Is Blockchain the Solution to All of Snapchat’s Problems?
09.17.2018

Could Snapchat be the next shady ICO? There’s no reason to think that it will be, but a Forbes contributor Yoav Vilner essentially posed the question on Friday, suggesting that blockchain has the potential to solve many of the otherwise doomed-looking social platform’s problems.

Not only did Snapchat lose three million users last quarter, but its stock is also the lowest it’s been to date. Unlike other social media platforms where users are also “creators,” including Instagram (owned by Facebook) and YouTube (owned by Google), Snapchat is alone in the world, not backed by a powerhouse parent company. Furthermore, its users have long bemoaned the lack of aid provided to creators, like robust analytics that offer insight on audience demographics (which it ended up adding in February) and content promotion.

Then, of course, there are the problems that plague all social media, like controversy surrounding blocked accounts (such as YouTube, Facebook, and eventually Twitter banning Sandy Hook “truther” Alex Jones) and the vulnerability of user data/identity (Facebook and Cambridge Analytica). If Snapchat were to implement blockchain, reasons Vilner, they could gain an edge over those other platforms by nipping some of these problems in the bud.

First, blockchain is all about decentralization—as we well know—and Vilner doesn’t miss that point when it comes to applications for Snapchat, especially in preventing censorship. Instead of a centralized party, like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, deciding who gets to be on a platform based on its community guidelines, the whole community could vote together. Declining to give Alex Jones an additional platform to share his absolutely not dangerous and definitely fact-based opinions is problematic, right?

With a decentralized governance model, Snapchat users could come together to decide who gets to use the platform and who doesn’t—like how audiences of the fan-run Indoor Football League the Screaming Eagles voted to decide whether former NFL player and convicted assaulter Greg Hardy could join the team. (He couldn’t, but by an extremely narrow margin.) Since Snapchat users span publications like Al-Jazeera and individuals like a 14-year-old named Brad (the latter is hypothetical, as I don’t know many 14-year-olds), that gets complicated.

Snapchat complied with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates’ requests to remove Al-Jazeera’s Snapchat Discover channels from the app in those countries last year. Blocking an esteemed journalistic organization from its platform sounds like Snapchat was complicit in government censorship. Cracking down on Brad for bullying is quite a different issue. Would all Snapchat users have equal ability to weigh in on both?

Intellectual property rights and the use of copyrighted material also plague social outlets like Snapchat and YouTube, where the casual nature of the platforms can make using another’s work seem inconsequential. Thanks to an immutable ledger, users could log their creative work, so if another person uses it, the platform would automatically credit the original creator (or stop that person from using the work entirely).

With YouTube, where video creation can be a moneymaking activity, tracking copyrighted material and penalizing people who use it is crucial. On Snapchat, where messaging seems to be the platform’s central use case, who cares? I can message my friend a fun video I saw that I didn’t create, and that’s fine because we’re just communicating. If I include that video in a public story, and that video is a lengthy clip of Mission: Impossible—Fallout that I recorded while watching in the theater three days ago, then it could be time for blockchain technology to swoop in and save the day.

Mostly, the appeal of blockchain to Snapchat would come down to creating a new revenue model for the service, one that doesn’t rely on advertisers who want (to exploit) users’ data. After all, “crypto features give apps freedom from advertisers,” Sarah Austin, a “blockchain influencer” and product marketing consultant said in the Forbes column.

It’s genius and it will for sure work because a) pivoting to blockchain is so easy, and b) everyone wants to pay for a service they previously used for free.

Instead of relying on advertisers—like Snapchat is in its latest revenue push, which involves getting publishers like Cosmopolitan to create premium, ad-supported content surrounding big events—the company could have its own cryptocurrency. The cryptocurrency would reward users (like Brad and other publishers, like Cosmopolitan) who create popular content with tokens that people will buy so that they can pay Brad and Cosmopolitan for content. That way all users are literally invested in the platform’s success, and the best content gets rewarded.

Since people would start making their money through cryptocurrency payments instead of advertisements, advertisers would stop using the platform as a data mine for users’ personal information. It’s genius and it will for sure work because a) pivoting to blockchain is so easy, and b) everyone wants to pay for a service they previously used for free.

In March, I was sent the white paper for a blockchain-based video-sharing platform called The POP Network (“the hottest video platform built on the Ethereum network!”). It described itself as “essentially YouTube on the blockchain,” while the white paper described how “with ‘free’ ad-supported content, the viewer effectively becomes the product.” This idea lines up with the blockchain-based hope that social media users will be able to securely store their data thanks to a combination of “decentralized networks for identity attestation [and] biometric verification,” writes Vilner, freeing them from the dangers of becoming a product that social platforms can sell to third parties.

However, getting people to use a YouTube alternative seems like it could be just about as easy as getting a team over at Snap Inc. to start implementing blockchain.