My year old writings on Steem / Steemit (4)
The best way to understand the future might be to study the past. A year ago I hardly knew anything about EOS. Today I have it compiled on my laptop and much of my time is trying to understand C++, WebAssembly etc. skills that I see myself needing for developing my own dApps. I know what ECAF is, philosophize daily about the implementation of Universal Resource Inheritance (URI) and it’s social implications, I’ve chatted with and answered dozens of questions from strangers on /r/eos and /r/eosdev and I’ve sat through hours upon hours of EOS related podcasts… What crazy rabbit hole this journey has been. As a computer scientist who was involved with Bitcoin before most people, very few alt-coins, ICOs or whatever have actually intrigued me. I was looking into alternate use cases of blockchain technology, when I stumbled upon Steem / Steemit and began to read the white paper. This is what eventually led me to EOS, taking part in the early token sale and becoming part of the genesis snapshot as the network was launched. I would like to share with you some of my early writings from way back when EOS was not even around. This as a precursor to any future writings on EOS.
Any (dis)advantages of social media on a blockchain?
Scenario dependent outcome
Whilst a distributed blockchain network is capable of providing censorship-resistance on an uninterruptible platform, this can also be seen as a double-edged sword. From a flowery perspective, the indelibility of content can be seen as a weapon in the fight against tyrannical subjugation, with powerful authorities setting limitations on the spread of information. Such is one possible use case, however, as hammers (or any tool in general) may be utilized for good, they can also be used for graphically violent evil. I have dedicated serious thought to the potential downside of blockchains failing to implement basic undo functionality; the ability as a user to delete posted content entirely in case of regretting contributions. Whilst one can argue that once posted, content has potentially been copied and spread, this is speculative and not always the case. Given the chance of deletion, such a feature will (depending on the timeframe of hitting undo) in the least provide a form of damage control or potentially result in a fully reversed outcome.
Speed and scalability aside
Oft heard arguments against blockchain-based solutions address current scalability issues and in the case of having personally tested Steemit for the sake of writing this report, there is a noticeable lag in comparison to my browsing experience of Reddit. The mainstream centralized services have had decades of technological improvements, whilst the blockchain technology is still in its infancy, with several kinks that need to be worked out. As such, it hardly feels like a fair comparison.
When a user goes to power down their Steem Power they are warned that leaving in too little will affect the browsing experience of the site, seeing as users will then quickly be out of bandwidth.
In the particular case of Steemit, the bandwidth allocated to the user (and thus the browsing experience) is directly correlated with the amount of vested currency / how much the user has at stake in the system. This is due to the rate-limited approach that the simultaneously protects the network from Sybil attacks, whilst incentivizing users to get involved with the system monetarily. The white paper delivers an analogy for understanding the approach:
“Let’s view a blockchain like an Internet Service Provider (ISP) co-op which owns all of the cables in the town and has a maximum amount of bandwidth that it can provide at any time. People living in the town can buy shares in the ISP and in exchange they are entitled to utilize a portion of the available bandwidth.”
What I wish to express with this is that it seems futile to directly compare the efficiency of centralized systems to decentralized ones, not simply because the former networks have had decades of innovation, whilst blockchain is novel and unrefined, but more importantly because their approaches are so vastly different. It quickly becomes a reflection of what the networks provide in terms of functionality, which then becomes a matter of what technology best serves the particular use case. The more precise question we need to be asking is this: “Current network limitations aside (with the technology likely to improve, or not), what particular advantage does blockchain technology offer social media?” In other words, let’s not get distracted by the oft-debated, as that debate has been had. We have yet to see the potential of this technology, as such, debates that obsess over their yet realized potential rarely result in anything but unsatisfactory, hypothetical answers.
An alternative to advertising?
Steem (along with similar blockchain decentralized social networks) ideally represents a shift from one monetization model to another; instead of intrusive advertisements — that not only adversely detract from the user experience, introduce security risks in the form of malvertising, but also incentivize websites to spy on users in order to generate precious big data — blockchain backed communities become economies of their own, attempting to shift the status quo in favor of users, who receive micropayments from each of their contributions, according to how well-received their content is by the remaining community. That is my flowery summarization of Steem and its seemingly well-intentioned mission statement. This, in turn, requires cash flow to either come from users investing in STEEM or from search engine ad revenue.
