Maksym Protsenko/123RF
 

Blockchain for Social Media: 10+ Practical Use Cases

  • 26 November 2018
  • Sam Mire

Social media has become indistinguishable from daily life for the majority of citizens of the developed world. Only 10% of Americans were on social media platforms in 2010, and it was largely the domain of teens and young people expressing their personalities through the unique backgrounds, embedded songs, and corny quotes littering their Myspace profiles. By 2017, the percentage of Americans on at least one social media platform had risen to 80%. Over 3 billion people worldwide have a profile on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or some other social media platform, a total figure that has risen by roughly 13% year-over-year. Young people are especially likely to embrace the many different forms of social media. 78% of 18-to-24-year-olds use Snapchat regularly, while 71% of young people in the same age range use Instagram, while 45% are on Twitter.

Even though social media is not going anywhere, there’s no shortage of individuals who have noticed the toll that social media has taken on their lives. For the first time since the inception of mainstream social media platforms, the share of American users with at least one social profile declined in 2018. There are several reasons for this, ranging from social media fatigue to mistrust in the platforms’ creators and hosts. In 2017, 29% of young adults admitted to being addicted to social media, meaning that their need to persistently post and view social media was having a negative impact on their lives and health. It has also wreaked havoc on countless self-images and contributed to the rise in anxiety of all people, and young people in particular.

There are several proposed improvements to social media that involve the introduction of blockchain technology. Hopefully these improvements can help mitigate some of the detrimental mental health effects of social media, as well as privacy concerns that have plagued several of the most popular social media platforms.  

Blockchain for social media - Practical use cases


Removing the User as the Product

Blockchain use cases for social media - Removing the User as the Product

Anybody who turns even a slight glance toward the news cycle knows that our social media posts are being used in all sorts of ways that we never would have suspected years ago. In April 2018, it was reported that Facebook’s data harvesting scandal had been widened, now said to have impacted at least 87 million people. By allegedly sharing users’ posts and the information they contain with the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica in an improper manner, Facebook management allowed the firm to tailor political ads that targeted individuals based on their perceived personality traits.

But Facebook is far from the only social platform utilizing the information we voluntarily post to make a profit and assist advertisers. One data brokerage firm, Acxiom, reported over $800 million in earnings over a single year from buying and selling user data to other brokers, advertisers, and businesses. These kind of revenues are the lifeblood of most free social media platforms, but a large number of users have become less than comfortable with the idea that their data is being passed around like a dutchie at a reggae concert.

We know that the current system of social media allows centralized overseers, such as Facebook HQ, to hold, access, and disseminate the content we post on our social profiles, sharing it with advertisers or whoever they please. By replacing centralized strongholds of endless user data with a distributed network of storage, the idea is that no central authority will have the capacity to use our information for their own purposes, essentially freeing social media users from their current status as products. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Sapien – Giving users control of their social data.
  • Killi – Helping users get compensated for use of their data.  

Better Control Over Content

Blockchain use cases for social media - Control Over Content

A somewhat disturbing story broke in 2014 that highlighted the idea that users on social media platforms often become little more than guinea pigs for the tech overlords. In June of that year, it was revealed that Facebook had intentionally manipulated more than 689,000 users’ news feeds in order to elicit an emotional response. Because we consent to giving life, limb, and our sanity over to the corporate world in the many Terms of Agreement we agree to without second thought, we essentially set ourselves up to be manipulated — and in the case of Facebook, that’s precisely what occurred.

By adjusting the number of positive or negative news stories that appeared in the feeds of more than half a million randomly selected users, The Social Network was able to gain insight into how emotional responses can be spread throughout social media. The leader of the “study” — let’s call the social experiment what it is — Adam D.I. Kramer, eventually issued a public apology, but the company maintains that users consent to this kind of emotional manipulation when they sign up.

But most realize that this is not what they signed up for, and bright minds are working to create more trustworthy platforms in the face of persistent violations of trust by traditional social platforms. Some firms are working to establish decentralized means for hosting social interactions on the blockchain. Somebody has to pay to keep the blockchain nodes up and running, though, which is why a system by which cryptocurrencies are issued to node hosts as financial incentive to keep the platform chugging along is being tested. If successful, this could put an end to platforms where a single host has complete authority to dictate the type of content that is being peddled alongside user posts. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • DTube Video platform built on the Steem blockchain designed to reduce central control of content distribution.  

