Techworld has launched a new series where we'll be sampling a range of niche social media platforms and reporting back on our experiences. We'll peruse these platforms for a week, gather impressions and sometimes chat to users about why they're there.

The first social platform we tried out was Steemit, one of a gleaming crop of new blockchain social media platforms to emerge in recent years. Steemit is a decentralised app (DApps) that is built atop the Ethereum blockchain.

© Steemit
© Steemit

The basics

All of Steemit's infrastructure is built on top of the blockchain, but you wouldn't guess this from the site, which has a completely normal interface and the usual raft of features (bar direct messaging, notably).

However, a couple of quirks do arise from the fact that it's a blockchain-based platform. One of which is that anything you post can never be deleted from existence.

For those with a rudimentary understanding of blockchain technology, it will be obvious why: because the 'blockchain' is composed of a chain of (you guessed it) blocks. Each block links to the next and therefore you cannot delete or undo blocks without disrupting the whole chain. Now, this should give any sensible person pause before posting, in the knowledge that even as rains of fire lash down and humanity fades into a distant memory, your brunch post, scored into the ravaged earth, will remain.

Oh, and another thing. Don't lose your password. Steemit is a decentralised platform which means that no one power controls the site, however it also means that there is no centralised body that can assist you and access your account. This means you should save your password somewhere very safe, and maybe think about creating a hard copy too. (Remember the guy who died and took millions in crypto with him because no one knew his password? This is a similar sitch.)

Steem

Another interesting aspect of the site is that you use a special crypto token to transact on it, called Steem. This token is tied to the Steemit ecosystem and at present, can only be used in value transactions on the site. However, because it can be swapped into ETH and other cryptocurrencies, which can then be swapped back into fiat currencies like pounds or dollars, the token holds real-world value too.  

Unlike traditional social media platforms, upon which users trade solely in 'likes', Steemit offers an interesting twist - each upvote assigns a small fraction of a central pool of 'Steem' tokens to the poster, meaning that you not only get remunerated in the admiration of your fellow users, but in real, actual cash. However, it's still free to post on the site and accumulate Steem for your posts.

I was interested to discover whether explicitly monetising content changes the dynamics of the site. You could argue that on other social platforms, users are attempting to inflate their social capital with pithy one liners (Twitter) or glossy selfies (Instagram), which could - particularly in the case of 'influencers' - lead to a pay boost, or at least feed into someone's overall brand value. However, would the explicit nature of payment on Steemit make the financial imperative more obvious and possibly cheapen the experience somehow? 

That the site offers a means of making cash stems from ideological reasons. The founders of blockchain-based platforms point out that traditional social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat make money from their users by absorbing all of their data and selling it to advertisers without any remuneration beyond graciously allowing us to use the platforms for free. Instead, Steemit recognises that users are the ones who create value on social platforms. 

First impressions

Now, the whole crypto world has been maligned since its inception. First portrayed as a grubby underworld of cyber criminals scurrying around the back alleys of the dark web, and then as awash with hollow-eyed grifters looking for any way to score a fast buck. Given this, you could be forgiven for assuming that a blockchain-born social platform might be a dark, threatening place teeming with con artists and criminals.

Those harbouring this assumption would be surprised to discover Steemit's bright and airy little corner of the internet, complete with a white backdrop and minty fresh logo. 

The home feed splits into trending (the default display - a list of posts that have received the most upvotes at that time across various categories), as well as 'new' (posts unfiltered by the number of upvotes), hot and promoted.

Steemit feed

Down the left-hand side there is a long list of tags, where you can search for content by category. Now, some of these are of the type you would expect from a blockchain-based social app - cryptocurrency, blockchain, and bitcoin all feature. However, feeds dedicated to 'poetry', 'food', 'photography' and 'life' also dominate. Being more attracted to this collection of categories, this is where I spent most of my time while on the site.

