When most people hear the term "blockchain," they think about the technology from a financial point of view. This makes sense since, at its core, blockchain enables transactions between two parties without the need for third-party verification. But for marketers and communicators, this relatively new tech presents opportunities to disrupt the communication industry even more than social media. Blockchain technology has the potential to alter the way we communicate on a day-to-day basis, by turning communication into a more secure transaction between sender and receiver. "Most of this is still emerging. I know it's been around for a while, but commercial applications are still relatively new," says Shel Holtz, director of internal communications at Webcor, a San Francisco-based commercial construction contractor. "There is still a lot of skepticism. The startup community is fairly huge, but in terms of established businesses, there is not a lot of it yet."
What is blockchain?
The term "blockchain" can be heard on the evening news, in conversations with friends and family, or around the office. But what exactly is it? Blockchain is a distributed database. That means it exists on multiple computers at the same time. No computer has more authority than another, and together these computers are verifying the ledger's accuracy. There is no centralized government or bank controlling the ledger, which is why you hear the term "decentralized," so often associated with blockchain. New records of data and information can be constantly added to the ledger. All these records are then bundled together into what is referred to as a block. Each block contains a time stamp and a link to the previous block to form a chain. Once added to the chain, these blocks of data are very difficult to change. Each block added is uniquely encrypted with a hash code that connects the blocks together in a specific order. The term blockchain is most closely associated with Bitcoin, a digital currency that uses the blockchain as a public ledger for transactions but has a number of potential functions beyond just being used for a digital currency. Banks can use blockchain to keep better records of transactions and payments. Blockchain can be used in supply chain to track and check the history of a product. Practical uses also exist in health care, communication, voting and property records.
A secure narrative
Before blockchain, you could either have an open storytelling platform or a secure storytelling platform, but not both. But all that is changing, and with blockchain you can now have what Bloq chief communications and marketing officer Phil Gomes calls a "secure narrative." Bloq is a Chicago-based software developer and innovation studio. A printed newspaper would be considered secure source, but the barrier to entry is not open because you need to pay the expenses to print. A website like Wikipedia is an open source, but the information on Wikipedia can be changed almost instantly. Thanks to blockchain technology, both are possible, opening up new possibilities for communicators to market their products, companies or virtually anything that can be recorded securely on the blockchain ledger. "The secure narrative thesis that I described is imminently attainable," Gomes says. "There is actually no reason why you couldn't have this today." Provenance, a digital platform that empowers brands to take steps toward greater transparency, is already creating a secure narrative. The company empowers its clients in the food and drink industry to share transparent, verified data about their products and supply chains with their customers. Provenance's pilot blockchain technology tracked yellowfin and skipjack tuna fish in Indonesia from catch to consumer, providing digital proof of sustainably sourced and slavery-free products. It offers case studies for retailers using blockchain to build trust with shoppers. "I think open source is a philosophy that communicators should explore, if not embrace, because it reflects the ethos that the communication trade very often claims to have," Gomes says.
BAT to the rescue
According to a Juniper Research study, forecasters predict advertisers will lose an estimated US$42 billion of ad spend globally to fraud committed via online, mobile and in-app advertising in 2019. This is leading many advertisers to turn their attention to blockchain technology to find a solution to combat this fraud. One solution is the blockchain-based digital advertising token called BAT (basic attention token). Gomes says BAT is "aiming to rewrite the rules between audience, publisher and advertiser in terms of monetizing the value of attention." The token, created on the Ethereum blockchain, can be exchanged between publishers, advertisers and users. Simply put, users are rewarded with a BAT for their attention on websites and advertisement views. Publishers also receive tokens based on how much attention an advertisement receives. The audience can then share their BATs with content creators that they like, and publishers can deliver rewards to the audience. All of this can lead to advertisers delivering more tailored and better ads to their audiences while eliminating the middlemen. "What results is an advertising scenario where the user has a great degree of control, able to dial up or dial down his or her relationship with advertisers," Gomes wrote in his white paper titled "Blockchain Technology: The Marketing Value of Digital Permanence."
Battle fake news
For marketers, blockchain is able to provide solutions for authentication and provenance. For example, a handbag or purse could have a tag attached to it that you can scan to make sure the item that you purchased is authentic and not a knockoff. Taking it one step further, that tag could also store information on the factory where it was produced, and the location and source of its materials, guaranteeing the ethical provenance of the item. For news, The New York Times is working with the Hyperledger Fabric blockchain to verify news accuracy and battle fake news. The Times's News Provenance Project is working to help publishers fight back against misinformation. The project is using blockchain technology to record and share metadata about media images and videos published by news organizations. Blockchain has the potential to impact just about every industry, but the technology and practical uses are still in the early stages. Hurdles exist, but it is no doubt an exciting time to be exploring the possibilities of this technology. "I think we are heading toward a tipping point, and when we get there you are going to see some remarkable disruption," Holtz says. "I've talked to people who think it's going to make the internet look like a hiccup in terms of how disruptive it's going to be."
Know your blockchain apps
Blockchain technology has the potential to alter the way we communicate on a day-to-day basis. Here are 10 blockchain apps that are changing the way we communicate. Eximchain. Eliminates common supply chain barriers and allows businesses to connect, transact and share information more efficiently and securely. Loki. Its first SNApps (service node application) is a messenger service that features an end-to-end encrypted private messaging application aiming to put an end to privacy breaches. Steemit. A social media site that benefits users instead of shareholders. You can earn digital tokens on Steemit by posting, voting and curating, purchasing and vesting. BitBounce. Acts as a gatekeeper for your email inbox. You receive a Credo token every time someone sends you an unsolicited email. Sendy. Allows you to control the emails you receive from the senders you choose. In exchange, you will receive small payments for every newsletter that you read. You can then cash out your rewards for gift cards or crypto. Status. An all-in-one messenger, crypto wallet and decentralized browser. What makes it different from most blockchain messenger apps is it allows you to send Ethereum-based payments and smart contracts to friends. Ethlance. A job market platform that uses only Ethereum for payment and has no service fees. Post a job, invite freelancers, hire workers and pay invoices all in one decentralized system. Brave. An open-source browser that provides fast, private and secure browsing. You can even earn BATs (basic attention tokens) to reward and support your favorite content creators. Po.et. A universal ledger that records metadata and ownership information for digital creative assets. e-Chat. A decentralized messenger with an integrated payment system. Allows you to make voice calls with up to 10 people, HD video calls, text chats, and stream photo and video content.
Michael Tomko is a freelance writer.