The Project Liberty Foundation Institute sat down with Sara Wedeman, advisor to the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP). Trained as a psychologist, Sara has devoted her career to helping people and organizations successfully navigate what she calls the “Bermuda Triangle of people, money, and markets” — with a particular focus on technology. Currently, Sara is the resident psychologist and senior research consultant at MIT-CSAIL’s Advanced Network Architecture Group.
How did someone who started out as a therapist end up as an advisor to a decentralized social media protocol?
First, a bit of context. Lots of people associate psychology with psychotherapy, which is one of the things psychologists do. But the field is much broader than that and has a long history of distinguished contributions to science.
For instance, the social graph, central to DSNP, was developed during the 1930s by a psychologist (Helen Jennings) and a psychiatrist (Jacob Moreno). Kurt Lewin, also a psychologist, brought it to MIT — where it became network science1,2. MIT psychologist and Internet Hall of Famer J.C.R. Licklider’s vision of an “Intergalactic Computer Network” inspired the founding of ARPAnet in 1962.3 Psychologist Don Norman established the discipline of User Experience (UX), drawing on the work of psychologist James Gibson.4
In short, it is not entirely strange that I, with a degree in scientific and professional psychology, would develop a passion for computing and the Internet. It’s in my intellectual DNA.
I didn’t know any of this when I decided to become a psychologist, though. What I did know was that many people — including me — were in pain. I wanted to learn how to find my footing in life, and to help others find theirs. I deeply believe in the value of psychotherapy but have been increasingly drawn to and immersed in the world of technology.
You also make connections between your work within the banking industry and your philosophy and approach for DSNP. Just like for psychology in our previous question, could you also explain this link between what seem to be two very different matters?
Looking back, two events influenced me in ways that resonate with DSNP and Project Liberty.
The first is that I spent a good chunk of my childhood outside the United States, in places that were vastly different.5 The initial move was a shock to my young system, but it turned out to be a gift. Everyone needs comfort, but clinging for dear life to the familiar is self-defeating in the face of the wonders of the world. Similarly, trust is precious, trustworthiness is rare… and one equates familiarity with trustworthiness at one’s own peril.
The second event is that I finished my degree and started my first job — in banking, researching financial behaviour — just as the consolidation of global finance began.6 Back then I had never heard the word “disintermediation,” but what I could plainly see was this: when authority, decision-making power, and wealth departed a distributed network and were absorbed into an ever-smaller number of conglomerates, everything got worse for most people. Since then, watching this cycle repeat itself, I’ve seen how centralized authority, wealth and power fail to make systems stronger or better. Instead, they’ve made everything weaker while eroding the quality of just about everything. Robust and non-exploitative decentralized networks nourish everyone.
So, my education, experience, and personal interests “conspired” in the best possible ways to bring me to this place and this time and this work.
You use academic research methods to solve business problems. What does that bring?
The reason I use “academic research methods” is not particularly academic. It’s all about validity, reliability, and accuracy. Rigorous research helps you to avoid being deluded by your own assumptions and drawing sweeping, flawed conclusions because your sample was biased or too small. It makes a huge difference — especially when the stakes are high.
Accuracy and understanding are necessary but not sufficient. Asking good questions, then gathering piles of data to answer them; are means to an end. My goal is to design effective solutions, which means that I also test outcomes. Knowing what worked, or didn’t — and why — confers lasting value on the investment.
When we think of social media, people are desperate, they’ve got no solutions. We’re told we just have to put up with the negative effects. Can you put people back into a mindset of having agency and choice?
It’s a big problem. Attention is so seductive. Combined with amplification, it can become addictive and corrosive. It’s like a mental opioid crisis — at scale. The business model underlying social media is so broken. Companies make money by grabbing peoples’ attention, and ghastly things have always been attention-getters (case example: gaper delay7). To boost engagement, they feed people compelling content (while quietly taking possession of their personal information). There are few ways to prevent companies from hijacking your information and selling it to the highest bidder.And most people do not have (nor should they need) advanced technical skills. Protocols like DSNP prevent harm by allowing people to control their information by giving them choice, power, and authority — within a distributed network.
