With Facebook, Google, Netflix, Spotify, and precious few other platforms establishing a new monopoly on how the masses are informed and entertained, a Big Media fit for the internet age has emerged.
The early promise of a decentralized web that gave artists and content creators their fair share did not materialize. Instead, it takes up to 170 Spotify streams for a right holder to receive their first penny. Facebook, driven by its insatiable lust for advertising revenue, barely pretends it cares about anything else anymore – including the creators who give life to the platform. That ruthlessness saw it grow into a $500 billion company as it also became America’s top news source. The big money continues to flow into a few hands, but now those of Silicon Valley technologists rather than the media moguls of old.
Those who kept faith in the web’s potential to decentralize media and empower creative communities came to need a fresh hope. They now have that hope in blockchain technology. Allow Don Tapscott, author of Blockchain Revolution, to define the dream: “What if there were not only an internet of information, but an internet of value? Some kind of vast, global, distributed ledger running on millions of computers and available to everybody, and where every kind of asset from money to music could be stored, moved, transacted, exchanged, and managed, all without powerful intermediaries.”
Tapscott is describing what could become Web 3.0 – a new kind of blockchain-based web infrastructure that gives us another shot at media decentralization and a better deal for content creators.
In a utopian vision of this blockchain web, people consume media in microtransactions using digital wallets and cryptocurrencies. The microtransactions – or tokens – switch hands only between consumer and creator, removing the power of centralized media platforms and the need for subscription or advertising-based business models. Think 1 cent to watch a short video, 0.2 cents to read an article, or 10 cents to watch a film – each micropayment self-executed by ‘smart contracts’ and the blockchain serving as a decentralized authority to ensure trust between buyer and seller.
“People who create value in the systems will get rewarded with tokens. People who participate in the systems spend the tokens,” explained Union Square Ventures Managing Partner Fred Wilson at Techonomy NYC in May. “It’s a native, elegant business model for community-powered systems.”
The monetization models of today’s Big Media platforms tend to be attention-driven, he said, and all our data is stored in someone else’s servers. “New technologies will emerge and fix those things. We’re going to have decentralized storage, decentralized compute, decentralized security.”
While it sounds fairer than today’s web, do we really want blockchain to turn browsing into a decentralized free-for-all? Centralization has its benefits, and as we’ve seen, people tend to flock to and enjoy using centralized services. Fortunately, there would be a place for successful media platforms on the new blockchain web, the key difference being that creative communities seeking the highest cut of profits would decide which. “It’s very disruptive to the attention-based business model, and there are going to be very, very large companies built from the ground up based on those business models,” said Wilson.
Some entrepreneurs are already set on getting the web of value up and running. Decent and SingularDTV are decentralized blockchain-powered content distribution networks. Veredictum.io wants to become the go-to blockchain network for the film and video industry.
Ujo Music and Monegraph are trying to do the same for music, as is Imogen Heap’s Mycelia. Incidentally, Spotify acquired blockchain startup Mediachain Labs in April, sensing the threat blockchain poses to its current subscription and advertising-based business model.
In the land of social media, Steemit pays users in cryptocurrency for posting content. The more engagement with a post, the more it earns. Yours works in a similar way, only using Bitcoin.
Despite the early promise, it’s going to take a lot for a universal web of value to become reality. Some already believe the New Big Media has cornered the web and become too big to fail. There is little pressure on the major platforms to abandon their current business models; the typical web user likes how Facebook, YouTube and Spotify work, and is in no rush to switch to services that better compensate creators.
Legislation would be the most direct route to enforcing a blockchain-powered web. There is already talk of governments intervening over Google and Facebook’s increasingly worrying level of control (70% of web traffic now goes through those two giants alone). Blockchain could factor into that discussion.
Yet, reengineering the web with policy is a deeply troubling suggestion. Ruling in favour of a new blockchain system could backfire, taking us even further from the dream of a web that discourages centralized power. Some entity or entities could come to own and manage the blockchain infrastructure; if it was profit-driven enterprises, creators could soon find themselves right back where they were: getting just a scrap of the cut, only now more efficiently fleeced. If it was governments, the web could descend into an Orwellian nightmare, deprived of the very creative competition the new system was trying to encourage.
Despite such dilemmas and challenges, those who want a better deal for artists and content creators are taking blockchain seriously. Chances are, the New Big Media is too. But that might not be enough, according to Wilson. “Somebody will create a new business model that is not attention-driven. They won’t be able to react to it quickly enough, and they will get disrupted.”