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Peepeth Social Network Gains Traction, But Should Digital Identity Be Immutable?




The blockchain-based, penguin-faced platform has attracted the attention of the crypto crowd, including Vitalik Buterin himself. However, immutability may not be compatible with individuals’ changing digital identities.

The Peepeth Kickstarter began yesterday. For those not in the loop, Peepeth is a decentralized social network powered by blockchain technology that aims to promote mindful engagement.

The Dapp purportedly encourages users to produce thoughtful content while discouraging objectionable posts. For instance, the project's "like" feature, Ensō, attempts to reward users for their enlightened or timeless "peeps" (think tweets), as individuals can only assign one Ensō per day.

The ad-less network also follows a no-edit, no-delete model – users' peeps are stored on an immutable, public ledger. In this sense, peeps are forever.

Part of the platform's overall mission, too, is fostering social good, which Peepeth addresses through features like its charity badge. Users can purchase a badge to raise awareness for causes they care about. Moreover, individuals can pin other people's peeps to their profiles, thereby recognizing somebody else's contribution to the network.

Last month, the project caught the eye of Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, who indicated his interest via Twitter:

Buterin recently followed up by testing the "peep and tweet at the same time" feature of the platform, which he was eventually able to accomplish.

Despite the flutter associated with Peepeth, though, the platform calls to mind a larger question: Is our presence online best served by immutability?

Evidently, the platform has noble intentions and the potential for good. The network not only tries to minimize the vitriol that can occur across social media, but also gives data sovereignty to the users and encourages positive content.

Many of us log on to social networks during our downtime, so it only makes sense to cultivate a positive digital environment. Nothing is less relaxing or calming than seeing an inflammatory political post on one's news feed.

Considering this sentiment, a platform like Peepeth that is supposedly devoid of negative energy makes sense as the "solution" to the current social media landscape, which is undoubtedly rife with arguments, unsolicited marketing, and flat-out bigotry.

But immutability may be antithetical to the platform's goal of social good. The immutable nature of blockchain technology easily applies to financial transactions and the like because it protects consumers. Although preserving controversial posts from significant figures like President Trump (there is even a website dedicated to this purpose) could inhibit backpedaling or deception within online discussions, therefore offering a sort of consumer protection, Peepeth's no-edit, no-delete model ultimately fails to capture the evolution of identity.

Because we exist in a largely digital realm, our online presence effectively serves as a representation of our identities. Of course, this presence is highly curated and one-sided, but it is still informed by a person's choices regarding how they want to appear to the world. It is paramount to let each user determine this presence, which cannot be accomplished if posts exist forever in the ether (or, for that matter, the Ethereum network).

Take, for example, a trans person. Although many individuals in the trans community document their transitions online, some may not want to include their pre-transition record, so to speak, on social media. For these folks, their posts and photos before transitioning may not represent who they are and how they express themselves.

Further, trans people are subject to discrimination and violence. If their sex assigned at birth is publicly known, this can spell job loss, eviction, and physical violence.

That said, I do not claim to speak on behalf of the trans community. This example, though, highlights the evolution of human identity. We are not bound by our past, no matter how significant it is in shaping our present. Individuals can choose to present (or not present) themselves however they please. In fact, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation hearkens this sentiment with its "right to be forgotten," which allows individuals to request their personal data be deleted in certain circumstances.

The preservation of our digital past may also lead to further confusion or misrepresentation. Earlier this month, Asian-American journalist Sarah Jeong of The Verge was beset by a fusillade of social media harassment because of some of her previous posts.

To recap the event, Jeong had posted a series of tweets years prior that various individuals later picked up and interpreted as racist against white people. Her intention, of course, was to criticize the hegemony of white culture, but in doing so, she adopted the mean-spirited language of her oppressors.

In attacking Jeong, individuals failed to recognize the context of her tweets – an indictment of white racism – and falsely equated her posts with hate speech used against other people of color. Dredging up her social media past caused a massive uproar for all the wrong reasons because the context was lost in translation.

On a much broader level, the no-edit, no-delete model fails to capture individuals' changing thought processes. We all have posts from our past that haunt us – maybe it was an ill-informed opinion, maybe it was an emotionally charged reaction. No matter the specific circumstance, we all have regrets.

Obviously, certain posts should be preserved, and to a large extent they already are (see Trump's Twitter). But the need to maintain a record of a person or entity's online actions is more the exception than the rule: Those of us who do not have that level of power and influence shouldn't be held to that standard. For example, I have deleted old tweets and Facebook posts that no longer represent my opinions or beliefs.

Digital identity, as seen from these examples, is not a black-or-white construct. We change as we age. Our digital selves change, too. Perhaps it's my background in queer theory that prompts me to see everything in a state of flux, but immutability, despite its purportedly positive place in a decentralized social network, may do more harm than good.

Dani Putney

Dani is a full-time writer for ETHNews. He received his bachelor's degree in English writing from the University of Nevada, Reno, where he also studied journalism and queer theory. In his free time, he writes poetry, plays the piano, and fangirls over fictional characters. He lives with his partner, three dogs, and two cats in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.

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