Something that immediately strikes you upon arrival is that people appear to be making some serious cash. It's not uncommon to see people on the 'trending' feed earning between $100 to $200 for posting a collection of food pics. I click on one post entitled 'springtime' sitting around $40 that features some close-up shots of dandelions and buttercups, and some (admittedly majestic) felines. 

But while this at first might seem kind of laughable, talking on a purely likes-to-dollars scale it would make sense that the content that wins big on traditional social platforms - namely animals and food - would also rake in the fattest profits on blockchain-based social media.

Of course, being the mercenary that I am, I immediately started frantically calculating the potential payout from my own collection of pet pics and travel snaps. If some pictures of weeds can get in the region of $30 to $50, then what about some pictures of a sunset over the Mekong river in Laos? 

The quest for Steem

Although you can post for free, I wanted to experience Steemit to the full so, despite being tragically late to the party, I decided to dip my toe into the murky waters of crypto. 

This is what I discovered.

Crypto has got legit as f*ck

To get my hands on some Steem, I had to first procure some ETH to swap for it. Before this however, I had to set up a wallet. I quickly settled upon Metamask, which embeds into your browser and acts as an Ethereum wallet, as well as forming a bridge into the 'decentralised world', allowing you to run DApps in your browser.

This decision was primarily taken on the basis of this adorable foxy mascot, whose malleable head provides riveting entertainment for hours on end. Seriously, someone should make this fox into a lovable AI bot that follows you around the internet. That would be nice.

After setting up a super-secret and super-secure password and 'random word sequence' unique to my account, I was ready to venture into the world of crypto trading. I headed over to Coinbase, one of the biggest crypto exchanges, but was not prepared for what I encountered: namely, crypto has got legit as hell.

To get registered for Coinbase, not only did I need to provide a scan of my ID (passport, driving licence or ID card), but after this, I was also asked to provide proof of my address by submitting either a utility bill or bank statement. After attempting with two different letters, which admittedly were not those because 1) I rent my flat and do not receive utility bills addressed to me and 2) Who gets paper bank statements anymore, I found myself unable to enter the storied realm of crypto traders, tossed out on the street like a sack of garbage.

And this in a world that up until recently was being called a Wild West. Now, not even a highly conscientious technology journalist can get accredited. Madness.

So of course, not accepting defeat that easily, I quickly analysed my other options. Firstly, conducting possibly one of the most incriminating Google searches of my life (I'm generally very vanilla).

After consulting a crypto-literate colleague, I learned that some exchanges weren't so stringent so I decided to hit them up. Hello, Coinmama.

After yet more initial rejection, I finally got myself verified to buy some crypto. (This time, I only needed to provide a picture of my driving licence.)

However, it wasn't to be, after signalling my intention to buy some ETH, I was faced with a page which seemed to state that I was only able to purchase set bundles, the smallest of which was €88. Having set myself a hard limit of £10 funding for this endeavour, I was forced to accept bitter defeat and walk away.

Failed attempt at Steemit fame

Finally I actually got around to posting something from my Steemit account, which, by the way, had managed to accumulate a not-too-shabby three. whole. followers. while sitting idle.

For my debut post on the platform, I selected a collection of some aesthetically pleasing photos of Nong Khiaw in Laos alongside a brief journal extract from when I visited. I then simply sat back and waited for the fame and the glory to roll up at my door. 

However, after a day, the post had only scooped up a mere two upvotes, and, most painfully, not from any of my avid followers. Obaku where were you? You only show up for the good times man.  

Overall rating

Overall, the parts of Steemit that I experienced suggested a quaint, cosy place, where simply reposting a Youtube video or a picture of a kitten in repose can seemingly earn you hundreds of dollars.

The comments under the posts also signalled a nurturing and supportive community among regular users. 

However, like any social media platform, you need to invest time and effort to reap the rewards - community, engagement, and in the case of Steemit, cash monies too.

Next week: Remember Myspace? It still exists. Next week I'll be discovering what became of the proto-Facebook social network.