The plot for this summer’s blockbuster, Oppenheimer, concerns the quest to split the atom and harness the ensuing chain reaction. Few forces are more powerful than the atomic bomb in irrevocably altering life on earth save for one: people power. When you upend society by wresting control from the 1% and handing it to the majority, unpredictable things happen.
Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, the will of the masses is a chaotic force that defies attempts to tame it. Hollywood knows only too well what can happen when the silent majority finds its voice: The recent Writers Guild of America strike has seen creatives more accustomed to putting pen to paper placing voice to megaphone, resulting in hostile confrontations on the picket line.
Meanwhile, on social media, too, the creators are revolting against their overlords. Web users — the ones responsible for creating the memes, talking points, jokes and viral videos that fuel Silicon Valley startups’ billion-dollar valuations — are the currency that makes digital networks, well, work. Even if there’s no currency being returned to their pockets, no matter how many views they accrue or impressions they generate.
Social media’s Great Malaise
Anxiety about social media isn’t new. Nor is it confined to monetization concerns. The worry runs deeper, encompassing everything from opaque data reselling practices to rampant censorship and de-platforming. This summer alone has seen Meta fined US$1.3 billion by the European Union for mishandling user data, followed by a Reddit moderator rebellion over perceived lack of control and, just last week, another fiasco with Reddit moderators accused of insider trading following the announcement of the end of its community token program, not to mention a feeling of hopelessness about X, the platform formerly named Twitter, over new owner Elon Musk’s capricious decision-making on the fly.
On the one hand, X has been more receptive to free speech since Musk took over. On the other, its blue check verification system has been a mess — and don’t get users started on the platform’s rebrand and new name. When Musk is playing benevolent dictator, he appears happy to take feedback on board and promise to direct greater revenue towards top creators. The rest of the time, he’s a bull in a china shop, careening from one screw-up to another.
YouTube, meanwhile, has been ramping up its censorship, angering the likes of Jordan Peterson while Meta has infuriated tribute bands that got banned from Facebook for “pretending to be someone famous.” If you think things are bad now, wait until you see what’s in store for the next season of the Web2 social media clown show.
A rebirth in Web3
While the Web2 social media giants have been engaged in a user-alienating race to the bottom, others have attempted to play them at their own game. If you don’t like the rules, they reason, go create your own. For such imagineers, this generally involves setting up shop in Web3, that vast domain where censorship is the enemy and decentralized storage replaces centralized servers.
As its advocates have found, Web3 is not a remedy for everything that’s wrong with Web2. For one thing, creating network effects is hard for any emerging application, let alone one intent on taking a bite out of Facebook’s breakfast. There’s also a learning curve to Web3, over and above that which comes with mastering a new network, which is often too much for tech novices to face.
For those bold enough to make the leap to Web3, however, its occasional unreliability can be forgiven for what it gives in return: revenue to the revenue drivers, data to the data owners, and a platform for the de-platformed. In many respects, this stuff isn’t revolutionary. It’s just sorely missing from social media as we currently know it.
Giving creators the power to determine their own destiny on social media isn’t just about letting them monetize their skills — it also empowers them to become stakeholders who can shape the network’s future. It stands to reason that those with a vested interest in seeing a platform succeed are motivated to make decisions that will support the collective good.
Founded on principles of liberté, égalité et fraternité, Web3 may sound like a communist’s dream, but it’s actually more of a consumer’s paradise. If you believe in getting paid for the work you do and retaining ownership of your intellectual property and identity, Web3’s core values should resonate. It’s built upon rewarding users for their content and involvement with the creator economy. The lack of incentives to post low-quality content, meanwhile, serves to reduce spam. You can still shitpost in Web3, but if there’s no one listening, what’s the point?
These blockchain-based social networks help creators build their reputation and grow their following without fear of a risque joke or sudden policy change sending them to Siberia. Web3 doesn’t let you be a dick and get away with it. Rather it lets you be human, failings and all, and not be blacklisted for it.
Choose your destiny
Ultimately, Web3 is about freedom of choice. It’s okay to opt into ads and be rewarded for watching them via the attention economy’s tokenization of time. It’s also okay to shun the micro-rewards and opt out altogether. It’s okay to monetize your data or to keep it under lock and key. And it’s okay to maintain pseudonymity while forging bonds with like-minded strangers you’d unwittingly walk past on the street but die for on the internet.
It’s not perfect, it’s highly ambitious, and we don’t even know yet if it will triumph over existing solutions. But make no mistake, Web3 is the great social experiment of our time. And that’s what makes it so utterly compelling.