In our last post, How publishing got where it is, and how we plan to change it, we stressed the importance of a new business model for the current mode of publishing and distribution. We demonstrated how the hope that such a model may organically arise from the free flow of information the early internet has brought with it has eventually shattered on the piers of its increasing centralization. In this piece, we’re proposing that the remedy for this situation will not automatically arise with new technologies such as blockchain and distributed storage, but will rather be initially bootstrapped through decentralizing the business logic of the existing user generated content (UGC) market.
Originally designed as a communication tool for academia and public institutions, the Internet began its career as a highly decentralized entity. It was both designed and built as a meta-network of independent networks, hence the internet, and had a fairly distributed structure with very few central points of control. It was only with the installation of the World Wide Web in the early the 90s, and the rise of its commercial use, that a gradual process of centralization began to dominate the Internet’s character.
Today, with about a Zettabyte (1 billion terabytes) of information crossing through the internet annually, most, if not all of this information is processed and stored on central servers owned by a handful of companies which largely treat this information as their private and exclusive property. This technologically-induced monopolization of the web landscape is the basis for the prevalent business model of the Internet-as-we-know-it, which more or less goes like this: they get all the information we produce and do with it as they see fit, and in return we get an ever expanding list of free internet services such as email addresses, search engines, and, above all, social networks – which then reproduce a steady flow of fresh and marketable user data.
This might seem fair enough, and in many ways it is. Making the internet possible is a highly expensive and complicated business, involving public-private partnerships and cross continental cooperation. In terms of power-useage, we’re talking about a whooping 70 billion kilowatt hours per year merely to keep our cyber-lights on. However, handing a handful of corporations all information about every living soul on the planet in return for free dank memes and questionable offers by Nigerian royalty is quite frankly a sub-optimum arrangement which might go terribly wrong one day, and some would argue already did.
Since social media has transformed into the primary channel through which we engage with the internet, content generated and curated by users constitutes an increasing share of our online diet, making it ever more questionable whether the above stated old-deal is still such a fair trade-off. These are not easily calculable figures, but the profit margins of the major platform operators suggest that internet users, in fact, produce significantly more value than they gain back in terms of digital goods and services provided “for free” by entities like Google, Facebook and the like. In the meantime, the excess profits produced in this way keep on fostering further monopolization, while compromising privacy and encouraging dubious deals between surveillance agencies and private interest.
With the advent of the blockchain industry and distributed storage initiatives such as IPFS, MaidSafe, and others, the possibility arose to strike a brand new, technologically enforced deal; one that would level the playing field, lower barriers to enter, undermine monopolies, and compensate all web-players according to their overall contribution to the cooperative effort the Internet is – or could be. The heart and soul of this computerized deal is the redistribution of the role of the central server among all or most Internet clients, while allocating data ownership to the persons and entities producing it in the first place.
People adhering to a strict form of technological determinism might claim that it is utterly impossible to reform the Internet’s most prevailing business model without the above mentioned changes: as long as we are dependent on computational resources owned and operated by a handful of entities, these entities will eventually call the shots, quite obviously in their favor. This, of course, is at least partly true; it is why blockchain technology and distributed computation are such a big deal and why they are overwhelmingly regarded as the future of the internet. Unfortunately, this future is not as near as we all would want it to be – both technically as well as politically, considering the entrenched position of the incumbents – and the stakes are too high to just sit and wait it out.
What Synereo proposes is that we remind ourselves that decentralization is not just a technological principle, reserved for nerdy debates on overladen subreddits, but first and foremost an organizational principle and mode of operation. One that can be, at least temporarily, upheld on centralized platforms given that the right incentive schemes and economic models are put into place.
At this point in time, we might not be able to take the behemoths of the global information market on directly and compete their way of doing things out of existence, but we are indeed able to subvert the-way-things-are and establish a form of counter-economy, coexisting with prevalent models while building the foundations for something new.
The first stage of Synereo’s roadmap, recently released to a first group of testers, is such an attempt. Through linking attention to a cryptographic token, and allowing content creators to monetize original works on existing networks without having to turn their channels into advertisment real estate, a market is established which essentially decentralizes existing forms of UGC publishing and distribution. With this, the traditional role of the publisher/distributor is decentralized, their economic function distributed among content creators, their fans and the broader audience. With our new solution, the importance and stranglehold of some of the major centralized entities on the Internet – content hubs, social media channels, and the handful of major distributors dominating the publishing scene – is diminished.
To achieve this, the existing workflow of content distribution which normally starts with content being uploaded to hosting platforms such as YouTube, and ends with it permeating through social networks such as Facebook, is augmented with an additional layer – the Attention Economy Layer. The Synereo AEL transcends the separation between the different platforms through which content travels from creator to consumer, and establishes a platform-agnostic chain of users linking and distributing content among them, compensating value-creators along the way accordingly.
This way, platform operators such as Google, Facebook & Co. can continue doing their thing, while Synereo quietly builds a distributed Internet layer on top.
With blockchain and distributed computation technologies continuously evolving, this decentralized publishing mode will slowly evolve into a decentralized Social & Content Delivery Network, bootstrapped on top of the existing connections and histories of Internet users, on which content belongs to its creators, and where curators, responsible for ordering the information on the net in a way that benefits both creators and their audiences, are remunerated for their efforts. While this path doesn’t begin with full technological decentralization, it is paved with applications providing immediate use, offering functioning, real-world, distribution solutions that utilize AMPs and provide them with tangible backing, much before our end goal – a fully decentralized internet, owned by its denizens – is achieved.