New Pixels on The Block
Imagine Snapchat and Patreon had a nerdy child who loves playing chess and goes to techno parties. - They would call it Stealcam.
If your experience isn’t strange to you, it’s false - André Breton
When was the last time social media felt ‘strange’? When the platform was more than a gateway to an overload of content - an unfiltered stream that has outrun our ability to absorb its signals?
There’s something wrong with the social platforms we use today. I’m writing this piece two days after the first appearance of Tik Tok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew in Congress and almost five years after Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook testimony on their massive data sharing scandal.
But other than that - have you ever realized how boring it actually has become to use all these apps? While we all appear to rely on this daily dose of 'grammed dopamine rushing through our body, we entered an era of fatigue: meme fatigue, bingeing fatigue, scroll-down fatigue.1
Social media doesn’t feel strange anymore. Posting, liking, commenting, retweeting, … to say it in the words of André Breton, it’s all sort of false.
Well, last week I came across a new app that felt hot damn right.
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Like Snapchat - but on the blockchain?
Stealcam is a mobile camera web app that lets users create, share, steal, and reveal photos with their friends on the blockchain. It allows you to ‘steal to reveal’ memories from friends & creators and earn rewards in form of ETH by doing so.
How does it work?
To set up a profile, visit stealcam.com with your mobile or web browser. You create a profile and log in via connecting your wallet - voilà, that’s it, you’re ready to steal!
Once you upload a photo or video on Stealcam, it gets pixelated and automatically becomes an NFT. Creating and sharing these NFTs is free, you don’t need to pay any gas fees.
Now, the real fun part begins: what makes Stealcam so exciting is that you need to steal images to reveal them. To do so, users need to pay the current steal price for the NFT they want to see. Every time an NFT is stolen, its steal price increases by 0.001 ETH + 10% of the previous steal price.
The previous owner gets back the ETH price they stole it for. The surplus, or price difference between the stolen price and the previous price, is then split:
45% for the previous owner
45% for the creator
10% for the protocol
With the price for an image increasing over time you better act fast if you come across a memory you think you or others might like.
Some first metrics
After 3 days of beta testing, the platform had more than 2k unique visitors who uploaded a total of 746 photos.
A few days later, just one week after the launch, more than 3,200 images were uploaded. User earnings reached $40k with a trading volume of $350k accompanying about 8,800 on-chain transactions.
What’s so exciting about Stealcam?
Incentives = curation?
Stealcam manifests a previously unknown kind of dichotomy between the ephemerality and permanence of images.
The image (and with it, the NFT) is in constant, almost infinite flux on the blockchain. Yet, ownership of the photos - which is the prerequisite for revealing them - is temporary.
To me, Stealcam’s ‘pay-to-see’ framework combined with a rewarding ‘share-to-earn’ mechanism is nothing less than game theory at its finest which solves two key problems we know from other photo-sharing apps:
Inappropriate & low-quality content
Before Snapchat became one of the most valuable social media companies in the world, the app was often claimed to be nothing but a silly photo-sharing app for sexting. Will people say the same about Stealcam?
How can I be sure that the image I’ve just stolen on Stealcam isn’t full of violence, nudity, or racism? Well, of course, I can’t be sure. But the person uploading such an image violating the community guidelines would actually have no incentive to do so: Imagine you just revealed a photo with inappropriate content. Wouldn’t you let people know about that in order to prevent further users from a potentially traumatizing experience? This would affect the reputation of the original creator of this image, probably resulting in the community discouraging steals from this profile.
I know that there might be people not telling anybody about this to ensure further re-steal revenue. Additionally, some people might actually enjoy this sort of content. While moderation, filtering, and tagging are certainly issues that need more attention in the future, the underlying incentive to share appropriate vs. inappropriate content is at least more explicit than on other platforms.
Circumventing the algorithm
You know how the saying goes: Snapchat is all fun and games until somebody takes a screenshot and ruins your life.
The comparison to Snapchat might not be perfect here but it’s a good example of how and why users cheat on the algorithm. Will Stealcam experience the same issues as Snapchat? Will people take screenshots to avoid paying for images?
This has mainly two reasons.
First of all, we need to understand what kinds of images might circulate on Stealcam. Embarrassing party pics? Selfies? Images containing hidden and exclusive information that justifies the price people need to pay upfront? I haven’t stolen too many pictures yet but my assumption is that there’s absolutely no incentive to upload content you personally feel uncomfortable with. Why? Because you lose control over the image after your upload. If an image is not detrimental to the social status of its creator, future owners won’t be able to ‘ruin your life’ by sharing a screenshot of your pixelated image.
