Ben Rubin explains why the Web3 era of social media will help everybody get paid

After a decade of a handful of dominant social media companies trading what are essentially publishing tools in exchange for serving us all an endless deluge of ads, the winds of change are finally blowing — in a few different directions at once.

Content creators (arguably either a special echelon of influencers or anyone who posts online) are slowly siphoning off some of the power that social media companies have wielded for years. Meanwhile, decentralization is sweeping worlds like finance and art, threatening existing orders and pointing toward a future defined by alternative currencies and digital collectibles. Those trends are bound to converge sooner rather than later, and in some corners of the social internet, it’s already beginning to show.

At TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 last week, Houseparty founder Ben Rubin, now working on a new company called Slashtalk, delved into some of those intersections. Rubin created Meerkat, the darling social app of SXSW 2015, which later evolved into a spontaneous video chat app known as Houseparty. Epic Games bought Houseparty in 2019, but Rubin’s prescience for emerging social trends didn’t stop there.

These days, everyone seems to be abuzz about decentralization. As with any nascent tech trend on the horizon, a lot of jargon gets thrown around. Within the DeFi (decentralized finance) and NFT (non-fungible token) communities, Web3 is the term du jour that captures the revolutionary potential that decentralized networks hold for the future of the internet.

People define Web3 in different ways, but decentralization is the key feature. Rubin took a stab at defining Web3 during his Disrupt interview. “So in Web2, you have a network, and there [are] central entities who own the network,” Rubin said. “In Web3 there is a possibility — not saying that it’s going to actually 100% gonna happen — but there is a possibility where the network owns the network. And that’s, I think, the simplest way, the shortest way I can explain it.”

From Rubin’s perspective, Web3 is all about ownership. In contrast to Web2, in which a handful of powerful companies rented out space on centralized social platforms, Web3 stands to invert the winner-take-all model outright.

“I think that ownership on the internet is something that we’re used to seeing in gaming, where you’re like buying skins or buying certain avatars,” Rubin said. “ … Our identities are pretty much reliant on what we own and what we don’t. I’m generalizing, but it is true that the things you choose to have or not have are defining who you are for you, in our heads.”

If Web2 was about staking out profiles on social platforms and populating them with content, Rubin believes that Web3 stands to be more about a representation of the self projected through the digital things we choose to surround ourselves with. Companies like Facebook, Roblox and Epic Games are building out their respective visions for the metaverse — an interconnected social web of virtual worlds full of lucrative transactions for virtual goods.

Even with some massive companies vying to own the future, Rubin is hopeful that the next generation of the internet, built on top of a layer of blockchain-driven technologies originally developed for payments, can redistribute power and capital.

“What’s really cool for me as an observer is that we’re coming off of this huge age of centralization,” Rubin said. “There’s three, four or five big companies that control our attention, from the supply chains of what brings us products to … the information that I’m receiving. And at the same time, we are about to reject it. And there’s emerging technology that may help us reject it.”

Big tech companies might not be going away any time soon, but in an era of decentralization, they will need to chase emerging trends to stay relevant. To an extent, with social media companies, you’re already seeing this phenomenon manifest through things like creator funds and new sets of tools that help people make money on platforms.

A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that giant platforms would go out of their way to help users make money — it was all targeted advertising all the time. But these firms seem to be realizing that if they want to retain the people who make their platforms worth using, then they need to help them get paid. Because otherwise they can just pick up and move to a different platform with better incentives.

Rubin believes that decentralization will potentially transform social networks into “something completely different” — and we might not be able to imagine what that looks like yet:

It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be a better incentive alignment than we have right now. And that will create competition on incentive alignments with their users. And that’s what I’m excited about. To have this competition of ideas of like, “Oh, wow, I need to now rethink my incentive structure to align better with my user, because this cool sexy thing is actually taking away attention from [us].”

A new era of the social internet might be coming, but it’s not quite here yet. Rubin believes that Web3 still has plenty of hurdles before it makes it through the key stages any new technology goes through before breaking through to widespread adoption.

“So my personal observation of how Web3 [and] crypto has been evolving, is it always goes through these three cycles … The insiders get excited, then it goes up, then it pulls back, then the industry gets excited, then it goes up, and then it pulls back. And then retail get excited, and then it goes up.”

Rubin sees NFTs squarely in that early insider phase, while DeFi and crypto are well into the industry phase, but not yet in the mainstream phase where normal consumers are using the technology in their daily lives.

“You know, it is noisy, and it is what it is,” Rubin said. “But I think it’s important as an ecosystem of ideas that we will see those ideas, even though we know that they are overly excited, and probably not going to deliver on the things that they promised. But it’s important because it’s part of the ecosystem that makes us move forward.”