Thinking Beyond The ‘Twitter Box’: a panel that discusses building new Social Networks (Zuzalu 2023)

Mask Network
10 min readJun 21, 2023

During Zuzalu 2023, the session aptly named “Reimagining Social Networks” ventured into uncharted territories of social networking, presenting novel concepts and unique viewpoints that challenge the traditional norms established by platforms such as Twitter.

Wassim Bendella, Martin Etzrodt, Afra Wang

A panel discussion among Vitalik Buterin, Suji Yan, Mihai Alisie, and Stani Kulechov at Zuzalu, Montenegro in May 2023. Moderated by Afra Wang.

Organized by Zuzalu residents Afra Wang (Mask Network) and Martin Etzrodt (akasha.org), on May 4th, 2023 at International Star Wars day, a discussion and workshop on reimagining social networks took place at The Dome in Zuzalu City, Montenegro the first-of-its-kind pop-up city community titled: “Thinking beyond the ‘Twitter box’; Reimagining social networks in the age of AI and Network States & coordi-nations”

The event gathered an interested crowd of Zuzalu residents and pioneers in the field of Web3 social media and blockchain technology to reconsider our engagement with social networks, primarily in the context of the increasing prevalence of AI, network states, and coordi-nations.

The event sought to explore the current limitations of traditional social media platforms, and more importantly, propose solutions for a new kind of social media powered by Web3. With the backdrop of controversial decisions by Twitter’s new leadership, it became clear that even though these platforms are indispensable, they are susceptible to individual whims that could potentially impact billions of users globally.

Addressing these mounting concerns, the event’s first discourse brought together respected members of the Web3 and blockchain space: Suji Yan, founder of mask.io, Stani Kulechov from Lens Protocol, and Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, and Mihai Alisie, the founder of AKASHA.

The conversation began with each panelist sharing their personal motivation to create alternatives to the Web2 social media paradigm. They delved into how we may transcend the restrictions of platforms like Twitter and envisage a future where social networks are more decentralized, user-driven, and forward-thinking.

Web2 social media companies are essentially advertising companies with business models that diverge from the interests of the communities they serve. Collectively, they formulated the thesis that the envisioning of a Web3-powered social internet should shift the discourse from merely focusing on data availability and information exchange. Instead, the conversation should foster knowledge and wisdom, enabling users to put the available information to constructive use within their online communities, rather than remaining passive consumers.

Communities should be empowered to create value from their interactions themselves instead of being exploited by media companies and self-govern their own social media infrastructure. The future should not be merely about creating Twitter clones that promote grandstanding without providing a conducive format for solid argumentation.

Twitter post’s brevity can in fact be a curse when one tries to make a solid, well-founded argument. Instead, the future success of Web3 social might lie in the creation of unique opportunities not currently provided by Web2 applications. This includes the support of blended online and real-world communities, such as the Zuzalu community, thereby adding a new dimension to the concept of social networks.

A summary of the panel

In this section, you’ll find a succinct summary of the panelists’ main ideas and valuable contributions.

Suji Yan (Mask.io)

Suji Yan elaborated on how he and his team started their project in 2017 with the aim to use Web3 to create a decentralized social network. Mask.io now operates as middleware between various social platforms like Facebook, Bluesky, and Lens. Their efforts have drawn interest from figures like Vitalik Buterin and have led to collaborations with platforms like Mastodon.

The mask.io team currently runs several large Mastodon instances, and they advocate for on-chain identity. Suji also acknowledges the challenges of fragmentation in currently operating projects. Often there is also a misconception about the use of blockchain and cryptocurrency. Suji also remarked that currently, a lack of communication, misconceptions, and conflicts, especially among Mastodon users and operators makes progress difficult.

Suji envisaged a novel social network design inspired by the evolution of the transportation industry. He perceives social networks as public infrastructure that, much like railway stations or airports, should be community-owned and not profit-driven. Key features of this proposed social network include:

  • Community Ownership: Suji proposes that this social network should not be privately owned but managed by the community using it.
  • Non-profit: Suji firmly believes that social networks should not be for-profit entities. Instead, they should serve as facilitators to stimulate economic activity in the surrounding ecosystem.
  • User Data Sovereignty: Emphasizing the importance of user data rights, Suji advocates for users to have full control over their data. He suggests that the data currently held by networks like Twitter should be ‘stolen back’.
  • De-privatization: Drawing parallels with the railway industry in Japan, Suji predicts that social networks will undergo a process of de-privatization over the next 10–20 years.
  • Social Forum: Suji envisions the future network as a social forum, a platform for open and public discourse.

