By Joe Doran
As an author and content creator who has long dealt with a few major distribution platforms for my creative work, I have been keeping close tabs on web3 development.
With services like Darkblock (https://www.darkblock.io/), web3 is turning the promise of more direct paths between content producers and consumers into reality.
In the process, it’s showing how NFTs are a far bigger deal than just a pixelated art fad.
As The Trends Journal has previously noted, NFTs can act as a key proving ownership, and unlocking everything from privileged access to content, to royalty payments, to passive investment returns in fractionally owned real estate—and just about any other commercial interaction that can be imagined.
In this article, I’ll focus on the problems Darkblock, together with NFTs, solves, which have real world utility. It well illustrates why web3 blockchain technologies are destined to challenge legacy tech companies, and their current grip on both consumers and content creators.
From Wild West, to Big Tech Oligarchy
It’s hardly a secret that most online activity occurs via just a handful of big tech ecosystems. The controllers of ecosystems are companies like Apple, Google (YouTube, Google Search and Google Apps), Amazon, Meta (Facebook and Instagram) and Microsoft.
Yes, they have competitors. Elon Musk’s purchase and revamp of Twitter into the X communication platform, has shaken up Meta, and to some extent, Google.
Walmart.com, and the upstart PublicSquare (https://app.publicsq.com/) compete with Amazon’s selling platform, along with Chinese rivals like Temu and Alibaba. CNBC noted in October that Temu is currently growing faster than Amazon.
BarnesandNoble.com also offers authors at least one other major option to Amazon as a publishing platform.
But in general sellers, buyers, content producers and content consumers have all become beholden to this tech oligarchy.
Independent journalistic outlets, for example, fight for exposure via news aggregating platforms controlled by Microsoft and Google. Microsoft’s News Guard is notoriously biased in favoring conglomerated mainstream news content, while suppressing independent media—especially those bucking mainstream narratives.
Almost every seller of a consumer product is obligated to use the Amazon platform to reach customers, in addition to having their own website and store(s).
Amazon not only takes a cut from sales, but has been implicated in using its treasure trove of data regarding selling, buying and sourcing of products, to actively sell its own lines of “Amazon” affiliated products against sellers utilizing its platform. (See, for example “AMAZON MONOPOLY VS. STATE LAWSUIT: WHO WILL WIN?” 3 Oct 2023 and “AMAZON CAUGHT ILLEGALLY UNDERCUTTING COMPETITION” 19 Oct 2021.)
Every big tech platform acts as a more or somewhat less greedy middle player. Yes the services they offer are slick and well built. That’s why they’re successful.
But even there, tech companies have often gamed the “free market” competitive process, by buying up smaller companies that innovated technology that could rival their own offerings. (For more on that, see “HOW BIG TECH MAINTAINS ITS MONOPOLY” 17 Aug 2021 and “HOW BIG TECH MAINTAINS ITS MONOPOLY: A FOLLOW-UP” 24 Aug 2021.)
In other words, they don’t compete with most rivals, especially small upstarts. They swallow them.
To give an example in the world of digital book publishing, at one time CreateSpace offered a digital publishing service that would allow authors to put out a book, and have it offered on many different websites, including major book sellers like Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.
Then Amazon bought out CreateSpace, and folded it into its Kindle digital publishing platform.
Needless to say, CreateSpace no longer offers distribution to Amazon competitors. In fact, authors and small book publishers on Kindle are encouraged to opt into something called “Kindle Select,” an exclusivity agreement which boxes out Amazon book seller competitors.
In exchange for exposure to a user base of Kindle digital book subscription holders, authors or publishing houses must promise not to make their book(s) available on other book selling platforms.
Every major tech platform engages in similar tactics. Apple blazed the trail in creating a closed, tightly controlled ecosystem of apps and products, by cultivating a valuable user base that tech, music, news and other product companies wanted access to.
Consumers that bought into Apple’s undeniably sleek and innovative products were also buying into that closed ecosystem, which could then control how and even what could be accessed via that ecosystem.
Talk about a Faustian bargain.
At this point, basically every tech company that has gained enormous market share and de facto monopolies or near monopolies in their spheres, have abused their power.
Google’s YouTube has de-monetized and purged content according to its political objectives and biases. Meta (Facebook) has done the same, and pre-Elon Musk Twitter notoriously suppressed content and purged dissident voices during the election of 2020 and the COVID War.
And of course, it’s happening all over again in the 2023-24 election cycle, as nesbusters.org recently detailed. (“Google Continues Election Interference: Still Buries Trump, Other Biden Opponents,” 8 Nov 2023.)
Amazon has been caught manipulating reviews of books that go against preferred narratives, and even banning books that expressed non-approved COVID info and perspectives.
It has also manipulated reviews that would be harmful to entertainment content it produces via “Amazon Entertainment.” Yes, just as it did with its general product selling platform, Amazon became a producer of movies and TV shows, not just a platform for purchasing such content. It did so in part by acquiring MGM studios.
The scope of control of big tech over every aspect of modern life has proved not only staggering, but stifling. And it has all happened over the course of just 30 years.
Web 3: A Way Out of Big Tech Platforms, Big Cuts, and Biased Rules
How does web3 crypto technology play into all of this?
