Today, we're lucky to learn more about a promising project that's aiming to shake up the decentralized social media (DeSM) space. We talked to Ben Royce, SOCIETY2's founder, along with Joseph Skewes and the rest of the team. Ben, Joseph, and the team were extremely generous with their time, so I think you'll find their insights below particularly insightful. They even reveal an announcement in question number 10!
SOCIETY2 has only been around for a few months, and what a time it is to start such an important project! We find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that’s rendered normal interactions temporarily difficult. The knock-on effect, of course, is that people are now spending even more time on social media platforms. Twitter has seen its daily active users surge to new all-time highs during lock-down while also experiencing an attack that allowed hackers access to various high profile twitter accounts. It seems like you couldn’t have written a better script than this for SOCIETY2.
Before we jump into SOCIETY2’s unique position in DeSM, let’s learn a little more about where the idea arose.
HelloIOTA Question #1
Ben, you benefit from such an interesting mix of experiences: a Masters degree in Media, Arts, and Communication from NYU paired with years of programming experiences within industries as disparate as healthcare and finance. Do you remember your first experience with cryptocurrencies in general? What originally appealed to you about the ideals of cryptocurrency? How did you find IOTA, and is there anything about your background that contributed to your recognition of IOTA’s importance in the DLT space? Also, why did you make the leap from ‘industry’ into ‘crypto’?
My undergraduate degree is from Yale, in biochemistry, but I hated working in the lab, so I switched over to computer programming. I got my Masters at NYU just as the Internet was taking off, this is the early 90s, when thoughts like “the Internet will become a collaborative multimedia art project” was considered a prudent insight. People talked about Jaron Lanier and William Gibson and geeked out about the future of the Internet, very much a feeling of deja vu for me with cryptocurrency and IOTA today, this feeling of excitement at endless possibilities and gaga futurism.
While a grad student, I was in AIDS outreach and education on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at the time the worst hit area of the USA, before retrovirals made AIDS survivable, but at the time I was with people as they passed. Then I worked as a tour guide on tour boats on the Hudson, a really fun job for a student, talking about history and pointing out the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. And then I wound up working at the World Trade Center for Credit Suisse First Boston. My last day of work there was September 10, 2001. I was at work until 9 PM that day and so I vowed to come in late the next morning, never making it in of course. I didn’t lose any coworkers or friends, I worked on a low floor. I decided to get serious about life after that and met my future wife in Times Square, where I lived at the time. We moved upstate to the Hudson Valley and we had two kids. We moved again recently to Western New York, closer to Toronto than New York City, between Rochester and the Finger Lakes.
I worked in a boutique competitive intelligence firm in financial services for a while. Then I got into telemedicine, and I got excited about a remote telemedicine project in Guyana a doctor friend was setting up. And that’s where I encountered IOTA because the low power medical devices we were trying to implement needed a way to exchange data in a robust manner. This is how I got into cryptocurrency: through IOTA first. I knew about bitcoin and followed it and was intrigued by the financial implications of DLT, but it was the data implications of DLT, specifically IOTA, that got me hooked. The more I looked at IOTA the more I geeked out about it. This was 2017 and I haven’t lost interest in IOTA since.
Originally I was trying to explore healthcare projects, I made an IEN presentation on healthcare and IOTA in March 2018. But when trying to work the angles in the industry, I encountered resistance along the lines of “you mean like Silk Road?” Very little knowledge and interest in cryptocurrency, in the healthcare industry, so far, at least at the echelons where the big strategic decisions are made. That is certain to change as the years go by, but I was itching to do something with IOTA in the meantime and one topic always bothered me when it comes to data ownership, privacy, ad revenues, moderation... social media. It’s a mess. There is so much frustration out there about the status quo, and it’s just creepy how these entities can see so much of your life and influence you so imperceptibly… Many people, all of us on the SOCIETY2 team, and many more out there, sense it is an area ripe for revolutionary change. And so here we are!
HelloIOTA Question #2
Ben, when did you first start thinking about decentralized social media and the need for user privacy in our online interactions? Any personal experiences that come to mind that pushed you in this direction, or is it more of a slow burn over time?
I’ve never had a Facebook account and since the beginning I sounded like a crank warning friends and family it was creepy and intrusive. But now more and more people see that.
