In this post, I’m going to pitch a new kind of social network. I’m not a programmer, and I recognize this idea is incomplete at it’s current stage. It could be great or it could not. My hope is that by giving the idea away, it will generate discussion, and someone will implement it in a better way than I ever could. Enjoy.
Social media censorship is becoming an increasing issue. YouTube has said they are going to censor videos which do not violate their terms of service. Twitter has shadow-banned and outright banned many users. Facebook has a long history of censoring content, which will undoubtably increase if it’s CEO makes a political run. And most recently, Google fired an employee for publishing a memo that disagreed with the company’s political viewpoint.
The need is clear. We need distributed social networks if we are going to have a free internet.
What Are Distributed Social Networks
The first iteration of file sharing was Napster. Napster was a central server from which you could download files. After Napster got shut down, peer-to-peer became the dominant mode of file sharing. Rather than downloading from a central server, users downloaded from each other. If one user got shut down, there were still a dozen more you could download from. Now we have torrents – which allow you to download the same file from MANY users at the same time. Torrents are virtually impossible to shut down.
We are still at the Napster stage of social networks.
Right now, if you want to use a social network – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. – you have to log on to a central server. If the company behind that server decides they want to censor your content, or limit your access to certain content, there is nothing you can do. The idea of a small group of multinational corporations controlling the flow of information was no one’s vision for the internet, save for a few dystopic cyberpunk novels.
What we need are distributed social networks – the BitTorrent stage – where even if one user is banned or blocked, they can still seed their content.
And we could build this using existing technologies.
BitTorrent RSS Feeds
What I am proposing is creating a distributed social network by combining two existing technologies – BitTorrent and RSS feeds.
BitTorrent allows users to download from multiple users, leading to incredibly fast downloads of large files. RSS allows users to subscribe to a feed. RSS exists for blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts, and most forms of media. Right now, you could use an RSS reader to subscribe to every channel you currently watch on YouTube, every Twitter account you currently follow, and get almost all your social media content through an RSS reader, independent of any social networks interface.
Imagine if instead of subscribing to that creator on a platform, you could subscribe to a Torrent RSS that would automatically download new content every time they uploaded. This would cut out the middle man of the social network, and allow creators to go directly to their fans, and own their audience. Because BitTorrent can be used for any type of file, creators could send any form of content they wanted – text, videos, podcasts, music, programs, games – literally any file that could be downloaded. They could send something as small as an emoji, or something as large as a TV series.
Better For Creators And Their Audience
Creators would be incentivized to use this, because then they would own their audience. They wouldn’t be at the mercy of any Silicon Valley algorithm, or the whims of politically correct censors. They couldn’t lose their audience at the drop of a new update. No one could ban them. This would be much closer to having an email list that they own.
The audience would have unfiltered access to their favorite creators, and control over their feed. Rather than having content they want banned, demonetized, or hidden by an algorithm they don’t understand, fans could have complete control over what they see. If the client was open-source, fans could even customize what they subscribe to. For example, some might chose to see every post, others might choose to see only those with a video file, and others might chose to only see trackers which had a large number of downloads, indicating popularity.
Creators could shift their audience easily. Rather than subscribing to their favorite creators on multiple social networks, they could get all text, podcast, video, etc. content in one feed. People might even build clients that auto-post YouTube and Twitter content to the TorrentRSS feed, allowing creators to slowly transfer their audience from one medium
You could even build in social elements like resharing, to allow creators to share a torrent file from someone else’s feed to their audience. You could build a torrent client that had a “feed” similar to existing social networks, that allowed users to scroll through new posts. This new client would not have to be tech-heavy in it’s appearance, but could have the same fun interface as other social networks.
Right now, creators get paid through three existing methods – advertising (selling someone else’s product), selling their own product, and crowdfunding (getting money directly from their audience). In the current YouTube model, creators publish on the platform and the platform runs ads against their audience. This creates friction between the content creators and advertisers, as advertisers often don’t want their ads on content that they find objectionable, but creators want to make. Acting as the middle-man, platforms often censor the content their users actually want, because advertisers don’t want it.