Improved Security

Blockchain use cases for social media - Improved Security

There are some people who see no limit to how far social media platforms will go to find out more about you. Facebook has denied allegations that their app can use your phone’s microphone to eavesdrop on your conversations. However, that hasn’t stopped the internet from running wild with concerns that phones, and those behind the apps, could be listening in at any given moment. Considering that several articles have confirmed the ability of apps to access your microphone — we’ve all seen the pop-up notification asking whether an app can be granted permission to do just that — it seems that there may be fair reason for concern, or at least skepticism.

A former startup known as Six4Three has brought formal litigation against Facebook, alleging that, among other questionable methods of data collection, the Facebook app was used to access and record data using people’s phone microphones. True or not, the allegations are not completely far-fetched. After all, social media has worked to turn us into a society of stalkers, so wouldn’t it only be fitting that our social media apps were stalking us back? Maybe, but that’s not exactly a comforting rationale for most.

While it can begin to sound like blockchain technology is some sort of mythical cure-all with powers on par with the Fountain of Youth, consider that it simply offers benefits that overlap conveniently with many of the most obvious issues plaguing our technology-infested world. One of those benefits is the encryption of data to ensure that stronger measures of security remain in place, regardless of whether you are uploading top-secret information or kitten memes. Because many social profiles are connected to email addresses, phone numbers, and more sensitive information, a clean break from systems where social platform creators host a broad network of user communications is much needed. This encryption would likely alleviate the concerns of even the most paranoid critics of social media.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • SoMee – Blockchain powered social network using blockchain to cryptographically secure user data. 

Expanding and Protecting Freedom of Speech

Blockchain use cases for social media - Protecting Freedom of Speech

In America, much is made about the abridgement of the freedom of speech. The First Amendment is such a fundamental right that vigilance in this regard should never be dismissed or taken lightly, but to compare the United States to many other nations where true freedom of speech simply doesn’t exist is tone deaf. In those nations least tolerant of free speech, including criticism of the government, messaging apps and social media have become an easy way to identify and punish dissenters.

In China, authorities have cracked down on users who penned political writings on the widely-used social networking app WeChat, which is regularly accessed by roughly 300 million Chinese users. Several other nations, including the likes of Malaysia, Armenia, Turkey, Pakistan, Vietnam, and even France and the UK, have taken steps to limit access to either YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia. Democracy is facing a widespread crisis of survival, and limiting the modern, technologically-dependent means of free speech is at the heart of this critical fight.

For those who wish to express themselves freely, such as those fighting against corrupt and oppressive regimes, the slew of apps that claim to offer end-to-end encryption — WhatsApp, iMessage, etc. — still produce metadata that third parties can use to determine, among other things, who sent and received a message. Blockchain alternatives to these platforms remove the aspect of user accounts so that metadata cannot be tied to any single person, and the metadata itself is spread across a single decentralized network. This affords great possibility for those who require true anonymity to fight a good fight.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Civil – Restoring freedom of speech to small outlets and journalists. 

In-App Payments

Blockchain use cases for social media - In-App Payments

Social networks continue to explore how to keep users on their platforms continuously. One of the ways they have begun to pursue this goal is by developing in-app means of payment so that users can order a pizza, shop online, or pay a friend back without ever leaving the social platform. In May 2018, Instagram announced that it is testing a new in-app payment structure that asks users to provide their payment information to the app, and claims to ensure that security will be guaranteed through the issuance of a PIN number.

Snapchat was making a similar foray into the in-app payment game, but apparently decided that the idea was either not viable or more trouble than it’s worth, because in July 2018 it was announced that the disappearing video messaging app was canning the venture. Skype, Apple, and Facebook have all tried their hand at in-app payments, to varying degrees of success. There’s an elephant in the room holding these ventures back: Considering all the data breaches and scandal that have surrounded social media, what makes them think users will be eager to enter their financial details into these apps?

For those willing to embrace cryptocurrencies, a blockchain-linked social platform could seamlessly integrate the ability to make payments. Because cryptocurrencies are enabled by blockchain technology, the ability to tie payments into a blockchain-enabled social network would seemingly be far easier and secure than the attempts we’ve seen from legacy social networks. The ability for smart contracts to execute secure transactions based on a two-way, verified exchange of goods and services could lend a measure of legitimacy to these transactions, as opposed to a half-cocked gimmick that inspires little user confidence. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Steemit – Uses a native currency to reward users for influence, along with serving as the transaction layer for the platform.
  • SocialX  New app with completed ICO aiming to improve social and in-app payment structures.
  • Kin – Kik’s new cryptocurrency, soon to be launched in the Kik app.  

