3 social is all about, and it’s a living, breathing organism right now.

"Why Creators Should Care About Decentralization" is an excerpt from Web3 Social: How Creators Are Changing the World Wide Web (And You Can Too!).

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