The Shift from Social Platforms to Social Protocols: Identity

Rick Williams
November 14, 2023

This piece is part of our Web3 Growth Playbook series. You can download the full report here.

Social media has become an integral part of our lives, but the current landscape is dominated by a few large platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. These platforms have enormous power over our data and our online experiences, but a new crop of decentralised, federated social solutions are emerging enabling you to own your social identity and with it your followers.

Many would argue that there has been barely any innovation on these big social platforms for years, with incumbents buying out innovators and copying each other to nullify innovation and competition. You just need to read about how Nikita Bier sold TBH to Facebook in 2017 and virtually replicated it and sold Gas to Discord in Jan 2023 to see how this is playing out.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Social media in the era of web3

As a result, there has been a lot of discussion as to how social media will play out in the web3, decentralised space. Early attempts have been too costly and frankly, simplistic. But thanks in large part to Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, including his recent suggestion that all users will have to pay an annual subscription, and Meta’s ‘promise’ to use a federated social graph solution for Threads, there is growing intellectual schism away from social platforms towards social protocols.

From platforms, to protocols

Social protocols are open standards that allow different social media applications to communicate with each other. Some of these focus on identity, others on curation and social recommendations. Some of the key benefits of social protocols over platforms is that they will give users more control over the content they create and publish and their data and online experiences. They will be able to choose which platforms they want to use, and they will be able to move their data between platforms without having to start over.

This in turn will promote competition and innovation. Not only could new social media applications be built on top of existing protocols, but the kind of 3rd party application innovations we saw from the likes of TweetDeck, Twitterific and others, which defined Twitter as ‘different’ from Google and Facebook, would blossom.

New networks, new communities

This is an exciting time. If you look in the right places, it feels very similar to the early-mid 2000’s. There are a number of new social media communities being built on top of open, social protocols. Companies such as Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon, Farcaster, Lens, Crossbell, Nostr, Tako, Mask and others, are all making up parts of an emerging Decentralised Social (DeSoc) protocol space that is finding its feet and which is beating the TechPunk drum and defining its own ‘cosy web’ subculture where some of the most interesting ideas, people and creativity is being crafted.

Social Media over the last 10yrs has become increasingly ‘asocial’ and the opportunities afforded by web3 are shining a light on what might be.

Let’s make social networks a creative force again, not just another consumer channel

This shift from social platforms to social protocols is still in its early stages, and it doesn’t necessitate an either or scenario, but it has the potential to revolutionise the way we use, see and interact with the internet. For me personally, it offers a future where online social communities can participate and create rather than simply consume. Social Media over the last 10yrs has become increasingly ‘asocial’ and the opportunities afforded by web3 are shining a light on what might be. The momentum behind social protocols fill me with excitement and hope for a future where we can leverage technology instead of feeling owned by it.

The Medium is the Message’ in the age of web3

We can learn a great deal about creators such as Mr Beast and the untapped value and opportunities of NFTs by studying McLuhan’s theory. 

It’s incredible to think that something written almost 60yrs ago, before the invention of the internet, the smartphone and mixed reality could resonate so profoundly today. 

"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communication theorist. It titles the first chapter of his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, first published in 1964, and encapsulates beautifully how technological innovation becomes interwoven in culture.

McLuhan uses the term "message" to signify both content and character. The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped, but the character of the medium is another message that is easily overlooked.

Everything Old is New Again

McLuhan’s theory has been gaining new audiences since the bubble burst on the first wave of NFTs, and ‘builders kept on building’ regardless. Nike and many other ‘less well known for now’ networks, have continued to experiment with the ways in which future content ownership might take shape.

For twenty years, social media content has typically been owned by the platform, not the creator. Revenue is sourced through advertising. It is a TV ad model that was dreamt up in the 60’s and still pays handsomely to those who own the distribution networks. 

With the likes of Mr Beast, commanding almost 200M subscribers, the Creator Economy is a more commercial version of the ‘Influencer Economy’...The difference? Creators are beholden only to their subscribers, and not to the household named brands who traditionally paid them.

Mr. Beast is now personally valued at multiple BILLIONS. Why? Because he’s realised that he can endorse his own products to his subscriber base and become a (relatively) overnight dollar printing press.

According to Forbes in November 2022, his annual earnings were estimated to be an astonishing $54 million, including income from ad revenue and sponsorship. In Jan 2022 he launched his 'Feastables' chocolate bar, selling over 1 million bars within 72hrs, with no other marketing other than mentioning them in his YouTube videos. The Wikipedia entry for Feastables is a textbook lesson in digital marketing in the 2020’s, and proves what can be achieved in a short space of time, especially when you consider Mr Beast is only 25 years old. 

NFTs with super powers

Mr Beast is a modern day archetype of McLuhan’s Theory, and likely the last creator using the platform-controlled business model of sponsorship and advertising.

That’s because, despite the headlines, rumours of the demise of NFTs have been greatly exaggerated. Everyone got very attached to the ‘content’ of NFTs and ultimately became very dismissive of them - “That’s just an expensive jpeg!” - but during this ‘crypto winter’ many are starting to work out the ‘character’ of NFTs

One of the obvious implications of content being owned by creators is that it gives them more control over their work and how it can be ‘remixed’. Creators can choose where and how their content is shared, and they can also choose how they want to monetize it. In May 2023 Grimes released software that mimics her voice, offering a 50/50 Royalties split for Commercial Use and the raft of new functionality coming to NFT 2.0 creates some fascinating opportunities:

Creators as Media Platforms

Network driven models give creators a more direct relationship with their fans. As Mr Beast has proven, creators can seamlessly diversify into other products and sell their content directly to fans, without platform intermediaries. There have also been some novel approaches to using NFTs in order to build communities around their work, as we can see from Nike Swoosh, but also in research & intelligence companies such as Water & Music and Folklore

For platforms, the shift to creators owning their own content means that they will have less control over what is shared on their platforms, and more importantly, how it can be reused.

This will likely lead to a decline in the quality and freshness of content on centralised platforms, as creators become more comfortable sharing their content directly with their fans, leading to greater innovation in the social platform space.

Media as Creator Platforms

For consumers, the shift to creators owning their own content is likely to lead to a more diverse and innovative ‘cosy web’. Creators will be free to experiment with new ways of sharing and monetizing their content, leading to new and exciting experiences for users. The rise of independent podcasting has led to a more diverse range of voices and perspectives being represented. The popularity of YouTube has given creators a platform to share their videos with a global audience and to build careers as online entertainers. The growth of Patreon has allowed creators to generate revenue directly from their fans. The development of Web3 technologies is giving creators new ways to own and monetize their content.

I’m excited about how content is evolving media ecology and culture. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more changes in the way that content is created, distributed, and consumed. McLuhan proposed that the "content of any medium is always another medium". That’s a fascinating concept when you think about the composable nature of NFTs and smart contracts, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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