Table of Contents Hide
- Aim and objectives
- Introduction to the topic
- Literature Review
- Privacy in Existing Social Networks
- Data Security and Awareness
- The Rise of Decentralized Social Networks
Widespread use of social media has drastically transformed the way we communicate; however, many believe that these changes aren’t necessarily for the good. In recent years, many social networks have caught the attention of internet activists, which brought to light the privacy-invasive model of these social networks. They can fully control all users’ information, and in the meanwhile, users can only trust them for protecting their private information. However, it was revealed that these networks use this data not only for marketing purposes, but there were trades of user’s data between corporations as well. Data leak of this confidential user information also takes place every few months, with the most recent being Air India  and Dominos  in May 2021. Several users have expressed dissatisfaction with how major social media platforms dealt misinformation, censorship, privacy, political neutrality, user control, and malicious activities. Decentralized Social Networks, also known as Federated Networks, have emerged as a means to address these concerns.
As more and more users around the world become aware about the privacy and security-related concerns on social media platforms, alternatives to these platforms are being explored. The idea of ‘Decentralized Social Networks’ is being favored by a community, which keeps increasing with every passing day, as more and more people become aware of and understand it. Decentralized social networks bring with them a wide number of internet values, such as enhanced privacy, security, transparency, incentivization, elimination of third parties, and open-source. These are some values we believe in, and feel are the need of the time, which motivated us to choose to research this.
- Aim:In this article, I cover after studying the Decentralized Social Networks, and their relevance in today’s world.
- I wanted to look at Decentralized Social Networks, to understand what and how the services are offered by such networks. I also wanted to understand how can the ‘Decentralized Social Networks’ be implemented? In our research, we found existing Decentralized Social Networks. In this article, I have also dropped few lines on “Decentralized Autonomous Organizations” (DAOs).
Online Social Networks (OSNs) have become extremely popular in the last two decades, where users can share digital photos/videos and text entries (“posts”) with their friends. As a typical example, Facebook, which already has more than two billion users , attracts people of different age, gender, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. OSNs have become an indispensable element of many Internet users’ life. In general, OSNs aid in the transition of users’ real-world relationships to the network by providing storage services for their digital information.
Many research efforts have recently been focused to the many functional aspects of OSNs, which has resulted in OSN systems being increasingly user-friendly . Users’ privacy, on the other hand, is found to be easily breached in OSNs. Despite the fact that most OSNs allow users to alter privacy settings to limit other users’ access, there are no suitable technical methods to govern OSN providers’ access or prohibit them from sharing data with third parties. For example, in March 2018, The New York Times reported that a company improperly obtained information of more than 50 million users on Facebook, and the data breach incident actually occurred in 2015 . Similar situations have come to notice, numerous times in the past. The major reason for these incidents is that the existing OSNs with centralized structures can fully control all users’ information, and in the meanwhile, users can only believe that the OSN providers can protect their private information. With OSNs, users cannot even be certain whether the OSN providers will erase their data or not, if they choose to delete their information after deleting their accounts.
In recent years, the regulatory scrutiny that the platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have found themselves in, appears to have taken toll on the platform’s consumers, who increasingly are losing trust in social media, with some using it less as a result. In a poll of more than 2,000 people, 63% said that they had lost trust in social media platforms. As a result, 22% said they use social media less. Meanwhile, 61% of users said that they were now more careful about the privacy of their posts. More than half (59%) said that political advertising should be regulated on social media during elections or referendums. 
Senthil Kumar and Saravanakumar Kandasamy observed  that privacy concerns are very feeble on the social networking sites. Today’s social networking media users are concerned about privacy issues and information disclosure breaches. They also identified that many of the shortcomings exist on the technical structure of privacy and security measures of the social media sites.
Johanna Cabalhin, in her research , pointed out that on many existing social networks, users are needed to reveal a certain detail about themselves online to prove they are who they claim to be. The more information a user shares, the easier it is to predict some of the user’s most private information using data mining. In the US, for example, a person’s social security number may be revealed or predicted (with a certain level of accuracy) by using a combination of hometown and birthdate. Facebook has commercial relationships with several corporations for its advertorial revenues. These corporations integrate their marketing efforts onto the platform via tools provided by Facebook. Observations from public hearings, judicial probes, data scandals have all but pointed to Facebook’s practice of sharing of consumer data to these corporate partners, beyond a point of user’s awareness or at times ignorance. This has invoked a long-running debate about whether this trade of data for a “personalized experience” is right or not.
