Open systems create emergent behaviours

A thesis for open social graphs

My goal in this piece is to develop a view on web3 social, that justifies beyond ideology why a decentralised open graph can be superior to a constellation of closed graphs, and what are the reasons to believe that there's a credible path to their adoption.

My thesis is that the web3 social networks can enable better experiences and stronger network effects than existing social products. Their core advantage is incentivising an ecosystem of developers that build experiences that benefit users and the third-party applications building on top. Open systems attract developers, and in consequence, create emergent behaviours.

Open systems that support emergent behavior are way more likely to become platforms and we are excited by the possibilities of new consumer facing web platforms.

Fred Wilson, Twitter investment thesis in 2007

It’s not a  new idea - it was part of the investment thesis for Twitter. And it was spot on: their mobile client, a big driver of growth in the mobile age, was developed by a third-party developer. The word tweet and the bird logo came from another third-party client that was so popular it became the network's brand. Key behaviours in the app like threads came from the experiments of hobbyist and tinkering users.

The promise with web 3 is that the social protocols we’ll use won’t be able to close off the graph and API like all previous social networks eventually did. Twitterific, the client that gave us the bird and the verb, lost their access to Twitter when the firm did an unannounced and undocumented policy change. The second promise is that that value will flow fairly from the protocol to the third party application developers, therefore supercharging the cycle that encourages more them to tap into the user base and build companies.

This being said, Facebook’s early days traction is sobering for web3 social - within a few months it had reached millions of users. We can’t say the same of web3 social. It’s hard to point to unique and differentiating features with a massive pull on users. If we believe that an open ecosystem can create those unique experiences, we need to explore how social products built on open graphs can compete.

I see three vectors of significant user experience improvement, and some early signs of what they can look like:

  1. Open ecosystems of apps:

Guaranteeing platform access to developers promotes the number of apps being built and increases the rate of innovation.

Social media have often been platforms for developers to build third-party apps (and sometimes clients) and it has often contributed to their success (Zynga representing 12+% of FB revenue in 2011, Twitter mobile client).

Open data graphs guarantee third-party developers access to the data which lowers the barriers to entry for new developers because a) they skip the cold start problem of having no data/content/users b) it reduces the friction for users to adopt the new app where both users' profiles and social following are pre-loaded c) they are natively social/tailored to the users preferences.

There are some early signs of this happening in the Farcaster with:

While it is too early to call them hits, they show that a number of high caliber builders are committing months of full-time work to building the experience that might in turn attract more users. 

  1. Cross context network effects:

The internet’s  'one-app one identity' architecture leads to a fragmentation of data across apps with little to no integrations among them and user lock-in.

An open graph creates the native possibility to opt-in to share data across contexts. In terms of UX, it could look like: 

  • starting on a new app with a pre-loaded profile and follow-list

  • Seing actions taken by the people you follow in a third-party app (e.g. on an exchange, or see their restaurant ratings on Google Maps).

This increases the potential strength of the network effect of sharing a backend for a social graph: the number of nodes in the network scales much faster than in a setting with closed and split user databases.

We can expect a couple of large scale successes to exert a strong pull for other platforms to build on top of the same open graph. That would be a process similar to how Uniswap significantly improved the UX of using Ethereum, attracting more users, thus making it more attractive for developers to build on the platform.

  1. Granular curation:

The ad-based business model of social media dictates engagement to be the variable to optimise, often at the expense of quality content.

With the content and user graph in open storage, there's a proliferation of options to tailor content recommendation with a high level of granularity.

There are some early experiments in the Farcaster ecosystem that either focus on certain types of contents (Alphacaster for DAO-related content) or giving users the flexibility of building and sharing custom feeds like Jam or Discove.

Broader possibilities could include: restricting content only from verified humans, surfacing niche content shared within a subpart of the graph, creating new types of content (from the graph’s metadata)

These vectors open the possibility for users and developers to build apps, experiences, or surface knowledge that 

What exactly this 'social layer' will look like is hard to predict but here are some traits I think we can expect:

"The last handle you'll create":

  • In its steady state, it could be the canonical online identity layer - the address that represents all your connections to other profiles and authorship over any content.

  • A good example of what that might look like is ENS that are used by most crypto users as their global ID.

  • That profile controlled by a private key would serve as the primary identifier pointing to a number of alternative context-specific profiles.

  • Serving as a single sign-on would immediately makes apps aware of all that existing data (if users want to).

  • The big mental shift here is that rather than having apps have all the context, the profiles are the ultimate container of data and bring it to the dApps.

  • Some UX possibilities to visualise: connecting to an app with tailored recommendations based on other apps you've used or your following; anonymous contributions with provable reputation (anonymous reply with proof of number of followers)

A web 2 to web 3 continuum

  • I find it unhelpful to oppose web 2 and web 3 especially in the context of social - it’s a continuum based on how much is stored on decentralised infrastructure.

  • The experience is likely to be opt-in interoperability - users are presented with the option to share as much or as little context with the apps they use.

  • Some UX possible to visualise: connecting to GMaps and toggling "see ratings from my circle", using a web3 key to sign and timestamp publications on web2 social platforms for authenticity, storing content on decentralised storage solutions

Immutable APIs

  • Developers incentive to build on top of social networks is that out of the box you get a) rich data about the users for personalisation, b) an existing user base, c) a network of existing integrations in various platforms, d) out of the box social features like follows and comments, and e) a monetisation model.

  • That explains why building on top of Facebook or any other social network was great, until it wasn't.

  • At some point, it became in the economic interest of platforms to close access, and so they did.

  • What's changed is that blockchains can be viewed as computers that can make commitments, commitments of the sort - here's irrevocable access to the social graph.

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