Stani Kulechov (Aave/Lens)

Stani described how his focus is mainly on using blockchain and DeFi with AAVE to enable global financial and social participation. He’s also exploring how decentralized social networks can enhance social participation by giving control to the users, ensuring they own their online presence.

He sees significant potential in on-chain infrastructure, as exemplified by the Lens project, and is intrigued by the challenges of ensuring maximum security for Web 3 social platforms while maintaining accessibility for a large user base. While acknowledging the growing challenges of information overload, particularly with AI, he remains eager to address these important issues.

Stani Kulechov proposes a design for a new social network that takes a different approach from existing models with a strong focus on financially capitalizing on the rise of blockchain and Web3. His perspective on a novel social network design includes the following key features:

  • Design Space Exploration: Stani emphasizes the need to build something new, drawing on the legacy of previous platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and Bitcoin talk but not being restricted by their designs.
  • Creator-Centric: Stani observes a shift towards supporting creators with tools useful for Web3 in platforms like Lens, Orbit, and Butterfly. A Web3-enabled social network could offer more to its users, especially creators, by allowing them to monetize their content directly.
  • User Ownership: Stani envisages a future where the ownership of social networks transitions to users, giving them greater control and benefits. Blockchain-based social profiles, follower graphs, and content distribution could all play a part in this.
  • Growth Hacking and Network Effects: Stani recognizes the importance of not only designing social experiences but also considering growth hacking aspects. Understanding that it’s hard to compete with established platforms, he suggests designing a platform where it’s easy to bootstrap audiences and evolve experiences over time.
  • Open Computation: Stani sees the importance of allowing democratic access and open computation. Users or third-party developers should be able to build more advanced algorithms to create personalized experiences and monetization perspectives.
  • Interoperability and Shared User Base: Stani looks at the possibility of different clients and use cases sharing a user base. This could lead to varied experiences and monetization strategies within the same network.
  • Leveraging Existing Systems: Stani suggests leveraging successful elements of current platforms, like content discovery algorithms and bots, for a seamless user experience.

Finally, Stani remarks that Ethereum already serves as a new type of Social Network. He suggests composability is a feature that has the potential to bootstrap from an existing audience to build new experiences quickly.

Mihai Alisie (AKASHA.org)

Mihai is the co-founder of Ethereum and founder of the AKASHA Foundation. Mihai explained how the AKASHA Foundation started experimenting with an early concept for a decentralized social network already in 2015. His personal motivation for the project stems from Ethereum’s launch, after which he pondered early on what kind of applications would operate on Ethereum.

The concepts of internet freedom, freedom of expression, and addressing the thin line between moderation and censorship are long-standing challenges for our society worthwhile to help improve. He believes AKASHA may make its contribution towards those.

Following this initial feasibility study with the aim of creating a fully decentralized social network, the team announced the AKASHA project on World Press Freedom Day in 2016. The concept of freedom of expression is a core principle for AKASHA but Mihai remarks that the concept, similar to “decentralization”, is interpreted frequently differently by different individuals.

As a result, Mihai describes how AKASHA has evolved the idea into the concept of “collective freedom of expression”. This doesn’t mean for instance that moderation within a community is not possible, yet many different sovereign communities with different values and rules may coexist.

Initially, the team focused on fully on-chain implementations, that soon were facing scaling problems. In the new approach of AKASHA fundamental cryptographic security is provided for the verification of profiles and content, yet not every post requires an on-chain transaction. AKASHA is now focussing on developer experiences providing a toolkit for creating diverse social platforms, akin to Lego building blocks. This shift towards supporting developers creating their own applications is influenced by the composability observed in the DeFi space.

