In May 2022, without any warning or justification, the Bankless YouTube channel disappeared overnight. After 2 years, 10k hours of content, and 150k subscribers, it was gone! The Bankless founders and community cried that it must be intentional because of the threat crypto and Web3 pose to YouTube and its parent company Alphabet. At that moment, it felt hopeless and unclear what could be done, having seen other crypto YouTube channels get banned. Then, less than 24 hours later, Bankless was back up! YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki retweeted a thank-you from the Bankless team, remarking it was just “a mistake” and glad they could fix it. But for many of us, it was a stark reminder that while we, the Web3 community preach self-sovereignty and the goal of taking back control from the centralized powers, the dirty truth is we remain all too dependent on these Web2 incumbents, even when we know they could cut us off in the blink of an eye.
Today, it’s safe to assume the most powerful companies of Web2 such as Meta, Alphabet, Twitter, and TikTok are not going to relinquish their control. The only path forward is to rebuild better alternatives to existing social media, on a censorship-resistant, decentralized tech stack.
The following is a brief primer about the existing problems in Web2 social media, how new Web3 building blocks might solve them, and a few early examples of Web3 social media platforms working to realize this vision.
Social media generally refers to websites and applications that rely on the engagement of a community, including content sharing, communication, interaction, and collaboration. The largest network applications of Web2 each rely on their own unique centralized database. Whether you’re on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, or TikTok, there is no self-sovereign portability between them. Your profile, your data, your followers and relationships, your communications, your content, and your distribution of that content are siloed to each network, which is why these networks are fighting for YOUR attention. These platforms offer up a false impression that they cost you nothing, when really it costs you ownership over everything.
While the UI/UX looks similar today, Web3 social media will introduce transformative change through user-owned building blocks, applications, and networks. Users will own their data, profiles, followers, relationships, communications, content, and the distribution of their content. This means the most valued creators driving content that enrich a network, will finally have a chance at ownership in the networks and tech stacks where their content lives. This will rebalance a historically lopsided relationship in favor of the users. If a platform blocks access, changes their algorithm, or even shuts down, the creators and users can easily port their social graph and content over to other platforms.
In light of this brighter future, here are the key building blocks we would anticipate being replaced with newly decentralized, permissionless, tokenized, and community-owned protocols of Web3.
At the forefront of any social network, we have a social graph, which maps our relationships. In its simplest form, it allows us to prove who you follow and who follows you. In Web3, the foundational building block is Lens Protocol, a decentralized composable social graph layer. Lens will allow you to own your digital relationships, with no intermediary between you and your communication to your audience, meaning, you are no longer held hostage by a centralized controller.
Tangential to our relationships is reputation. Reputation is rooted in our social graphs but also owned by Web2 platforms. Specifically, follower count weighs heavily in all algorithms and is one of the keys to unlocking visibility to a larger audience and hence building reputation. For the Web3 community, we’re accustomed to having built reputation in existing social media like Twitter and Reddit. With Lens, it makes it possible to build a reputation on a unique, composable layer that can port to any future social application, without permission. This effectively removes the need to rebuild your reputation on different social media platforms, as long as your audience is a user of such platforms. Regardless of whether you have more or less influence, your relationships remain intact across all integrated platforms, which radically takes power from platforms and gives it back to users. You can see below that I have the same followers across both Lenstube (a Web3 YouTube) and Lenster (a Web3 Twitter), thanks to my Lens social graph.
In life, our identity is complex and always evolving. Our identity online and in the decentralized Metaverse should reflect the same ability to grow and change over time. In Web2, ownership of our identity and the data that comprises it is controlled by big tech and other third-party companies. In Web2 social media specifically, we’re forced to recreate our identity on each platform, and for every account we make, the identifying data that underpins who we are is captured in a data silo.
Both online and offline, our identity is anchored to what we call “identifiers,” which act as shortcuts to our identity. Identifiers in the real world could be your name, your face, or even your voice. In Web2 social media, identifiers are things like your handle, profile picture, relationship status, company, or job title. Identifiers let others know we are referring to one person versus another.
Identifiers exist within any system we interact with, including social media, a workplace, a bank, or even a favorite Discord. In Web2, these systems often fail to talk to each other but even worse, we don’t own our identifiers within any online system. For example, Twitter could theoretically change my profile pic, name, bio, and handle. I may refer to my password-protected account with 2FA as “my profile” but in truth, it’s the property of Twitter. They own all identifiers that make me DeFi Dad on Twitter and are in control of these identifiers as they exist on the Twitter platform.
With Web3, there’s a better way forward. It starts simple! On blockchains like Ethereum, there’s a better basis for a DID: a wallet address. Your wallet address on a blockchain is decentralized and verifiable, which makes it a better identifier. This is because you’re using cryptography, the Ethereum blockchain is decentralized, and you have your private key, meaning you’re 100% in control of your wallet address. In addition to decentralization and verifiability, there are 2 other properties that make identifiers even more powerful, which is persistence and resolvability. While blockchain addresses are a powerful piece of the puzzle in your Web3 identity, Decentralized Identifiers, or DIDs, give us all four of these properties. When these DIDs can be organized and reliably retrieved, our identity in Web3 can finally be transposed across any platforms that adhere to building with the same decentralized, permissionless protocols in their tech stack.
