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Ever since the introduction of Bitcoin back in 2008, the buzz has been building over blockchain technology. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s clear that blockchain could have some very unique consequences for social media. After all, blockchain is essentially just a massively distributed network with unbreakable encryption. Some have called blockchain a “new type of Internet,” so it makes sense that it could lead to a “new type of social network.”
So what exactly is the blockchain?
The easiest way to think about blockchain is a massively distributed network that can’t be controlled by any entity and has no single point of failure. Every time there is a transaction or event in this network, every single node in the network is notified and updated. Each update is a “block” of data, creating a massively distributed ledger of data that is shared by every member of the network.
To understand how this works, consider the world of financial services. In any financial transaction that you currently have with your bank, the transaction is between you and your bank. Your friends aren’t notified if you have more money in your account, and they aren’t notified when you withdraw money from your account. The only people who know are you and your bank (and any financial intermediaries along the way, like Visa or Mastercard or PayPal). That’s why hackers can break into your account and steal your money – it’s essentially just your word against your bank’s word about how much money should be in your account (scary but true).
But all that changes with a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. All of a sudden, you don’t need intermediaries because all transactions are person-to-person (P2P) transactions between the buyer and the seller. If you buy a pizza with Bitcoin, for example, the money flows from your account to the seller’s account without any annoying financial intermediaries taking a cut of the deal.
And you also have the peace of mind of knowing that hackers cannot hack into your account and drain all the Bitcoin from it – to do so, they would have to have the computing power to change the information stored in every single node of the network (i.e. millions of computers distributed around the world). Effectively, hackers would have to write over every single “block” of data with new data – something that’s technically impossible with today’s computing resources.
Applications for social media
While there have been no direct applications of blockchain technology for social media yet, it’s easy to conceive of a few potential scenarios where it could be used to radically change the experience on a social network like Facebook:
A free and fair election hosted by Facebook – There have already been some limited examples of elections being held using blockchain technology to record votes. Since blockchain is incorruptible and easily verified, there would be no questions about vote miscounts, stolen voter identities or “hacked” elections. Any person with a Facebook account could vote, his or her identity could be identified, and there would not be any conspiracy theories about illegal voting in certain states or hacked elections by rogue nations.
A new and improved sharing economy brought to you by Facebook – Think about the two biggest players in the sharing economy – Uber and Airbnb. They are essentially intermediaries, taking a cut of every transaction that you make. But that’s completely antithetical to blockchain, where all transactions are P2P. So why not an even better sharing economy, in which two people with Facebook accounts could easily engage in a transaction without the need for Uber or Airbnb? Money would flow directly from one account to another account, without the need for these intermediaries.
A new crowdsourcing model created by Facebook – Right now, if you want to crowdfund, you need some kind of third-party platform like Kickstarter. But why couldn’t Facebook create a new way of raising money using blockchain? There have already been limited examples of blockchain-powered venture capital funds, in which investors within a network “vote” on investing or not. If there are enough votes, the deal gets funded, and the money flows directly to the entity that needs it. In this new funding model, you wouldn’t need to be an accredited investor with a million-dollar net worth – you could just be the average Joe with a bunch of Bitcoin to invest.
Verified social media news that can’t be “fake” – Given the current debate over “fake news,” there might be an opportunity for social networks to use blockchain to prevent any unverified or non-fact checked articles from ever appearing in the world’s “ledger” of news. People within a “news network” would essentially vote on whether “news blocks” should be added to the system or not. And there would be no possible way to delete this news or alter it in any way. Once something is “news,” it’s news forever.
Right now, the one social network that seems to be most capable of any of these innovations would appear to be Facebook. The company has scale, money and a forward-thinking mindset that has the company investing in cutting-edge fields like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. So why not blockchain? Facebook.