Retooling the Social Media Contract

Why would Reddit spend developer time on cryptocoins?

I think to understand this, you have to see the current situation of a handful of highly centralized platforms, with centralized moderation, and enormous commercial and media power, as a kind of disaster. From that perspective, which I basically share, this is an attempt to make better technical infrastructure for communities of curation and moderation.

A recent symptom of this disaster: Novara Media, the independent leftwimg British media organization, had its entire Youtube channel deleted without notice or serious explanation. Novara is quite high profile, too: a number of its hosts, like Ash Sarkar, have regular columns and make appearances in more mainstream media. It was reinstated about a day later after various public figures across the UK political spectrum weighed in. Nothing but the most generic corporate response was offered. They had no previous strikes.

This is hardly the first example, and it is more related to bad platform design – technical and governance – than cancel culture or any primarily socially-driven phenomena. It wasn’t in response to any particular statement or social media outrage storm. The current platforms foster these problems the way giant monocropped fields invite plagues of locusts.

Facebook and YouTube are at one extreme because they are central platforms with few community or user controls for the bulk of the platform experience.

Take YouTube. How many interactions can you have with it? Like, dislike, watch, comment (requires semantic interpretation), report (requires human, eventually). You can search for specific videos or follow the feed. It is widely indexed and close-ish to the open web.

It’s also one flat user social structure, feeding into a corporate policing structure. The model there is deep learning trained filters feeding a large team of corporate censors, mostly not in-house, but outsourced to censorship specialists in the Philippines and other middle income countries. It’s essentially a design based on a chemical factory toxic waste pipeline. The whole focus on improving it is just about making a better waste filter, essentially out of deep learning tech.

Facebook is similar but not even on the open web, it’s a non-indexable enclosure. In many ways Facebook is best understood as an anti-website. In addition the ML-determined feed is even more dominant, making for even less user agency.

Twitter is largely flat as well, but has always been on the open web, had a usable API, and is open to bots and experiments. By being pseudonym and multi-account friendly it also makes separate curation across different accounts easier.

All of these platforms still have the factory toxic waste pipeline design. The also have always had some form of non-exchangeable social media currency. I’ve said previously that this makes them accidental reserve banks of sincerity.

The two main exceptions to the toxic waste pipleline design are Reddit and Mastodon. Reddit is much bigger, and for-profit, but is not FAANG (MANGA) big. Reddit is built around the idea of specialized communities built around shared interests. These communities come with community moderation and curation built in. It also has a pooled reputational currency (karma) and exchange currency support.

YouTube and now Twitter have got into the superchat / exchange currency pledges, but on a socially flat technical foundation. Reddit has a technical structure that includes community moderation and curation at a far more local level. Then when the platform police – or the meatspace police, for that matter – get involved, it’s rarer, and after a previous locally semi-autonomous policing and socialization process has happened.

Federation also gives more scope for individual communities to match the most appropriate national laws, and concentrates criminals and abusers in identifiable communities around the topics of their obsession.

The main platform built on federation is Mastodon, though it is of course re-applying patterns behind the internet itself. Mastodon is a social media protocol where people run nodes and choose which other nodes are on the network. Though fascist nodes exist, the main communities just refuse to federate with them.

Where do Reddit’s new community points fit with this? The write-up highlights autonomy, and developers speaking elsewhere have talked about federation. That contains much of the mastodon model. Perhaps with such a solution, Reddit could radically federate, to avoid the thousands of censors processing toxic waste that other platforms have, and emphasize their role as a platform at arms-length from content. That means expanding community self-management and making clearer organizational separation. But Reddit also want to make money, and they already govern two currencies. This leads fairly quickly to some form of tokens, and maybe some reputational stake or sponsoring system when communities federate or certain privileges are achieved.

There has been so much crypto hype, mostly without understanding the necessary latency and complexity tradeoffs, that I would start from a position of skepticism for deploying it as a technical solution on an existing platform. There have been a lot of tenuously useful blockchain projects. For Reddit, however, if they want a federal architecture and localize content management, the contract mechanisms in Ethereum already have a similar shape, and reinventing the wheel would be a waste. This is a real use case that may actually requires the power and cost of Ethereum smart contracts, or some more user-accessible extension.