Earlier this week I looked at Ascribe’s ideas for rights management using the Bitcoin blockchain. Here is another take on the problem.
Ryan X. Charles wrote this month about how to “Fix reddit with bitcoin”. (To me, this sounds like like “fixing Diabetes with Pneumonia”, but let’s see what he is thinking. I don’t want to be in the building with either the disease or the cure) Like Ascribe, he wants “something new that allows a community to have ownership over their content.”
Background: Charles was briefly the Bitcoin engineer at Reddit, two regimes ago (like 6 months ago?). His concepts were dropped after a management change at Reddit. Now he suggests implementing the ideas anyway, perhaps outside or on top of Reddit. He knows what he is talking about.
So what is the problem to solve:
“The only problem is that reddit’s servers are hosted by a central organization. Because humans have interests, and no two humans’ interests align perfectly, it is often the case that the interests of reddit, Inc. come into conflict with reddit, the users.”
This is the only problem with Reddit? Sigh.
What he imagines is to put the database into a blockchain (he talks about Bitcoin, but that might not be the right blockchain), and then have anyone who wants to provide the user facing interface. Any given interface will filter in some way, and so users can decide which censors they prefer (or, theoretically, write their own interface). But, the blockchain cannot be censored for anyone else. In theory.
Charles would also add a micropayment scheme to help sustain the activity. Like the Bitcoin protocol, this give incentive for participating in the server pool. He also would like to see small crypto payments go with upvotes, to reward, in his words, “the production of good content”. (I’m not familiar with any “good” content on reddit, myself.)
He calls this “decentralized reddit”.
I think I follow what he is talking about. It kind of makes sense, though there are plenty of technical quibbles.
Starting with the fact that I don’t especially want the Bitcoin blockchain swamped with a bazillion reddits, even if that were technically feasible (which I doubt–Reddit is updated much faster than conventional blockchains can manage, by several orders of magnitude). That’s a minor detail, we can do some kind of sidechain or alternate blockchain thing.
Anothe point is where Charles makes the curious statement, “If all the content is authenticated, we can be reasonably sure most payments are going to the right people.” He is talking about making sure that upvotes are credited to the actual account of the creator of the content, but he uses the term “authenticated” which is a very “centralized” concept, and nothing in the rest of his note suggest that anyone is ever authenticated except as a user name.
So what kind of “authentication” is he talking about here? This is a huge, huge deal because the biggest problem with reddit is the lack of accountability, leading inevitably to nonsense, flames, abuse, and violence.
I could be snarky (heck, I’ve already snarked more than once) and wonder if there is anything on reddit that anyone would pay even a tiny niggle to get. Worse, experience from the wider web indicates that the content that will get the most market share will be porn and drugs and hate speech and so on. This sort of “success” will be narrow and short lived, as normal people will flee in droves.
I’ll add one additional thinking point. Taking Charles’ scenario, we are asked to run the blockchain consensus software on our system, while we view through our own filers. Unless I misunderstand, I still verify all the blocks, even if I choose to suppress them. So I have to have everything on my computer, even the stuff I object to. (Sure, you can run light clients, but the network needs people to keep zillions of copies of the whole blockchain.)
It’s annoying enough to contribute my cycles to objectionable material (however I define “objectionable”), but hosting it is potentially risky. When, not if, someone posts porn, stolen software, or classified materials, then there is big problem. It is against company/school policy, and in some cases a criminal offense to have certain materials on my computer. It doesn’t matter how it gets there, I can’t let it be loaded on my computer. (Note that the cryptography assures that the prosecutors can prove exactly what is in the blockchain records on my disk, and that I knew what is in them.)
This is a big, big problem because there is no one in charge and no way to keep stuff out of my copy of the blockchain. My only safe option is to not run the software. You’d have to pay me a heck of a lot to stomach a lot of the junk on Reddit, and I don’t care how much Bitcoin you pay me, I’m not abetting espionage or other crimes.
This, by the way, is a really good reason to not use the Bitcoin blockchain itself. I don’t want to see the payment system suffering because there is a bunch of trash piggy backing on the ledger.
Overall, there are some good ideas here. But I don’t think any Reddit-like entity (RLE) will every survive for long. I’ve been on the Internet for nigh on 35 years now, and every anonymous communication system has decayed rapidly under a fiery blizzard of spam, porn, and abuse. Adding unaccountably Bitcoin will not solve that problem.
Comparing this to Ascribe, I note that “decentralized reddit” is missing the “easy legals”. Tellingly, Ascribe has worked hard to put in the “legals” precisely in order to assure that content providers are acknowledged and paid. Decentralized reddit relies on cryptography and cryptocurrency to “incentivize” content creators. They both cannot be right, and I’d bet Ascribe is closer to a workable concept than DR as described here.