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#21 - Lens Protocol: Building Open On-Chain Social Graphs
A Paradigm Shift in the Conception of Social Media Applications
Stanford Blockchain Review
Volume 3, Article No. 1
📚 Authors: Stani Kulechov – Aave Companies
Jay Yu – Stanford Blockchain Club
🌟 Technical Prerequisite: Low/None
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Social media touches everyone's lives – so much so that despite the numerous issues (e.g., data harvesting, misinformation, censorship) that plague our most popular social media platforms today, we seem to be as ‘stuck’ as ever on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.
So why are we so ‘stuck’ on these platforms? Perhaps the fundamental reason is simply because, for better or worse, these social media giants have monopolized our ‘social graph,’ capturing, controlling and capitalizing on who, when, and how we connect with others. To truly address the systemic design issues of social media, we need a paradigm shift: one where the ‘social graph’ is open and decentralized, rather than closed and monopolized. This is precisely the vision of “decentralized social” that Lens Protocol seeks to pioneer.
Social Apps and Social Graphs
Lens Protocol is not really a ‘familiar’ social media startup in the same way that Snapchat, ClubHouse, and BeReal are ‘familiar’ social media startups, that is, one where you build from a blank slate and bootstrap a completely new set of friends, contacts, and communities. Launched without a user interface, Lens is known as the social layer for web3. Developed by Aave Companies, Lens utilizes blockchain, smart contracts, decentralized storage and NFTs to reimagine social networks, where users own and control their profile, content and relationships – in sum, their social graph or social capital – and can move freely between different social applications. Lens also has a built in monetization layer and an open data layer.
So, what is this concept of a ‘social graph,’ and how does it relate to actual social media platforms (e.g. Twitter or Instagram)? As its name suggests, a ‘social graph’ is a graph, where individual users (or accounts) are the nodes, and the way they relate, interact, and socialize with others are the different types of edges.
Despite being conceptually simple, these social graphs provide us with a powerful way to quantify and model how we relate to other people, how we prefer to spend our time, and the type of things that we generally like and dislike. In short, they are a model of who we are as users.
Social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, have an important symbiotic relationship with these underlying social graphs: whenever a user interacts with a social media app, that data is recorded and logged into a social graph, which in turn recommends targeted content, posts, and friends. Because the quality of the social graph is directly related to the quality of the recommended posts and user experience, it is the underlying ‘social graph’ that forms the core competitive ‘moat’ for social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter .
One need look no further than the recent onboarding blitz of Instagram’s Threads to see how an existing social media platform can leverage its existing ‘social graph’ to quickly build an entirely new online community. Indeed, with their control of both the closed social application and the underlying social graph, incumbent tech giants have made it incredibly difficult for any newcomers to break in and disrupt the lucrative business of human connection .
There is, however, one interesting exception to the monopolization of social graphs – the good old-fashioned phone book contacts. Unlike Facebook or Twitter’s proprietary social graphs, everyone’s phone book contacts are manually curated, decentralized on each user’s device, and descriptive of who you associate with and socialize with. In other words, it is the original ‘open social graph’.
Most modern social media platforms (esp. Instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram) leverage phone book contacts as an ‘open social graph’ to give you recommended contacts and build out your connections on the platform. There is, however, a significant drawback with simply using phone book contacts to bootstrap a social network: in contrast with Facebook and Twitter’s proprietary graphs, your phone book contacts list is not really a richly annotated dataset.
However, although it is ‘open’ and ‘decentralized,’ phone book contacts are an unweighted graph, where the bike store mechanic is given the same weight of social connection as your best friend. This is why ‘recommended contacts lists’ derived from phone books are often deeply flawed: they are much more likely to recommend acquaintances and distant contacts (like a bike store mechanic) than an actual friend or someone with similar interests.