And second, people would actually don’t want others to see an image they exclusively paid for. If you had to choose between giving something away for free (i.e. sharing a screenshot) or being rewarded with tokens when other people steal your photo, which option would you choose? - Right. Me, too.2
TL; DR: There are still many open questions, especially concerning content moderation and guidelines. Yet, Stealcam’s design offers a new and compelling proposal for how the right incentives can have a decentralized, community-rooted curational purpose, too.
Ad-hoc content monetization
I showed Stealcam to a friend of mine who compared it to Onlyfans and Patreon: creators can monetize content and fans have a chance to access exclusive photos and videos after paying for them (or being super early as the first steal is for free).
What I like about Stealcam is that it rethinks the creator<>fan relationship.
Tools like Onlyfans and Patreon allow for new ways of revenue generation for creators and enable them to establish a more interactive relationship with their fanbase (Patreon probably more than Onlyfans). But there’s still a clear distinction between people getting paid and people paying for their creations. Aren’t we actually all giving away things for free? Be it data, time, or attention - that’s probably not what we call ‘content’ in a classical way, but we’re still constantly extracted.
On Stealcam, everybody can earn rewards for creating and sharing pixels - even if they are not a professional creator. Of course, exogenous social capital still helps a lot to make your images go viral as there might be a) more people willing to see the image and b) more people willing to pay a high price in expectation of another fan paying an even higher price. But technically, and also because of the platform’s infancy, it’s a lot easier to earn rewards by either creating images or stealing the right ones early.
Stealcam is like a well-designed game: hard, but fair.
The end of doom-scrolling?
We’re living in an era defined by content overload and never-ending overstimulation. I sometimes feel like reality is just another tab in my browser.
Digital information is abundant with low to almost zero costs of production and distribution. We scroll through billions of pixels every day, all just bouncing off our retina while we’re trying to filter what’s relevant to us.
When data is accessible everytime, everywhere, all at once, attention is the real scarcity.
The rise of the curator is the result of internet users being overwhelmed by a massively saturated web that makes it impossible to disaggregate the signal from the noise. There’s an increasing willingness to pay for high-quality content.
Stealcam has a different approach how to end the era of apathetic content
connonsumption: users pay for every single bite.
Imagine you opened Instagram and only saw pixelated squares. You only have a limited amount of ETH to spend, so you can only reveal a few images. Which ones do you choose? The one by your best friend? The one by Timothée Chalamet that might be re-stolen by other fans within seconds? Think about that for a while. I haven’t found an answer to this question myself but it’s interesting to see how economic constraints and incentives affect where our attention goes.
And think about it the other way round: how will the desire to see exclusive content drive economic decision-making? How much are we willing to sacrifice to see what our friends and role models have seen?
Social platforms as game engines?
After Evan Spiegel launched Snapchat, the main thing the team was focusing on was building a product people want to use. They deprioritized revenue to create an exciting and fun product.3
It’s still too early to say if Stealcam is building a sustainably valuable app for its users. But it’s fairly obvious how much fun users are already having right now:
‘Stealcam is brilliant and fascinating / Simple curiosity driven gamification / Could lowkey be the next OnlyFans-like network’ - @WrongNebula
The app itself is pretty gamified and includes all we status-seeking monkeys need, from leaderboards to an activity feed.
What I find even more fascinating is that users are already building games and other projects such as charity initiatives or NFT giveaways on top of Stealcam’s photo-sharing engine.
We saw many large game ecosystems organically developing into social platforms. Platforms like Stealcam becoming a framework for community-built games feels like a new direction for social media.
‘[We’re ]innovating towards a multiplayer paradigm that we believe will usher in a new era of participatory media where content is valued for the cumulative involvement of multiple parties instead of a single individual.’ - @nichanank
The value of any kind of social network has always been dependent on its members: the better the guests, the better the party. But now, users are able to actively develop their own ideas within this framework, therefore shaping and co-creating how we interact with the platform. Social networks can become game engines.
Is Stealcam the social platform we were all waiting for?
Decentralized Social has been around for a while with many different concepts emerging over the last few months.
The most notable ones are Lens (a composable and decentralized social graph) and Farcaster (a sufficiently decentralized network). Web2 players like Instagram and Twitter are also slowly but steadily tapping into the space of experimenting with decentralized concepts.