To address the privacy concerns regarding existing social networks, Decentralized Online Social Networks (DOSNs) have been explored. There are several components of a Decentralized Social Network that sets it apart from a regular social media site. The first key difference is that it isn’t a standalone website that you can access. Technically, it is a network of hundreds of different communities so that each own an instance of the code. It allows the participants of the social network to have more control of their data, and decide who gets access to what part of participant’s data. It also allows the participants who are creators of some kind, to monetize their content. Content creators can earn tokens equivalent to major cryptocurrencies, which can also be converted to fiat money. DOSNs also incentivize participants who assist the network’s scalability with their engagement levels..
1. Doing Away with the Centralized Bias
Currently, the government has the authority to censor social networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. if the content on these platforms is deemed unfit for the general public. At the same time, social media companies have complete control over the type of material that appears on their platform and the context to which visitors are directed. Decentralized social networks will take out this centralized bias and oversight. It will make social media networks more transparent and implement a peer-to-peer interaction-based mechanism. Instead of using personal information as a profiling mechanism, decentralized application development relies on the production of unique code. The users are able to select which data to share with the network.
2. Eliminate the Need for Intermediaries
Consumers on a particular social media platform are frequently targeted by fraudulent adverts, phisching and malware attacks. In an attempt to offer third-party services(other platforms or tools) access to data for marketing objectives, the data also falls into the hands of bad actors on the internet with non legitimate interests. A decentralized social network developer is aware of this problem and addresses it throughout the development of decentralized applications.
A decentralized social network creates a direct connection between the participants and business logic if any. The systems allow marketers to promote their facilities to the participants as well,but in a better and more secure way. Marketers may validate their data without relying on third-party technologies or middlemen with the help of this system. As a result, advertisers receive reliable data, and real consumers see their ads.
3. User Information is Not the Product in Decentralized Apps
Social media platforms host an abundance of information about their users, which they can sell to the highest bidder as a precursor to their business goals. However, the bidder could be anyone – from organizations with malicious intent to government-sponsored agencies. In this system, user information is turned into a commodity that may be sold for money without the users’ agreement. It is worthwhile to note that, at times, the user consent is swiftly taken while many average Internet users are hardly aware of having given such consent. Users and content creators have the right to their information and stand to benefit directly from decentralized social media, in the case of decentralized social networks. Information is securely stored into the network using modern cryptography algorithms, which makes it very hard to decrypt by anyone without the user’s adequate permission. This does not allow entities to sell confidential data to other entities, without going through the real owner of the data i.e You.
4. Scope for Crowd-funding
The most significant advantage of decentralized crowdfunding is the increased transparency it provides. There is a clear money trail to trace because no intermediaries are involved. This allows crowd-funding to take place at various stages, based on the proof presented by the entity requesting the funds. Furthermore, smart contracts is the technology often used by platforms to ensure that money being raised is spent on what the companies are supposed to pursue rather than on illegitimate interests.
5. Incentivize Participants of the Network for their Services
Decentralized Social Networks generally run as digital currency or token based platforms; hence cryptocurrency is an excellent incentive that can be introduced in the interactions on these platforms. With the absence of intermediaries that sell user information to third parties, users can now exchange their information directly with blockchain node hosts in exchange of benefits. Users can be approached by marketers and asked whether they would want to share their data in exchange for monetization. This financial incentive could be another reason for users to return or be engaged to the network.
Blockchain is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. [9,10]
A blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across the blockchain’s complete network of computer systems. Every block on the chain contains a number of transactions. Every time a new transaction takes place on the blockchain, a record of it is saved on each participant’s ledger. Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) is a decentralized database that is managed by various participants. Blockchain is a type of Distributed Ledger Technology in which transactions are recorded using a hash, which is an immutable cryptographic signature.
