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Decentralized Social Networks 101

How much time do you spend online, scrolling through endless social media feeds?

According to detailed research by the Kepios team, a total of 5.16 billion people around the world use the internet at the start of 2023 and the number of social media users reached 4.76 billion in January 2023. It goes without saying that people all over the world are using social media as a means of interaction, knowledge sharing, community building, and more. Social media has now become an integral part of society, bringing many benefits to the global populace.

Despite their popularity and benefits, social media platforms have recently come under criticism for how they handle user data and content. The fact that these platforms store user content and data on centralized infrastructure makes them vulnerable to censorship, data breaches, a lack of privacy and security, and other issues.

Decentralized social networks originated in response to these issues, making use of blockchain technology to create safe, private, and censorship-resistant social networks. In this article, we will delve into decentralized social networks, including how they operate, the advantages they provide, and the difficulties they encounter, and explore a few decentralized social platforms already in use.

Social networks as a graph

Popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and others have been absorbed into society in the modern day, facilitating communication, community building, entertainment, and other activities. Needless to say, on social networks, there exist:

  • a collection of entities that participate in the network. Ideally, these entities are people.
  • at least one relationship between entities in the network. This kind of connection is known as a follower on Twitter and a friend on Facebook.

Each participant in a social network acts as a node, which in a larger network forms a cluster. Under the hood, the relationship between each entity on a social network is naturally modeled as a graph, often known as a social graph.

Social graphs are one of the fundamental systems that underlie social networks. Social graphs are a visual representation of how connected and how people engage with one another. A user’s social graph is typically created using their information and interactions on a social platform. On the one hand, these data points assist the platforms in personalizing the user experience and serving relevant content. On the other hand, the platforms have also been accused of violating user privacy by monetizing the data for profit. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which user data was obtained without their permission, is a significant instance of this violation.

But is it possible to create a secure, autonomous, and privacy-protected social networking platform where users retain ownership over their content and data? The answer is yes, and the key lies in decentralization.

What are decentralized social networks? 

As the name implies, decentralized social networks are online platforms for facilitating conversation, interaction, and networking using a decentralized architecture. Under the hood, they use distributed, peer-to-peer systems to store data and content across a network of nodes, eliminating the risks of data privacy violations and censorship.

Due to the integration of distributed ledger technologies like blockchain into social networks, users now have control and ownership over their data. With blockchain, users can keep their data across several nodes thanks to its decentralized architecture, eliminating the need to give their information to centralized authorities. Users who interact and store information on the blockchain retain access to it through public-key encryption, independent of the platform or application that generated it. Additionally, by virtue of being decentralized, the platforms are naturally censorship-resistant. Given increasing data privacy and censorship concerns, decentralized social networks driven by blockchain have the potential to be cutting-edge replacements for established social networks.

How do they work?

Curious about the inner workings of the technology that makes social media safer and privacy-protected? Here are the key technologies that power decentralized social networks:

  1. Decentralized data storage: A distributed ledger like the blockchain can be used to keep the information and other elements that make up a user’s social graph. User info can also be kept on decentralized storage platforms like IPFS. With that said, user interactions cannot be regulated by a single authority, as is the case on present social platforms, because user data and interactions aren’t in the hands of centralized authorities. Additionally, data cannot be lost as a result of server or service shutdown, encouraging data ownership.
  1. Smart Contracts: A decentralized social network is designed as a dApp, which operates autonomously through smart contracts deployed to the blockchain. Also, the smart contract code functions as the backend of these dApps and defines their logic.
  2. Token-Enabled: The addition of tokens to a decentralized network makes it simple for users to monetize their content. Additionally, the social network platform itself can make money by introducing premium features that can be paid for with cryptocurrencies.
  3. Cryptographic encryption:  Blockchain-powered social networks use public-key cryptography to enforce security and authenticate their users on the platform, allowing users to set up accounts and use the platform without divulging their Personal Identifiable Information (PII).

Benefits of decentralized social networks compared to traditional social networks

  1. Privacy protection: To join a typical social network, users must provide personally identifiable information (PII), such as their email address, home address, and phone number. These social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, et al collect user data, which they then market to third parties for profit.

In a decentralized social network, users are signed-up using public-key cryptography i.e they don’t have to divulge their personal data, which increases the privacy of the user across the network.

