When we were children, we wanted to solve world hunger, bring global peace, and eradicate poverty. Never mind the parents sighing condescendingly and telling us to “shoot for the stars”, all-the-while thinking how stark of a reality we’d be met with when we figured out how the world works.
And indeed, as we grew up, we noticed how murky these problems are; we recognized the deeply rooted fears and power games behind these pests on humanity.
Our generation, more specifically, had the added existential dread of watching tech pour gasoline into the whole mix. Making us aware of the suffering worldwide, yet making every step in the right direction seem tiny in comparison.
And now, we’re blaming the algorithms.
It’s pretty well documented how social media and recommendation engines have been used to steer people into zealotry. By now, that’s as old a piece of news as whatever was keeping our attention in a choke-hold last week. But it bears repeating, at least, to grasp just how much these shiny lights divert our attention and have dictated our lives for the past decade. We care more about what’s trending on social media than our own inner circle.
From targeted content aimed at polarizing you to outrageous distractions keeping you away from noticing the “real” events worth discussing. My conspiranoic side can’t help but imagine that anyone in power has this circus down to a science by now.
But at their core, these diversions are nothing more than a channeled stream of what’s already within us. The connections (and lack thereof) we make, the stuff that awakens our deepest feelings and guttural reactions at “Us vs them”.
Simply put, social graphs, as the real unlock behind social media, hold all the power in today’s day and age. The interactions between distinct data points that appear to be nothing more than a “comment, like, and subscribe” hold the power of shaping our lens on the world.
Facebook's algorithm works based on comments, likes, and shares. It favors controversial and divisive content because it elicits a response from anyone.
Instagram's algorithm is similar to Facebook's, with the added layer of proximity. By understanding which people you relate to, look up to, and seek out the most; these two algos tapping into the same social graph can very effectively understand what kind of posts you *care* about, and how to feed them to you for maximum scroll time.
Google is more like a collection of several algorithms, each providing a specific function in an endless competition against those looking to exploit it for reach. Keyword stuffing? Build a semantic engine that understands sentences and punish the people who just write SEO-bating nonsense. But are you looking to pay for a spot on the SERP podium? “We got you covered!”
And, of course, X’s algorithm is a clusterfuck with no rhyme or reason, it feels more like a child trying to keep up with a conversation on quantum mechanics than an actual system that understands your intentions and preferences. As the Twitter Files showed us, curating your feed is much more artisanal than what we’d been led to believe.
All in all, social media algorithms serve very specific purposes and are carefully designed to optimize for them. Now, the problem with all this is pretty basic, actually: These social graphs have been harnessed by algorithms looking to maximize attention and profit, and it’s easy to say the solution would be to create one that encourages creativity, or fairness, or even critical thinking.
How would these “beneficial algos” genuinely shape us, regardless of whether they’re profitable or not?
Web3 has stood out as a radical gut reaction to all of the above. Silicon Valley employees and execs trying their best at mitigating, and sometimes reverting, the damage done by these money-hungry systems we put in place without realizing how deep of an impact hijacking people’s attention would have.
From data autonomy to transparent systems of trust, we’ve had quite the fanfare around “showing it to the man” these past few years as tokens move from capital-deploying vehicles to data containers we can use to build more sustainably. The future looks bright if we figure out a way to use them in a way that actually addresses the underlying problem.
Now the big question is. What would the tokenized “creator economy” algorithm look like? And more importantly, what would the “creator economy” algorithm look like? Notice the differences when you emphasize the “creator” or the “economy” part.
What variables should we prioritize? Originality? Marketability? A secret third thing?
How do we tokenize them in a measurable way? Mint amounts? Prices? Unique collectors?
What kind of mechanism could we build that keeps as much of its inner workings as on-chain and modular as possible to avoid falling back on old habits? I have no idea how we could build an immutable, fair system over time.
To be honest, we could complicate it as much as we like, with several convoluted interactions based on on-chain data like collection time, provenance, and wallet overlaps. But I believe “the simpler, the better” in this case.
