In the current social media landscape, a handful of large platforms own most of our data and attention. It has become clear that they take advantage of this power in ways that actively harm their users, other companies, and society at large.
These problems have recently reached a level of public awareness that may finally cause things to change. Initiatives like Humane Tech, whose Netflix feature film “The Social Dilemma” helped clarify the nefarious effects of social media when left to authoritarian control by a corporation that seeks to maximize shareholder profits instead of value for users.
The monopolies of current social media conglomerates, from Facebook to Tencent, may seem “too big to fail”, in terms of network effects and lock-ins. However, because the user experience keeps deteriorating and there is simultaneous pressure from new entrants, government, NGOs, and now the public, there may be a tipping point approaching where we’ll see an exodus into the “New Social”. As Facebook etc. faces pressures to keep growing or becoming more profitable (in an increasingly saturated market), the “deal” for the users will keep getting worse: More ads, less control, more insidious psychological influence to hook people to their screens.
At the same time, we are seeing a range of new companies who seek to rebuild the social media architecture from scratch, having realized how deliberate we need to be when it comes to the public sphere in the digital and our brand new “information highway”.
The New Social, at this point, is already underway and its early iterations and building blocks are starting to emerge. We can already describe some of these different building blocks and patterns, with the caution that we don’t yet know how it all fits together, and on what timeline.
We are briefly discussing 3 areas in which we are seeing these building blocks emerge: Online communities, social platforms and products, and self-sovereign identity and data management.
From where we are now, it sure looks like online communities are the future of social media. Not only has group engagement within legacy social increased dramatically (e.g. Facebook also puts increasing focus on groups), but we are seeing online communities across a range of different platforms, from messaging apps (e.g. Telegram, Discord) to new social platforms like Mighty Networks. Data platform GWI offers additional insights about this megatrend:
Many of the online communities we discussed above choose an independent platform, which offers them more freedom than legacy social and more elaborate features than messaging apps. Examples are Hivebrite or Mighty Networks which focus on hosting online communities, and Hopin and Bizzaboo which are centered around the online event.
Social products are similar in that they provide the infrastructure for communities to meet, but they are centered around a product. Examples include Blind, an anonymous professional social network, and CoFoundersLab, a social network for entrepreneurs. These products allow different communities to connect, interact, and create value for each other. On Blind, thousands of users share professional information in an anonymous context, allowing them to share things they could not previously (using their official name). CoFoundersLab is a great example of a community formed around a purpose (building companies and finding co-founders) and enabled by a product (profiles, matching, etc.).
What these different approaches of social platforms and products have in common is that they augment social interaction with technologies and products. They often focus on enabling creators and communities to connect more deeply and collaborate better.
The economics of New Social platforms revolve around value creation, and only then taking a piece of the now much larger pie. That shift towards human-centricity and the co-creation of value is at the fundament of New Social.
From the developments outlined above, we can start describing what layers of technology are required for the New Social as envisioned above.
The main entities we consider are users and communities (for now excluding autonomous software agents). They interact through different protocols or algorithms, which are composable and interoperable. Importantly, users have control over their data and selectively decide what they share with other users, communities, and algorithms. The intersection of what they share is what we call “Persona”. Think of it as an avatar that can move on the spectrum from anonymity to pseudonymity all the way to full transparency, based on the context.
Protocols and algorithms necessary for the New Social can be organized into the following main layers:
Closest to the user in the New Social tech stack is the user layer. In the new paradigm, user data is owned at the edges, not within the applications or platforms. One could imagine a “personal data locker” that contains all relevant user information. It’s astonishing how large our data footprint has become, consider the following kinds of data that could all be included:
In the New Social tech stack, all of that data is owned by the user. The cryptographically secured data locker selectively shares data with approved users, communities, or algorithms, creating a unique Persona for each interaction. Versions of this interaction are also described as “self-sovereign identity”, meaning users are sovereign over their online identity (their data footprint). In the future, the user layer could be powered by zero-knowledge technology and secure multi-party computation (SMC), which would enable proofs about data and computation on shared data without losing privacy.
