The Foundation of Decentralized Social Media Is Being Built Right Now
Why we’re excited about Farcaster.
“Banking is necessary, banks are not” ~Bill Gates, 1994
“Social media is necessary; Twitter and Facebook are not” ~Us, right now
Recently, a contingent of Twitter users who dislike Elon Musk left Twitter for Mastodon, a social media service run by a nonprofit.
The drama of Elon Musk buying Twitter has received bombastic media attention. But it may be overshadowing a more foundational shift: Many people interested in the future of blockchains and social media are quietly finding a great community on a Twitter-esque platform called Farcaster.
If you join Farcaster, which currently requires an invitation, it feels superficially like scrolling Twitter or Reddit. But Farcaster is not just a social media app. It’s a protocol—being built by Dan Romero and Varun Srinivasan—for decentralized social media.
In other words, they don’t want to found the next Twitter or Facebook. They want to build the foundation on which every new, decentralized version of Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok can be built.
And the key to doing this, according to Romero and Srinivasan, is not putting everything on the blockchain. It’s creating “sufficiently decentralized” social media that combines the best of Web1, Web2, and Web3.
Web1 vs Web2
The users leaving Twitter for Mastodon are far from the only people disgruntled with their social network of choice. To give just a few examples…
- Users: While the majority of current Twitter deserters are left-leaning, many right-leaning users previously left because they said Twitter censored conservative voices and stories—or because they were banned. And just about all of us have worried at some point about social media’s insatiable appetite for our attention and for monetizing our personal data.
- Creators: American TikTok creators—whether they are filming rush events at their sorority or singing sea shanties that slap—have to worry about the very real possibility that the federal government will ban the app due to fears it shares data with the Chinese government. (Several states have already banned it from state-owned wifi networks and devices.)
- Brands: Many businesses and newspapers invested heavily in growing their Facebook following only to see the company throttle the reach of their posts several years later, likely so as to force brands to pay for reach.
- Developers: In their early years, Twitter and Facebook encouraged outside developers to build on their platforms. As Romero notes, even the pull-to-refresh feature for the Twitter feed was invented by 3rd-party developer Loren Brichter. But they have since limited what outside developers can do and build.
These social networks are all part of Web2, a world in which most users’ experience of the internet is sites and applications run by big companies. Web2 is easy to use, but it’s ruled by the dictates of figures like Mark Zuckerburg and Chief Twit Elon Musk.
The downsides of this centralized control has made many technophiles nostalgic for the decentralized days of Web1, which was dominated by protocols.
Many of these protocols are still with us: HTTP and DNS power the web and SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) governs email. There is no monarch of SMTP. Instead, it was proposed by engineers at the Internet Engineering Task Force and is maintained and implemented by various organizations and individuals.
There now seems to be an obvious solution to our discontents with social media: Put it on the blockchain! This is Web3. Since no one can delete parts of a blockchain, censorship is impossible. And since you can only change the rules governing a blockchain by getting a majority of users (or “validators”) to accept it, no revenue-hungry executive can take a larger slice of creators’ revenue. (There might not even be a central actor to take a cut.)
But if you put an entire social network on a blockchain, you might end up like someone asking people to drive out to a potluck while free parties are raging nearby.
That’s because the friction of changing a blockchain’s protocol means that nimbly launching new features like early Facebook is nearly impossible, and navigating decentralized services directly can require too much tech savvy for, say, slow-typing grandparents who want to share family photos.
On the backend, as Srinivasan has noted, social networks generate so much data that it’s expensive to store it on a chain. And the permanence of blockchains stick you with your bad tweets forever!
That’s why Farcaster is sufficiently decentralized.
A Goldilocks Approach to Decentralizing Social Media
In a blog post, Farcaster co-founder Varun Srinivasan explains the central thesis of Farcaster:
Every year, centralized social networks place more restrictions on what users and developers can do… A decentralized social network can challenge this hypothesis by making two powerful promises that centralized networks cannot. They can guarantee that users own a direct relationship with their audience and that developers can always build apps on the network.
To accomplish this, Farcaster does not put every message, comment, and photo on the blockchain. They just put users’ identities on the blockchain.
As Romero has said, “The thing that needs to be decentralized is identity.”
It’s helpful to compare this approach to email. No company owns email. If you want, you can set up your own email address and run it on your own server. Or if you prefer, you can use Gmail, Superhuman, or Hotmail (throwback!), since those companies built tidy inboxes with additional features like Spam filters and archived emails.
But if Gmail bans you—or if you’re pissed that Gmail keeps showing you ads for Justin Bieber tickets—you don’t lose access to email. You can simply switch to another email provider, taking your contact list (of friends and family, or of thousands of adoring fans and subscribers) with you. If you signed up to Gmail using your own domain name, you won’t even need a new address (identity).
