How to Decentralize the Social Graph

Joan Westenberg
8 min readSep 5, 2023

With public and private discourse dominated by tech giants like X and Meta and algorithms that amplify the loudest voices, there is a growing desire for more human-centric online communities, fueling niche, decentralized micro-communities enabled by blockchain tech. By attempting to align incentives and amplify network effects, micro-communities are pioneering a new model of internet collaboration.

Shifting to Decentralization

The FTX crash slowed the shift from centralized systems to decentralized alternatives across media, finance, and technology industries. But it didn’t kill it. Propelled by dissatisfaction with Big Tech gatekeepers and innovations like blockchain and crypto-economics, users are still attracted to decentralized models offering more autonomy, transparency, and user ownership.

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in online communities. Early internet forums evolved into massive centralized social networks like Facebook and Reddit that extracted value from users while limiting their influence over the platforms. This catalyzed a backlash from users craving more creator-centric, human-sized communities.

Platforms like Discord and Substack have capitalized on this demand for niche spaces. They remain relatively centralized, with limited user opportunities to share in value creation. This is where decentralized micro-communities enabled by crypto-economics have an edge.

Online Communities: A Brief History

Online communities emerged in the early Internet days with forums and bulletin boards focused on specific interests. Sites like Reddit later aggregated forums into sprawling networks with broad mainstream appeal.

The rise of social media further accelerated the mass adoption of centralized community platforms like Facebook. But while these sites conquered scale, they struggled to replicate niche communities’ tight social bonds and shared culture.

New technologies have recently revived and empowered smaller, decentralized online community models. Private messaging platforms like Discord enable gatherings around shared identities. Paid subscription tools like Substack and Patreon help creators monetize niche audiences.

Underlying many of these new models is a fusion of community with crypto-economics. This presents an evolution of online communities — from centralized and ad-driven to decentralized and user-driven.

An Aggregation Theory Lens

Aggregation theory provides a valuable framework for analyzing the interplay between community and technology. It sees internet business models as content, community, and commerce bundles. Social networks aggregate these elements but often at the expense of creators.

DeFi now introduces an additional “C” — crypto-economics. By integrating tokens, decentralized apps bridge the gap between community and compensation. Users co-own platforms and share in the value created by collective contributions.

  1. Content (Financial Products): Here, the range comprises various DeFi services like lending protocols, staking pools, and yield farming opportunities. These act as the initial pull for users.
  2. Community (Governance & Social Layer): The financial products are shaped and refined by the community, which can be organized into DAOs and empowered through governance tokens.
  3. Commerce (Transactions): Transactions in DeFi are not just about buying and selling but include complex financial activities like peer-to-peer lending, token swaps, and more. This layer is closely governed by the community and implemented via smart contracts.
  4. Crypto-economics (Incentive Mechanisms): In DeFi, users are incentivized to contribute liquidity or participate in governance through crypto-economic tools like liquidity mining, staking rewards, and penalties for malicious activities. These incentives keep the loop dynamic and robust.
  5. Trust & Security (Underlying Layer): This is the foundational layer. DeFi relies on blockchain technology’s inherent security and trust, smart contracts, and audits. Trust is a cross-cutting feature that reinforces each of the other components.

Feedback Loops and Interactions

  • Content to Community: Users drawn by financial products form and engage in communities.
  • Community to Commerce: Community decisions directly impact the nature of transactions.
  • Commerce to Crypto-economics: Commercial activities are designed to be incentivized through crypto-economic models.
  • Crypto-economics to Content: The incentives increase participation, enriching the financial products offered.
  • Trust & Security to All: This foundational layer affects all other layers, providing the necessary trust and security for the ecosystem to function smoothly.

The Friend.tech Phenomenon

Friend.tech is a social app that lets users tokenize themselves. It has attracted considerable hype and usage in under a month since its launch. But amidst the frenzy also lies uncertainty about Friend. tech’s staying power.

The premise of Friend.tech is simple. Users create profiles where followers can buy “shares” in them. Shareholders get special access like direct messaging. Prices fluctuate based on demand, and profiles earn a percentage of all trades. The app quickly took off, facilitated by basketball stars and influencers promoting their profiles.

In its first 10 days, Friend.tech generated over $55 million in transaction volume and $1.4 million in daily revenue. Adoption has outpaced many DeFi protocols. The app also dominated discussion on Crypto Twitter.

But looking past the hype, there are open questions about Friend. tech’s design and viability:

  • Lack of privacy policy — User data protection remains ambiguous.
  • Laggy interface — The UX is still rough around the edges.
  • Unclear roadmap — Long-term development priorities are uncertain.
  • Speculation risk — Profits may be primarily driven by hype rather than utility.

Parallels exist with BitClout, another crypto social app that saw initial fascination fizzle out. Friend.tech shows the power of crypto-economics and influencers to drive short-term adoption. But sustaining growth requires delivering tangible user value, not just speculation.

If Friend.tech can evolve beyond its hype phase and address core privacy, usability, and utility issues, it could pioneer a new social paradigm. But it remains early, and the app’s skyrocketing trajectory has already hit its fail point, with daily txns dropping 95%.

