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Lens Protocol: Decentralising Social Networks
Web3 is all about decentralisation, so why do we rely on Twitter as our main source of information? Lens Protocol is changing this for the masses.
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During the 2020 election, throughout COVID-19 and at during almost every controversial event since, Facebook, Twitter and Google have repeatedly limited the free flow of information and dialogue that showcases both sides of the matter. Instead, they’ve sought to censor content that does not meet their content policies. In a society that is largely driven by what we see and read on social media, this is incredibly dangerous.
One of the fundamental beliefs of crypto and web3 is to break free from the shackles of large corporations. When these corporations dictate what information we consume on a daily basis through their social media platforms, it's important to ensure that we have access to unbiased and censorship-resistant platforms.
In addition, the data silos created by monolithic platforms create a value accrual imbalance. Though the platforms are powered by User-Generated Content, none of the participants are able to benefit from their content directly. Instead, they need to make arrangements outside of the platform with other third parties to truly benefit from their content.
I’ve written about DeSo and BitClout in the past and how they’re trying to disrupt traditional social media by building a layer 1 blockchain with specific commands that make it easy to build an on-chain social network. Today, we’ll be looking at Lens Protocol, which was created by DeFi mainstay Aave’s founder Stani Kulechov and CEO Alexander Svanevik. It’s an open-source, decentralised social graph that is permissionless and composable, built on Polygon and looking to bring decentralised social to the masses.
What is a Social Graph?
A social graph is a database that maps out all the relationships between people on a platform. It comprises Nodes (people) and edges (relationships) that connect them. In their current state, social graphs are wholly owned by the entity that owns the platform, e.g., Facebook or Twitter. What Lens Protocol want to do is create a social graph that can be used cross-platform and allows the user to effectively control their own data.
To do this using blockchain technology means that on-chain data needs to be indexed before it can be created into a graph. This is because data is organised sequentially in blocks as they are created on-chain. As such, if you wanted to search through data before it had been indexed, you would need to search through individual blocks which is a time-consuming process.
As a result, Lens protocol indexes relevant data, making it easier and quicker to access and build on top of the data. By decentralising the social graph, Lens allows developers to focus on optimising for user experience, rather than worrying about managing and collecting user data.
In true web3 fashion, users own everything with Lens as everything is powered by NFTs.
Your profile is an NFT. Every time you like, share or follow someone, you receive an NFT representing that action. Every post you make is an NFT.
From the outset, it makes sense that profiles and posts are NFTs, but what about likes, shares and follows? Why do they need to be NFTs?
Let’s dive a little deeper into why this is valuable:
Profile NFTs - The core value proposition for Lens Protocol is a composable, non-custodial and permissionless profile NFT. It contains the history of all posts, comments, shares and any other content/actions you generate. Wallets can own multiple profile NFTs and even DAOs can own a profile NFT through a multisig wallet (a wallet that requires multiple people to approve transactions).
Publication NFTs - Content created on Lens is turned into an NFT. This includes pictures, music, videos, poems, articles etc and is hosted on IPFS.
Follow NFTs - Every time a user follows someone, they are granted a Follow NFT which has its own unique token ID, with rarity and utility. This allows creators to limit certain actions to their most loyal fans and reward their fans in different ways based on their loyalty. These NFTs can also be traded on secondary markets.
Collect NFTs - Collects on Lens are basically Likes on other platforms. Users can collect posts from people that they follow and curate their own collection of content with each Collect being represented as an NFT. Creators can even monetise the ability to collect content and control the number of collects possible and the time limit to collect a post
Mirror NFTs - Mirroring content on Lens is equivalent to sharing content on other platforms. When a user Mirrors a post, they earn a cut from anyone who collects the original content through their share. I.e., they get compensated for curating and amplifying content
In web2, platforms are incredibly siloed, with no transfer of information or cross-pollination of audiences. Whilst users can post, share and follow on both Twitter and Instagram, this content is not shared cross-platform and a user’s audience is controlled by these corporations. If the platform decides to delete an account, that user loses all their followers, personal brand and identity of the platform.
