Welcome back to The rise of web3 social (ROWS). In issue #1, I published an initial version of a mapping of web3 social projects. You can find it here. I'll share an update to it soon, subscribe to stay in the loop.
Today, I'd like to delve deeper and distinguish between the two main categories of projects on this mapping: infrastructure projects and applications and try to understand builder’s choices when it comes to choosing the right degrees of decentralization and value propositions to aligne with their targer user personas.
Before beginning my research for this series, my initial thought was that web3 social simply referred to "any app leveraging crypto primitives like smart contracts and NFTs to create novel social experiences." This isn't entirely incorrect, but it only captures part of the story.
Through a conversation with Hadrien from Sismo, I encountered a more rigorous, infrastructure-based perspective of what web3 social means. Hadrien posited that a web3 social project must be decentralized, interoperable, had open data and was privacy preserving.
The main difference between Hadrien and I is that he is building at the infrastructure layer when I’m pretty consumer minded. And therefore our respective views reflect some of the differences between mentalities at the infrastructure and app layers.
On the one hand infrastructure projects are destined towards builders, tend to have more web3 native value propositions that rely on things like credible neutrality and decentralization.
Applications, on the other hand, are designed to be used by a wider range of end-users, have very diverse use cases and may need to be more centralized in the early stages until they find PMF.
In the examples given above there are 3 core elements that differentiate infrastructure and application layer projects. The web3 social triad represents the equilibrium among these three crucial pillars of decentralized projects: user needs, the project's value proposition to meet these needs, and the role of decentralization in this process.
Big thanks to Sammi - COO at t2.world - for helping me elaborate the triad idea. See our conversation in comments here, and find t2’s own triad at the end of this article!
Persona → the typical representation of the user or community member a project is targeting. We'll delve deeper into the different personas of web3 social, some of them include creators, collectors, consumers, curators, moderators, and private communities.
Web3ness → the degree of decentralization, openness, interoperability, and privacy of an app or protocol. This is especially important at lower levels of the stack, where the properties that emerge from high 'web3ness' constitute the main value proposition. Below is an illustration of the various degrees of web3ness that may exist. All these properties are interdependent and must be developed in parallel in no specific order.
Narrative → the overarching stories where protocols or apps articulate their value proposition in a way that resonates most with their potential users. Today, these narratives are often based on the technical capabilities of technology at the infrastructure layer and are starting to be much more varied at the app layer.
Now, let's see what the triad might look like for infrastructure projects.
TL;DR: developers use protocols and middleware tooling (persona), their holy grail is to be able build web3 social applications permissionlessly on top of existing social graphs with significant usage (narrative). This requires rigorous decentralization from projects (web3ness).
Developers are the typical user personas of web3 infrastructure projects. This includes social media protocols like Farcaster, messaging protocols like XMTP, or attestation tools like EAS.
Developers seem to value credible neutrality above all else. It guarantees that they won't be unilaterally shut off from the protocols they're leveraging from one day to the next, as recently happened with Reddit's API. They also value access to as many users and as much user data as possible to build and iterate quickly on their applications and achieve early adoption. Finally, they appreciate great developer experience and interoperability with other ecosystems and tools.
Creators are also the users of protocols, albeit indirectly they’re sometimes considered builders. They utilize the apps, tools and clients created by developers. Creators share, communicate, build audiences and communities, and monetize their work. They too value credible neutrality and censorship resistance, along with the ownership and portability of their social graph.
Technically speaking, infrastructure projects aim for a high degree of decentralization or web3ness to satisfy the need for credible decentralization among developers and creators.
To be convincing, a protocol or tool must meet the 'sufficient decentralization' threshold, ensuring that developers can always run their service and users can always access essential features on the network or migrate their data to another client.
“A social network achieves sufficient decentralization if two users can find each other and communicate, even if the rest of the network wants to prevent it. […] Some believe that decentralization requires the entire social network to be on a blockchain. This is unnecessary and even undesirable.” - Varun Srinivasan, Co-foundar @ Farcaster
Today, protocols such as Farcaster and XMTP remain centralized. For instance, the XMTP team currently operates all live XMTP nodes as the community is in the process of testing the upcoming client. Despite rolling out a dozen nodes in its network in Q2 2023, Farcaster still lacks several critical aspects such as privacy, ownership distribution, and governance.
