While speaking at ETH Denver 2023, ConsenSys Mesh protocol engineer and researcher Nick Reynolds laid out a sociological approach for assessing decentralized social networking, which he also lays out in this piece.
By Nick Reynolds Protocol Engineer & Researcher at ConsenSys Mesh R&D, Veramo.io Team
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan developed a post-modernist school of thought concerning the role of media in society. He summed it up with a pithy phrase you may have heard before: “The medium is the message.”
This is intuitive if you read, say, a poem. You’re not just being affected by the words — you’re also being affected by their arrangement or the structure: the medium.
McLuhan took this further, though. For him, the structure of media reflects and affects the society that produces it, as much as the content does. In his times, electronic technology was the medium, with TV and radio broadcasts redefining restructuring patterns of social life.
A half century later, the web, and particularly social networks, have modulated that sort of asynchronicity of electronic communication and added a new dimension: multi-directionality. It’s no longer just the broadcaster and listener, rather many parties acting as broadcasters and listeners simultaneously.
McLuhan developed a tool used to assess media in the form of a diagram called the ‘tetrad of media effects,’ which uses four questions to examine the structure of any form of media:
- What does the medium enhance?
- What does the medium make obsolete?
- What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
- What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?
McLuhan used the tetrad as a tool to simultaneously consider media against multiple questions. It was a tool equipped to handle the dimensions inherent to the media of the time, specifically electronic communication’s “simultaneous happening”. If we think that the multidirectional interrelationships of the web represent a new dimension for media, then we should consider whether a new thinking tool is needed to examine it.
Examining the ‘media effects’ of Web3
A thinking process that is helpful when considering the media effects of Web3 is to identify dualities relevant to the space, and use these relationships to generate questions that help us build the Web3 we want to see.
Some of these spectrums might include permanence-impermanence, publicity-privacy, and near-term-long-term. As an example, if you’re building a DApp, you might want to consider how your application fits into the permanence-impermanence spectrum. Does your data need to be stored on-chain to achieve permanence? Or is a more impermanent solution safer for your use-case?
Nothing about this process should be considered doctrine, but I hope it helps you think about your own projects and the space as a whole.
The following are a few additional theoretical spectrums that are worth considering against the medium of Web3.
The first of these spectrums, or fields of concern, is ‘hyper-reality,’ a term first described by philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation. It describes an inability to distinguish what is real from what is unreal.
It is easy to see today how hyper-reality will manifest itself with the maturation of fields like artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality. Anyone who has been so engrossed into a game that they forget they are playing one has experienced a version of this … as has anybody who has gotten into a heated argument over a comment made on Twitter or Facebook by a fake user, where scammers and catfishers run aplenty.
Hyperreality can be beautiful. It can be used to create new experiences that lead to new realities. However, it can also be very dangerous. At its most extreme, hyperreality becomes very similar to psychosis, but applied to the collective mind rather than the individual.
If we consider the need for Web3 tools that help maintain reality and know what’s true in an increasingly “post-truth” world, we might arrive at something that looks like the Verifiable Credential standard. Verifiable Credentials provide an extensible verifiable data format, equipped for a variety of use cases as wide-ranging as supply-chain logistics, security credentialing, or tracking which AI models & data-sets were used to produce a piece of writing.
This is a concept first described by Donna Haraway in her 1985 work, A Cyborg Manifesto, where she rejected the rigid boundaries between human and machine, or in other words, between hardware, software, and wetware. What kind of questions may arise layering the spectrum of cyborg identity over the Web3 medium?
One might ask what is meant by human identity, for instance, and how that affects ‘sybil resistance’ for cyborg communities.
Tools like certain CAPTCHA implementations don’t always consider accessibility for people who use screen readers, and that creates in them an ableist form of sybil resistance. Gitcoin Passport has a more nuanced approach to “proof of humanity”, which may allow it to evolve alongside our understanding of human identity.
Weapons and Containers
In 1986, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, introducing the world to an argument by anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher suggesting that containers, such as the bags used to carry gathered food, rather than weapons like arrows or spears — were the most important tools for early human development.
Le Guin went on to apply this mode of thinking to the structure of fiction, suggesting that there is an alternative to the “linear, progressive of the techno-heroic.” Put another way, the typical “hero’s journey” is not the only way to tell a story. Other stories, with structures that more closely resemble a container than an arrow, open a myriad of narrative possibilities.
It is possible for modern technology to simultaneously be considered within the spectrums of hyperreality, cyborg identity, and weapon-container.
Assessing Web3 against these spectrums
Jay Graber defines Web3 as “user-generated authority enabled by self-certifying web protocols,” a strong definition to which we add an additional core component: the composability of web protocols. The following is what each of these pieces looks like more in depth.
User-generated authority: Decentralized identity allows users to map their identifier to public identification pieces. They control their identity and their discoverable publicity.
Self-certifying: Cryptography enables us to prove the correctness of state without a trusted intermediary. Self-certification requires self custody, open source, decentralization, and accessibility.
Composable web protocols: We know that permissionless composability enables the rapid, iterative production of new media. This is seen with DeFi, which is essentially money legos, and in Web3 as well, through modular protocols.
Using these factors, how do we discover a web that can handle cyborg identity and build space for safe exploration of hyperreality? Perhaps we build it as a composable container.
The web has always relied on some amount of composability. The diagram below identifies certain technologies that have been used to enable composability. Web3 differentiates itself by building that composability into the core technologies and protocols used for identity, data, and communication.
The composable Web3 stack: DID + VCred + DIDComm
Decentralized identifiers (DIDs) are the extensible container for identity that addresses the challenges of near and long-term cyborg identity. DIDs will make it possible to apply future-proof identity standards across the web, thus solving existing problems for the likes of visually impaired web users, or AI-powered DAOs. Verifiable credentials (VCreds) are the extensible container for trust blocks that addresses the challenges of hyperreality.
Veramo is an extensible container for the implementation of these aspects and much more. See below:
DIDComm forms the extensible container for end-to-end encrypted communication (E2EE) that allows for private and public communications between decentralized identities. See below:
All these things have critical commonalities: they are public goods, they are built on open standards, and they are developed and maintained through cooperation. And yet, they also allow for competition within the medium.
It is worth saying that we are still missing a composable container for decentralized social media platforms, which need an open standard that would allow them (everything from Mirror.xyz and Farcaster to Lens and Bluesky) to interact.
One day, that composable social container will likely look something like an RSS feed discovered via DID — an open standard that isn’t owned by any one company, where people will be able to discover each other's posts through their DID document.
Cyborg identity, hyperreality, and weapons & containers are three theoretical frameworks that help us better understand how we shape, and are shaped by, the media tools at our disposal. As technological innovations have increasingly blurred the lines around reality, the need to prove identity and authenticity has never been greater.
It is our belief that new Web3 tools like DIDs, VCreds and DIDComm, will usher in a new era where users can explore hyperreality and cyborg identity proudly and safely.
The Veramo team at MESH is actively working to usher in this reality through open-source composable software. If you would like to collaborate on any of the above, please reach out to the team on Twitter or Discord.