The debate over how to monitor and police a social media platform has reached new heights in the past few months — how much do users of Facebook, Twitter and the rest actually get to dictate what they see in their feeds? How much power should be given to these companies to decide what they show us — and how much are they profiting off of our consumption?
One early-stage startup believes that, not only can the community of users in a social platform regulate and govern themselves, but they should be paid to do so, as well as to create the content that populates the platform.
Narrative is a cryptocurrency-driven content and social platform that allows creators and users to get rewards for participating in the community.
“We’re looking to create a space where, as a creator, you can sit down and write or upload your images, and based on your reputation and the popularity of that content, rewards come back to you — you actually get a slice of the pie,” says co-CEO Rosemary O’Neill, who co-founded the company with her husband, Ted O’Neill.
The duo founded Social Strata, a SaaS online community company also based in their hometown of Charleston, about 20 years ago. While leading that business, they learned the ins and outs of online communities — and their downfalls.
“Our roots go way back with engagement, and how humans relate to each other online, essentially,” says Rosemary. Social Strata has worked with brands like Pinterest, Bose and Pepsi.
Social Strata continues to thrive, but the O’Neills are focusing fully on their new startup. They released a white paper laying out the idea, the rules of the community and business model in mid-2017 and opened a token sale to fund the venture this past spring.
Rosemary says that they raised more than anticipated in the token sale — depending on the cryptocurrency market, the equivalent of between $6 to $15 million USD. She doesn’t anticipate raising any more to grow the paltform, which went public at the end of March with an Alpha launch.
So what does this platform actually look like? According to Rosemary, it’s a mashup of Medium, a dash of Instagram, with inspiration drawn from Reddit.
Users have three content channels they can use: personal journals, similar to a blogging site like Medium, for individual content; niches, which center around themes such as cars, bicycling, or novels; and brand channels, which will allow brands to share sponsored content.
The community element comes to life in the way content is regulated and displayed. Rather than using an algorithm to populate a feed, Narrative is controlled by user ratings and a governing body of self-nominating individuals: each niche has an owner, elected by the community, who monitors and regulates the topic-specific content. Niches can be suggested by owners, or bought and sold; the more popular a niche is, the more reward, or cryptocurrency tokens, an owner will receive.
For any bad or inappropriate content, Narrative is putting in place an elected “tribunal” of community members that serve as the final say on any disagreements.
“There’s an intricate system of checks and balances, but the ultimate arbiter is really the community,” says Rosemary. Narrative also has built a “reputation system” that takes into account the age of a user’s account and whether they generally match up to the accepted standards of the community — essentially whether you’re a “good citizen”.
“So, ultimately, content that is bad or harmful, like bullying posts or spam posts, over time, should get no attention at all, sink to the bottom and become invisible,” explains Rosemary.
With these measures, Narrative hopes to solve the double-sided challenge that the most popular social networks are currently struggling with: blocking harmful content while still allowing for user input and user freedom.
“One of the things that’s broken in the current system is that you’ve got people in Silicon Valley or in a back room somewhere, and you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what the criteria is, what decisions they’re making. You just wake up in the morning and see that Twitter is no longer allowing this, or Facebook is banning this,” says Rosemary.
The last piece of the puzzle is how Narrative users obtain the rewards the startup touts as their differentiator. The whole system is built on the startup’s blockchain token, NRVE (pronounced nerve), which users can earn for things like curating popular niches and creating or sharing good content. Within the platform, NRVE acts as a digital currency that can be bought or traded by users.
Though it sounds like a game, NRVE is built on the Neo blockchain, giving it true value in the cryptocurrency world. The token currently trades on two cryptocurrency exchanges, meaning Narrative users can trade it out for more well-known cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or Ethereum.
And, in a move to truly democratize the platform beyond just crypto-enthusiasts, Narrative will also allow users to trade out NRVE for their USD equivalent (minus a small transaction fee), should they choose to cash out at any time.
Rosemary says that, with this model, 85 percent of the revenue in the platform goes back to the Narrative members. Content creators, which she describes as “the unsung heroes really getting the short end of the stick right now,” get the biggest slice of the pie, followed by curators and niche owners.
The platform is definitely still in its infancy in the current alpha stage, with about 1,000 signups and a referral program underway to obtain more. The focus of these early adopters has been largely around suggesting niches and beginning to curate the more popular ones.
As the platform develops, Rosemary anticipates that the biggest challenge they’ll face will be explaining the whole concept. Even during their initial fundraising, they had to contend with being the first token sale to come out of Charleston.
“I think the idea of crowdfunding and token sales and these alternative non-VC methods of funding are picking up steam, because I think in general, people are looking to get around the traditional gatekeepers. That’s what our project is doing with content, and that’s in general what token sales accomplish with fundraising.”
Following the alpha, the team will prepare for an open beta launch in Q4 2018. Next year they plan to add branded content, along with versions of the platform in Spanish, German and French.
“It’s really like a true social experiment,” says Rosemary.