At this point, the credible neutrality of these protocols is ensured by the trust placed in their early teams, as well as confidence in the team’s ability to execute their publicly available roadmaps towards infrastructural and economic decentralization.
XMTP, for example, has a two-year timeline with four different phases covering everything from the deployment of a network of XMTP nodes to the accompanying economic mechanisms. It remains to be seen whether XMTP has any long-term plans to decentralize decision-making as well.
“the trade offs come constantly, and its because we care deeply about decentralziation as a pillar, security as a pillar, privacy as a pillar, as well as how we want to approach the developer community. We want to build this out as a protocol for this to work well. It can’t be a widget or a centralized entity.” Matt Gallagan, XMTP founder - Web3 Talks Podcast
The narratives at the infrastructure level significantly echo the preceding sections, emphasizing permissionlessness and censorship resistance.
Developers should be able to build without constraints and indefinitely, ideally having a say in the governance of the protocol they’re using and promoting. Concurrently, creators and users should control their data and access multiple clients, preventing unilateral bans by bots or centralized moderation teams.
The two primary social media protocols today, Lens and Farcaster, are unique in their positioning. Lens seems to cater more to creators, while Farcaster leans towards being builder-savvy.
We now turn our attention to the typical triad at the application layer. Here, the types of personas can be much more diverse, and consequently, the narratives and degrees of web3ness are on a broader spectrum.
TL;DR: end-users (persona) are using web3 social apps in order to connect, mint, collect, distribute their creations engage or participate in communities and want a seamless and personalized experience accross clients (narratives). Builders have more flexibility with their approach to decentralization (web3ness).
Unlike the infrastructure layers, which focus on builders, the app layer generally caters to end-users, whether they are professionals, hobbyists, or passive consumers.
Creators tend to receive the most attention among all these personas today, primarily because they create the content that fuels social platforms. Without exceptional creators, social products cannot achieve the "content liquidity" (s/o @rafathebuilder) or "conversational liquidity" (s/o @dwr) necessary to attract a critical mass of users. Onboarding creators is at the heart of Lens’ go to market strategy in order to create more usage.
Curators, a subset of creators, provide context online, generating meaning and discussions around the content found on platforms. They already existed in web2, but in web3, they may receive increased rewards for their work and contributions.
Passive consumers absorb content on platforms and within private communities. They purchase creators' work for consumption. They seek entertainment, education, quality content, and creating relationships.
There are more personas at this layer. I started a list of all personas in the appendix at the bottom of the article.
Higher degrees of decentralization become increasingly vital when raising the stakes or the value handled by a protocol. Blockchain technology was initially invented to manage money because trust is crucial when entrusting your entire savings account to someone.
Even though personas like creators, collectors, and curators may value censorship resistance, many users will be willing to compromise on trustlessness for a better user experience until some psychological threshold is reached. This could be having someone in their close network being deplatformed.
Builders must ensure that they strike the right balance of decentralization at the right time, balancing market fit and developing tech that will endure over time and gradually decentralize.
A founder of a web3 social app recently told me they were “currently optimizing for speed rather than decentralization, keeping indexing and data processing private. It doesn’t make sense to start designing networks and dev tools if market fit isn’t confirmed.”
Overall, it's about market fit and finding the right use case. Infrastructure projects understand their mission is to create usable technologies for developers, while applications often have no clue about the use case and therefore need to iterate more quickly to discover novel social experiences, then worry about decentralizing complex infrastructure.
One could assume that on the long run, applications failing to decentralize and open properly will have limited interoperability and isolate themselves from the rest of projects for the better or for the worse. They’ll also face more trust issues.
If decentralization at the infrastructure level is too hard to enable then economic decentralization might help balance this out through shared upside and governance.
Narratives at the app layer tend to abstract away much of the blockchain jargon in favor of 🥁🥁🥁🥁🥁…. communicating all the cool things you can do using web3 social products and communities.
They’re also quite diverse. I’ll cover some of them below.
Community growth and engagement (Bonfire, Salsa, Guild, t2 and more)
This is probably the biggest narrative among today’s app layer projects. After all, web3’s most used social app to this day are NFT collections and token gating in order to grow communities.
