If Facebook’s pivot from town square to private living room wasn’t laden with enough irony, here’s a new twist: Big business, it appears, has been invited to join us by the fireplace.
Gregory Barber covers cryptocurrency, blockchain, and artificial intelligence for WIRED.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported new potential details about Facebook’s long-awaited cryptocurrency plans. The company is reportedly seeking dozens of business partners, including online merchants and financial firms, in an effort to extend the reach of its blockchain-based marketplace. Facebook’s would-be partners are being asked to pitch into an investment fund, valued at $1 billion or more, that would serve as backing for Facebook’s coin and mitigate the wild speculative swings that make cryptocurrencies like bitcoin hard to spend. The pitch, according to the Journal, involves offering merchants lower fees than credit cards.
Some were quick to note that this would reduce Facebook’s ability to make money from payments in the short term. But that may not matter much—if, in the end, Facebook’s crypto effort is really all about getting you to spend more time glued to Facebook.
Facebook appears to be already building out the plumbing to make its marketplace a reality. At its F8 developer conference this week, the word “blockchain” was notably absent. But even as Zuckerberg emphasized the company’s plan to reorganize your Facebook experience around intimate relationships, his update included plenty of ways money would be involved. “I believe that it should be as easy to send money to someone as it is to send a photo,” he said, alluding to “simple and secure payments” as a core feature of his privacy-forward vision. That apparently extends beyond the peer-to-peer payments available on Venmo and Facebook’s own Messenger app. In a series of keynotes, Facebook execs touted a litany of commerce-focused improvements: better checkout for Instagram’s digital mall, donation stickers, and a new tool for small business owners to list items on WhatsApp.
Indeed, WhatsApp appears to sit at the center of Facebook’s commerce efforts—at least to start. At F8, Facebook said WhatsApp Pay, currently on limited trial in India, would expand to additional, unnamed countries later this year. The platform isn’t blockchain-based (for now) and is designed for peer-to-peer payments. But with 80 percent of small businesses in India using WhatsApp to market their goods, some form of payments processing is a natural evolution. In December, Bloomberg reported that the first tests of the crypto coin may occur in India, initially as a way for workers to send money home from overseas.
An added twist from the Journal’s report is the possibility that the coin will be integrated into Facebook’s lucrative ads ecosystem. The scheme, reportedly still under debate within Facebook, would potentially work on both sides of the ads equation: Merchants could use the coins to pay for ads, and users would be rewarded in coins for viewing or interacting with them. That reflects a growing perception—seen recently in efforts like the Brave browser, which compensates users through a token for clicking on ads—that people should get paid for their attention, not simply help internet giants make money. For Facebook, it also presents a vision of how its ads and eyeballs-driven business could continue in the company’s supposedly privacy-first era. The idea is to keep Facebook’s coins—and therefore users—tightly enmeshed in the platform.
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“I don’t believe they’re doing anything that isn’t in the service of increasing interactions on their platforms,” says Joshua Gans, a professor at the University of Toronto. Sending money to businesses presents a challenge, he notes. Compared with friends and family, businesses are more likely to dump their Facebook coins at the end of the month in favor of real money. Gans is skeptical that Facebook would pay users for viewing ads—an immensely tricky system to create—unless it involved something like a rebate for buying a product through a Facebook advertisement. On the merchant side, encouraging businesses to pay for ads and services on Facebook with the coin could be one way of staunching the flow of money out of the system.
As the Journal notes, Facebook’s foray into blockchain could look a bit like a loyalty-points system—tokens that can be earned through and spent on Facebook services, or cashed out elsewhere though partner merchants. That’s not without precedent among technology companies: Uber, for example, has Uber Cash, which rewards users for purchases both in and out of Uber with app-specific money. Gans notes offerings like the Apple Card hold a similar purpose: It’s a service that, for all the talk of disrupting the credit card industry, is mostly a shiny, heavy way to buy more of Apple’s apps and products.
A Facebook spokesperson reiterated an earlier comment: “Like many other companies, Facebook is exploring ways to leverage the power of blockchain technology. This new small team is exploring many different applications.”
Facebook still faces many challenges, from sorting out how it will oversee the system to assuaging the privacy concerns of users to determining how to funnel money in and out of its currency—a process that, for other cryptocurrencies, is typically handled by exchanges. It also has to contend with the realities of the global economic system, which runs on euros and yen as well as dollars. Even if it backs the currency with a basket of currencies, as reported, it “can’t be stable with every currency in the world,” says Gans. “That’s not how the world works.” Hence the need to enlist financial partners to smooth transactions in and out of Facebook’s system.
Bottom line: It’s very unclear how this will work in practice. “There are a lot of moving parts. Facebook doesn’t always do what we expect,” says Gans.
There has recently been a lot of interest in using cryptoeconomic or token-based techniques for fighting spam, maintaining registries, identifying fraudulent ICOs, reducing manipulability of upvoting, etc etc. However, this is an area where it is easy to create something very exploitable, or fail to achieve one’s goals, by building the application in the wrong way.Cryptoeconomics in social media has unique challenges; particularly: The inherent subjectiveness of judging the quality or suitability of a given message Rampant speaker/listener fault ambiguities 8 The public-good nature of internet content, making it difficult to incentivize The inability of a blockchain to know what happened “in the real world”, or make any measurements of the real world (with limited exceptions, eg. mining hashpower)However, there are ways to design primitives that sidestep these issues in different ways.This list is an ongoing work in progress.
