Cryptocurrency crashes have been jam packed in recent months. One much-touted promise of Web3 is that it will let ordinary internet users truly own their data and store it on a blockchain no single entity controls, instead of having it harvested and monetized by giant tech companies – “Decentralisation” is the word of the Web3 moment!
In a TED talk last month, which went online today, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri offered more specifics by describing how content creators—musicians, writers, artists, vloggers, and the like—might use Web3 to gain a measure of independence from dominant platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and yes, even Instagram.
In Mosseri’s vision, a hypothetical singer sells her fans subscriptions, not to Facebook or YouTube or TikTok, but to herself. She issues tokens on a blockchain that give the bearer access to all her music wherever it lives online. The platforms still host the music, but they no longer control Lisa’s relationship with her subscribers. They can’t decide what data she sees, sell her subscribers’ data to third parties, or suddenly hike their cut of her income. If she decides to stop using a platform—or if the platform itself kicks her off, or goes bust—she doesn’t lose her subscriber list. In the talk, Mosseri said this would mark “a dramatic shift in power away from platforms like [Instagram] and to … creators.” He also hypothesised that creators could use this method as a form of equity crowdfunding—whipping up investment early on in their careers from fans who would get a share of their income later. For independent artists, monetisation is a major concern.
But how does this actually work? Surely the singer’s work must exist on a platform of some sort being a Web3 platform? And why would giant companies like the one Mosseri works for agree to give up their power?
Regarding whether big platforms would agree to even give up control, Mosseri has said the idea [of sharing data] is not just about portable subscriptions. Every platform has an interest for the creator ecosystem to be built on a stable financial base. He says that it might not be possible right now. “There are a lot of creators out there. They make money by way of a jerry-rigged group of tools. Over the long run, you want to see more stability and an economic foundation for the creator ecosystem. I think platforms will be giving up some short-term control for there to be a larger pie in the long run. A big risk is the size of the market for subscriptions. Is there going to be a meaningful opportunity for a million creators, for 10 million creators, 50 million creators?”
Mosseri also spoke about the need to differentiate between the platform subscription and the creator subscription. His idea would be for a subset of creators to use platforms like YouTube and Instagram to build up a brand and demand for what they do. To post to whatever platform they want, and give away however much they want for free. But they would also have a group of people who subscribe to them, and that relationship is built in a way that no platform can take it away.
Ironically however, Facebook, now Meta, has fought the idea of users taking ownership over their contacts and friend connections such as when it refused to participate in Open Social, the proposed alliance where people would have ownership of exactly that. Mosseri spoke of a fundamental tension between a centralised platform and decentralised technologies like blockchain. “And I acknowledge the potential between our position on things like Open Social, and things like the subscription idea, but I’m not saying everything should be interoperable, or that all data should flow from platform to platform. There are very real reasons for that, privacy being paramount.”
Another question worth asking is why this sense of decentralisation wasn’t attempted on a pre-blockchain technology. What is so special about blockchain? “The blockchain makes sense because blockchains are immutable. The record is public and available to everyone forever, so we literally cannot delete the thing. That gives weight to the assurance that we cannot take this [subscriber] relationship away from you. Yes, we could absolutely build this on non-blockchain technologies using something like OAuth. But the assurances would carry less weight at a time where trust in institutions has declined.”
Using his hypothetical singer, Mosseri has outlined his vision for independent artists in web3. “The idea here is that she has options, and she can move without losing her community. For instance, she could swap payment providers, she could move platforms—if she gets kicked off Twitter, she could start using YouTube, and she would still maintain all the relationships with all her subscribers. Yes, there’s an expectation that her subscribers have of her, but she has way more independence. I would also point out that subscribers can vote with their pocket, so if she doesn’t produce good content, they will stop paying, presumably. That’s actually a healthy incentive.”
From a freelance artist’s perspective, this view is a fairly optimistic one that we hope will pan out. The frustration is time, technology and whether big corporations will want to cease control.