The UX layer of the New Social tech stack is where all the products and platforms that we described above sit. It’s where users communicate and collaborate with each other, across different media. Communities usually manifest on one or several Social Products or Platforms, providing a political (and monetary frame) for user interaction.
In that sense, the UX layer could be described as the bridge which connects all of the layers into a concrete user experience. Most users will only be aware of the UX they interact with on a given product, not all the other layers in the background that make the experience possible.
The computation layer is how personas connect to one another. Users connect their data locker, especially their social graph, to the UX layer. This enables them to interact as a persona with others in the context of a specific community. These interactions will tend to happen in the context of a specific community or at least within the context of a specific New Social platform or product. The computation layer regulates which communities, and which spaces within these communities any given Persona has access to. Similarly, Personas may have a different reputation within different communities or platforms.
Both access and reputation have a strong influence on the political and monetary layers. In this way, the computation layer also extends the persona into the political and monetary layers in the context of a specific community/platform/product.
Superlinked mostly lives on the computation layer, where it provides APIs to enhance social products and platforms, allowing them to offer better features on the UX layer.
With the increased computational capacity provided by Superlinked, these social platforms and products can improve the quality of engagement, and how much value is created as a result. Superlinked allows the platforms of the New Social to create more value for their users by enriching interactions with social intelligence.
We have also seen the emergence of tokenized communities in crypto, or “Social tokens”, as explained here. The fundamental shift is that blockchain-based tokens provide a new way for online communities to monetize and distribute ownership. This new capacity could eventually also power new social platforms, allowing users to become co-owners of the platform, and communities to monetize through their own token. We are calling this additional layer the monetary/legal layer.
Once every stakeholder holds tokens, yet another layer opens up: The political layer. Decisions on how the monetary/legal layer evolves, along with any other type of decision from product to staffing, can now be made collectively by all relevant stakeholders. We are seeing a whole range of different mechanisms, from one-person-one-vote to liquid democracy — being used to govern digital platforms and communities. Smart contracts and the increasing prevalence of ready-to-use frameworks have enabled this innovation. The political layer connects to the monetary layer through the governance mechanism, which is often powered by tokens or NFTs.
Even though previous technologies have also been embedded in monetary/legal and political structures, these structures were provided by the respective jurisdiction and not up for debate. In Web 3, they become part of the tech stack.
In Web 3, there are a growing number of products that have their own communities that co-own the product through tokens. The components they use to communicate, make decisions, and monetize are all open-source, composable, and interoperable. All the while, user information, and funds are self-custodied through users’ Web 3 wallets, and not on the platform.
As alluded to above, the monetary/legal layer concerns the assets, cash flows, and contractual agreements of the different communities and personas. There has been a clear trend of social media to more closely interconnect with financial flows already, from ad revenues to influencers and the growing Creator economy. We expect that in the New Social tech stack, these monetary flows will become more transparent and made accessible to users. For example, users could selectively monetize their data, as well as get paid for actions like curation and participation. At the same time, they would own part of the communities and platforms they participate in.
Online communities and even New Social platforms will be powered by different decision-making mechanisms than simple top-down command-and-control. Even Facebook has set up an ethical council to at least try to make their decision-making consider their users as a stakeholder.
In the New Social, most communities and platforms will be user-owned and governed. Different users will have different decision-making power in different communities and on different platforms, depending on their reputation within that context and on the given governance mechanism.
The modular, interoperable tech stack described in this piece could turn legacy media upside down and enable human-centric, empowering online interactions. In contrast to the current paradigm where the platforms own all the data and users have no control, all personal data lives on the user layer, controlled by every user.
The required computation necessary to enable social interactions at scale, from the curation of content to the social intelligence provided by Superlinked, happens with user consent and while preserving privacy. Furthermore, algorithms may become increasingly transparent and modular too, allowing for more transparency and optionality for both platforms and users.
These developments could break open both the user data and computation monopolies of legacy social media giants, allowing emerging social platforms and products to operate on the same terms and compete effectively. Under these conditions, it seems obvious that users will eventually make the choice for an online experience that helps them create value and connect with others, rather than being lured into binge-watching and “doom-scrolling” for the sake of advertising revenues.