It’s hard enough to get enterprises that compete with each other to work together as a team, but it’s especially tricky when one of those rivals owns the team.Shipping giant Maersk and tech provider IBM are wrestling with this problem with TradeLens, their distributed ledger technology (DLT) platform for supply chains.Some 10 months ago, the project was spun off from Maersk (the largest container shipping company on the planet) into a joint venture with IBM. But in that time the network has enticed only one other carrier onto the platform: Pacific International Lines (PIL), one of eight shipping lines in Asia and 17th in the world based on cargo volumes.As those involved admit, that’s not enough.
Blockchain, like the internet, or democracy, or money, is many overlapping things. It is a decentralized record of cryptocurrency transactions. It is a peer-to-peer network of computers. It is an immutable, add-on-only database. What gets confusing is the way in which these overlapping functions override one definition or explanation of blockchain, only to replace it with an altogether different one. The conceptual overlaps are like glass lenses dropped on top of one another, scratching each other’s surface and confusing each other’s focal dimensions.This guide takes apart the stack of these conceptual lenses and addresses them one by one through the reconstruction of the basic elements of blockchain technology. The first section of this report gives a short history of blockchain, then describes its main functionality, distinguishing between private and public blockchains. Next, the guide breaks down the components and inner workings of a block and the blockchain.The following section focuses on blockchain’s journalistic applications, specifically by differentiating between targeted solutions that use blockchain to store important metadata journalists and media companies use on a daily basis, and hybrid solutions that include targeted solutions but introduce cryptocurrency, therein changing the journalistic business model altogether. Finally, the report speculates on the proliferation of what are known as Proof-of-Stake blockchain models, the spread of “smart contracts,” and the potential of enterprise-level and government-deployed blockchains, all in relation to what these mean to newsrooms and the work of reporters.Key findingsFor media organizations, the use cases of blockchain can be grouped into three key areas: Auditable (and officially verifiable) database solutions for editorial and advertising Cryptocurrency-based business models Access to public data secured in blockchain-based file systems
Smart contracts are written in programming languages rather than in natural languages. This might seem to insulate them from ambiguity, because the meaning of a program is determined by technical facts rather than by social ones.
It does not. Smart contracts can be ambiguous, too, because technical facts depend on socially determined ones. To give meaning to a computer program, a community of programmers and users must agree on the semantics of the programming language in which it is written. This is a social process, and a review of some famous controversies involving blockchains and smart contracts shows that it regularly creates serious ambiguities. In the most famous case, The DAO hack, more than $150 million in virtual currency turned on the contested semantics of a blockchain-based smart-contract programming language.
Professors from seven U.S. colleges including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley have teamed up to create a digital currency that they hope can achieve speeds Bitcoin users can only dream of without compromising on its core tenant of decentralization. The Unit-e, as the virtual currency is called, is the first initiative of Distributed Technology Research, a non-profit foundation formed by the academics with backing from hedge fund Pantera Capital Management LP to develop decentralized technologies.
Blockchain has been wildly mis-sold, but underneath it is a database with performance and scalability issues and a lot of baggage. Any claim made for blockchain could be made for databases, or simply publishing contractual or transactional data gathered in another form.Its adoption by non-technical advocates is faith-based, with vendors’ and consultants’ claims being taken at face value, as Eddie Hughes MP (Con, Walsall North) cheerfully confessed to the FT recently.”I’m just a Brummie bloke who kept hearing about blockchain, read a bit about it, and thought: this is interesting stuff. So I came up with this idea: blockchain for Bloxwich,” said Hughes.As with every bubble, whether it’s Tulip Mania or the Californian Gold Rush, most investors lose their shirts while a fortune is being made by associated services – the advisors and marketeers can bank their cash, even if there’s no gold in the river.For example, Fujitsu offers fast-track consulting services starting at £9,900 to tell you if blockchain is appropriate for your project (that’s something we can confidently tell you for nothing: no, it isn’t).And the magic B-word enabled doomed tech quango Digital Catapult to conduct a Houdini-like escape.Now that’s magic.A modest proposalPerhaps technology consultancy and marketing should be as tightly regulated as financial consultancy, where mis-selling can (in theory) lead to a lifetime ban from the industry, something the US Securities and Exchange Commission can do for people who violate securities law, like Michael Milken.
Still, a problem remains: People don’t buy into blockchain applications unless they can make money. There is no evidence that people want to use it to “fix” journalism. There is also no evidence that anyone really understands how that would even work.
For now, Civil is essentially just another media operation with venture capital funding. The money underwriting it, from ConsenSys, remains, you know, regular money. The company uses some blockchain technology underneath the hood, including a plugin for its publishing software. But the technology remains difficult to comprehend, and, for any news consumer’s purpose, irrelevant.