  1. Security: User data is prone to breaches and other threats because traditional social media rely on centralized servers. Instead of centralized servers, decentralized social networks use the blockchain, which is less prone to data breaches, thus enhancing data security.
  2. Censorship resistance: User content being removed because of pressure from governments or because it goes against the platform’s political or ideological leanings has been a hot issue over the past few years. Decentralized social networks increase censorship resistance because user content cannot be removed or pulled down as it is not controlled by any single organization.
  3. Ownership: The fundamental design of traditional social media enables the platform to acquire ownership and control over the data by storing the user’s social graph in their database. On the other hand, decentralized social networks offer users total control and autonomy over their data and content.
  4. Monetization: Current social networks monetize the platform by leveraging the data collected for advertising, putting user privacy at stake. With blockchain-powered social networks, users get incentivized and rewarded through digital currencies instead, without divulging their personally identifiable information.
  5. Data Portability: On decentralized social platforms, users own their data and social graph, thus eliminating control by middlemen. This data can then be transferred from one platform to another enabling users to reuse one’s own profile across various social networking sites. This is not so in current social platform where you will have to register and make connections afresh on new platforms. Basically, porting user data on decentralized social networks fosters interoperability with other decentralized platforms, thus creating a more connected and integrated decentralized ecosystem.

Challenges facing decentralized social networks

Decentralized social networks are not without flaws or vulnerabilities because they are still in their infancy and have much to improve. The following are some difficulties that decentralized social networks face:

  1. Bad Actors Threats: While a social network powered by blockchain allows users to post whatever they want, this opens up the opportunity for bad actors to engage in cyberbullying, abuse, and other malicious behaviors.
  2. Scalable infrastructure: Have you ever wondered how major social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, manage the volume of users signing up, leaving comments, or even uploading photos? Statistics show that Facebook receives 510,000 comments per day, 4 million likes on posts, 136,000 photos shared, 293,000 status updates, and 4 petabytes of data each day. Due to slow transaction processing times, decentralized social networks must now contend with the difficulty of managing a high amount of activity on the blockchain.
  3. Users adoption: Many people still view the idea of blockchain technology and Web3 with skepticism. This has been a significant obstacle on its own and will have an impact on the uptake of decentralized social networks. It’s essential to remember that switching from centralized platforms will be challenging for this user base given how addicted we are to some of the major social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook.
  4. Market instability: It’s a fact that the way the market functions in Web3 is unpredictable. As a result, a blockchain-powered social network with built-in digital currencies may experience market volatility. Consequently, market patterns may have an impact on the value of the rewards received by platform content creators.
  5. Unappealing user interface: Over the years, major players in the typical social networking sector have made investments to ensure users have a positive experience, creating an appealing user interface. Decentralized social networks lack an attractive user interface compared to centralized social media platforms because they are still in their infancy.
  6. The permanence of record: Through social networks, people develop their social capital, and they don’t want anything to harm their reputation. When this occurs, large social media sites like Facebook and Twitter give users the option to delete any material that might appear to be damaging to their image. On the other hand, content that has been uploaded to a decentralized social network cannot be taken down because it is permanently stored on the blockchain.

Current decentralized social platforms

Decentralized social networks provide social sites with new opportunities and feature thanks to the advent of blockchain technology. Decentralized social networks are a relatively new phenomenon and are still in the early stages of development, but some well-known initiatives are creating incredible decentralized social networks. Here are a few of these:

  1. Peepeth: This is a decentralized micro-blogging platform similar to Twitter. As a dApp built atop Ethereum and IPFS, It is geared at promoting secure, privacy-protected, and mindful engagements.
  2. Steemit: This is a social network powered by the Steem blockchain. On this blockchain-enabled social network, content creators are rewarded for publishing and curating content.
  3. Minds: Minds founded in 2011, is an open-source and distributed social network. This platform works just like Facebook, incorporates cryptocurrency, and also rewards users for publishing content, referring others to the platform, and contributing to the ecosystem.
  4. Pixelfield: This is a decentralized photo-sharing social media platform. It works just like Instagram, allows users autonomy over their content, and ensures an ad-free and privacy-protected platform.
  5. Mastodon: Mastodon was created by Eugen Rochko in October 2016. It is a decentralized micro-blogging alternative to Twitter. With Mastodon, users can create, share posts and follow other users in a decentralized manner.
  6. DTube: This is a crypto-based and decentralized video-sharing platform.
  7. Lens Protocol: This is a decentralized social graph that facilitates building more open and transparent social platforms. It lets creators take ownership of their content and data thus enhancing data portability.
  8. Farcaster: Farcaster is an open-source protocol for building sufficiently decentralized social networks. 

Closing thoughts

Decentralized social networks offer a cutting-edge solution to the current drawbacks associated with traditional social platforms. In comparison to a social platform that is centrally controlled, blockchain-powered social networks give users access to a private, safe, censorship-resistant, and independent social platform. The future is likely to see continued development in decentralized social media thanks to the integration of blockchain into social networks. 

Decentralized social media are a relatively new phenomenon with ongoing developments, so problems like poor scalability and other similar problems must be resolved before they can completely develop to their maximum potential.

Klaytn aims to be the public foundational layer for tomorrow’s on-chain world. These include being the foundational layer for on-chain social interaction and connection. Klaytn’s low transaction latency, high TPS, and low gas fees give it a clear edge for the development of social dApp protocols and blockchain-powered social networks.