Blockchain-based Social Networks:
Blockchain-based Social Networks are essentially decentralized platforms built on blockchain technology. This allows for development of applications and smart contracts between stakeholders on the network. These decentralized social platforms enable end-to-end encryptions for every interaction.
Similar to Blockchain ecosystems, Blockchain-based social networks generally have traits such as native currency, used for:
- in-platform transactions
- rewarding users
1. Users don’t have to place their trust in a central authority.
We put our trust in companies and governments all the time, and it’s perfectly fine to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. However, we see numerous examples of this trust failing us in various ways. Misfire of trust can range from an app, which you trusted to backup all of your photos, being shut down when the startup behind the app is bought out or goes out of business, to a social media company, selling your data to advertisers who then track you all over the internet. You should be able to minimize or eliminate the trust you have to place in third parties in a well-designed decentralized network.
2. There will be fewer single points of failure.
We see single points of failure all the time in the form of outages of centralized websites. When Gmail goes down, productivity suffers as a result of not being able to access your email. Your bank’s website shuts down for maintenance and you can’t do an online transfer to pay your bills. In DOSNs, because no single node in a decentralized network can bring the entire network down, your applications should remain up and running regardless of how many users come and go.
3. There is less censorship.
It is increasingly becoming common that central institutions e.g draconian & non democratic governments are using their regulatory powers to block individuals’ access to social media. This may as well be an attempt to suppress information about internal affairs. It is simple for such institutions to shut down access to say Twitter, because all they have to do is block traffic to Twitter’s central servers. However, censoring traffic on a peer-to-peer network is significantly more challenging, because every outgoing packet sent could be connecting with another peer on the decentralized network, who could then forward that message onward.
4. Decentralized networks are more likely to be open development platforms.
This means that anyone can build amazing tools, products, and services on top of decentralized networks. In contrast, centralized technology is more commonly closed source, with development prospects intentionally limited. Companies can still make money if they are open and decentralized. In fact, the greater products and tools that are built, the greater the network effects that lock consumers into the network, and thus the more potential to build great businesses on top of that.
5. Decentralized networks can be more meritocratic.
When everyone follows the same, transparent rules, the best product, service, or content should be more likely to get identified and rewarded over time. It’s possible that the system will be less meritocratic if traffic, attention, and money are distributed behind a closed, centralized algorithm.
Let’s talk about possible reasons for why “Decentralized Networks” haven’t picked up yet:
Decentralized networks come with their own tradeoffs:
- They may take longer to develop and interact with.
- They can be more expensive to run.
- Mainstream customers may just not care whether or not their service’s backend is decentralized, as long as they can do their intended purpose as quickly and cheaply as possible.
This being said, in light of the awareness of the invasive model of these centralized social networks, more and more people are considering switching to more secure and privacy-promising alternatives. For example, millions of users rushed to adopt Signal as an alternative to WhatsApp. Elon Musk had tweeted, “Use Signal” after WhatsApp announced its data-sharing plans with Facebook. 
Asmita Karanje writes, “Decentralized social media platforms aren’t new, they just aren’t popular. But they might hold the key to address the problems of Big Tech”. 
Major Existing Decentralized Networks:
Minds, Mastodon, and Diaspora, to mention a few, are some of the alternatives to big tech. These aren’t new; some have been around for over a decade, such as Diaspora, which debuted in 2010. Facebook, by comparison, was founded in 2006, only four years before Diaspora.
- Alternative to: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger
- Features: Open-source
Signal, unlike WhatsApp’s end-to-end encrypted chats, does not monitor you, disclose your data, or invade your privacy. When Edward Snowden praised Signal, it rose to fame. It became even more well-known after Elon Musk tweeted about it following WhatsApp’s decision to share user data with Facebook. Signal uses its own open-source Signal protocol to send and recieve end-to-end encrypted messages and calls. 
- Alternative to: Twitter
- Features: Open-source code base, Decentralized
Mastodon isn’t a single website like Twitter; it’s a network of tens of thousands of communities run by a variety of organizations and individuals to give a unified social media experience. You can either run your own Mastodon instance and connect it to other Mastodon instances, or join one of the existing Mastodon instances, such as Mastodon Social. 