Promises of greater transparency
Main differentiations between the centralized and decentralized services appear to be a greater focus on transparency in the latter. This is as much a referral to the removal of potentially corrupt centralized intermediaries (selling of user data etc), as it is a referral to the general state of blockchains being public ledgers, the contents of which are visible to anyone in the network.
Monetary incentivizing of certain behaviours
Steemit has a rewards/tipping system that facilitates a flourishing online economy of various cryptocurrency tokens. The goal is an online community with an economy of its own, that grows through collaborative efforts. As such incentives are in place such that self-interest is aligned with the greater good / welfare of the overall community. Nonetheless, this may have a tremendous effect on the social dynamics of an online community. When you involve game theory and mix in the potential of massive profits, some attempts at gaming the system are seemingly inevitable. It seems that the Steemit community are now dealing with issues of automated bot voting and users becoming involved with the community solely for personal gain.
Ownership/proof of origin
With general blockchain technology, it becomes possible to represent the ownership of information (think digital property rights) with individual owners proving their identity with unique signatures. Blockchain technology allows us to reach consensus on who created and owns what. This particular feature builds upon the immutability of the public ledger.
Combining blockchain technology with a reputation system
Steemit further utilizes a reputation system to represent and subjectively measure the quality of content, within a community of creators with distinct stature. Reputation (whether offline or online) relies on social proof and as such is not something completely tangible and solely in the hands of the reputed. This becomes a crucial detail in the understanding of the network security, as the witness program in a DPoS consensus relies on a subjectively influenced election process. Having first ascertained the rank or quality of an owner (is this a good or bad person?) this coupled with digital currencies would allow for conceptions of “dirty money” or “tainted goods” to be taken into consideration during online transactions. Similar to how offline exchanges are made, not entirely free from judgments of character. Leveraging the blockchain capacity of direct exchange in combination with the reputability of social networks, the real innovation of Steem / Steemit seems to be technologically undertaking this social layer. Whereas blockchains give us the ability to transact, reputation systems give us a moral compass that tells us whether or not we should.
Privacy…Irony…Piracy? A discussion.
Addressing ownership problems
"On current social media platforms, attribution is something that can be lost overnight – a posted video or image can be replicated and re-shared without consent or regard for the creator."
(whitepaper, 2017: 31)
Bitcoin is attempting to decentralize the world of finance and Steem is attempting to decentralize the world of social media. While users have both offline and online lives, the latter life often resides on a server belonging to a company. Whereas the former technology attempts to obsolete banks, credit card systems etc. the Steem blockchain deals with delivering the same services provided by social media sites, without them, to address privacy concerns, ownership etc and more. Essentially, a service such as Facebook becomes the guardian or even owner of any content created by the users and trust issues abound. Furthermore, the overall cryptocurrency movement and the growing urge among community members to disrupt centralized services can perhaps be seen in relation to the ongoing net neutrality debate; as a possible misalignment of interests between the juggernauts that run the Facebooks and Twitters of the Internet and the end-users. The primary beneficiaries (in a fiscal sense) of user-generated content remains with those who own the content hosting platforms and ironically not the creative users. When it comes to sites like Facebook etc. platforms on which users share their lives, there might also be a conflict of interests, in that the founders of the site extract value for profit and want to maximize profits (sometimes by infringing upon privacy), whereas the users gain little, if anything, besides the ability to post. Steemit as a platform seems to invite an opportunity for users to at least have a share in these profits.
Satoshi Nakamoto initially described his invention in the white paper from 2008, by saying that a blockchain can be conceived of as a distributed timestamp server. This means any content, once added, becomes traceable back through the entire history of that blockchain. By means of a unique fingerprint, whenever content is reposted, shared or when someone attempts to take credit for someone else’s work, the exact origin of the content is available and identifiable. The argument is that content creators become better positioned to defend their honor and even income stream, by having the means of calling out other people using their content without consent. They can point to a public record and timestamp.
In the Steem white paper it is noted (perhaps somewhat idealistically) that:
“In the future, blockchain-based attribution could come to be recognized by governments for its authenticity and could hold weight in court, which would give content creators greater powers to control their work.”
