In the past month, Twitter has purged QAnon users, Facebook has joined other social networks in banning Donald Trump, and even the alternatively branded Discord has removed the servers for WallStreetBets.
These social media companies—and the handful of people who run them—have real power over which voices get amplified and which ones get relegated to the margins.
Yale Computer Science Professor David Gelernter, who serves as Chief Visionary Officer for an upstart blockchain company called Revolution Populi, said people have a message for the social media tycoons: “Butt out.”
RevPop today launched its test network—a blockchain aimed at providing fertile soil for competing social networks that protect data. Developers can use the Matic Network to create an entire ecosystem of competing social networks atop the RevPop blockchain. If one disappoints, users can port their data to another. The RevPop token will serve as a utility token for the platform.
The project represents a journey to Gelernter’s roots. In 1991, he published “Mirror Worlds,” perhaps the first book to discuss social networks as they’re currently known. He then worked with one of his graduate students, Eric Freeman, to develop the concept for Yale’s computer science department. In 1996, a full decade before Facebook launched its news feed feature and Twitter began operations, the department was already using something like these platforms, called Lifestreams.
The idea was to share and organize information between people in real time, but that concept was later transmogrified into social media monopolies that commoditized user data.
“[People’s] personal data belongs to two guys—or one guy,” he told Decrypt in a phone interview. “It belongs to Facebook and Mr. Facebook or Twitter and Mr. Twitter.”
“The idea that we should be stuck with the Facebook approach on the one hand and the Twitter approach on the other and a few other things around the fringes is just absurd,” he said.
RevPop CEO Rob Rosenthal, a Goldman Sachs veteran with a background in securities, believes the only way out of this situation is by leveraging the free market and expanding user choice so that people don’t have to leave their data—or voices—in the hands of a few tech billionaires.
“We believe that this solution...will basically be the beginning of the end of that and allow hundreds or thousands of data-centered apps, especially social nets, where users can use any one of them at any time and if they don't like it they clip it, and all their data is portable to another one.”
Owning & controlling your data is the new civil liberty.
— Revolution Populi (@Rev_Populi) January 23, 2021
The concept is timely given the public’s appetite for greater personal autonomy. Speaking of the recent run on GameStop stocks spurred by everyday Reddit investors, Rosenthal said, “There are people who are craving self-empowerment in all aspects of life.” They don’t want to be told what stocks to buy, what information to read, and what groups stay out of.
The blockchain, which will allow for social network apps and trading apps (and social network apps about trading), should speak to disempowered investors and social media users alike.
“They don’t feel as though they have control over their lives, and there needs to be more innovation to provide them with the opportunity to be in control of their lives,” he said.