Many tools are focusing on helping creators and brands tighten the bond with their communities through enabling the aggregation or creation of new communication channels and digital spaces where communities can hang out, keep updated and contribute to projects.
This space is highly dependent on data available at the identity layer of the web3 social stack.
Reclaiming attention (ex: t2.world manifesto)
Current web2 platforms are designed for us to spend as much time as possible scrolling. They're harvesting our time and attention by re-routing our brain's reward circuitry, one of the most significant downsides of web2 platforms.
Web3 has the opportunity to change that through a diversity of clients and experiences enabled by open protocols, new business models that are not ad-based, and by being owners and governors of the platforms and communities we consume from.
Interestingly I feel like people aren’t that sensitive to this narrative. Probably because its about reclaiming something, not acquiring some new thing.
Multiplayer (ex: Pendium, Partybid)
“What are you using blockchain for if not multiplayer stuff” recently said Evin McMullen, founder of Disco.xyz, at a discussion I attended. And makes sense to assume that if web2 was about the creation of individual identities, web3 will be about leveraging these identities to interact in richer ways, including as groups.
Let me cite 1kx’s piece here:
“Tools for multiplayer creation have the power to turn passive consumers into creators by turning arbitrary on-chain interactions into a form of self-expression. These tools also bring artists closer to their audience than ever before by way of tighter pre-production feedback loops and post-release interactions. Blockchains and platform-agnostic standards adds provenance and composability to creative works, enabling communities to sample, remix, and make their mark on culture in ways that were not possible before.” - from the 1kx multiplayer article on Mirror.
Creator monetization and data ownership (ex: Paragraph, Lens apps, Madfi)
Those are web3 social projects focus on helping creators monetize their 100 or 1000 true fans through NFTs, better attribution of revenue streams and brand deals.
Just 4% of creators make a living from their content. Brand deals are the most lucrative sources of income according to MadFi. Web3 social changes that thanks to new means of monetization without platform intermediaries. In this new normal creators should be free to move accross platforms and have multiple options to generate revenue.
Onchain discovery and exploration (ex: Interface, Rainbow, Layer3)
Discovery needs to be effective for individuals to find niche products and communities that align well with their social graphs and preferences. It will likely improve as user identities become more sophisticated and recommendation algorithms diversify.
In this category, we find opinionated block explorers like Interface, as well as growth platforms like Layer3. They position themselves as destinations for end-users to explore content and projects.
Many, many more to come…
These are only a few of the many narratives that exist in web3social apps. We’ll cover more in future issues dedicated to the app layer.
Let’s finish with a concrete example. I was lucky enough to get Sammi’s thoughts on t2’s triad and priorities for the next 6 months. I invite you to relate this to the previous section for more depth.
“Personas → 1) writers whom we’re not defining by what they write, but how they write - they’re keen to collaborate with others in every stage of their work - they already use or are curious to learn about leveraging new tech (e.g. web3, AI) to help their writing process, from ideation all the way through monetization - they want to give their audience means to engage beyond “readership”.
- community facilitators who may or may not be writers themselves, who - can bring together writers with shared interests and values - have the skills and motivation to grow their communities - want to leverage web3 to solve problems for their community.
Web3ness → To best serve these users, here are the web3-ness values we choose to prioritize with conscious sacrifice of others, for the next 6 months:
Enables novel social experiences through the use of web3 native primitives.
optimizes for interoperability with other apps and protocols,
Narrative → For the next 6 months, our narrative is “where in-depth conversations take place”.
When we’ve created the best possible tools for our users to create and grow their own communities with quality engagement at the core, then we can tackle the next problems like monetization, censorship resistance, and real, user-owned, portable data. That’s not to say that we’re not designing the fundamentals already with these future goals in mind.”Sammi Wei, COO, t2.world
Thanks for reading this article! Here are some of the things you can expect next.
deep dive into the main web3 social protocols
exploring the data and identity layer
dedicated issue on the app layer
web3 social mapping update!
a video of web3 social builders!!! if you have talent with video editing please DM me!
Sufficient decentralization by Varun
Matt from XMTP on Web3 Talks