Social networks have infiltrated the majority of our connected society. We use them to connect with friends, family, and even strangers. It’s also where we go to keep up with current events, publish our experiences, and pursue interests with like-minded people.
Since virtually all relevant social networks are for-profit free-to-use proprietary platforms, to use them, we must forfeit our privacy, control, and choice. When we give up our privacy, marketers can use pin-point accuracy with the ads they serve us. When we give up control, we are forced to adapt to the changes a network imposes on us. When we give up choice, we can’t leave the network and continue to have the same features and connections with friends elsewhere.
The only way we can restore privacy, control, and choice is to create a decentralized social network.
What is a decentralized social network?
We use decentralized services every day on the internet. One of the most common ones is email.
Email standards and protocols enable us to control how and where we use electronic mail. For example, I can register a domain and set up an email server on my home network, enabling me to send and receive email with anyone. If I don’t want to run an email server, I can move everything to a service like FastMail. And if I ever wanted to, I could move away from FastMail and still have control over every aspect of my email.
A decentralized social network (DSN) gives us the same control and portability as email, but with all of our social data (profiles, connections, posts, images, etc…).
Why previous attempts at a decentralized social network have failed
Diaspora is one of the first DSNs that seemed like it might have a chance against closed networks like Facebook. It had features that were similar to Facebook and for a while it had funding and active developers working on it. Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events and a flaw in their approach eventually caught up with them, and now Diaspora exists as living abandonware.
Another attempt I thought would be successful was Tent. Unlike Diaspora, Tent focused on creating a DSN protocol instead of trying to replicate Facebook’s features. The protocol approach is the best way to create a DSN, which is why I spent time and money trying to develop an app called Campout that would work with the Tent protocol. Unfortunately, like Diaspora, Tent ran out of steam, and the project was abandoned.
The graveyard of failed DSNs have all had the same flaw. They were too complicated to install and use. Instead of focusing on simple functionality and a solution that can be installed almost anywhere, like WordPress, they all kept the technology out of reach from the people that wanted to use it the most. The only way a DSN is ever going to succeed is if it’s capable of being easily installed and used with most hosting providers or on a home server.
A ‘Solid’ hope for a decentralized social network
There is renewed hope in the fight to have a DSN for everyone. It’s coming from a familiar name, Tim Berners-Lee, who is famous for inventing of the World Wide Web.
Tim is leading a project called Solid which is derived from the phrase “social linked data.” Solid is working on a standard for linking social data that would provide privacy, choice, and control over our online social presence.
If the Solid standard is fully realized and adopted, it would mean that like email, we could host our own social presence or have a commercial service host it for us. Since we will own and control our social data, we’ll be able to move it to another server anytime we want without losing our connections and historical interactions.
Solid is still in the early stages of development but it’s currently the best-known chance for getting a viable DSN in the hands of everyone.
Digital marketers will have to rethink their marketing tactics
The creation of a widely adopted DSN isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when. It also doesn’t mean that Facebook or Twitter will go away but it does mean they will need to adapt and possibly even pivot their business model. Especially if they are forced to make their software compatible with DSN standards to remain relevant.
The biggest impact from moving to a DSN will be the reduction in advertising and targeting. Many people will continue to use free ad-supported services but I expect that most people will choose to pay for hosting or will host it themselves. It may even be possible to turn your WordPress site into your social presence through the use of a plugin.
The bad news is that the loss of targeted advertising will force digital marketers to use different tactics for reaching potential customers. The good news is that most of the tactics that will be needed to reach people using a DSN are already being used today.
In order to get the attention of consumers, companies will have to create experiences and content that people actually want. More importantly, they will need to be so good that people will want to share it.
Focusing on earned media will require the reallocation of money that has been traditionally used for paid advertising. It also means a dramatic shift away from ad management to a focus on content creation and outreach.
The onset of the DSN will also make utilizing influencers more important than ever. With the absence of paid advertising, companies will have to rely on people who have influence over their target audience.
Using influencers isn’t new but it’s now becoming easier to do. Companies like Intellifluence are simplifying the process for advertisers to discover and connect with influencers. The use of services like Intellifluence will become commonplace as more people move to a DSN.
The greatest asset that companies have is their customers. Existing customers, if kept satisfied, can be the single biggest driver of new business. That’s especially true if you can properly leverage your relationship with them.
Aside from customers spontaneously praising a service – a priceless form of exposure – companies will need to provide incentives in order to get social exposure. Incentives vary, but the most typical ones include contests, discounted services, and free company swag.
A decentralized social network will create new business opportunities
The DSN envisioned by Solid is modular. That means that not only can data be decoupled from services, the way we interact with that data can be reinvented by software developers.
New social apps
We will no longer be locked into the UX that Facebook and Twitter force upon us. Instead, we will be free to choose from different apps that provide various ways for us to interact socially. And since the DSN will be based on open standards, software developers won’t have to worry about companies like Twitter abruptly stripping away API access.
The DSN will usher in a new era of communication apps and tools, and will forever transform how we interact socially online. I predict that we will have, yet again, indie software developers creating the next generation of apps that will overtake today’s social giants.
New hosting services
Similar to what WPEngine is to WordPress, there will be an opportunity to become a premier hosting provider for a person’s social presence. The companies that can provide the best performance and services will have a chance to grab a large portion of market share.
New discovery tools
Without the centralization of closed platforms like Facebook, there’s an opportunity for new discovery tools to emerge. We may see the creation of directories that are similar to Stitcher that come with curation and premium features. We may also see the creation of new social search engines that are capable of working seamlessly with a new breed of social apps.
New advertising services
As people increase their followers, many of them will want to monetize it just as badly as advertisers will want to reach their audience. There will be an opportunity for new and existing companies to specialize in the insertion of ads in DSN posts. There’s no reason why a new company couldn’t experience the same kind of success that BuySellAds did during the small publisher advertising boom.
Next steps for digital marketers
The DSN I described in this article doesn’t exist yet. That means if you are a reactionary digital marketer, your next step is to keep doing what you’re doing. Regardless, I recommend investing in earned media, influencer outreach, and leveraging customers now, because they are highly effective tactics even without the existence of a DSN.
If you are the type of marketer that likes to keep tabs on what’s next so you don’t feel left behind, then I recommend you keep an eye on the progress Solid is making. You may even want to set up some Google Alerts to passively track Solid and any other DSN initiative that might be happening.
However, if you are someone that is looking for your next big opportunity, then you may want to consider investing your time and money into a DSN related product or service. The best place to start is to become a contributor to Solid. Contributing to Solid will help you understand the underlying architecture of how it works and may also allow you to create features that will benefit the product or service you’re interested in building.
The DSN presents one of the biggest opportunities for entrepreneurs that I’ve seen in a while. The question is whether or not you will be a user or a creator.