I was active on Reddit for a while, as a frequent poster, and as a mod in a number of subreddits. I was the admin for the primary community site for the little Hudson River city I lived in, on a platform called Ning. And there is Twitter of course.
So I saw both sides, as a consumer, and as an admin/moderator, and I got a feel for the central set of challenges about how social media runs, and perhaps how it should run, and then further, maybe some ideas about how to do it even better.
Reddit would bother me with its capricious and heavy handed moderation, insta-bans for nonsense reasons, appeals met with ridicule, the sort of nonsense many people encounter there because reddit uses people who mod for free, and this arrangement can appeal to the sort of casually sadistic person who derives pleasure from a petty sense of power, like an HOA board. And then I would be frustrated with a handful of toxic characters on the community site I administered, where I had to spend 90% of my time babysitting them - my adult neighbors. I had to be thoughtful and sensitive about handling their behavior, even when it was outrageous.
It was a full and thorough exploration of the tragedy of the commons, from both sides, in all of its dimensions.
And the whole time, this regular drum beat of news of an utter lack of privacy in social media, egregious violations of anything and everything we would consider deeply personal... of hacks, of private data sold and used for manipulation. I got, well everyone paying attention got, a dreadful idea of a dystopian direction society is heading towards, because these social media sites are also becoming more and more important to our daily lives. To have more knowledge about the details of a person’s life than probably even they keep track of, and to be in a position to control what they see, and therefore think and feel… it’s beyond creepy, it’s unnerving. We all begin to think “it should be better,” and then “how would I make it better?” Just as a thought exercise at first, but… as I am at the same time exploring the IOTA ethos of “own your own data,” get it out of the silos… as I examine the genuine self-sovereign control DLT offers, outside of any centralized control, you begin to go “hey wait a second, there is an angle to play here…”
HelloIOTA Question #3
I’m curious to know what it was like to officially start the project. You’ve obviously got lots of software experience! Have you started projects like this before? Is SOCIETY2 a fun side-project, or are you devoting your full attention to growing it? Why start the project now?
Markus is pursuing a PhD in physics and Joseph has a full time job. I, as well, am working elsewhere, but I’d like to focus on SOCIETY2 full-time. We’ll pursue some funding avenues and then I'd love to do this full-time. I have done a number of startup efforts before, Debut mHealth (the project in Guyana) was the biggest. Starting the project now is just a matter of it coalescing for me, for Joseph, for Markus, for many people that something is very sick about social media and it needs to be addressed. We are not the only DeSM project out there (some are somewhat incomplete in their fulfillment of true privacy), and for the sake of all of our privacy I hope one of us succeeds.
Let's delve into SOCIETY2 and DeSM
Hello IOTA Question #4
Give our readers an introduction to SOCIETY2 and discuss what the overarching vision looks like. From a UX perspective, what’s the difference between an SOCIETY2 node and any of the many social media sites today? It seems like the big changes are on the back-end, so would the user hardly notice a difference when moving from Reddit, for example, to a new SOCIETY2 node/website, other than having much more granular data controls in their dashboard?
Exactly: We want it to be as easy, if not easier to use than twitter. An IOTA selective permanode will be the basis of sites/apps, and it's just a repository of indicating how and where people are interacting in various channels. Membership in these channels means feeds from them interleave in what you see, according to various rules we are still defining. We want to be a little coy about our UI/UX work right now (wow factor the reveal and also we want to keep it a little secret for now).
But here is the big detail (besides genuine cryptographic privacy and ad revenue sharing) we want to get across: Inversion of power when it comes to moderation: A free market competition of sites/apps, where your ID is portable, so you aren’t locked in to any particular set of rules. You choose your comfort level and the sites apps must deliver quality to keep you engaged
“Quality” in regards to moderation is very subjective, some prefer less, some more, but the simple point of portable self-sovereign identity is you choose, you aren’t trapped.
If a site/app is too censorial for you, and all of the problems associated with that, go to another. Or rather, if a site/app has no moderation, and all of the problems associated with that, go to another. You'll notice a tension between those two extremes of too much and too little moderation. In between lies quality. And to the sites and apps that maintain that quality, which is hard work, goes the spoils of the most users, and therefore the most micropayment revenue. With the caveat that they must always maintain this high level of excellence, or our attention and our allegiance can easily and effortlessly shift to the competition operating on the SOCIETY2 framework. Traditional social media websites own us (quite literally if you consider the personal details they command) and we are beholden to the choices they make on our behalf, without our consultation. But with SOCIETY2, the center of power is subverted. Our comfort levels with personal details, our desires, and our personal styles are catered to, rather than dictated to us.