Providing Compensation for Popular Posts and Influencers

Blockchain use cases for social media - Compensation for Posts & Influencers

These days, everybody wants to be a YouTube star or Twitter Pied Piper. Taking a quick accounting of the most successful personalities populating social platforms, it’s not difficult to see why Joe Blow has big dreams of getting rich off of the gram. Daniel Middleton, the most successful YouTube personality of 2018, racked up $16.5 million in a single year off the back of his 19.5 million subscribers. At the bottom end of the top 10 YouTubers this year sits Lilly Singh, who took in a reported $10.5 million.

Those who have made a habit of firing off clever tweets that rack up tons of likes and help propel them into cult status can only dream of such tangible compensation in return for the value they bring to the platform. Though you might not find the top ten tweets of all time to be, let’s say, profound, those who draw a massive audience deserve some form of financial acknowledgement. The same goes for Snapchatters and Instagrammers, who often are able to sign advertising agreements and endorsement deals based on their popularity, but are not always compensated directly by the platform.

YouTube is known for compensating its most popular influencers based upon the number of interactions with their content. Interestingly, the same model has not been adopted by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, and it’s fair to believe that this limits the potential of the networks to tease out regular content from the most valuable personalities. While there is inherent value to gaining followers, a model that tracks user interactions using blockchain ledgers could provide stronger metrics for fair compensation, and smart contracts could automatically pay influencers based on the popularity of their posts and interactions. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Steemit Similar to Reddit, Steemit recognizes popular content in a thread and rewards high performing content with their token.
  • Sapien – Rewards content creators with native cryptocurrency.  

Authenticating Legitimacy of Content

Blockchain use cases for social media - Authenticating Legitimacy of Content

The rise of “fake news” has led us to question everything we thought we knew about media credibility and the truth. And it’s no longer the case that a news outlet’s name is enough to engender trust. According to Politico, more than three-quarters of American respondents — 77%, to be specific — believe that major media outlets report what can be qualified as “fake news.” The largest-ever study dedicated to examination of fake news was conducted by MIT, and it reinforced the public’s skepticism toward what they read in both traditional and alternative news sources. In studying roughly 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million users over a span of more than ten years, researchers from America’s premier technical university found that false news reaches more people, reaches deeper into Twitter, and spreads at a much faster rate than accurate stories. In short, sensationalism rules.

While blockchain-enabled solutions to this problem aren’t flawless, they represent a marked improvement over the Wild West of content that currently exists. One solution is to provide blockchain-linked payments to users in exchange for ranking the reliability of content. This obviously leaves lots of room for subjectivity and interpretation but, again, at least provides a measure of order. Other platforms are using algorithms built into the blockchain to verify the authenticity of user-generated video, showing the promise that the technology holds to help curb the rise in malicious or untrustworthy content and information. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Sapien – Blockchain powered social platform built to help increase the veracity of good content.   

Freedom to Access Information

Blockchain use cases for social media - Freedom to Access Information

The ability to pen content in oppressive nations is an uphill battle, but guards against fair access to content is perhaps even more detrimental to those living restricted intellectual lives. There is no shortage of nations implementing heavy-handed tactics to restrict their people’s access to the internet. While some may be surprised to learn that the top ten nations with the harshest internet censorship include the likes of China, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, it should come as no shock that North Korea tops the list. Though many North Koreans have access to smartphones, the vast majority are connected to KoryoLink, a virtually monopolized telecom provider that is subject to direct oversight by the government.

Obviously, this greatly limits North Koreans’ ability to reach the outside world, and the situation with the internet is no better. While in-nation streaming between patients and doctors has become more prevalent, and courses can be taught from Kim Il-Sung University via transmission to farmers in the countryside, the internet is a far cry from the globally-connected, limitless network that residents of truly free nations know. North Korea is the prime example of a nation whose control over information might be threatened by more decentralized means of disseminating information.

Decentralized ledgers built upon blockchain technology are distributed across several nodes, and therefore the information they contain and disseminate is nearly impossible to censor. If a user is able to purchase a token — the means currently being employed to allow access to one major decentralized social network — they are able to access a trove of content that cannot be blocked by governments seeking to limit their citizens’ rights to open information.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Sola Distributed platform for information sharing and community consensus.  

