In my new series Digital Innovators, I speak to mavericks in the rapidly growing online community space and learn about what should be expected in the coming years and decades. I had a chat with George S. Samuels, the Managing Director of Faiā, a firm that helps build productive communities for high-growth scale-ups. His company leverages the latest tools and technologies, to build, support, and train community-driven enterprises to unlock their full potential.
In this interview, George shares with us a look into the future of online communities and the powerful role Blockchain Technology will play in the growth of this industry.
What is Blockchain?
If you’ve heard about Bitcoin, you most likely would have heard about something called blockchain too. Simply put, blockchain can be described as a “chain of digital blocks.”
The more technically inclined definition may try to describe it as digital information (“blocks”) stored on a public ledger or database (the “chain”), followed by other buzzwords including “decentralized” (not located in one place), “immutable” (un-changeable), and “censorship-resistant” (unable to be censored).
However, to make it even simpler, imagine our current money system acting like Microsoft Word back in the day (when you wrote documents offline and experienced the wonders of trying to share and collate multiple versions of a single document).
Then Google Docs came along and allowed everyone to write online (on the “cloud”) and collaborate together in realtime.
Blockchain can be compared to one immense, publicly-available Google Doc.
So instead of having to keep multiple versions of a file or document, you have one centralized that everyone can see or interact with. Whenever a significant change is made in Google Docs, it’s stored in Version History. In a blockchain, it’s stored as a “block” and cannot be edited.
In Bitcoin, if someone wants to “hack” a block, it would cost them an arm and a leg to do so. You’d be looking at around USD $665,553 USD an hour minimum, and that’s just to make the attempt. This component is how Bitcoin made blockchain technology more interesting (because on its own, it’s not that interesting).
To dive in more, feel free to watch this video. For now, let’s move on to the juicy stuff!
Let’s look at the first, most obvious use-case for blockchain technology: micropayments.
Micropayments essentially enable users to pay for products or services for fractions of a cent. In higher-income countries, there is little need for such capabilities. But in lower-income nations, it opens up new types of markets and business models.
When Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and pioneer of the terms “microcredit” and “micro-financing”, piloted micro-loans to the rural poor in Bangladesh, he didn’t know that he would open up new ways for people to trade with one another.
These individuals would go on to be labeled the “unbanked”, but now had ways to feel included economically in society.
Microfinance helped lift families and communities out of poverty. Micropayments in the digital realm will have similar effects. From increasing numbers of mobile payments in developing economies to governments wanting to go cashless with CBDCs (Central Bank Digital Currencies), it’s only a matter of time before you see further innovations on top of micropayments within the next 10-20 years.
2. Refined Pay Walls
Right now, you might be seeing an increase in “pay walls” on many news sites.
For some, this is becoming a nuisance, for news publishers, this is a way for them to survive. Unfortunately, the User Experience of such pay walls means users end up abandoning the site instead of registering as a member or reading the (hopefully) reliable report or news story.
In a blockchain-like world, you would have a digital wallet (like a Paypal account), that you would then use to “pay” to read, like, or even comment on the article. And this payment would be in the form of micro-payments (e.g. one cent).
You would not need to register for the site (as you may only be interested in the one article) and you could opt-in to have it run seamlessly like any normal browsing experience. In the back end, it would then just show as micropayment deductions from your digital wallet.
The difference here is since you’ve paid to read, like, or comment, if someone else happens to like or respond to a comment you’ve made, you get instantly rewarded because the other user would have to pay a micropayment to interact as well. The benefit is reciprocal.
This then leads to the possibility of a reduced need for advertising.
3. Less Intrusive Ads
Nobody likes unsolicited ads, yet it’s an “evil” we put up with in order to interact on the web for “free.” This means that, in order for service providers to keep serving us, they have to turn us into the product.
Our data then becomes valuable for advertisers, and a more viable way for service providers to get paid to keep serving us “for free.”
There is always a cost.
When it comes to online communities, if service providers can earn revenue in other ways, they don’t have to feel like selling your data is the only way to survive as a business. If you are paying to engage on their platform directly, they can take a cut of the micro-transactions (e.g. likes, comments, shares, clicks, etc.) instead of relying on advertiser dollars.
The user also owns their own data whenever they engage or interact, because they’ve paid for it and agreed to give a small percentage per transaction. It’s so small you barely notice it’s happening, but have access to all the data through your digital wallet.
4. Improved Data Ownership
So how does blockchain actually improve data ownership?
Well, remember the Google Docs analogy we used earlier? Every time you interact with say a website, each interaction is stored in the “Version History” of a blockchain.
Each specific interaction appears as belonging to you, but you can choose to show it as private or public (keeping in mind it is not anonymous). No one can view who the source is except for you, and whomever you give access to.
Again, since you are paying for your interactions through micro-payments, you get to own what you publish or upload, no matter where you put it.
This is a far cry from what we currently have with many online social platforms, whereby most of what we upload (for “free”) is then used and distributed at the companies discretion.
If you want to build more psychological safety for online communities, which is essential in building trust, blockchain can help increase people’s ability to own their own data.
5. Troll Tolls
Finally, I wanted to talk about this unique feature called “Troll Tolls” (which in the cyber world, “trolls” can be equated to cyber-bullies). This feature was created on a platform called Twetch, which can be likened to a blockchain-based version of Twitter.
They’ve done some really interesting things already, and have managed to attract some famous celebrities like Danny Trejo.
One of their most interesting feature developments was the Troll Toll. Essentially, it allows users to set a “troll toll”, which requests a higher amount for specified users to post on their walls or engage with their content.
So if someone really wants to troll another user, they would potentially pay much more for it. So although the troll may feel good about it, the “victim” gets paid handsomely.
I have already seen this in action, and it changes community behaviors drastically by forcing trolls to think twice about what they say.
Hopefully, now you can start to see how community behaviors may be shaped by blockchain technology. It’s not necessarily blockchain itself that’s the prize or game-changer, but how it will be used in conjunction with other components and applications built on top of it.
Just like there is one Internet, we expect there to be just one blockchain. As such, communities may use economic incentives in ways we never thought possible.
Like we saw with the troll tolls, new features will start to come out that progressive types will understand, harness, and then make more consumable for the masses.
Just like you don’t need to understand how a light bulb works in order to enjoy the benefits of electricity, you don’t necessarily need to understand how blockchain works to enjoy the benefits of all the future applications that are on their way into our communities. Stay tuned!
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