SOCIETY2 aims to enable a world in which everyone can own their digital identity and use it to communicate officially or pseudonymously across social channels. We want to provide people choice over when and how their data is shared over social media; and control of their digital identity, data and connections.
HelloIOTA Question #5
For our more technical readers, could you discuss why IOTA is the perfect infrastructure to underlie decentralized social media? Selv as a decentralized identity solution, IOTA Streams for data interactions, and IPFS for data storage? Why is IOTA a better layer than Bitcoin, for example? How does all of this come together into a final product?
IOTA is feeless and speedy and scales well. (from talking to daniel of IEN a week or so ago): Transactions on the tangle are nothing but the trust negotiation layer. Who joins. Who leaves. Who is banned. The channel is just managing who is interacting, when they interact, and some other metadata.
The actual messages? The entire social media exchange is just one giant document. Think of the analogy of a shared googled doc. Many people edit it. Making a new comment, or "deleting" a comment is just an edit on the one document.
This is superior also for performance. You just load one image. It’s just a state machine. Refreshing or reloading does not mean 500 messages to process.
IPFS might be the document store for example (there are other options we are exploring, availability is the metric we need to ensure, nobody wants to wait a couple of minutes, nevermind a couple of seconds).
To go further, you can have an entire edit chain. You can revert/see the history to any previous state (if it is desired to do this, we will see). So you don’t have immutability but you have transparency. There is indeed a central tension between the basic idea of cryptocurrency (no one edits your financial transaction) and social media (where moderation is a necessity for coherent social interaction).
HelloIOTA Question #6
Monetization is crucial for success. Social media dogma for the past decade has been ad-revenue based. Is SOCIETY2 going with that same model? Have you guys kicked around ideas using colored coins, or other novel strategies to generate revenue?
Generating revenue to support the ongoing development of SOCIETY2 will be critical to its long term success. Currently the passion of our team is pushing it forward, but as we grow we will need to find ways for the project to financially sustain itself.
We have discussed a number of revenue models. There are a lot of benefits that decentralized social media can bring to the end user, so we will need to identify which of those resonate with early adopters, how that value is being realized and then work out how we can monetize it in a way that is fair to the user. Some of our early ideas have included a freemium model where a user or community builder has access to the framework for free, but where we provide advanced features if they choose to subscribe financially. Another idea we are considering is to provide the underlying storage infrastructure for those who prefer not to host their own data.
We have also discussed the use of colored coins. Being able to uniquely color and separately distinguish 1 IOTA at a cost of fractions of a cent, then transfer it free between wallets opens up all sorts of possibilities on a social media platform that can natively use it. We have considered their use for reputation and for opening up advanced features (in a similar way to Reddit coins), which is another monetization avenue we could consider.
One of the problems we see with large scale, general purpose social media platforms relying on ad revenue is that they need to mine the private data of the individual users in order to display ads that are relevant. Typically this breach of privacy (e.g. tracking a user’s browsing habits, even off the social media platform) occurs with little input from the user. We see a continuing role for ads on social media, but we need to shift away from the user having such little control over the data that is used to display them.
We intend to allow a community builder to enable ads in their site. We anticipate that each community (site) created may center around a particular interest, culture or subject, which will make it easier for the owners to display ads which are relevant to those users who have connected their digital identity to the site.
HelloIOTA Question #7
Who is sharing in the revenue? Does the node operator make money? Do users get money for sharing selected bits of their personal data? Where does SOCIETY2 itself fit into the money picture? For-profit enterprise? Non-profit open source foundation?
Ad revenue would be shared between node operator (“payment” for the function of moderating), creators (payment for, well, creating good content), and users (payment for engagement, for being shown ads). We envision that the specific details of how this will be split out will be fluid and open to ongoing negotiation, like any business. And if a node operator is “stingy” that might mean competing nodes have an inroad to steal creators. but there will be a floor beyond which a node operator can’t give any more, because performing the essential function of moderation will be hard work.
Each community builder will have the ability to turn ads on or off on the site(s) they manage.