Verified Marketplaces

Blockchain use cases for social media - Verified Marketplaces

The ability for marketers and businesses to home in on audiences that have interests and predilections that make them more likely to take action is invaluable. Online marketplaces come in many shapes and forms, but often they are cluttered with goods and services that have little to no value to the consumer, with no real means to authenticate the veracity of a seller’s claims, or the sellers themselves.

Even with these inefficiencies, $1.55 trillion was spent globally in the top 75 online marketplaces in 2017. That figure was bolstered by a 34% increase in gross merchandise sales over the previous year. The most successful online marketplace of all, Amazon, boasts 310 million active customers who buy over 353 million products each year. But even Amazon has its limitations, with a lack of specialty and customized products, making it the ideal online shopping destination for most household and hobbyist needs but not for clothing and other items that would appeal to niche audiences.

The ability for blockchain to verify the identities of individuals and organizations, as well as gain access to valuable metadata about their likes and dislikes, could help create more sophisticated pairing in social marketplaces. Consumers would have the ability to interact with verified businesses that align with their wants and needs, while sellers would have access to vendors and customers who are actually inclined to consider laying down some dough for a quality product or service. The crux of these possibilities lies in the enhanced verification and authentication aspects of blockchain technology.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Indorse  Blockchain powered platform like LinkedIn, providing a better career marketplace.
  • Kin Kik’s new cryptocurrency designed to facilitate social marketplaces. 

Attracting Users With In-App Tokens

Blockchain use cases for social media - In-App Tokens

Even with a generation of young people raised with their faces perpetually in front of cameras, smartphones, and laptops, social media has proven vulnerable to dips in usage, and its long-term popularity is no guarantee. A prime demographic of social media users, those aged 12 to 34, saw a significant decline of 12% in their social media usage last year. While Snapchat use was up 10% among the same demo and Instagram use increased by 4%, these trends are not certain to continue into the future, especially if user bases are taken for granted and platforms are not able to innovate, eventually becoming stale.

These platform hosts have to be aware of a phenomenon known as “social media detox.” As we become more aware of how social media has impacted our lives, we may be more willing to overcome its strong psychological pull. And awareness is rising — a survey of 5,000 students in grades 9 to 11 found that nearly two-thirds of respondents felt their well-being was negatively impacted by social media, and wouldn’t care if it had never been ever invented. Sheesh.

Eventually, social platforms will need to create greater incentive for users to keep returning. By creating a financial incentive for users to interact with content, social platforms will provide yet another reason for users to return time and again. By executing automatic payments via smart contract technology in the form of native coins, platforms will be able to compete directly for users, with the value of their coin being tied to the popularity of the platform. When the allure of the content or experience begins to wane, financial incentive never fails as a complementary or substitute solution. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • YouNow from Props Project YouNow is an app from the Props Project using tokens to incentivize participation.  

Verifying Online Identities

Blockchain use cases for social media - Verifying Online Identities

Bots. The buzzword has become a part of the American lexicon, infringing upon conversations regarding everything from the future of work to election integrity. There is no single social platform more impacted by the prevalence of bots than Twitter. They are used to disseminate information under false pretenses, misrepresent users’ followings, and simply populate the platform, and they are everywhere. As of 2017, research suggested that as many as 48 million Twitter accounts were actually bots.

The prevalence of fake bots on social media has been referred to as a “dirty, open secret,” and the New York Times even alluded to the bot sale and creation game as “social media’s black market,” a “cottage industry” by which celebrities are all too willing to artificially boost their perceived popularity. One American company, Devumi, has made their bones peddling bot accounts, drawing on their store of 3.5 million automated accounts to provide more than 200 million Twitter followers to paying customers, according to a NYT investigation. This fundamental deception is unequivocally negative, and some innovators are seeking solutions to the problem via the blockchain.

The blockchain requires a real personality, and employs identity authentication techniques that are meant, in part, to weed out bots. Wouldn’t it be nice to use a social platform that stopped misrepresenting the number of followers a person has or was immune to the malevolent intentions of bots deployed by meddling foreign governments? It would be nice, and a social platform built on the blockchain would ensure that the audience and community is comprised of humans, and humans alone.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Civic – Digital identity services. 
About Sam Mire

Data journalist and market research analyst focused on emerging technology, trends, and ideas.

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