Imagine a Social Network like FaceBook with no FaceBook

This article is part of a Special Issue on The Social Value of European Research on Media Accessibility.

A tremendous variety of social networking sites have popped up in recent years and most gradually become irrelevant by failing to adjust to sophisticated user needs and expectations, essentially failing to recognize that our social needs vary over place or time. Current online social media applications fail to address the complexity of social structures, in which we change our roles fluently from one to another, leading to different roles in several independent and interconnected contexts. Instead, they have gained ground by fulfilling a single need each and doing that remarkably well. Due to the existence of a large and centrally managed social graph, they ensure that new users coming into their social application experience very low friction in finding and adding ‘friends’ to their own social network. In this context, the user has often one social graph, which grows over time and can be expressed as an instance of one large overarching global graph or database. Such a dominant logic implies that the management of the network is completely disconnected from the context of where the connection was made and does not represent any evolution as the user changes over time. It can, therefore, be argued that current social networks do not see a social graph as a means to express and empower meaningful relationships, but purely as a content distribution channel. Creating growth by optimizing each service to contemporary needs makes them ignorant of the dynamic nature of human life, including social relations. In addition, as technology advances, tangible objects slowly but surely become eventually more ‘social’ and claim a position as actor-nodes in the social graph.

On another note, existing social media networks give users the impression that they are in full control of their data. However, it is actually those companies providing those services that have sole authority over a person’s information. People, without even thinking twice, sign and agree to privacy policies that give these companies the power to use this data in any way they see fit. This is a huge detriment to personal privacy and has increased the desire of social media users to take back the authority to their own personal data and how it is distributed. From a commercial point of view, the dominant business model of online social media platforms is based on concentration of power in which a central entity controls all data and the monetization of such. This monopoly position makes it hard for users that rely on promoting and selling premium content and services to gain enough value from their work. In addition, most of the social network platforms also suppress creativity through censorship and restrictions.

It can furthermore be argued that the harmful effects of the current dominance of central architecture has led to societal challenges of uncertain, yet, consequences. A prominent example of a lack of trust in the central approach is exemplified by the influence of ‘fake news’ during the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit Vote. It can be argued that, while social media has revolutionised information access and in some ways has democratised media production, the debate about ‘attention economy’ and ‘addiction’ points to significant harmful implications of social media that mostly point to issues of trust and control.

In order to tackle this problem, in 2018 the European Commission published a specific call to find proposals for Future Hyper-Connected Sociality. The project HELIOS: A Context-aware Distributed Social Networking Framework (GA 825585) was chosen for its audacious proposal. HELIOS aims to develop a decentralized social media platform that will address the dynamic nature of human communications in three dimensions: contextual, spatial and temporal. This project adds easy-to-apply social media functionality to mobile applications, on Android to begin with, reducing development cost and deployment complexity.

HELIOS aims to substantially advance the current approach to social media by introducing novel concepts for social graph creation and management, which are grounded in trust and transparency and will enrich the value of the user’s social networks.

The HELIOS platform will be built in a modular and extensible manner, by enabling all features characterizing social media today to grow beyond. This should ensure that social media designers can now and in the future create novel social media apps on top of HELIOS, easily.

The underlying technical paradigms reflect the European value system of decentralisation and cultural diversity under a common framework of understanding. Among others, these are concepts such as decentralisation, context detection in Internet of Things environment, real and virtual object networking, peer-to-peer based content streaming and validation. Moreover, to ensure wider impact on civil society, diverse use-cases will be developed and tested. The scientific and pragmatic insights gained through HELIOS will advance the state of the art in several areas of innovation such as, social graph creation and management, neuro-feedback, content engagement, privacy, ethics, decentralisation etc.

HELIOS started on the 1st of January 2019 and will last for 36 months. It is led by the Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT and its consortium comprises 15 partners from across Europe.

HELIOS will empower European citizens with high level of trust and control by providing open source social media platforms. Ensuring that each user in control of its own information. HELIOS concept is Facebook without Facebook. HELIOS will set us free from middlemen who control what you can and cannot do. HELIOS is an open source platform which empowers anyone to create new social media services without limitations. Current social media platforms focus on content distribution, not on empowering meaningful relationships with trust.

HELIOS argues that there is absolutely no need for an intermediary central entity to negotiate the data and value exchange between each member of a social network. Instead it envisions a successful decentralized setting that gives the users control of three main aspects: privacy, ownership, and dissemination, all of which are stripped away when using any of the mainstream platforms. Resting upon decentralized blockchain-enabled network architecture, HELIOS’ mission is to provide people with the technology to empower meaningful relationships that are built and evolve around the context in which they naturally and organically occurred. The path to this approach is tore-focus on the two core values of any relationship, which are the highly individual dependencies between trust and control.

By Pilar Orero from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
Contact: Pilar.Orero (at) uab.cat

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4 thoughts on “Imagine a Social Network like FaceBook with no FaceBook”

  1. How interesting!!!
    I’m a big user of Social Media networks, and definitively think that this new approach is the future that all users’ have been waiting for. Not only because of the benefits of having only one platform that changes with my routine, and allows me having different connections depending on where I am or who I am with, but also because of the privacy features that guarantee that in the sole owner of my content and data.
    It’s only fair that if someone is going to be somehow rewarded because of the data should be the user and not a big player in the current monopoly.
    Can’t wait to know more about this project!

  2. I like very much the recognition of social media chaging over place and time, and how current online social netowrks fal to address different social structures. Very good point! I find it quite true as globalisations brings with it the mixture of different cultures, different life styles, different ways of perceiving society and different ways of communicating. Therefore, if as described, HELIOS increases the meaning of personal relationships, I´m already a fan. I am amazed by the decentralisation fact as well as caring about the control of users data privacy. Would decentralisation really be technically possible?

  3. Very interesting! I would underline two ideas: the ability to emulate the “real” social relationships (dynamic, etc.) and how the user keeps the control on her/his own information.