In history, when systems are corrupt, steam builds up and there’s a revolution. We might also fix things with small, progressive regulatory changes, but that’s only possible if you have hope.
Too often, revolutions start well but then turn on themselves, becoming what they opposed. Regulatory change is glacially slow, stifles energy, and often misses the mark. Consider this alternative: be opportunistic. Take advantage of existing arenas where you have the power to act — then act. It’s partly incremental, partly subversive — and it works. These ‘quick hits’ also demonstrate progress right away — building momentum and fuelling hope.
That connects to DSNP. We’re small, incremental, humble, and decentralized.
Exactly. Across history, change has rarely come from the citadel. Often, it originates at society’s periphery. Distributed networks allow people from many walks of life to connect, and that’s when the good stuff happens. You can’t change people, but you can engage them. Engagement that is mutual and authentic is also transformative.
Social media, as it works now, has increased anxiety overall and distrust in institutions. How hopeful are you that decentralization can help rebuild people’s individual agency but also our social cohesion?
Some conflict is necessary for vitality. Homogenous, overly cohesive communities are rarely innovative, and sometimes they are downright scary. The demand for conformity can oppress or cast out people who are “different.” My grandfather was born in rural Pennsylvania in 1884, and once said that the moment they paved the roads to small-town America, all the interesting people left, as he did.
Agency — knowing from experience that you matter to those in authority — is essential to social cohesion. Nobody can ‘cohere’ to a system in which they don’t count. I’m currently researching bad behaviour online, and am struck by the fragility of trust. Distrust of society’s cornerstone institutions is growing for a reason. Leaders may say they serve the people, but talk is cheap. If the culture favours self-interest over service, we pay, then feel betrayed and simply check out. This makes us even more vulnerable to persuasion on the part of malicious actors.
So, can you change the culture of large organizations that create negative impacts on the rest of us, like social media platforms?
No amount of beating on a staid and stolid power structure will bring about positive change. Leadership is a compact. If you’re exploiting those you’ve promised to serve, you’ll lose them the moment something better comes along. DSNP and blockchain hold promise, in part, by requiring accountability. They allow you to reclaim your autonomy from the black box of centralization.
As part of your interest in decentralized alternatives you recently attended the Polkadot conference in Denmark. What did you learn?
From the time I walked through the door into the conference space, I felt welcome. The sense of connection and shared mission was palpable. It’s called “walking the talk.”
I was moved by a presentation on decentralized finance made by a young Venezuelan entrepreneur. Venezuela’s is a command economy, where power and control are held by the central government. It’s a remarkably unstable system that has precipitated several economic crises. Because of this, his father had gone bankrupt three times. and each time, the family lost everything, rebuilt — and then it happened all over again. The trauma was real. He chose to work in DeFi because, having paid a steep price for centralization, he wanted to give people a path to stability.
Building a system we can depend on is hard work. Still, psychological research shows that acting to make things better for yourself and others fosters lived commitment. People are turning to tools like DSNP to reclaim their power. My research shows that they’re right.
1 Freeman, Linton. “The Development of Social Network Analysis.” ResearchGate, 1 Jan. 2004, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/239228599_The_Development_of_Social_Network_Analysis.
2 Freeman, L. C. (2011). The development of social network analysis–with an emphasis on recent events. The Sage handbook of social network analysis, 21(3), 26-39.
3 “J.C.R. Licklider Inductee Biography - Internet Hall of Fame.” Internet Hall of Fame, 20 Sept. 2023, https://www.internethalloffame.org/inductee/jcr-licklider.
4 Kaptelinin, Victor. “Affordances” Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF. 1 Feb. 2024 https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/affordances
5 One was an active war zone. My dad was a foreign service officer, and my family lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1971-1972.
6 How I landed there - on the heels of earning a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania — is a separate topic for another day.
7 The delay that results when drivers slow down to view an accident that occurred on the opposite side of the road.