A New Era of Media Begins With Tokenization

Substack alone won't save publishing: The future of online content is where "money legos," communities and media meet.

AccessTimeIconSep 24, 2020 at 4:12 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. UTC

Media on the incumbent web is in crisis. It turns out that paying publishers for clicks, endless loops of “content” and ads, all served on platforms far beyond their maximum-viable scale is ideal for misinformation, disinformation and the decay of trust. 

The solution, according to various media innovation prognosticators, is the “passion economy.” The argument goes that since anyone can create content now, it follows that the lumbering media institutions of the past will be unbundled and replaced with a swarm of individuals: Smart, sharp, upstart newsletter writers, podcasters and maybe even TikTokkers. Substack will save us… hopefully. 

Joon Ian Wong is a member of Seed Club, the social token incubator. He started the Consensus conference in 2015 and has been a reporter at CoinDesk, Quartz and elsewhere. This post is part of CoinDesk's "Internet 2030" series about the future of the crypto economy.

But there’s just one problem. The tooling of the legacy web isn’t fit to usher in this new era of publishing. If we believe that first we make our tools, and then they make us – that aphorism so often misattributed to Marshall MacLuhan – we must examine each layer of tooling involved in creating and distributing our stories. This is the media stack, as the polymath provocateur Balaji Srinivasan calls it.

And the media stack as it exists today is found wanting. The most powerful layers of distribution, payment and production remain entangled in oligopolistic platforms where the platform’s owners – not the creators fueling those systems profit the most. 

How to cut through those bonds? You guessed it, this is where I make an argument for cryptocurrencies. An open-source, internet-native monetary layer is the makeweight that could tilt value back in favor of writers, broadcasters and other creators, as well as the communities that support them. 

This is the notion of the “Renaissance creator,” as Jarrod Dicker of the Washington Post has called it. Every writer is also a publisher. The roles are flattened to optimize for agility and impact. But the model can be taken one step further. Sari Azout, of Level Ventures, argues for a “participatory economy” where fans benefit alongside media creators. 

We see an early glimpse of how cryptocurrencies can tie fans and creators together with a  preliminary “lean token design” proposed by the Web 3.0 tinkerer and my colleague Brian Flynn. Media creators today can issue their own cryptographic token and design distribution and incentives around it to trigger a virtuous cycle for themselves and their fans. A simple token economics model could help media creators bootstrap funding for new projects, reward early fans and rally communities towards a common goal. In short, communities should be tokenized. 

The tools and models for tokenizing these media relationships are being built right now. Collab.land is a system that lets media creators gate a Telegram or Discord chat group so that only fans holding a certain number of tokens are let in; the pseudonymous issuer of the $WHALE token is now amassing a digital art collection that backs his coin, effectively turning it into an index fund of collectibles that anyone can buy; the news title Decrypt allows readers to earn tokenized rewards each time they engage with stories within its app. 

The possibilities continue: Can volunteer-run, community efforts like meetups avoid a tragedy of the commons by issuing their own tokens to attendees and organizers? Will it ever be possible to bring in non-crypto native fans into a tokenized community? What happens when personal tokens are permissionlessly tacked on to the rest of DeFi’s money Legos?

An ecosystem of startups like Rally and Roll; investors like IDEO CoLab and Variant Fund; and community efforts like the Seed Club incubator for token issuers I’m helping launch are exploring these possibilities. 

The promise of tokenizing the relationship between writer and reader, or broadcaster and audience, means that we finally have an alternative to the extractive models of strip-mining attention on the internet. 

But these are early days. Just as bitcoin has offered us a decade of permissionless value-transfer over the internet, years more of exploration for more equitable and more creative media products lies ahead of us. And that’s both a challenge and a gift. 


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