Every year for nearly 100 years, TIME magazine has named a “Person of the Year.” Sometimes, it’s a hero or a villain. It’s always someone shaking the status quo.
“[We choose] the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse,” former managing editor Walter Isaacson explained in 1998.
In 2010, TIME’s “Person of the Year” was Facebook (now called Meta) founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“The scale of Facebook is something that is transforming our lives,” former TIME editor Richard Stengel said when he announced the winner on live television. “It’s not just a new technology. It’s social engineering. It’s changing the way we relate to each other. I actually think it’s affecting human nature in a way that we have never even seen before.”
At that time, Facebook just surpassed 500 million users. By 2022, the social network had nearly 3 billion.
And that’s just Facebook. From other legacy players like LinkedIn and Twitter to newer platforms like TikTok and Truth Social – social media platforms collectively boast nearly 4 billion users, according to Statistica. Social media management company Sprout Social stated that the average user bounces between seven different social networks per month and adults spend 95 minutes each day on these digital platforms.
The numbers prove people make social media part of their daily lives, connecting them to friends, family, experts, interests and information. They can discover and engage in news, products and events. They can share passions and express opinions.
But there are rising concerns about the negative impact of social media. Just 27% of Americans say they have at least “some trust” in the information that comes from social media, and only 4% say they have “a lot of trust” in it, according to the Pew Research Center.
It’s one of the reasons Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter in April 2022 for $44 billion. “For Twitter to deserve publish trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left,” he wrote on a Twitter post dated April 27.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms have become vectors of disinformation. This was especially apparent during the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
More attention than ever – from government leaders around the world to companies and organizations – is focused on protecting against harmful effects and misuse of these platforms. As the internet shifts to Web 3.0, these social networks have a chance to re-architect how they use machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain and other new technologies to facilitate safe, verifiable and data ownership.
More Transparency, Increased Trust
With the help of blockchain, social media can become more transparent. And if social media can become more transparent, it might be able to build user trust.
Blockchain is the basis for a new, decentralized version of the internet known as Web 3.0, it’s basically a public ledger – a shared and immutable digital record of transactions. Its initial use case was cryptocurrency. In the case of Bitcoin, for instance, it creates a chain of custody that allows you to track bitcoins as they change hands within a network. Because they’re public and unalterable, transactions are fast, efficient and secure.
But currency isn’t the only asset that can be tracked and traded on a blockchain. Really, anything of value can be exchanged and recorded, including information.
That could create value in numerous ways for social media users. If social networks were built on top of blockchains, for instance, users would be able to monitor changes to their algorithms because the blockchain would record them. If a platform suddenly changed the number of followers who could see your posts based on how much you pay to boost your content, which Facebook has quietly done before, then it would be immediately apparent to the public.
Social networks could also use blockchains to authenticate identities and verify accounts, creating the ability to see where the information originated and giving users a new barometer by which to judge the credibility of the content they consume online.
“Web3 represents transparency and authenticity,” says Syama Meagher, CEO of Web3 consultancy Scaling Retail.
“Because of the ability to verify and trace, consumers will be able to see how people and businesses operate in the blockchain.”
Blockchain also could give citizens literal and figurative ownership of online communities. Imagine, for instance, that users could buy or earn a blockchain-backed token that represents a percentage of the business, similar to a share of a company. Or perhaps they could earn tokens that give them more clout or access to the social networks that they use. If users were awarded for following community guidelines and being good social media citizens and penalized for spreading false information, social networks could be imbued with a new sense of responsibility and accountability.
Some platforms already have recognized the potential and are trying to exploit it. Last year, for example, the social news website Reddit started rewarding active community members with exclusive tokens that are tradable for traditional money or other goods. Twitter and Facebook have teams devoted to researching and developing ways to use blockchain.
Less Power, More Profit?
Moving toward blockchain will require social media companies to relinquish some of their power. But there could be a financial upside for them if they do.
Social tokens, for instance, might create not only increased accountability and increased engagement.
To encourage engagement, most social media platforms are limited to ephemeral rewards: attention likes or comments. Because they’re more tangible, tokens might be more compelling. So much so that users who are currently deflecting from social media or dismissing information that they glean from it might return to platforms and feel newly invested in them. That could make social media users more attractive to advertisers, for whom blockchain also is valuable. After all, blockchain gives social networks a means of validating users. This means advertisers can see how their ads reach real consumers instead of bots or shills, which has been a problem on some social networks.
Tokens might also create a new revenue stream that’s advertising-independent, as social networks could sell tokens just as easily as they could award them – provided they create attractive products, services or privileges for which tokens can be redeemed.
“Social tokens are the future of rewarding community participation and creating loyalty,” Meagher says.
“Though, with the issuance of tokens comes the pressure to create meaning and value. Otherwise, what is the point of holding them? It will be interesting to see how Reddit and other platforms plan to roll out value to their communities.”
Community moderation is another means through which social tokens could positively impact revenue.
By their own admission, no major social media company has come up with a good solution for dealing with bad actors on their platform. Currently, the only viable option is to ban or suspend them.
Because their business models depend on user engagement, however, blocked users are a financial loss. Plus, blocking users forces platforms to be censors and content moderators, which puts them in a precarious position wherein they could alienate users who disagree with their judgment. Using blockchain-based tokens makes it possible for communities to self-moderate, which could create a more hospitable internet without requiring social media companies to intervene.
“With a decentralized infrastructure for social media, the whole issue of banning this or that person or topic from this or that social network would basically disappear,” Ben Goertzel, founder and CEO of SingularityNET, a blockchain-based AI marketplace project, predicts in a 2021 article for CoinDesk.
Banning people permanently from social platforms shouldn’t be necessary, according to Elon Musk. In a Financial Time live stream event on April 10, Musk said “we should not have perma-bans.”
"I think perma bans fundamentally undermine trust in Twitter as a town square where everyone can voice their opinion," Musk said.
Whether social media companies will embrace blockchain remains to be seen. What’s clear, said Goertzel, is that it will benefit both their shareholders and their community members if they do.
“We have the core tech to enable radically more ethical and beneficial social media networks,” Goertzel concluded. “All that remains is to get this tech out of the blockchain ghetto and into the internet mainstream. It’s not a small task but the potential benefit is huge.”
Damon Brown is a contributing writer. He hosts the #BringYourWorth business show every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and is author of the new book Career Remix. Follow him on Twitter @browndamon.
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