Policy

Ethereum's co-founder thinks the blockchain can fix social media

But before the blockchain can fix social media, someone has to fix the blockchain. Frank McCourt, who’s put serious money behind his vision of a decentralized social media future, thinks Gavin Wood may be the key.

Gavin Wood, co-founder of Ethereum and creator of Polkadot

Gavin Wood, co-founder of Ethereum and creator of Polkadot, is helping Frank McCourt's decentralized social media initiative.

Photo: Jason Crowley

Frank McCourt, the billionaire mogul who is donating $100 million to help build decentralized alternatives to the social media giants, has picked a partner to make the blockchain work at Facebook scale: Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood.

McCourt’s Project Liberty will work with the Web3 Foundation’s Polkadot project, it said Tuesday. Wood launched Polkadot in 2020 after leaving Ethereum. Project Liberty has a technical proposal to allow users to retain their data on a blockchain as they move among future social media services. Wood’s involvement is to give the idea a shot at actually working at the size and speed of a popular social network.

“We are excited to work with Gavin and his colleagues to bring our shared vision of a healthier web into reality,” McCourt said in a statement. “Not only are they pioneering innovators, but our values are aligned for how the internet should be restructured in a way that empowers users, benefits society and strengthens democracy.”

The problems of scale and reliability are some of the biggest stumbling blocks for those who hope to push back on the power of current tech giants — and strike a blow for privacy or even for civic discourse — by decentralizing control of data.

Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, for instance, became behemoths by linking up people to their friends, letting them swap updates and then feeding in other content and ads. The services tailor that commercial content in ever-more-precise ways based on the information they stockpile from all those interactions and connections. Critics like Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen say the model incentivizes the most socially corrosive content, which generates tons of comments, likes and shares.

McCourt, Wood and fellow travelers see this state of affairs as dangerous to democracy. They argue that if the companies can’t control the data, it disrupts the whole system, removing the rewards for getting misinformation or hate speech to go viral. Theoretically, it would also ensure users don’t have to keep coming back just to stay in touch with their loved ones and give people a say over their data hoards.

McCourt and others believe the best way to give consumers that power is to put the social graphs of their connections on public, decentralized blockchains. That ensures there’s no single data store that a corporation controls; people can instead take their data and digital relationships from service to service.

Frank McCourt Frank McCourt and others believe the best way to give social media consumers power is to put the social graphs of their connections on public, decentralized blockchains. Photo: Atsuhirio Oguri

The partnership between Project Liberty and Polkadot, which the two teams finalized in Marseille over the weekend before heading to Davos to discuss their initiative, acknowledges reaching a Web3 utopia will take a lot more than just a technical approach to storing and moving users’ information. For one thing, blockchains can be famously slow and inelegant with large data sets. Wood’s Polkadot aims to connect multiple blockchains, harness them in parallel and speed their interactions. The partnership will extend Wood’s vision for Web3 beyond the world of finance to social networking.

“Web 3.0 needs a universally accessible social graph to be successful, as the Web 2.0 social giants currently have absolute control over what users can say or do on their platforms,” Wood said in a statement. He added that his team hopes “others will join in our efforts to create a fairer foundation for the internet.”

Wood is best known for helping create Ethereum in reaction to the limitations of the bitcoin blockchain. Wood and seven co-founders, led by Vitalik Buterin, created a more expansive ecosystem with its own cryptocurrency, ether, and offered users the ability to create and exchange products and services, including NFTs. Wood subsequently left Ethereum to build Polkadot, which he envisioned as a multichain “trust-free or trustless” ecosystem that avoids “the necessity to go through intermediaries and institutions.”

The idea of decentralizing social media has attracted its fair share of hucksters or big thinkers who don’t bother with the details, but it also has adherents like Jack Dorsey, who launched Project Bluesky with a stated goal of “an open and durable decentralized protocol for public conversations.” In 2018, the W3C released its ActivityPub protocol for moving the kinds of content usually found on social media around decentralized networks.

McCourt, a former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and major Georgetown University donor, has set up an institute with that institution and Sciences Po in Paris to advance his vision of more ethical tech. And Wood, through his foundation, now funds research into new decentralized web architecture.

Wood and McCourt’s project will still face other challenges. A decentralized environment will need to attract developers whose apps can beat the odds and grow popular enough to challenge the current dominant players, at least in aggregate. Even then, users have strong social tendencies to seek out or stay on the services where their friends are, and the market has strong tendencies to reward a very few particularly powerful players. Despite McCourt’s desire to innovate rather than regulate, a successful Web3 social media may still need policymakers to boost users’ ability to communicate across services, and will need to overcome the vague notion of “decentralization.”

For Wood, the McCourt partnership underlines his belief in the critical role of technology, which, he argues, “defines the boundaries of politics … It defines everything.”

“My fundamental belief is that technology controls politics — not the other way around,” Wood told Protocol last year.
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