- Alternative to: Facebook
- Features: Decentralized, Open-source
Diaspora is one of the first decentralized social networks. Diaspora was promoted as a Facebook alternative at the time, in 2010. It received some well-deserved attention in its early years, but it was limited to a small number of niche members. Diaspora, like Mastodon, is made up of pods. You can either join a pod or start your own. Your data does not belong to Big Tech; it belongs to you. 
- Alternative to: Facebook and YouTube
- Features: Open-source code base, Blockchain
You can use Minds to upload movies, blogs, pictures, and status updates. You may also securely message and video chat with groups or individuals. You can find articles of interest by using trending feeds and hashtags. You can also get paid in tokens for your contributions. You can use these tokens to enhance your channel. Fans can send money directly to creators in USD, Bitcoin, or Ether. 
Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) are a form of Decentralized Social Networks, which are designed to be automated and decentralized. They function as a type of venture capital fund, based on open-source code and no traditional management structure or board of directors. The DAOs are not associated with any nation-state in order to be truly decentralized.
DAOs are made up of a group of people who interact with one another using an open-source protocol that is self-enforcing. The native network tokens are awarded for keeping the network safe and completing other network tasks. Blockchains and smart contracts reduce administrative transaction costs. DAO framework increases transparency and aligns the interests of all stakeholders by the consensus rules tied to the native token. Individual behavior is incentivized with a token if it helps the group achieve a common goal.
A DAO’s members are not bound together by a legal entity, nor have they signed any formal legal contracts. Instead, they are network token-linked incentives and completely transparent rules encoded into the software, which is enforced by machine consensus. Bilateral agreements do not exist. The protocol or smart contract is the only governing law that governs the behaviour of all network participants.
Decentralized social media platforms still have a long way to go before they can compete with giants like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. However, people are learning and becoming more open to the idea of decentralized social networks, combined with the potential of Blockchain – especially due to the freedom and security provided. Many are especially attracted to the easy earning opportunities and schemes of being part of a decentralized, rewards-based social network. Needless to say, they will play a significant role in the future of social media.https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlypage/2021/05/23/air-india-data-breach-hackers-access-personal-details-of-45-million-customers/
 Sindhu Hariharan, “User info linked to 18 crore Domino’s orders leaked” , https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/user-info-linked-to-18-crore-dominos-orders-leaked/articleshow/82898118.cms
 Mark Zuckerberg, https://www.facebook.com/zu ck/posts/10103831654565331
 Shaymaa Khater, Denis Gra’canin, Senior Member, IEEE, and Hicham G. Elmongu, “Personalized Recommendation for Online Social Networks Information: Personal Preferences and Location-Based Community Trends”, http://eng.staff.alexu.edu.eg/~elmongui/papers/tcss2017.pdf  Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore and Carole Cadwalladr, “How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions “, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html
 Sara Spary, “Fifth of people say they use social media less because they don’t trust platforms”, https://www.prweek.com/article/1664220/fifth-people-say-use-social-media-less-dont-trust-platforms
 Senthil Kumar and Saravanakumar Kandasamy, “On Privacy and Security in Social Media – A Comprehensive Study”, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301234158_On_Privacy_and_Security_in_Social_Media_-_A_Comprehensive_Study
 Johanna Cabalhin, “Facebook User’s Data Security and Awareness: A Literature Review”, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331408062_Facebook_User’s_Data_Security_and_Awareness_A_Literature_Review
 Euromoney, “What is Blockchain”, https://www.euromoney.com/learning/blockchain-explained/what-is-blockchain#
 Min Xu, Xingtong Chen & Gang Kou, “A systematic review of Blockchain”, https://jfin-swufe.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40854-019-0147-z
 Elon Musk, “Use Signal”, https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1347165127036977153
 Asmita Karanje, “Decentralized Networks aren’t new, they just aren’t popular” , https://medium.com/swlh/decentralized-social-media-platforms-arent-new-they-just-aren-t-popular-2a3bf64a9d51
 Signal, https://signal.org/en/
 Mastodon, https://joinmastodon.org/
 Diaspora*, https://diasporafoundation.org/
 Minds, https://www.minds.com/
 Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, https://blockchainhub.net/dao-decentralized-autonomous-organization/ [cover image attribution] : https://unsplash.com/photos/EQSPI11rf68