This method would remove that platform middle-man, while still allowing creators to get paid through the same three ways, and a new way – micropayments.
- Micropayments: Users could enter an amount they’d like to pay each month – say 10$ in bitcoin – and see that distributed by their client among the users they follow. The browser Brave already has a similar feature, however Brave has struggled to figure out how to give money to individual creators, rather than the website hosting their content (like YouTube). This method would allow the client to see which creators a user subscribes to and send money directly to them, rather than their host network.
- Advertising: Right now on YouTube, creators have pre-roll ads run on their content. There is no reason TorrentRSS creators couldn’t add fifteen seconds of sponsored video to the front of their video files. Creators would just have to get these advertisers themselves. The idea that an advertising wouldn’t know what content their ads were being run against is a recent anomaly, and this model would put defining what makes content “advertiser-friendly” on the creators themselves, rather than the network. There of course might be middle-men who sign up large numbers of creators and large numbers of sponsors to an “ad-network” but creators would have options in how they sell.
- Merch: Creators would still have the option to sell their own products. The fact they could send any file would allow creators to advertise their own wares even easier. In the future, some creators might even send 3D printing files to their users and distribute products this way.
- Crowdfunding: Creators could still directly raise money from their audience for specific projects, or ongoing work, like Patreon. I suspect the same way this proposal would innovate social networks, there would be a similar way to innovate crowdfunding, so users don’t have to worry about getting their projects pulled.
The point is – this model would be better for creators. They could own their audience, have more options in what content they choose to share, and have more control in how they chose monetize.
How This Would Incentivize Better Content
Right now, much of the content on social media is about playing the metrics of a certain social network, rather than giving the audience what genuinely benefits them. Clickbait works because many users on social networks are scanning search results, not following individual creators.
A subscription model would change that dynamic by making the primary metric getting and retaining subscribers. If a creator put out bad content, or repeatedly defrauded their audience, users would unsubscribe. Creators who weren’t flashy, but consistently made good content would retain and build subscribers based on reputation.
Subscription would also mean that creators wouldn’t have pressure to publish regularly if it meant a decrease in quality. Their audience would get the content regardless, rather than competing for attention in a search or feed algorithm.
This subscription model would create incentives much closer to those in podcasting, where creators are rewarded for doing long-form nuanced content. There is very little clickbait in podcasts, because all that is visible is the file title, users have to subscribe to a creator they like, and creators have to deliver to retain that audience.
Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but it is known that the format content is published in changes the content. I believe direct relationship between audience and creator could only lead to more authentic content.
In order for a BitTorrent subscription client to be successful and widely adopted, it would need a few things:
- It would have to be open-source. In order for this to work, and not fall under the same corporate control and censorship that has plagued existing social networks, it would have to be transparent. All code publicly available. This would also allow users and client developers to modify the code depending on their needs. For example, some privacy concerned users might want built-in VPN, while others might want a highly customized feed. Some might be willing to pay for software that had certain extra features.
- It will need to be “normie friendly.” In order for this to spread, it will have to be easy to use, such that the average Facebook user could download it and start using it immediately, and the average creator or influencer will feel comfortable recommending it to their fans to start building an audience there. Whatever interface is created has to be as vigorously tested and iterated upon as the feed of any other social media site. This isn’t for engineers and tech geeks – it’s for average users.
- It will evolve over time. No tech product is perfect right out of the gate. There are still some features I haven’t figured out how to implement. For example, how could commenting and replies work in an RSS model? I’m not sure, and I suspect for a social network to grow, there has to be easy visible replies. However, part of the reason I’m offering this idea freely to the internet is because I believe the collective intelligence of the net will find solutions for these problems. Rather than trying to create the Napster-like hub in the form of a company, I’m going peer-to-peer with it.
This is just an idea. Ideas are cheap, and execution is everything. As someone who is not a professional programmer, I’m not sure how to implement this. I’m told there are some similar ideas already being developed, but none have taken off or been accessible enough that they’re used by major creators. I’m giving this idea away freely in the hopes that someone will create the technology that allows us all to have a more free web. What you do with this idea, it up to you.
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