Mihai Alisie then expanded on his vision based on his own journey with the AKASHA Project and highlighted several aspects to consider in future social platforms:

  • Decentralization and User-Controlled Data: Mihai emphasized the need to remove the cost of online interactions, considering that users have grown accustomed to free interactions on platforms like Twitter. The solution, according to Mihai, is a decentralized off-chain approach, where proofs are stored immutably. This design favored by the AKASHA Foundation is powered by IPFS, Ceramic network, and other Web3 technologies, allowing for a user-controlled data paradigm, enhancing user privacy and control over their data.
  • Rethinking Design Elements: Mihai touched on the need to reconsider design elements like the ‘like’ button, originally introduced by Facebook. He explained that such features were often designed with the primary goal of data collection rather than user engagement in mind.
  • Moderation Challenge: Recognizing the complexities of moderation, Mihai argued for a modular approach. He suggested that different communities might employ different moderation systems based on their unique needs and values, moving away from the idea of a universal “perfect” moderation system.
  • DAOs and Legal Protection: Mihai also expressed his concerns about current DAO governance, which often comes across as plutocracy rather than democracy. He proposed the concept of a decentralized autonomous association that would be legally recognized, thus providing legal protection for its participants.
  • Reimagining Governance: Mihai suggested a novel governance system where power is divided among seven panels, each with dedicated responsibilities. This system would decentralize power and decisions within the community, further promoting democratic engagement.
  • Chain Agnostic Approach: Mihai highlighted his vision of a chain-agnostic approach to social platforms, allowing each community or ‘worlds,’ as Mihai termed them to decide on acceptable practices and rules.

Finally, Mihai finished with a call to shift our focus from data and information available to knowledge generation and wisdom. He emphasized that the role of new-generation social platforms should be facilitating this shift, thereby enabling communities to grow wiser from their interactions.

Vitalik Buterin (Ethereum co-founder)

For Vitalik there has been an increasing resentment and dissatisfaction with Twitter mainly because he realized that is creating a breeding ground for unhealthy interactions and grandstanding. Vitalik also remarks on his personal issues with how Elon Musk has handled certain aspects of the platform.

Vitalik then also provided direct feedback on his experiences with different Web3 social media platforms that could serve as decentralized alternatives. He believes that what a social media platform essentially sells is not the interface, technical properties, or algorithms, but a community.

The initial culture of a forum, according to him, profoundly shapes its overall ethos. In this vein, he shared his own experiences with different alternative Web3 social platforms: he found Farcaster to be very polite, maybe even too polite, as he sees social platforms, like Twitter, as being somewhat akin to MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) where there’s a certain level of engagement, progression, and even conflict.

Vitalik expressed a disconnect with Mastodon’s culture and was slightly critical of Lens for not feeling different enough from Twitter. His exploration of these platforms is driven by both researching user experience and philosophical considerations about their properties. He raises potential issues with the Mastodon Federation, citing possible centralizing tendencies.

Following this he also highlighted the need for an effective, user-centric moderation system that can help people see what they want instead of unwanted content. Instead of a singular approach, he believes that we should be creating a variety of moderation and recommendation systems. Moderation that is too restrictive may have a disengaging effect.

Finally, Vitalik presented a distinct vision for a new social network design, emphasizing the importance of novelty, and focussing on specific activities that haven’t been extensively explored in the existing social media landscape.

  • Unique & Activity Centric: Vitalik suggests that to surpass platforms like Twitter, a social network must introduce a unique category of activity, akin to how TikTok revolutionized the short-video format. “Zuzalu” itself could serve as an example of a social IRL community evolving its own virtual presence to coordinate its present and future activities. He cites specifically the calendar feature on the Zuzalu website as a successful implementation of his vision, showcasing the potential of these unique activities.
  • Group Coordination: Vitalik sees potential in creating tools that foster high-level coordination among small and medium-sized groups on various topics, an aspect not fully served by current social media platforms.
  • Hybrid Features: Vitalik hints at a platform that blends features from multiple existing platforms (like Slack, Discord, and Twitter) and in-person infrastructure, enabling new interaction possibilities.

In conclusion, rather than trying to be a better version of an existing platform (Twitter+), Vitalik suggests that future social media should package these unique activities and features together, delivering a new and different experience.

A version of this article was also published on AKASHA.org’s blog

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