But despite the large-scale unhappiness with Twitter, the massive concerns about data security on TikTok, and the tiredness to scroll through endless feeds of aesthetics and memes on Instagram4, most of the web3 alternatives haven’t really taken off so far.
Until now, most of today’s larger web3 projects are simply decentralized counterparts of existing web2 concepts. Obviously, the fact that users finally own their personal data, the portability of our social graph, and increasing independence from centralized platforms are strong arguments in favor of web3 solutions. But are these advantages compelling enough to convince a critical amount of crypto-natives and newbies to make a switch?
Status vs. utility
When Stani Kuchelov announced the launch of Lens last year, the excitement was huge. Lens handles were Crypto Twitter’s Dior Saddle Bag - everybody wanted to have one. But the ratio of users who used their profile name for more than just social signaling is still not comparable to web2 networks.
As of February 2023, roughly 50% of the close to 110K profile owners are active at least once per month. Farcaster has a lower ratio, with 3.2K monthly active casters out of 11K users.
For now, it seems like for most users the key motivation to set up a Lens or Farcaster profile is social status, not utility. Personally, I truly love Farcaster because of its high-quality, little-noise environment. And there are lots of cool things being built in both ecosystems. But to somebody waiting for the bus who just scrolls through the app for a few minutes, the UI and UX still very much resemble centralized counterparts - there are no truly exciting new features (yet).
If it’s already hard to make crypto-natives use the platform - how to convince people who don’t even have a wallet yet?
Stealcam is different: it’s a web3 native social network that combines unique social and economic incentives, facilitating a new kind of pixel-based communication.
I recently had a conversation with Dean Eigenmann - he said something that I couldn’t stop thinking about:
Kids don’t use platforms - they use media.
Does that mean that the next big social platform has to introduce a new medium that builds the framework for 1:1 and 1:n relationships? We had text, photos, videos, sound, disappearing photos, … - what’s next? Pixel-collages? NFTs? Maybe both.
Most Decentralized Social platforms such as Lens and Farcaster are predominantly targeting crypto-native users instead of ‘normies’ without on-chain experience.
As most platforms and apps require users to already have a wallet or install a wallet upon registration, crypto-skeptics don’t even complete the initial sign-in process without further guidance and support.
Luckily, we’re seeing more and more improvements and integrations allowing for a more seamless onboarding experience that makes wallet creation & connection, and the purchase of first tokens as easy as possible.
So far, most web3 platforms were not appealing enough for normies to enter previously unknown territory. We’re still searching for the use cases that will bring more normies into the space and ultimately be the trigger for mass adoption.
To onboard users without no intention to ever buy any cryptocurrency, we need other overarching incentives that make people set up a wallet for the means of doing something that’s only possible with a wallet.
Imagine Kim Kardashian sharing a Stealcam post with her 349M Instagram followers. If you reveal the image you know where she’s currently having her daily coffee.
Imagine brands hiding discount codes or creators pixelating previews of their next videos.
Maybe most of today’s internet users don’t want to use crypto. They seek belonging, exclusivity, status, and social mimesis.
With the right partners and a few more upgrades, Stealcam could meet all these desires while ‘accidentally’ onboarding the masses.5
Some final thoughts & remarks
I’m not used to being early. Being part of a social network at such an early stage is exciting, and I’m incredibly grateful for this experience. I’m aware that this abundance of adrenaline and dopamine might have affected the way I think about Stealcam. I can’t wait to read this post again in a few months to see how wrong (or right) I was with my predictions - but no regrets, not bets :)
I’m also not used to sharing my hypotheses in public. I hope you enjoyed reading this piece. If not, I’m open for any kind of constructive feedback! Feel free to DM me. I’m @nonieengel on Twitter.
If you want to chat about the future (and presence) of social media and web3, PLEASE REACH OUT. I’d love, love, love to meet you!
Shumon Basar/Douglas Coupland/Hans-Ulrich Obrist, The Extreme Self (Do yourself a favor and read this book! You can order it here)
I know I’m following a very basic model here. As we all know, reality is always more complex than thought experiments.
Don’t get me wrong, there are few things I enjoy more than a good meme.
One of the key updates I’m thinking of right now is in-app wallet creation upon registration for people who don’t bring their own. Filters would be another improvement to let users search for content they’re interested in and avoid massive disappointments.