HelloIOTA Question #8
The idea of decentralized social media has been around since 2010, when Seong, et. al. published a paper out of Stanford. They actually implemented a prototype of what they called a “person-centric architecture” with Java using Amazon EC2 instances. My favorite quote from this paper, “The current model [of social media] in which only users belonging to a common site may interact is just as unacceptable as disallowing users on different cellular networks to call each other.” I can’t find a source recounting what ever became of this project, but presumably they encountered a barrier. Why are we in a better position to produce a decentralized social media today than we were ten years ago?
The world’s first computer-based social media network (Usenet) was decentralized, a discussion newsgroup system not unlike Reddit, which is hosted across various servers so that there is no single owner or controller of the network. Over time we shifted to more centralized platforms as they offered new and improved user experiences. For example, Six Degrees was the first social media site as most might recognise them today with the ability to upload a profile picture and connect with others.
Use of social media has often propagated and been driven by the availability of technology to deliver a smooth user experience. For example, YouTube wouldn’t have worked if released in 1996 as most people didn’t have access in their homes to the connection speed to stream video, TikTok wouldn’t have worked if released in 2006 as we didn’t have the quality of mobile devices we have today which make capturing and sharing videos seamless.
Likewise as the quality of decentralized ledger technologies improves, it opens up new possibilities for decentralized applications (dApps) to leverage these networks, including for use by social media protocols and frameworks. The launch of Bitcoin in 2009 and the following explosion of research and development in the distributed ledger technology space is paving the way for the user experience of decentralized social media to be improved.
We aren’t there yet, but the SOCIETY2 team feels we are nearing a point where decentralized social media protocols may be able to deliver many of the benefits of centralized systems (e.g. speed, reliability, media sharing) with the addition of new value, such as increased privacy (no overarching platform owner who can see everything you do), more control (you control your social media identity and connections) and permission-less value transfers (allowing new content creator business models to flourish).
HelloIOTA Question #9
In doing market research in the decentralized social media space, your team has identified nearly 90 similar/competing projects. Could you give us a flavor as to how the broad industry looks today, and where you might see it going over the next couple years? Are there characteristics that you look for in projects that predispose them to success? Are there any projects out there that are similar to SOCIETY2, or that you admire? Any that might be potentially harsh competitors? How does SOCIETY2 plan on standing out from the rest of the pack?
In the research conducted (and which is ongoing) we have come across many projects who share elements of our big picture vision for the future of social media.
There are centralized platforms whose claims are to provide increased privacy (trust us, we promise!) or free speech.
There are federated projects which break down the network into a hub and spoke model, with some levels of interoperability, though this still doesn’t provide true control to the end user unless they create and host their own hub (server).
There are blockchain based projects which require fees to operate or introduce this aspect in some novelty fashion such as voting.
Ultimately the success of any DeSM project is going to come down to what it can deliver through a unique combination of benefits to the end user i.e. what is the killer application of decentralized social media?
There are very few (if any) projects in the space who are delivering on the combination we aim to provide, including cryptographically secure levels of privacy, content which is under the control of the end user, decentralized IDs allowing for interoperability between sites and a native token on the network which can be used for feeless micropayments. That last benefit is perhaps one of the most important and we are yet to see any other project aiming to deliver fee-less transactions, which could open up all kinds of new business models for content creators.
We are heading into a new frontier where content creators and artists can build an audience around all kinds of niches, delivering content such as videos, analysis, fan content, physical goods, articles and more. Often these creators need to enable payments through some other site that is separate to their social media channels, but what if they had a single identity that could allow them control of everything? A direct line of connection to their followers and fans who could tip or subscribe to their content easily, low friction and without fees… with no way for the platform to take their audience away or demonetize their content if it doesn’t like what they are producing. We think this could be one of many killer applications that decentralized social media could provide and we are eager to get there.
About the team and future:
HelloIOTA Question #10
You guys have built an extremely impressive team already. Joseph Skewes has experience on both sides of IT - technical and leadership, along with startup experience. Sebastian Buchweitz has a similar background with lots of project management experience. Markus Kuhlmann has a Masters degree in physics (!) and is finishing up his PhD (!!!). How did you compile such a stellar group!? Can you talk about why this group might have a unique advantage when competing in the competitive DeSM landscape?