With Lens, this isn’t an issue. With Lens, users own their core profile, and maintain a link to any interaction other users take with their profile. These links create Lens’ social graph which is completely decentralised and censorship-resistant.
Using this, platforms build on top of Lens and can add more functionality to the base protocol, but utilise the profileNFT that exists in a user’s wallet. Each dApp that builds on Lens becomes a different front end, much like existing social networks that have the same features but in different forms, Lens-based dApps will also be able to create their own magical user experiences and really experiment with the creative execution of a social network and different forms of monetisation beyond exchanging user data for advertising dollars.
What this also allows for is a stronger recommendation engine. By sharing data cross-platform, developers will be able to get a more holistic view of what people want to see on platforms and can tweak the front end to reflect this. This can hopefully lead to better experiences for users and potentially stickier users for platforms.
What does the future hold?
Our world is driven by shorter trends that are perpetuated through different types of social media. Most recently, this has been through short-form video content on TikTok. TikTok’s algorithm is incredibly attuned toward giving us specific content that is tailored to what we watch on the platform. However, in many cases, this can be skewed due to falling down rabbit holes or repeatedly watching one type of video.
With more platforms using Lens as the back-end, platforms will be able to feed more data into their algorithm, but also use a social graph that has a greater likelihood of being diverse versus one that is created by a siloed platform. As such, it will likely better represent the world we live in and show us the content we truly want to see, without censorship. Hopefully, this might encourage greater individualism as each person is exposed to a unique range of content that is likely to influence their behaviour in different ways.
This might be hoping for too much, but in society today, there are clear singular trends related to clothing, music and more. The more diverse these trends are, the more society will be attuned toward accepting everyone’s differences and hopefully, the world becomes a better place to live.
On the NFT side, it's largely unclear whether NFT-ing everything will be valuable. Currently, NFTs are driven by speculation and the future promise of utility. The clearest case for value accrual is in a ProfileNFT. People already buy and sell Instagram pages or Youtube channels. Turning these into NFTs, this help makes the entire process more transparent, and easier to determine ownership.
Being able to build up a significant following gives value to a ProfileNFT. The ability to monetise individual pieces of content is important on any social media platform, and is currently only possible on platforms such as YouTube or Substack. MirrorNFTs can be valuable due to the promise of future revenue streams from curating content.
What could be interesting to explore is the ability to turn ProfileNFTs into SoulBoundTokens (SBT). SBTs are NFTs but non-transferable, meaning that you have complete ownership over the token, but you aren’t able to transfer it to another wallet.
At the moment, most NFT creators use centralised platforms such as Twitter or Opensea to prove initial provenance. With SBTs it’s possible to have an on-chain identity that only the wallet owner can control. It’s feasible to envisage a future where other credentialling tools such as RabbitHole are able to feed data back to the SBT to create an all-encompassing profile.
This can seem scary and almost dystopian if everything we do is tied back to a single SBT, but it’s important to note that a single person could have multiple Souls that they use for different activities. Moreover, there is no requirement for a Soul to be linked to a legal name or entity. Practically this might be hard to manage as you’ll need to be careful with wallet transfers potentially exposing who you are, but if you really wanted to maintain a fully pseudonymous identity it is possible to do so.
Are Decentralised Social networks feasible?
Decentralised social platforms are heavily reliant on having a large user base for the social graph to be valuable. Adoption curves are likely to be slow at the start as users test out different ways of using multiple platforms with the same identity. Moreover, content on the platforms needs to be rich and insightful in order to attract and retain users. This is the hardest part of building any social media platform and this problem isn’t alleviated by having a decentralised social graph.
It’ll be interesting to observe how this develops over the next 2 to 3 years. Whilst that seems like a long time in web3, social networks are fragile and need to be cultivated over time to prove out value to users. This is still such a nascent space, and we need to tread carefully and thoughtfully, otherwise, this might all devolve into platforms with useless content.
Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter!
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