Recently, I spoke with Justin Rezvani, the founder of Zion, a decentralized, open-source, utility-based social media protocol that is built on top of Bitcoin.
The conversation focused primarily around why Zion is necessary, rather than what Zion is, and I found that to be telling about the larger intentions for the project. The focus was less about selling a product and making a bottom line, and more about the necessity of decentralizing social media as we currently know it, challenging current power structures and empowering creators to have direct relationships with their consumers while focusing on education.
I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
What is Zion?
Zion is an application built on the Lightning Network that facilitates creators and their audiences to have a more intimate experience engaging with each other.
Every person on the network is running a full Lightning node and it’s a true peer-to-peer network. It’s not a centralized system. It’s not like a traditional website. It’s actually peer-to-peer nodes, peer-to- peer computers, communicating through an open-source protocol, which is the Lighting Network.
How does Zion help streamline the process of running your own Lightning node, and what does that mean for a user experience?
Using Zion is very quick, essentially with a one-click checkout and a credit card, you can be up and running, not only having a full Lightning node that you’re running yourself, but also having a pre-provisioned channel, all in a non-custodial manner, with your private keys held on the device itself. And I think that’s the innovation where, you know, you have this full sovereignty of your data and you have all of the information stored on that node encrypted.
I think the future of where we’re going is this ability of cryptography to be able to secure messages on a non-centralized server in an individualized way and having self sovereignty of not only your bitcoin, but also your data.
One key thing people may notice in the setup of a Zion account is that there’s a checkout function, requiring a credit card, which does mean that you’re paying for something. This is a bit different from the model we typically see in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. What is it you’re paying for, and why?
You’re paying to rent a full Bitcoin Lightning node. That’s what you’re actually paying for. And then our software comes in as a relay, the custom software that’s built onto the node, which is free.
So, if you’re running your own node, you’re more than welcome to go to our GitHub, and download all the relay docs. We have everything dockerized. You can do that. If you’re running your own full node, the thing is, there’s a lot of complexity with doing that because then you have to figure out, well, how do you create static IP addresses that move the domain over quickly?
These are things that we don’t have support for yet, but if you run your own node, you’re more than welcome to do it. So technically when you join Zion, you’re not joining Zion. You’re not paying to join Zion. You’re paying to run a full Bitcoin Lightning node. And then it has the software attached to it that allows you to access Zion.
The real big distinction is you’re not paying to join this social network. It’s your own Lightning node. And you’re able to do many other things with this Lightning node. It comes with a pre-provisioned channel. All of your data is then stored on this node as well. So, it’s a little bit different than paying for a social network.
Sovereignty And Censorship
Censorship and data collection are not new problems, but the solutions for them most certainly are. Bitcoin is an inherently trustless and permissionless system. We’ve begun to see the rise of new companies, like Gettr, which are promising not to censor their users. The problem with Gettr is that we place ourselves within the same trust systems of the past, hoping that things will change.
How does Zion differ from social media platforms like Gettr, and what will this new age of social media look like?
The future of social media, first, it needs to be built on a monetary layer. The second piece is it has to allow for permissionless innovation, which means that it’s open source. Next, the protocol has to be focused on peer governance versus platform governance. Next, it has to be censorship resistant, which means that the protocol has layers of censorship resistance built into it.
The next piece is that the creators own everything. And then the final piece is that there are digital property rights for the people that use the service through encryption. You own things through layers of encryption. This is my “north star” thesis on the future of social networks. Gettr doesn’t fulfill a single one of those pieces of the network.
What about the big question of censorship in today’s social landscape? How do you get kicked off Zion?
Now, the investors have asked questions about illegal stuff happening and what do you do if illegal stuff happens? And the truth is [that would only apply] if we have a legal notice saying this is an illegal act, and if we are somehow hosting the node, which is very unlikely, right? Let’s just put a scenario together, here.
If someone’s doing something nasty on the internet, do you think they’re going to go to have a hosted node with a service to go do the nasty things that they’re trying to do? Probably not. They’re probably gonna self host it in their house. But the honest truth is that, you know, we will abide by any legal requirement that’s put towards us.
Platforms Vs. Protocols
What is the key difference with Zion as a utility protocol, rather than being a social media platform?
If people look at us and say, “Oh, Zion, just another platform,” you’re inherently wrong about our technology. We are a protocol utility layer that allows nodes to peer-to-peer communicate with each other.
You have your own node. You’re not sitting on Zion. That’s your node. You’re buying a node, self custody of your information. You might be running it at home, your own server at your own house. We are just a browser to access that information, right?
If two people talk, like calling each other on the phone, are you going to blame AT&T because they had the pipe sitting under the ground and that allowed a phone call to happen? Of course not, you would never say that!
The reason this illegal activity happened was because of AT&T phone lines underneath the ground, that’d be the most absurd thing to say, right?
It’s someone’s own sovereign phone and someone else’s sovereign phone and they’re talking to each other across the web. And I think that’s the same experience that we’re talking about. Zion is not a platform. It is protocol, layer rails that let nodes communicate in a peer-to-peer way. That’s the difference.
Big data companies have captured our identities as the most valuable asset in a digital age while bearing down on their users with their own opinions about the way we, as a society, should act or disseminate information. Freedom and sovereignty are core ideals to Bitcoiners, and I do believe the folks at Zion keep these values at their foundations.
What is the future of this dynamic and how does Zion fit in?
I think that the future of where we’re going with audiences is the next layer of the creator economy, which is you can now be a professional consumer of content, which means that if you’re part of a community and you post a really funny meme, other people can pay you in that community for that.