Related to DIDs, we also have Verifiable Credentials (VCs), which are like digital versions of an important document you get from an authority — items like a driver’s license, passport, or diploma. These VCs contain an attestation to allow credentials to be verified and shared anywhere online. Like DIDs, VCs can be organized and managed through a personal data backpack, such as Disco. Disco is an example of new Web3 tooling that enables us to become self-sovereign individuals in new digital worlds, who can fully control and evolve our decentralized identity, backed by DIDs and VCs, while traversing the multi-platform Metaverse, including Web3 social media. All these buzzwords mean to paint a future where we can move freely between any Web3 social network with the same provable, consenting, attestable, evolving identity. This stands in juxtaposition to our reality in Web2 of continually recreating our identity for different applications and platforms. In Web3 social media, your identity will be like your shadow because it never leaves your side, but also like a disco ball, reflecting all different facets of you while organized and constructed to represent you.
Another construct of Web2 social networks we are forced to repeatedly recreate is our communications. Not only are our social media posts owned by platforms, but our “private” direct messaging is as well. We believe Web3 communications will be another composable cross-chain layer that all social media applications can build on. Imagine having the same inbox whether you’re accessing Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or LinkedIn. Unless you’ve changed your identity or operate under multiple identities on different platforms, your communications should port with you across different Web3 social media. The leading protocol in Web3 communications today, which enables cross-chain messaging, video chat, and push notifications, is Push Protocol. We believe it’s only a matter of time before we will witness billions of messages being passed daily between wallets cross-chain, and like our identity, Web3 communications will solved for a repetitive and fragmented messaging UI/UX in Web2.
Today in Web2, our conversations and curation are dependent on a handful of major apps and what they determine as our interest graph. Like other building blocks, we assume curation is a benefit siloed to a single platform. But curation itself starts with users, not platforms, in the form of sharing, likes, and reactions.
Today on Lens, a post by any creator is distributed to those who hold their “follower NFT,” meaning Lens maps content to users based solely on their social graph. Mirrors are the curation tool of the Lens Protocol. Mirroring a post is the equivalent of reposting and re-amplifying content. Additionally, Lens creators can share and monetize their content through “collects.” Because creators own their content through Lens, they are able to allow followers (or anyone) to purchase their content at a set price. Lens also incorporates an attribution mechanism when sharing content via “mirroring” with a referral fee embedded in to incentivize curators.
Another approach to curation in Web3 is RARA where adding context is the key to curation. RARA aims to be a unique Web3 curation layer that removes platform-enforced barriers by enabling open curation of any NFT, by anyone, without permission or ownership as a requirement. Complimentary to the Lens social graph mapping content to users, RARA maps content to more content. Meaning RARA is a curated media graph.
Similar to the foundational money legos in DeFi which create a broader layer of liquidity for richer applications to build on, RARA aims to deepen the liquidity of curation. To make rich curation data that is portable across any Web3 media platform, RARA’s social curation protocol enables anyone to add reactions, comments, and tags to any NFT, on-chain. With curation as its own layer, RARA can enable cross-pollination of the social and media graphs. While creators want to collect followers, both creators and followers will want to collect and curate content, expressed through a buy, like, bookmark, comment, GIF reaction, and more.
Staying true to my roots as a DeFi Dad, I’ve taken a similar approach to understanding the emerging world of Web3 social media. Put simply: learn by dogfooding everything. Here’s are my spark notes from my firsthand experience so far. Ironically, I won’t be covering Mirror, the Web3 sister application to Medium, because if you’re reading this post, you’re already familiar with the power of publishing on Mirror!
In order to fight the powerful incumbents of Web2, Lens has hosted countless hackathons to attract the best builders. Lenster was an early hackathon winner, aiming to reimagine the plumbing of Web3 media with Lens as the foundational composable social graph. With a familiar UI, Lenster is intended as the decentralized, permissionless sister application of Twitter, currently built on Polygon. Lenster users can broadcast short form posts which contain text, videos, photos, gifs, links, and soon music, while followers can either mirror (retweet) or collect, own a limited copy of the post in the form of an NFT.
After 5 months on Lenster, here are the notable commonalities and differences from Twitter:
Posting, liking, mirroring, collecting, and commenting are gasless transactions, requiring no signature which feels like a Web2 UI/UX.
The ability to collect posts is an advancement over bookmarking tweets because it allows us as users to own a scarce digital copy of something we love while also paying it forward to the creator, and potentially a curator who mirrored the post.
Lens cleverly incorporates attribution when sharing content via mirroring with a fee embedded in to incentivize curators.
While Lenster is still bootstrapping users and content, there are already over 90k+ profiles on Lens for Lenster to onboard.
