On Monday, we reported on a $100 million decentralized social network planned to foster a more egalitarian web. Equality is good, but I cannot imagine a world in which this thing is even kind of cool.
The news made me think back on my history in social networks. I go way back. I have watched them come and go and here’s what I have learned: Social networks fly when they are cool and only then.
This article is excerpted from The Node, CoinDesk’s daily roundup of the most pivotal stories in blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here.
Related: Crypto Long & Short: This Bear Market May Not Last Long
The first social network I ever joined was called SixDegrees, which launched in 1997. It was so long ago that no one even had a name for social networks yet.
SixDegrees was too early, but a few years later I joined Friendster, the first that really popped. Those were weird days and Friendster made a lot of missteps. It was upset by MySpace, which had a very brief moment before Facebook steamrolled it.
In the very early 2000s, lots of other social networks tried, and I took a look at many of them. The only one I remember was called Ringo, but there were others. Lots of people wanted to capture that addictive quality the pioneers had.
It’s hard to think of Facebook as cool now, but it was. Mark Zuckerberg was an insouciant young founder. Plus, it was exclusive, only permitting users who had emails at different colleges at first, in order to focus on the young (I snuck in through a back door because I worked at a whitelisted institution). MySpace, for all its sketchiness, was also once cool – its very sketchiness might have been what made it cool. It’s hard to say.
Related: Money Reimagined: Price Swings Versus the Long Term
That’s because it’s hard to say where cool comes from – period. But I will tell you this: It’s not the blockchain.
Blockchain technology is transformative, it’s subversive, it’s surprising – but it is not cool.
Blockchain technology is transformative, it’s subversive, it’s surprising – but it is not cool. Cool isn’t trying anything. Cool doesn’t wave to get your attention. Cool shrugs if you happen to make eye contact.
Blockchain folks make a lot of gestures, but they never shrug.
And so the industry is littered with abortive social networks and/or zombie networks pleading with the public to care.
Somehow, BitClout remains in the conversation. This site is such a tryhard that it made over 10,000 accounts for people who didn’t ask for them. Such eagerness is not cool, which is probably part of why its traffic in May was half its traffic in April, according to SimilarWeb.
The first crypto social network I really looked at closely was Steemit (now Hive) and, while it was always nice, folks were too eager to talk about how they were all going to get rich blogging. This might be the original sin of blockchain social media, because all of them do it. They want, and wanting is never cool.
And then, before Voice.com pivoted to non-fungible tokens, it was so uncool that I’m pretty sure some of the more selective subreddits banned you if you even visited the website once. They would have been able to do it telepathically. That’s how uncool that site was!
In this blockchain universe, there is a lot of money, so entrepreneurs keep fooling themselves into believing that they can buy cool, usually in the form of paid celebrity users.
Cool cannot be bought. Cool can’t even be transferred. Example: Jay-Z is cool. Tidal is not cool.
The crypto-influential are not cool either. They may have attention. They may get 10,000 retweets on their pithy observations, but that’s not cool. If they point at a new social network, the cool kids might look but the cool kids won’t stay.
In fact, this story comes full circle. The once-cool Facebook announced the least cool blockchain in the whole history of this industry, Libra. Libra went roughly as well as I expect every crypto social network will go for some time.
I keep watching crypto entrepreneurs try to crack this social network nut and I shake my head. It’s too soon. Blockchains can’t run a cool social network until blockchains are so widespread that people don’t really try them out, they just happen onto them.
Cool kids don’t try things. They stroll into them, look around, take off their shades and then just do something because … “What the hell? Who cares?” And it takes off. Cool is emergent. It is unforced. It can’t be bought with a billion dollars.
And that’s why social won’t happen in this industry now. It will only happen then.