Why do we keep our word? What entices us to break it? It all depends on the incentives. In this article we’ll be discussing the incentives to do what we say in our online lives, how that relates to the technology behind the current Web2, and the innovations that are changing the game.
When we keep our promises, we build trust and reputation. In gaming terms, this “unlocks” higher levels of community, personal virtue and engagement. In more formal terms, we might call this “earning legitimacy”.
When the incentives align with our promises then we are usually reliable, and we stay that way even as the incentives to break our word get higher and higher – until we don’t. Despite our best intentions, every one of us, including our institutions and corporations, has a price.
The revelations in October 2021 that Facebook was saying one thing and doing another – with regards to censorship, the safety of young people and the quality of our conversations – was yet another reminder that the incentives of our current online lives are all wrong.
In the current Web2, we are the product. Our time, attention, creative output and ultimately our choices are products that companies sell for extraordinary profit. The actions of Facebook, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Tencent and millions of other companies are hugely influenced not only by their stated missions but also by the cost of their actions. If they can act in their own best interests with minimal cost to themselves then it is rational that they do so – even if those actions disadvantage their users.
Does it have to be this way?
One of the most significant, relatively unexamined, reasons that taking advantage of users costs these companies so little is the technology their products are built on. Irrespective of whether we use free products (such as social media) or paid (such as productivity apps, online storage etc), almost everything we do online happens on someone else’s hardware. When we visit a website or post to a social media platform we are at the mercy of the servers who host those platforms: whomever owns access to the servers can change the rules any time.
Google is free to make these changes not only because they own the hardware, but because they control all the data we have given them as well. They are able to keep their product looking and feeling familiar to us, the user, while changing back-end policies with impunity. In almost all cases it’s not possible or practical for us to download all our content from one platform and take it to another.
There is a current push in many countries around the world to change this situation through laws. Making and enforcing laws which limit the power of companies to disadvantage their users is a complex, complicated and highly political way of changing their incentives. If it costs too much, legally, to act poorly then companies may stop.
There is, however, another way. Rather than simply trying to increase the penalties for poor behaviour by Web2 corporations towards users, we can change the game entirely.
Arweave and the permaweb
“Arweave is a protocol that allows you to store data permanently, sustainably, with a single upfront fee.”
Arweave is a protocol that flips the incentives on the Web2 world. It’s two pillars are permanent data and user pays. By creating permanent, immutable data storage and giving users the right to pay for what they want, without that product ever changing, Arweave creates what is known as the “permaweb”. A network where the incentives to do what you say are completely aligned, forever.
Instead of providing services for free, then selling users as a product, Arweave tells users up front what it will cost to provide them a permanent service, and then lets them choose whether or not to pay it. Once data, a smart contract or any other information has been added to the permaweb it cannot be changed, forever.
Imagine a world where our time, attention, creative output and ultimately our choices were all ours, forever. By fundamentally changing the game, Arweave and the permaweb offer an incredible canvas for innovation.
One of the newest projects to be built on Arweave is Metaweave; a decentralised, censorship-resistant social network. It is completely different to everything you know yet familiar enough to start using right away.
While the user interface and styling of Metaweave is still in alpha release, the ideas are well developed. Let’s have a look:
Unlike traditional social media platforms, Metaweave doesn’t rely on an email address for your account identity. Instead, it uses the ArConnect wallet and a Verto ID. You can download an ArConnect wallet and setup your Verto ID all for free. You will also need some AR tokens, which you can claim for free from the faucet. Once you have those, simply connect your wallet to the app and you can start posting your content like any other social media network.
There are many familiar features: topic channels, called “planets” (because Metaweave is permanent it will still be working when humanity becomes an interstellar race), status updates and conversation chains. You can post videos from YouTube, photos, comment on other posts – all very normal.
The innovations are all in the background: permanent data and user pays.
Doesn’t “user pays” create an economic hierarchy?
The short answer is “yes, except for the faucet”, which at the time of writing will give you 0.02 AR tokens for free. A short post on Metaweave will cost 0.00000137 AR, meaning that the free faucet tokens will let you post about 14,500 times.
The price per post is trivial and the reward is significant. Imagine if we were all asked to confirm a payment before posting to Twitter? Imagine if we knew that everything we wrote to our Facebook timelines would still be accessible in 200 years? Imagine if, because of this tiny payment, the platform could never change the rules on us behind the scenes?
What would having access to a truly “public space” do to our conversations?
Permanent Data with Immutable Rules
“It doesn’t have to become a dumpster fire. You can use incentives to encourage people to act in a way that their fellow users find productive. The only central ‘ground rule’ is that we all agree the rules of engagement upfront. The experiences are governed by open code”
“Public” doesn’t mean “lawless”. When we choose to leave one country and enter another, in real life, we become subject to the rules at our destination. If we don’t want to accept those, we don’t travel there. It’s the same on the permaweb. Public spaces such as Metaweave can have rules that govern user behaviour – but those rules cannot be changed, and if you choose to leave you can take your data with you.
Here is an example:
This is a short reply I made to a post by Metaweave’s founder, Axel, on Metaweave:
Looking in my ArConnect wallet, I can see the transaction and my payment:
I’m now outside the Metaweave app, checking the transaction I paid for with my 0.00000137 AR. I paid for it, so I can see it. If I follow the link to check the permaweb directly, I end up downloading a text file as follows:
Notice the file name, beginning with “FIQup…” is the same as the txid in my post on Metaweave. I’m looking at my Metaweave post directly. This would be like logging directly into the Twitter servers and finding my tweet on their hard-drive.
What does this all mean?
This means that even though I’m using the Metaweave social network, I retain full access to my data. If Metaweave decides to update its platform and I don’t like it, I can still keep using the OLD platform and retain access to all my data. So can all my friends.
The Metaweave developers cannot force me to change to their new product, they have to convince me to. Imagine that.
There is also complete transparency. I can’t delete or disavow an old post. I have to be much more cautious about what I say because everything can be traced back to my wallet, forever. Importantly though, I can still choose which apps I use to access the permaweb. There are still rules. If I don’t like the way Metaweave is filtering and showing me data (for example, violent and/or profane images) then I can move to another permaweb social media platform – potentially a fork of Metaweave – where I choose more restrictions. Censorship resistant doesn’t mean a dumpster fire. It means choosing which rules you want, and knowing that you can change your mind at any time.
This is revolutionary compared to our current Web2 world, and this is the future.
These are early days. If you’re reading this – congratulations! You are a pioneer. The current Metaweave product, like many apps on the permaweb right now, is still in development. There will be bugs and glitches, issues and challenges – but the ideas are there.
Throughout history, great ideas have proven time and again to be able to change the world. I encourage you to act boldly, think critically, grab some AR tokens and write your first post on Metaweave. It would be great to see you there!