(whitepaper, 2017: 31)
Only time will tell whether or not this is idealistic to the point of being unrealistic. These same properties of immutably timestamped transactions have led other blockchain startups in attempts to disrupt copyright registries; tackling Intellectual Property (IP) cases and the patent industry by utilizing blockchain technology for creating a reliable record.
This immutability, whilst beneficial in certain use-cases, is however not without its own problems. That is to say, the feature of being able to recall any information at any time leads to potentially damaging information becoming irremovable. Which leads us to the next discussion:
“Compared to other blockchains, Steem stands out as the first publicly accessible database for immutably stored content in the form of plain text”
(bluepaper, 2017: 1)
Whilst riding on the hype of blockchain technology, promising not only profits but also that with decentralization users will take back control of their data, somehow quite the opposite seems to have happened. In the case of users regretting certain contributions, they find themselves without a fully functional ‘delete’ button. Whereas the open and decentralized technology allows for a social network to run without any single server in charge, content is now distributed across several computers in a way that makes it always accessible. Should a user wish to delete a post, the content could be overwritten with new content or ‘removed’, but never entirely. Seeing as the content is stored as an immutable blockchain transaction, it has become a historical record that can always be recovered. Overwriting the content becomes a new transaction, not a replacement of the original. This leaves little room for mistakes. From the editing of minor typos to the more severe accidental adding of sensitive information, without a central authority, those accidentally copy-pasted passwords, social security numbers etc. will remain visible on the chain forever. This factor is of utmost importance in the discussion of whether or not blockchain technology (with its immutable ledger) is actually suitable for a blogging platform. Oversharing online happens on a daily basis. Many millennials, having grown up with social networks, have come to regret certain online posts. Luckily for them, till now, online media has generally provided them with an option to delete not just posts, comments, uploaded pictures etc. but entire accounts.
Accounts on Steemit cannot be deleted and every day there seems to be yet another case of a user regretfully discovering this.
In their 2017 roadmap, Steemit states:
“Our long-term goal remains the same: to provide the best platform for censorship-resistant publishing and store of value to the widest user base possible, in an effort to increase human freedom and accelerate the spread of access to basic rights for all people on Earth.”
It seems counterproductive, even somewhat hypocritical to claim that Steemit is fighting for the freedom of its users, whilst simultaneously removing such a fundamental freedom. Especially when it comes to the removal of a feature that is generally expected by users across the entire Internet.
Often dubbed the Right to be Forgotten, this concept is far from new and has been a central topic in many debates regarding other social networks, precisely regarding ownership of data, even referred to as a basic human right. (Right to be forgotten, Wikipedia 2017)
“There are now full movies being uploaded to DTube and directly profited from via the STEEM blockchain and people appear to think that doing this poses no threat to us as a community – but they are very wrong about that.”
The quote is from a popular Steem Witness expressing his concerns regarding piracy. During my exploration of Steemit I have seen several posts made by users of the social network, some of which include pictures from other parts of the Internet. It is likely that a subset of these images are copyrighted. Such infringement isn’t particularly new concerning the Internet, as the same spreading of digital information has gone on for decades on centralized counterparts. The situation is however slightly different in the case of Steemit, as any earnings are publicly displayed next to the posts, thus removing speculation as to whether or not a profit has been made, on behalf of another person’s effort. Could this lead to trouble for the social network?
As discussed earlier, without a centralized authority in charge of moderation, uploaded content that is found to infringe upon copyright etc. isn’t easily removed. I have not come across any official statements by the Steem founders as to how such problems will (if they even can) be addressed. The white paper makes it clear that the goal of Steem is to provide a platform with strong censorship resistance. This has been successfully achieved, with perhaps the unforeseen consequence of simultaneously establishing a seemingly unstoppable piracy platform?
The Steem blockchain stores neither images nor videos, but it could store the text contained within popular books. D.Tube, however, utilizes the Steem blockchain in conjunction with IPFS technology for data storage and hosts videos in a distributed manner, as far as I can tell.
How can one balance the privacy versus piracy issue?
Thank you for reading some of my year old writings. I have been involved with cryptocurrencies since early 2010 and I am still trying to wrap my head around many things, whether related to the technical or human aspect; the most fascinating stuff is often the interplay of the two. Let me know if you want further writings from the past… I have more… maybe bribe me with some of those TRYBE tokens… I hear they’re all the rage these days.