Blockchain may be the tonic for our social media data woes

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It would appear that the knee-jerk reaction to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, #DeleteFacebook, seems to have had a greater effect than many expected. The movement was initially pegged to be an example of short-lived outrage, wrapped in a blanket of mob mentality. However, new research carried out by The Works and UTS Advance Analytics Institute, and released in June 2018, shows that a quarter of users have deleted or altered their settings in response to the scandal. The data indicated that 14% of people in the UK and 10% of Americans have completely deactivated their accounts in outrage at the monumental loss of privacy, while many more have changed their personal data settings to firm up what they share with the embattled company. It’s important to note that coverage of this scandal hasn’t gone away and won’t be whitewashed by reports of the latest Trump foible or royal event. Facebook is by no means on the rocks, but the success of the #DeleteFacebook movement shows that there is space for a new, data safe, social network to take hold.

Blockchain powered Decentralized Social Media (DCM) outlets aim to give data ownership and verification back to users. Unlike traditional Social Media outlets, DCMs may aim to reward users for sharing their skills and using the platform by potentially offering internal rewards as part of a reputation system. These systems can be set up to incentivize members to add data about themselves, while also endorsing data posted by others. This would allow users to post the data they feel is valuable and relevant without having it anonymously poached. Advertisers can still pay to access it, however the payment to view this information could be shared between the members who created and verified the data. This allows DSM users to benefit from their own data, as opposed to watching a third party intermediary reap the rewards, as is the current status quo. This peer-to-peer, serverless, decentralized system will allow others to validate and judge the quality of a member’s profile by viewing the data that the user has posted, allowing them access to what the individual has done in their professional and personal lives.

Even though there is a market for DSMs, the technology faces more hurdles than simply getting users to download Decentralized Apps. Scaling blockchain for millions of customers is tricky, as the decentralized system will always be slower than a centralized database. This isn’t because the technology is new and unoptimized, it’s simply the nature of the beast itself. When processing transactions, a blockchain must first get signature verification that uses a public-private cryptography scheme, which is necessary to prove the node’s source. The generation of which is computationally complex and time consuming. The system then must ensure that the nodes within the blockchain reach consensus, which can involve significant back-and-forth communication. Finally, it must be noted that the system doesn’t work on the performance of a single node, as transactions must be processed independently by every node in the network, which requires significant computation. However, blockchain’s scalability issues, low thoughtput and latency problems, can be solved, in part, by Sharding. This process utilizes a horizontal part of the database, known as a shard, and shares them out over separate servers, thus spreading the load and making the database more efficient. Nodes that house a shard keep information just on that specific shard in a shared manner, which maintains the decentralization. Moreover, each node doesn’t load the information on the entire blockchain, which helps its scalability. However, sharding can be a complicated affair because transactions made on the blockchain can relate to any part of the previous version, which makes it hard to make sure that the nodes process the transactions in parallel. Also, as nodes aren’t supposed to be processing the entire blockchain under sharding, a method would have to be implemented that decided which node processes each shard.

Aside from the technical issues there is also problem of getting regular people to understand and trust this technology. It’s easy to sell this within the tech world, but your average Facebook user doesn’t know and wont ever really care about a node. However, if the #DeleteFacebook campaign has proven anything, it is that people care very much about their data and protecting it and this core principal of DSMs, could be the driving force behind its eventual mainstream, worldwide adoption.   

Morgan Flanagan Creagh