Of all features, the Home feed has the most room for improvement due to comparably deeper engagement on incumbent social media like Twitter.
Lenstube is the decentralized, permissionless sister application of YouTube, also built on Polygon. Lenstube users can upload videos to their own channel, which can be viewed as streaming video powered by Livepeer, stored permanently on the Arweave blockchain. Subscribers (aka followers through Lens) can like, dislike, tip, share, or collect a limited or unlimited NFT copy of the video post, either for free or for a set price. Cleverly, Lenster also creates a post of any videos newly uploaded to Lenstube, which is one of many examples demonstrating the cross-platform distribution made possible by the shared social graph of Lens.
After 3 months on Lenstube, here’s what I like and what’s different:
Similar to Lenster, liking, disliking, and mirroring are gasless transactions.
All Lenstube podcasts and music automatically post to Lenster, showing again the power of distribution control. Albeit in a format suited to that front-end.
Given the time I spend producing and editing videos, the “collect” feature on Lenstube feels more natural for generating revenue.
For collects, you can control whether to offer a limited number of collects, whether to limit the timeline for offering collects, and whether you must be a subscriber to collect.
For creators who don’t wish to have their content collected, there’s a tipping feature that’s sure to be popular with livestreamers.
Like Lenster, this platform has a surprising amount of organic engagement but still a fraction of what you find on Youtube or Tiktok.
While most know Zapper as the popular dashboard for tracking your DeFi and NFT portfolios, the team has spent the last year building the most comprehensive Web3 explorers. At the core of this vision, you can follow other profiles based on their unique wallet address or ENS address, while Zapper visualizes all of the NFTs and DeFi assets in their wallet. Currently, Zapper uses its own social graph based on user follows, but in theory, the team could eventually build with the Lens protocol to map existing Lens social graphs against the rich wallet data they help to interpret on-chain.
Zapper profiles alongside their new DAO, NFT, and DeFi explorers could enable them to stand up a new social network underpinned by Web3 assets and data, but it remains to be seen if Zapper will transform into an open source protocol like Lens.
Disclosure: I previously worked at Zapper and remain an advisor to the team.
Web3 social media faces a current challenge of delivering a UI/UX equivalent to what users are accustomed to in Web2, before delivering any net new benefits such as community ownership, decentralization, composability, and permissionlessness to build on. The truth is most users won’t try it unless it looks familiar and is just as easy to use as the incumbent, i.e., it’s going to be a classic battle between David and Goliath.
What we can look forward to are new products and building blocks native to Web3. For example, the concept of owning a tweet and selling it was not even possible until the recent introduction of mintable tweets by Cent in the last crypto bull market. The problem was that the NFT represented content that is 100% dependent on a tech stack out of their control — Twitter. With Lens, we already have an established norm of “collecting” digitally scarce posts on Lenster or Lenstube for a price set by creators.
Another exciting frontier poised to propel us forward with Web3 social media is the intersection of Web3 and AI. If we can realize a future where AI and machine learning models are owned, operated, and governed by their users, rather than centralized big tech, then we open up infinite more use cases, many of which are bound to play into social media. In respect to Web3 social media, it is possible the influencers of tomorrow could be AI-powered entities or that a massive content engine for Web3 will be AI-powered tools (see AI content platform Jasper). Our AI-enabled future is closer than it seems.
For now, in this nascent community of Web3 media, we have mission-driven builders that remind me of the early days of DeFi. They recognize what’s wrong with a very powerful legacy system and instead of backing away from the insurmountable odds of changing it, they’re radical enough to attempt building a better alternative. Lens is thriving in this bear market because the community, led by Stani Kulechov and other contributors at Aave, are pushing a missionary approach to resolve the sins of Web2 with a new decentralized, permissionless tech stack. You cannot teach the kind of grit required to build in this space, and for that we are grateful because the Web3 media community has exactly what it takes to realize this future.
To dive deeper into different topics touched on in this blog post, check out the blogs, interviews and podcasts below.
Interview with Lens Founder, Stani Kulechov (DeFi Talks with DeFi Dad)
Building a Social Network for Web3 so Users are Not the Product (The Defiant Podcast)
The Social Web3 | Protocols for a Digital Society | POAP, Lens Protocol, Disco.XYZ (Bankless)
Building a Trustless and Portable Identity and Reputation System with DIDs (DAOn the Rabbit Hole)
Push and Lens: Powering UX with Notifications and Aave’s Lens
If you’d like to learn more about what we do at 4RC or get in touch, please feel free to visit our website or reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re looking for a job with a Web3 team like Lens, check out the 4RC Job Board.
Disclaimers and Disclosures:
All of the information (above and linked) is for entertainment purposes only and is not to be taken as investment or financial advice.
4RC invested in private rounds for RARA, Push, and Disco.
4RC may hold long positions in the projects mentioned and abides by a no trade policy 3 days before and after publishing of this article.
This presentation is not an offer to sell securities of any investment fund or a solicitation of offers to buy any such securities.