This is the decentralized nature of Web1 that Farcaster wants to capture. Google and Superhuman did not need permission from the creators of SMTP to build an inbox that worked with email protocols. They just did it. Similarly, the creators of the first apps and tools built on the Farcaster protocol launched without needing permission from Romero or Srinivasan.
Gmail and Superhuman are also good metaphors for how Farcaster plans to capture the benefits of Web2. Since those services are built and maintained by individual companies, they can add features and tweak their design quickly—without getting the entire SMTP ecosystem to agree on the changes. Similarly, developers can just build and ship Farcaster-based apps and updates.
Chaining Identity With Smart Contracts and NFTs
If you don’t keep all your money in crypto, then most of your savings are literally cells in spreadsheets that belong to Bank of America, Vanguard, and other institutions that we trust, often grudgingly, to keep track of our money.
Bitcoin’s original innovation was to keep track of our assets without trusting a central authority, but rather by trusting a decentralized network that tracks and validates every transaction.
Similarly, our social-media identities are entries in Twitter and TikTok’s databases. But with smart contracts, users can claim a unique, blockchain-based identity via Farcaster’s ID Registry.
But there’s one more piece to the puzzle. Unique IDs tend to be strings of numbers. But users want to post from @dad_jokes, not !8098. Farcaster’s registry could link the ID number to a fun username. But then @dad_jokes would have to be @dad_jokes on every Farcaster app—including professional apps that resemble LinkedIn—and young users would be stuck forever with the first username they make at age 10.
That’s where NFTs come in. To claim a more human-friendly username, users can register a username with each Farcaster-based app, receiving a NFT that gives them ownership of that identity, whether it’s @dad_jokes or @WilliamJBrown.
And if @dad_jokes is cruelly banned from a (not-yet-real) app called Jokester because its CEO doesn’t want to seem lame, well, then @dad_jokes can use the Farcaster protocol to directly invite all his former Jokester followers to follow him on another app. Or to subscribe to his Substack.
If You Build It… You Still Need to Attract Users
In interviews about Farcaster, Romero often references a common startup mistake explained by Peter Thiel in his book Zero to One:
The Field of Dreams conceit is especially popular in Silicon Valley, where engineers are biased toward building cool stuff rather than selling it. But customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen.
So the Farcaster team is not assuming that developers and users will come. They are actively growing the first social network built on the Farcaster protocol.
It’s also called Farcaster. And, for now, it looks a lot like Twitter.
Their thesis is that by building an app that’s not just on the blockchain, but also offers a user experience comparable to Web2 giants like Twitter, they can attract users who developers will want to build apps for.
For now, Farcaster is invite-only, and they’re focused on slowly and intentionally finding crypto-curious people who will be quality early users for new apps built on Farcaster’s protocol.
So far, Farcaster has just around 8,500 users and 1,400 weekly “active casters.”
That’s modest compared to Facebook’s 3 billion users! But as Romero has noted on the Mint podcast, the number of influencers providing the majority of any network’s content (the dancing teenagers or, in Farcaster’s case, the thoughtful engineers and crypto podcasters) are a much smaller group to attract. And Farcaster can offer unique value. For example, the bots that plague the Twitterati can be more easily filtered out since it’s expensive to, say, put eth in bots’ wallets.
Romero and Srinivasan made Farcaster Twitter-like so it’s familiar for new users, but they believe the competitive advantage for their app and others built on Farcaster will be features enabled by decentralization and the blockchain.
What could this look like? On the same podcast, Romero has spoken animatedly about potential features like a band minting NFTs for early fans that give them access to special concerts or discounts. Similarly, that band’s manager could make an app—gated by NFTs, if they want—that offers a Discord-like venue for fans and the band to connect. Or, even without an app, the band could directly message all their fans across every platform and directly sell them tickets and merch. (The equivalent of a band directly messaging all their Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Mastodon followers.)
In Romero’s words, this direct relationship means every creator has “freedom of monetization.” It removes intermediaries who would otherwise take a cut and define how they can monetize their following because the open protocol “does a lot of the plumbing for [creators].”
Taylor Swift and Radiohead aren’t yet posting on Farcaster, but the user base has attracted a growing ecosystem of nerdy apps like Daylight (for tracking NFT mints and everything your crypto wallet can do) and LearnGPT (which curates the best ChatGPT prompts and responses from around the web).
The World NFTs Built
Farcaster is taking advantage of many crypto innovations to build a foundation for decentralized social networks. As a NFT company, we at Center are excited by their use of NFTs—not as art or collectibles, but as a key piece of infrastructure for decentralized identities.
The purpose of NFTs is to verify ownership of anything that can be put on a blockchain. The first use case to garner mainstream attention was ownership of Bored Apes, Squiggles, and other art—to the extent that most people associate NFTs with JPEGs.
But on Farcaster, NFTs verify ownership of social media handles, enabling decentralized social media to work. As Farcaster grows, it will show the world that NFTs can be far more than collectibles.