Lens Protocol Ecosystem
What Lens Protocol seeks to create, on the other hand, is a richly-annotated social graph that is open and decentralized: something that combines the richly-annotated features of Twitter and Facebook’s social graphs with the openness and self-ownership of a phone address book. The key observation of the Lens tech stack is that across social applications, there are certain common denominators for social interaction, which the Lens SDK abstracts into different types of on-chain actions, namely “posting,” “commenting,” and “mirroring” (i.e. sharing, re-posting or retweeting) . Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, the key actions on all of these social networks can be rewritten as conjugations of these basic interactions, thus forming a rich social graph that is representative of how users interact with each other.
For developers, having this rich social-graph stored in an open, decentralized, and application-abstracted way allows them to piggyback off of existing social network effects, rather than having to build a new one from scratch. For users, once they mint an NFT that serves as a profile handle (e.g., Stani.lens), they can use this profile across different Lens-powered applications (almost like a Google sign-in) that creates an easy onboarding process . Furthermore, because their social interactions are kept openly on-chain, they don’t need to worry that they’re going to lose all of their connections and data upon migrating onto a different social application.
Currently, Lens Protocol has 100+ applications in its ecosystem, ranging from familiar apps inspired by Facebook and Twitter, such as Lenster and Buttrfly, to mainstream social applications with novel incentive mechanisms like Phaver’s “share-to-earn” , to more niche applications such as Ensō, a “digital wardrobe” application espousing community co-creation of fashion products . This diverse collection of applications showcases the advantage of implementing an open social graph in place of a single social media application, empowering users, whose profiles and relationships are not merely numbers in privately-hosted servers but are assets owned by the individual – a testament to growing interest in Lens’ directly contrasted with the Clubhouse saga.
Despite having an almost textbook-style successful product launch in 2021, with over 9.2 million downloads in a single month of February , this once-iconic audio-based social media platform has been going through mass layoffs and seemingly an existential crisis . Undoubtedly, Clubhouse built an enormously successful and an immensely valuable social graph during its initial launch. However, after all the initial hype fizzled and users got bored of the product, there was no way for Clubhouse to capitalize on the social graph that it had created, as this treasure-trove of data was locked-in with the dying app.
Had a Clubhouse-style application been implemented on top of an open social graph like Lens, even if the application itself had fizzled out after some time, Lens’ modular system would have allowed a pivot or ecosystem developers to explore new ideas that benefitted the social graph as a whole. Thus, the core advantage of Lens is that it provides top-layer applications with a blank slate and a large, open design space where builder-entrepreneurs can experiment and create whatever experiences they envision – a design decision firmly rooted in the decentralized, open principles of web3.
Moving forward, however, requires Lens Protocol to scale beyond just the core user base of web3. For Stani Kuelchov, Founder of Lens Protocol, the key to scaling Lens Protocol lies in educating the public about the benefits of web3 social, while ensuring that the technology is inviting and accessible to current web2 users. Kulechov’s belief that web3 is inherently more transparent and beneficial to the individual user long term is a key aspect of onboarding. Currently, the protocol is focused on becoming even more open and composable, while adding features that are both new and familiar to web2 users. Lens provides base technology that gives consumer app developers and integrators the design space to create new experiences.
As time goes by and these technologies continue to mature, we can expect the user experience to converge towards “familiar” social networks, with simple one-click solutions integrated with email and phone numbers, thus laying the groundwork for true mass adoption. Once social applications built on Lens and other decentralized technologies seamlessly integrate into our daily lives, they will transition from being labeled as "web3 social" to simply "social ".
Decentralization and the Future of Content Moderation
As social media applications have grown in importance in our everyday lives, so has the controversy over content moderation. Moderate too little, and you’re accused of letting misinformation, bigotry, and hate speech roam free online. Moderate too much, and you’re accused of platform censorship and forcibly trampling upon free speech. Not to mention that in the process of this, your incentive as a platform is to stuff as many ads as possible without user backlash.
For social media incumbents such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, all of this has formed a delicate dance between users, platforms, and regulators, all trying to hit that magical point of content moderation equilibrium. The root cause for this constant struggle is that whatever a social media platform chooses to do, users will not migrate towards a competitor simply because the cost is too high. Essentially, as a user you would much rather live in an apartment in New York with a couple of cobwebs and broken pipes rather than in a fully-functional new villa in the middle of the Sahara desert.
