This is a review of the blog post “The Billion User Table” written by John Stokes for 1729, a website about blockchain, cryptocurrency, tech, and more.
As much as possible, I am going to try to refrain from judgement of the content of the post or the beliefs of its author, and instead attempt to draw connections among them to advance any worthy insights and surface any perceived issues in the argument.
Quick Summary of the Article
- The “user table” is the critical building block for modern tech platforms (social media, software-as-a-service companies, media outlets, etc.) and contains information about a platform’s users and their associated properties
- The “user table” enables platform growth, and the more users a platform has, the more valuable it is to all other users (the “Network Effect”, or Metcalfe’s Law)
- The current state of the internet is a decentralized set of siloed user tables – each platform maintains their own list and controls access to it through APIs, if at all
- This privatization of user tables is good for companies (profits) but bad for users and society (limits competition, development of valuable new services for the public good)
- Some early examples of a new, public blockchain-based user table already exist in platforms like BitClout
- Adopting this “user table for the entire internet” would facilitate faster and fairer development
- Firms will change their business models and have the opportunity to build services on-chain or off-chain
- Monopolies are inherently bad
- Decentralized user tables are in development will massively disrupt big tech’s ability to limit access and monetize private data to grow
“the public blockchain amounts to a single, massive users table for the entire Internet”
- Disrupting big tech is a good idea because large entities in other industries have caused harm to society
- To deal with these types of harms (as in the financial sector) the government has had to break up monopolies and enforce regulations to limit size and power to manage systemic risk
- The future of blockchain will enable fairer data access and use and prevent control and abuse for profit
- Author calls out risks to society in the U.S. financial sector but does not make explicit what similar risks we might be facing with Big Tech
- Blockchains are already fragmented and specialized by function
- Profit is the very incentive that encourages acquisition, consolidation, and greater network effects and has worked in the existing system to maximize growth
- In order for a given blockchain to grow without outside regulation as a forcing function, it would have to offer value equal or greater to that accessible through “big tech platforms” for both users and “builders”
- Failing this, it risks becoming the “linux” of user tables
- It would have to amass an outrageous sum of users to be the “authority” user table and break the effect of platforms like Facebook with over 2B users
- Users have different use cases and identities on a per-platform basis and may be reticent to combine or use them cross-platform (or even on-chain)
Conceptually, the idea of a public blockchain serving as a user table for the entire internet is attractive and changes the contract of the online attention economy between users and platforms.
By making user data public, it positions access to it as a “public utility” and enables services to be built and scaled more freely and quickly. It gives firms a choice as to which services to build on-chain or privatize, and in that way preserves monetization. And with a greater number of potential users available to any startup, Network Effects for both parties are potentially larger and more beneficial right away.
Additional added benefits are that it likely prevents abuses of power and changes the monetization strategy for existing big tech platforms to something more “pro-user”.
Current state, the incentives and incumbency of big tech platforms is likely to stifle and prevent the growth of any given blockchain to the extent that even a consolidated gains model (“the game theory”) as discussed in the article feel improbable.
Therefore, it’s likely that in order to succeed either an unforeseen, hugely valuable new service needs to be developed on-chain OR outside regulation would have to force breakups of existing platforms.
It’s possible that something like crypto-as-equity for developers of such a service or making it member-owned would help drive acquisition (a “kickstarter” like effect). Another path to growth for this approach is to have superior user retention and engagement.
Finally, I agree that there are many useful potential services that could be built on top of such a blockchain user table. Two that I can add to the discussion:
- “Authorship” identity verification for content creators (a more universal approach to SEO authorship as it exists today)
- Distributed timeline / content curation