Is It Possible to Lend and Borrow Social Currency at Scale?

Kyle Kesses
September 2, 2022

Are non-fungible tokens (NFTs) signaling the rise of a new internet? What opportunities will the new internet afford us? If we are waving goodbye to Web-2.0 (and even if we aren’t) here are some lessons from the previous 20 years of networked computers, which have delivered profound teachings on value and currency.

Social currency is the most influential medium of exchange to reach critical mass in the 21st century. It is reputation at scale. Folks who grew up in households that encouraged regular haircuts, ironed shirts, and firm handshakes with eye contact are familiar with reputation (and how surface-level it can be). It’s the thing that gets politicians elected, makes celebrities important, and sells cans of Coca Cola. It’s often the reason we get hired for our next job. Reputation in enterprise is usually referred to as brand.

The stronger our brand the more trust we earn. Trust is the root of currency. When people trust us we feel accepted. Evolutionists believe that for thousands of years human beings lived and traveled in packs of 6–12 people. As pack mammals, our ancestors could not survive without group support. Our brains evolved from this social environment. Today, we perceive our surroundings through a neural network (the brain) that links acceptance with survival. This is why social currency is so powerful.

Like the stock markets and real estate markets, there is a social currency market. The internet invited everyone with a computer and a connection to trade social currency on a global scale. In past decades and centuries, heads of state, wealthy families, celebrities, and corporations were the only entities who could trade social currency globally. The unspoken allure of social media (Web 2.0) is the potential to build reputation at scale.

You can also think of the social currency market as the buying and selling of attention. The degree to which individuals and businesses gain the attention of internet users dictates their standing in the market. Over the last 20 years, “views,” “likes,” and “follows” have garnered new meaning. These vanity metrics indicate wealth in social currency the way cars, houses, and jewelry indicate wealth in fiat currency. In other words, they are not absolute indicators of wealth but they are strong signals.

While traditional financial assets still reign supreme in the global economy, social currency can in some cases be more valuable than fiat currency. Richard Branson once said that he can pick up the phone and contact any business or political leader in the world. If true, this illustrates his standing in the social currency market. Even if he lost all his financial assets he could still trade social currency.

Social currency changes hands almost as rapidly as our brains shift thoughts. Every time we watch a video, listen to a podcast, or read an article we are trading attention. These transactions are so fluid that corporations are still learning how to organize them on a ledger. Most of us are by now aware that our search and viewing habits are tracked, indexed, and sold by Google to the highest bidder. This refined data becomes a commodity on the “behavior futures market.” Acquiring these commodities allow entities to place their advertisements and products in locations where internet users are most likely to purchase them. This structure is similar to the well-established financial exchange known as the “futures market.” I did not think of this comparison to the futures market. I read it in Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

As disturbing as it feels when Google feeds us a video or a search result that corresponds with our private conversations, these tracking tools are still in their rudimentary stages. What I mean is YouTube does not know why we watch certain videos, to what extent we pay attention to them, how much information we retain, nor the emotional journey we travel during the viewing experience. However, as human societies continue searching, watching, and buying through the internet, we collectively feed what is being called Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is running on autopilot right now, gaining more momentum with each internet search. Think about that. Google’s AI is growing with each Google Search. One can only imagine how much these tracking and prediction tools will develop in coming years.

So how do you and I advance our standing in the social currency market? Historically, people have elevated their standing in markets by trading on a skill. The blacksmith trades on his ability to mold iron and steel into tools. The farmer trades on his ability to convert seeds into produce. The writer trades on converting word thoughts into pieces like this one. Each of these is a labor that requires an input (skill and time) and generates an output (a sellable product).

Ray Dalio published a video titled “How the Economic Machine Works.” The 30 minute motion graphic communicates the mechanics of our modern economy according to Dalio, one of the wealthiest hedge fund managers in the world. The video propagates the belief that financial borrowing is the key to wealth building. Without borrowing currency from the bank (or another lending entity), it would be drastically more difficult to increase personal wealth. No matter how hard he works, the blacksmith is limited by the number of iron tools he can create. Same with the farmer and same with the writer. Why? Because their earnings are directly tied to time. No matter how skilled, the laborer cannot work more than 24 hours in the day. Borrowing allows workers to acquire currency on the promise of paying it back at a later date. For many skilled laborers, borrowing is the only time they ever obtain currency detached from time investment. This tool (borrowing) is vital to wealth creation. Modern central banks (which first appeared in the Netherlands four centuries ago) introduced borrowing at scale.

Will NFTs and Web-3.0 refine the social currency market the way banks refined the fiat currency market?

If you’re a small business or artist, you probably at some point over the last five years discovered that producing content on social media is a low-cost, modern means of building your brand. You started using your iPhone to snap photos, record videos, or generate a podcast. But much like the blacksmith can only produce so many iron tools in a day, you discovered that quality media production at scale requires a professional skill set and a budget, neither of which you possess.

Is it possible to build a lending and borrowing system within the social currency market? Could this be among the promises offered by the rising Web 3.0?