Lens Protocol and similar decentralized systems revolutionize content moderation. With a distinct separation between the social application and graph layers, it's now simpler to launch new social apps. This evens the playing field, challenging the dominance of giants like Facebook and Twitter.
Through proposing a decentralized social graph as a public good, Lens Protocol introduces stiffer competition at the social application layer, incentivizing any application to prudently think through its moderation policy and develop a user-first experience instead of an ad-first one. Essentially, decentralization means that it will be much easier for users to “vote with their feet.” This idea of moderation through decentralization traces back to the design and content moderation practices of Reddit, where each community has its own moderators and determines its own method – one that offers a new paradigm for content moderation versus the one-size-fits-all approach that we see on most current social media platforms .
Lens Protocol’s significance as a project in the long run is that it provides a paradigmatic shift in the way we design and operate a social network. As mentioned above, the core idea of separating the “social application layer” and the “social graph layer” allows users and creators far greater flexibility in choosing where and how to interact with each other, and introduces an element of profile portability unavailable in today’s mainstream social media.
In the same way that Uniswap, Aave, and other DeFi projects showed that it was possible to have a paradigm shift in the way we conceive of finance – without the traditional third party intermediaries such as exchanges and brokers in the middle – Lens and other decentralized social projects demonstrate how it is possible to reconceive of social media in a paradigmatic way. Just as DeFi projects have not completely supplanted the need and use of traditional banks and brokers, decentralized social media need not replace existing social media applications. What is important is that they offer us a way of reimagining the status quo of social media applications, providing users with choice. In the end, it is precisely this radical transformation and reimagination in sector after sector that will define the evolution of web3 as a technological movement.
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Note: This article is a long-form exploration of the discussions and ideas between Stani Kulechov, CEO and Founder of Aave Companies and Lens Protocol, and Jay Yu, Chief Editor of the Stanford Blockchain Review during an interview on Lens Protocol conducted in June 2023. Full Interview:
About the Authors
Stani Kulechov is the Founder and CEO of Aave Companies, and one of the most influential and respected entrepreneurs within the blockchain industry. Founded in 2017, Aave Companies is known for creating the Aave Protocol, one of the world's most widely used decentralized liquidity protocols. In May 2022, Aave Companies launched Lens Protocol, the open-source decentralized social media protocol, enabling web3 social. Lens empowers users to own and manage their data and social profile and infrastructure, features and built-in developer tools to create social media applications and services.
Jay, or 0xFishylosopher, is an undergrad at Stanford pursuing a double major in Computer Science and Philosophy. He serves as the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Stanford Blockchain Review and Vice President of the Stanford Blockchain Club. Outside of Stanford, he has conducted blockchain research and investments at Pantera Capital, Web3.com Ventures, and Rough Draft Ventures (the student branch of General Catalyst).
 For more details, see: https://docs.lens.xyz/docs/authentication-quickstart
 Lensletter #5, Accessed July 12, 2023. https://mirror.xyz/0xb6697e62551C4652552De202A9f0921307195E07/AiQfXZ-nUBAe-BPfS3k1nq6-rboqIB_Es_F3LaMVbeI
 See Lens Universe, 1 month after launch: https://mirror.xyz/lensprotocol.eth/Y7ZHmQXOIXF6fC91cKvs0n4D2ViEieJCAbDHo4wI5-g
 Enso Collective:
 On Clubhouse’s meteoric rise in Feb 2021: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/21/clubhouse-invite-open-to-everyone-exits-beta/
 Clubhouse’s Rebranding: https://deadline.com/2023/04/clubhouse-live-audio-app-resetting-layoffs-1235340817/
 Account Abstraction: https://review.stanfordblockchain.xyz/p/account-abstraction-game-changer
 Stripe Fiat Onramp:
 Chaining Data Together: https://review.stanfordblockchain.xyz/p/chaining-data-together
 Reddit Content Moderation: https://www.techradar.com/news/how-reddit-turned-its-millions-of-users-into-a-content-moderation-army