Along with those you mention and others who are assisting us silently in the background, we would also like to take this opportunity to announce that we have an exceptional illustrator and designer joining our team, Wyn Tiedmers. He has already begun to help us develop our identity and brand, which you will see come to life in our prototype and a refresh of our website in the months ahead and in the meantime you can see some of his past work here. Wyn is based in Berlin, Germany and one thing you may have noticed about our team is that we are completely decentralized, we are spread across 4 continents and not one of us resides in the same general locality.
Editors Note: This a HelloIOTA exclusive! The first public announcement that Wyn Tiedmers is now working on UI/UX for SOCIETY2!
We came together through our shared interest in IOTA. We believe the fee-less nature of the IOTA protocol will open up new decentralized value and data transfer use cases that either aren’t feasible or have too much friction added if fees are required to move these through the network. We believe this focus on leveraging a fee-less distributed ledger could play a role in our success over other projects in the DeSM landscape. We just don’t see how attempting to leverage a fee based distributed ledger provides a pathway to widespread adoption.
HelloIOTA Question #11
As the IOTA protocol takes shape, we’re seeing more and more projects being built on IOTA. You guys are in a unique position to have already gathered some programming experience now. Do you have any advice to give to aspiring or current IOTA project devs? Any bugs/quirks/workarounds/headaches/joys that you wish you would have known before diving into the codebase?
However, all IOTA teams are approaching a new code base coming up, breaking changes. Everyone will have to retool and refactor. This is a good thing for many reasons but of course it is more work. It is a fact of life that cutting edge tech is not straightforward and you will need to be ready to redo things and be constantly engaged to know what is coming up.
1. Don’t hesitate to ask for help
2. Be prepared to be flexible about your approach
3. This is cutting edge tech, you will have to deal with rapid changes
HelloIOTA Question #12
Finally, the question that must always be asked. “WHEN?” ... Last we heard from you, an alpha/prototype was in the offing for ~September 2020. You guys didn’t want to show anything at the Meeting of the Minds interview earlier this month, but maybe you’re ready to share something with HelloIOTA readership now? (If not, let’s be the platform where you publish/cross-publish your first article accompanying the SOCIETY2 prototype later this year)
We are still on track for a prototype release that will be available to the public during quarter 3, 2020 (i.e. before the end of September). Changes are coming to the IOTA mainnet with the Chrysalis upgrades. This is going to result in changes to the libraries we were using and has pushed back our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which we had hoped to have live before the end of the year. Post Chrysalis we will resume developing the MVP which we anticipate will be available in early 2021. As we get closer to the MVP launch you can expect more details.
To give a little clarity around what the prototype vs MVP will entail. You can expect the prototype to be a decentralized messaging client, whereas the MVP will be a more fully fledged decentralized social media app, incorporating media storage and more.
The prototype was recently described by our Head of Development as "..in every nuance the most anonymous thing I have ever seen..", and we are really excited to share it and future developments with everyone who is following our project.
Thank you so much for taking the time to connect with HelloIOTA readers. But more than that, thank you for making this IOTA community so wonderful. It takes a group of brilliant, kind people like yourselves dedicating their precious time and effort to bootstrap a better future. Thanks to you, people can look to the future with hope, and HelloIOTA will be here covering your every triumph.
Thank you Winston and the HelloIOTA team! We follow your updates and articles and we keep abreast of changes in the wider IOTA community and with news items due to your hard work. Someday maybe we can host HelloIOTA on SOCIETY2 :-)
One final topic we want to underline: SOCIETY2 is deadly serious about privacy, it is the foundation of our existence. You will have complete and utter control over your privacy and your personal information on the SOCIETY2 framework, granular, absolute. If you wish to receive ads, and give up some of your info, you share in the revenue streams with the IOTA node owner who runs a particular site or app. But that control is always granular, always absolutely yours. You can choose to remain completely private, while still having a great social media experience. No more data silos, where a company profits off of your private life and your personal details, and they have the key. All of your info only exists on the distributed ledger, cryptographically secured, and only you possess the key, with SOCIETY2, and IOTA.
Thank you so much for having us, we appreciate the opportunity to share what we are working on and for all the good work that the HelloIOTA team is doing to spread awareness of projects which are leveraging IOTA’s distributed ledger. We look forward to keeping the HelloIOTA audience and broader IOTA community updated with our progress. Those who wish to follow our journey or who are interested in testing the prototype and MVP when they are released can sign up for our newsletter updates at society2.com.