Friends with Benefits

The Friends with Benefits (FWB) collective blends content, community, and Crypto into a token-gated membership hub. FWB began as a private Discord chat for creators but evolved into a DAO with over 3,800 members.

The FWB token aligns incentives via shared ownership while funding IRL events and initiatives. Members contribute content, participate in votes, and receive airdrops. This co-op model catalyzes collaboration between creators and fans.

However, FWB has faced issues like speculative trading of its token and questions over the value provided to more casual members. Maintaining an engaged core community while carefully expanding access remains an art.

Lens Protocol

Lens Protocol offers an alternative vision by building an open, decentralized social graph on blockchain technology. Launched in 2022, Lens allows creators to own their social communities by connecting profiles across platforms. This case study examines how Lens Protocol empowers users and enables tokenized micro-communities through its innovative social graph.

Lens Protocol utilizes blockchain technology at its core to create a permissionless and transparent social graph. Profiles, content, and social connections are tokenized as NFTs on the Polygon blockchain. This gives users full ownership over their data and relationships.

By decentralizing the social graph, Lens removes intermediaries and gives users back control. Developers can also build customized front-end apps on top of the Lens Protocol to cater to specific interests and micro-communities.

Key Benefits for Users:

  • Full ownership over profile, content, and connections
  • Privacy and freedom from censorship
  • Ability to monetize social media activity
  • Portability of community across platforms

Key Takeaways

These cases showcase how Crypto-economics can reinforce online community models:

  • Incentive alignment between users and platforms via shared ownership and rewards
  • Amplified network effects through token-gated access and staking
  • Circular creation and compensation — users co-own and earn from their contributions

But balancing speculation, governance, and sustained engagement remains an ongoing challenge.

DeFi Superpowers…and Kryptonite

Integrating tokens and decentralization can strengthen online communities in multiple ways:

  • Aligned incentives — Tokens give users direct ownership in their communities, aligning all stakeholders.
  • Network effects — Scarcity mechanics like token-gating harness status and exclusivity to drive viral growth.
  • Creator compensation — Value flows directly to creators instead of being extracted by intermediaries.

But DeFi also comes with substantial risks:

  • Speculation — Price swings and pumps can overwhelm utility value for token holders.
  • Scams — Immature markets are rife with vaporware projects and rug pulls.
  • Fragmentation — Decentralized platforms often struggle with fractured governance.

The incentive power of Crypto is a double-edged sword. It can direct communities towards speculation rather than concrete utility and shared mission. Platforms must actively anchor tokens in real user value to counter price speculation.

Thoughtful design of incentive structures and participatory governance is essential. But executed well, crypto-economics can uniquely align interests between platforms, creators, and users.

The Regulatory Struggle

While decentralized technologies enable new community models, the surrounding regulations remain uncertain. Initiatives like token offerings and DAOs currently fall into a grey area.

Regulatory scrutiny is increasing in areas like unregistered securities issuance and insider trading. But heavy-handed restrictions could also stifle innovation before it realizes its potential.

Those building at the intersection of community and Crypto face difficult strategic questions:

  • How do we bring transparency without compromising user privacy?
  • What governance structures best balance decentralization with usability?
  • How do we incentivize creators while discouraging speculation?

Navigating this landscape requires treading carefully, but regulators should aim to foster responsible innovation. The most significant risks emerge from prohibiting new ideas rather than nurturing their safe development.

Crypto-communities are at a critical point between the Wild West and mainstream integration. Their eventual trajectory depends on both technological and regulatory progress.

The Future of Communities?

What does the future look like for online communities built on decentralization? A few predictions:

  • The gap will narrow between open platforms and token-gated groups as crypto rewards get embedded everywhere.
  • DAOs will become popular vehicles for decentralized governance and funding of niche communities.
  • Mainstream adoption will accelerate once core UX challenges are addressed.
  • Speculation will remain a thorny issue without better education on fundamental vs. utility value.
  • Regulatory clarity will eventually emerge, which stabilizes markets.

For entrepreneurs and builders in this space, the next steps are to address Crypto’s inherent complexities for mainstream users, creatively bridge incentives with community values, and proactively communicate with regulators.

The dominant platforms of the future will merge the human values of the community with the incentive possibilities of decentralization. This is no trivial task, but the potential is immense.

Online communities are moving towards models where users collectively contribute, govern, and own platforms. Crypto-economic systems can align incentives between platforms, creators, and users through direct shared ownership.

Technical and regulatory challenges remain for decentralizing at scale. Speculation continues to be a significant distraction. Still, thoughtfully designed decentralized communities have immense potential to realign the internet’s balance of power toward creators and their audiences.

The blockchain revolution reaches far beyond finance. At its core is a new model of internet collaboration that could redefine how online communities organize, interact, and create value together. The foundations are being laid today for the user-driven communities of tomorrow.

I’m Joan. Transgender. Solopreneur. Tech writer. Founded studio self, a marketing agency, community, & product lab.

https://linktr.ee/joanwestenberg

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