Let’s look at NFTs and what Darkblock is doing, as an example of how permissionless crypto networks and technologies put more power and control into the hands of content producers and consumers.
As I’ve said, I have been an author and content creator. As such, I’ve used Amazon, CreateSpace, BarnesandNoble.com, YouTube, Spotify, and other tech platforms to offer digital (and physical) books, videos, music and artwork for sale.
In the past, I also sold digital books from my own website. I know that a small seller trying to sell digital content on their own is faced with significant problems regarding reaching users, and protecting their content from being copied and stolen wholesale, and spread across the web.
Services that offer some protection for content are relatively costly for an independent content producer to try to integrate and implement.
Platforms like Amazon, Spotify and YouTube, include mechanisms to protect content, at least to some extent, and also offer distribution and promotion services that are hard to match.
But anyone who has dealt with selling via big tech platforms, knows that they have taken a larger and larger cut over the years, to utilize their services.
In addition, they exert frustratingly arbitrary and / or politicized biases that can wreck independent content producers in the blink of an eye.
There are endless examples of creatives who worked for years to build presence and content on YouTube, Amazon Facebook and Twitter (now X), only to see their accounts suddenly demonetized, suspended, or even banned and expunged completely.
Companies often hide behind vague “Community” and “Content Guidelines” to wield abusive power.
I’ve experienced it personally.
Intrigued by the potential of web3 distribution for digital content, I have taken time to get to know more about NFTs and their potential for offering a more direct way for content producers to interact with their audiences.
Previously, I reported that while major NFT marketplaces like OpenSea offer some avenues to tie NFTs to digital content, those services by themselves are quite limited.
On OpenSea, for example, an NFT can be created which contains “unlockable content.” This is content which is only accessible once a user purchases the NFT.
The unlockable content can be another piece of digital artwork for example, delivered as a jpg file. Or it can be a web link to content hosted elsewhere.
But it’s up to the user to come up with whether and how that content is protected from being downloaded and distributed.
Other major platforms like Rarible are similar to OpenSea.
So NFTs can act as a digital “key” to unlock content. But protecting and controlling the distribution of content is another matter.
That’s where Darkblock.io has come up with something special.
Darkblock allows NFT creators who use any major NFT marketplace, and leading NFT crypto networks like Ethereum, Polygon, Solana and Avalanche to tie NFTs to a wide range of digital content.
What’s more, Darkblock uses a permissionless decentralized storage network, Arweave, to store content, and offers robust ways for creators to limit and protect ways that content can be accessed and used.
And it offers these services without requiring any sign-up or “permission.” Users who have NFTs in a wallet can connect the wallet to DarkBlock, attach unlockable content to their NFTs, and set the permissions and parameters for how NFT holders can access content.
What kinds of content can creators tie to an NFT using DarkBlock?
The following formats are supported: aac, bmp, cbr, epub, flac, gif, glb, html, jpg, m4a, mkv, mp3, mp4, mpeg, ogg, ogv, opus, pdf, png, svg, tgz, usdz, wav, webm, zip.
The maximum file size of a single piece of unlockable content is 350MB.
But creators can add multiple pieces of unlockable content to an NFT (eg. a video file AND a digital book).
The inclusion of zip files as a format means that virtually any type of digital file can be offered as unlockable content.
A key innovative feature of DarkBlock is the control it gives creators over how their content is accessed. If users want to limit NFT holders to only viewing or listening to content, but not downloading, Darkblock makes it happen, by offering a file viewer app that can view any of its supported formats.
So a video creator can limit NFT holders to being able to view a video, but not download or share it. And the same limits can apply to a book, or a song, etc.
Consumers who buy an NFT with unlockable content created via Darkblock, simply connect their wallet containing the NFT, at https://app.darkblock.io/.
They are prompted to authenticate that the NFT is in their wallet (Metamask, Coinbase, etc.).
Once authenticated, users can click on their NFT to see the associated unlockable content. Clicking on the content opens the Darkblock viewer.
Independent content creatives of all kinds—as well as consumers—have every reason to be excited at what’s happening right now, still very much under the radar, regarding web3 innovations.
It’s well worth the effort to learn about and take advantage of what’s already available. And it’s certain that web3 is going to play a much larger role in the future of the internet, digital (and physical commerce), and freedom, in the not too distant future.
Note: I recently used NFTs created via OpenSea, and DarkBlock, to sell issues of my retro sci-fi erotic comic book series, “LayerWorld.”
What motivated me to take this tech route? Though BarnesandNoble.com accepted my work for publication, Amazon said it went against their content guidelines.
To give an idea of how arbitrary those guidelines are, here is a link to adult comic books (be advised, link contains graphic adult content) currently available on Amazon’s Comixology.
LayerWorld, an ode to the grindhouse and sci-fi erotica I grew up watching at drive-ins in the 1970’s, and collecting in mags like Heavy Metal, is no more explicit, and certainly no more controversial, than works easily and routinely found on Amazon.
And that’s why it’s great to have new technology emerging, which can bypass big tech gatekeepers.
For more on LayerWorld, visit BarnesandNoble.com, or check it out on web3 at layerworld.x (Unstoppable Domains web browser plugin required). OpenSea NFTS can be found at https://opensea.io/collection/layerworld-anthology-1.