Author: Mick Tsai, Contentos CEO
It’s easy to look at YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter and believe that they represent a democratization of the internet. People who have never written a book, acted in a film, founded a company, or reached other conventional measures of success have managed to build lives and careers on these platforms. Although these platforms provide a venue for talent that might not fit in a traditional media landscape, many of the most successful content creators and influencers have found that their situation remains precarious. Just as television stars live in fear of a network cancellation, today’s digital creators face any number of major threats to their livelihoods.
Anyone can upload to most social networks; that’s their entire point. But in today’s internet world, quality does not guarantee visibility. A thousand factors determine a particular piece of content’s reach, and a tweak to any single one of those factors can wreak havoc on a content creator. A well-intentioned adjustment to a search algorithm may cause a site to return obscure low-quality videos where once it returned good videos already enjoyed by millions, while copyright holders may discover that copycats appear in searches before they do. Because their algorithms are central to their internet domination, few platforms will ever share substantive details about why changes were made and who they affect, much less what changes might be coming in the future. The result? Creators end up chasing the algorithm, making content they might not like so that their audience will continue to grow.
The most popular online personalities may make six or seven figures, but the vast majority of people who shoot and upload videos, post photos, or write memorable tweets never see a dime for their efforts. Monetization is a reality for the consistently popular, but a pipe dream for everyone else. Not everyone wants to make a living from their social media, but is equity too much to ask for? Shouldn’t a person be rewarded for their quality content, even if producing such content is not their profession? Shouldn’t good material be paid, regardless of where it originated or who created it? Authors of “long tail” books receive their royalties, as do the producers and directors of niche films, and the musicians behind little-known bands. There’s no reason the same rules shouldn’t apply for internet media creators. The venue may have changed, but the principle has not.
Content creators are not the only ones struggling under the current centralized social media system. Advertisers have little control over where or in what context their material might appear, and return on investment is notoriously difficult to gauge. In some cases, it’s possible that ads might even have a negative return on investment: If a badly produced and annoying ad becomes ubiquitous, potential customers may swear off the advertised brand or product entirely. Then there’s the risk of ads being attached to the wrong sorts of content. YouTube, to take just one example, lost ad dollars in recent months because advertisers were concerned that their brands could be algorithmically associated with extremist or offensive content on Google’s platform. As today’s advertisers have learned, the statement that all publicity is good publicity is a lie.
The unclear algorithm, the panicked creators, and the doubting advertisers are all elements of a single overarching problem: A persistent lack of trust. Thankfully, just as technology — mobile apps, streaming video, and so on — created new problems, technology can create new solutions. One such solution is blockchain technology, which enables auditable, transparent, and trustworthy communications between two parties that may not have formal business connections.
Blockchain, sometimes called distributed ledger technology, creates an immutable and tamper-proof record of transactions. Because blockchain networks are distributed and decentralized, no single party has full control of the ledger’s contents. A decentralized ledger for social media, for example, would display transactions between advertisers and content creators; either side could initiate a payment or track past fund movements, but neither could hide, edit or change past events. Advertisers could audit just where their funds have gone, and creators can see that they’ve earned what they deserve.
The change to a decentralized social internet will not happen overnight. The major social media incumbents — they’re so familiar I don’t have to name them — have a substantial network advantage that will take time to erode. Users are used to visiting them for news, for entertainment, for inspiration, and to kill time. But at the same time, these networks are surprisingly vulnerable: Every day there seems to be a new report about some shocking violation of privacy, some ill-considered change to the terms of service, or some negligent failure to protect creator rights. Users and creators alike are sick of the tech giants, and the bonds they share with them are bonds of convenience and habit, not loyalty, affection, or admiration. We’ve already seen young users migrate to new platforms like TikTok; platform loyalty is far weaker than incumbents would like to believe.
The internet and social media have become so essential to our lives that it’s easy to forget how new they are and how much they have changed over the course of their brief lives. Today’s social media titans may tomorrow go the way of Lycos and Netscape; Tumblr may be worth billions in a sale one year, but sell again for less than one percent of its former price. It’s possible to build a new internet, one predicated on trust and fairness, but it will take time, faith, and work. Everyone — advertisers, content creators, and everyday users — deserves a better internet; I believe that one is on the way.