We could build a tool allowing people to build their own custom parameter algorithm, as it's being explored with many of our web3 social apps. But this faces the barrier that no single person has the knowledge or willpower to syndicate and curate content without running into personally biased censorship. Just look at Mastodon to see what happens when you let individuals control the parameters of their feeds.
None of us are equipped with the tools to build a fair recommendation engine, at least not with the data points social graphs provide. That’s not due to the limitations of this pattern recognition approach but mostly because we’re built to surface the stuff we agree with while ignoring what we don’t.
That said, there is a more elegant solution to this, pioneered in part by the Lens ecosystem, but still not yet explored to its full potential.
When using Lens platforms like Lenster, you can peer into what other people see, regardless of that feed’s alignment with your perceptions. This is a huge unlock when contrasted with the way current discovery works. Not only can you find creators you probably wouldn’t find on your own when stuck in your personal echo chamber, it also helps you uncover narratives you may not have considered when taken as a collective stream.
Essentially, by looking at the feed through another person’s lens, you’re also peering into their brain and how it works.
This use case does bring forth the power of allowing people to build and experiment with a social graph that no one can cherry-pick for you. The only remaining piece of the puzzle is how you can grab these different perspectives and plug them into your own to compound the nuance of your take on life.
Bias is a part of us, but it’s our responsibility in this day and age to actively challenge it when finding the narratives we want to explore. The day of the endless feed may be far from over, but we could tweak the formula to include other people’s perspectives on the same story in a way that doesn’t come off as jarring yet still challenges you to think beyond the post.
In “Writers Fund Writers,” I argued the benefits of tokenizing content as a solution to build the infrastructure for better schema. This is something I've evangelized nonstop for the past year. What I missed was explaining how social graphs offer the other side of this equation.
I briefly touched on Lens as a significant opportunity to solve Mirror’s discovery problem in that piece. But it really allows for so much more. Diversity of thought is critical to breaking free from the curse of exploitative algorithms, and I genuinely do believe the only way to achieve it will be through harnessing social graphs in a way that can’t be rigged.
If the underlying data is bias-free, we can then build a system that finds the intersection of our collective ways of seeing the world.
It's true that tokens provide the primitive for the new algorithms, but in order for decentralized social to compete with its better-established alternatives, it must solve not only the discoverability problem but also provide its own edge against the single-source feeds.
The simple and elegant solution is staring at us right in the face. Constellations. Content constellations. Created through tokenized media like Mirror posts, Lenstube videos and Sound.xyz songs. Not only relating your feed to your tastes but to your relationship with the person behind each piece of content you consume. Instagram had it right with their proximity-based algorithm; all we needed was to tear it from Meta’s claws.
I believe the real decentralized algorithm follows something along the lines of TikTok's duet culture. By encouraging people to engage and create on top of the content they enjoy, we're surfacing the patterns that make actual curation possible.
The collection economy is hatching out of its gimmick phase as of late. Yet there’s still a long way to go before we unlock what it has to offer. I’ve noticed this in my own collectors’ behavior as I’ve started to post more rambling pieces rather than the formula-fitting “Top 10 tips to get your Mirror article collected” listicles.
We are starting to realize there’s a lot more value to the creator economy than just monetization and attribution.
Imagine a world where your favorite creators collaborate and split revenue, but most importantly, they are all building that drop based on content Lego bricks. Music NFT soundtrack, Visual attribution for the art pieces (like an Instagram shopping tag that sends you straight to the artist’s profile), and why not, decision making (read: governance) based on how people react to your post “If I get 1000 mirrors, NounsDAO will grant me 10 ETH to launch a merch line!”
For now, until the day these systems are in place to allow for our content constellations to be presented and narrated. I think the best thing we can do is support the people and projects pushing the boundaries of distribution.
I’ve recently been exploring what the Lens ecosystem has to offer, and I must say, I love what I see. Platforms like Bello by Adam Levy, Nick Hollins’ experiments with drops, and a handful of other ambitious takes on what tokenized content can do are all ultra bullish in the long term for what they’ll open up. Can’t wait to see them all come full circle.