The Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearings brought issues of privacy and data ownership starkly into the public eye, prompting even the least technologically advanced users to give some thought to the way their information is being used by major media companies.
Bill Ottman was quite ahead of the curve, launching Minds in 2011 with the aim of creating a different social network – one that would not only let users post the genius exploits of their pets, but also foster a certain kind of community with a specific set of values.
While Minds has enjoyed slow but steady organic growth over the years, the increasing awareness of decentralized technologies could now put Minds into the spotlight. It might not single-handedly topple Facebook overnight, but that’s not how Bill Ottman sees the future of social media, anyway.
Katya Michaels: You started Minds in 2011, the web and mobile apps were launched in June 2015. What has been happening since then?
Bill Ottman: We have been constantly growing– over a million users now. It’s mostly steady organic growth, with a few big jumps based around big privacy breaches or changes in algorithms on major social networks. These types of events cause people to search for alternatives.
We considered it very unethical what Facebook did with their algorithm.
It used to be possible to drive a lot of traffic to websites through Facebook, but with algorithm changes, you couldn't even reach your own fans anymore. This really affected the whole media industry.
Now, small to medium sized creators are finding it easier to grow an audience on Minds than on Facebook, even though we are literally a thousandth of the size because we have a way to break out of the void.
When we launched in 2015, we had a point system for boosting posts. This quickly became the most popular feature on the network. Now, our Ethereum-based token system works essentially the same way, but on a Blockchain. We reward people for the engagement that they receive and referrals that they make.
Then, they can use those tokens to boost their posts through the platform or through other users. For example, they can offer another user 100 tokens to share a photo – it’s pure peer to peer advertising with no middleman. An application concurrent with tokens is a crowdfunding tool, so creators can set tiers of rewards and offer monthly subscriptions with exclusive content.
KM: Where are you with your token? How do you expect it to be affected by regulations?
BO: Currently we're on the Ethereum Link testnet. These are not real tokens yet. We're doing going through extensive security auditing to make sure all of our smart contracts are rock solid and consulting with legal.
Before we implemented crypto over the last six months, users could send each other points or dollars with Stripe. We took all of that out to focus fully on crypto and our revenue in the future is going to be in tokens.
On day one of any potential token sale, the tokens will be immediately usable. There will be no future products, we're not doing any kind of presales, we're not doing lockup. We're really trying to check off all the boxes to fall into the utility category.
I'm actually glad that we waited because a lot of social apps that have launched crypto over the last year are in a difficult situation now because they did SAFT agreements for future tokens or they didn't have a product.
KM: When Minds got started seven years ago, there were fewer people who recognized the issues with major platforms like Facebook. Will rising awareness of privacy breaches and Blockchain technologies give decentralized platforms a boost?
BO: Absolutely. Without spending money on marketing, we're seeing fully organic growth directly in line with Cambridge Analytica or similar events. I think that people are becoming much more aware, they're starting to care more.
We think people deserve to be rewarded for their energy. Facebook, Google, Twitter, proprietary social media – they have an extractive model. They're assuming that you're lucky to be using the platform for free and they're going to use your data as your form of compensation.
Now, people are starting to understand that users, influencers, content creators are valuable. The people are actually what constitutes the network. Some of these independent creators on Youtube have more social reach than CNN. They are big brands, and the proprietary networks have to be very careful about driving them away.
Our strategy is the reward mechanism. Earning tokens for your contribution – that's something that everyone cares about, even if you're into Internet freedom, privacy and open source technology.
There’s a learning curve with crypto. First you need to appeal a little to the common human aspect, and as they come to the platform, they are exposed to the other layers of value such as freedom, privacy, transparency.
KM: Facebook has billions of users and they're not going to offload en masse anytime soon. How does Minds face the adoption challenge? Would you try to get big content creators to come over?
BO: We already have some big Youtubers and Twitter influencers on the platform A lot of our big growth spurts are when a content creator with a million followers says “follow me on Minds” and overnight we will see 25,000 more users.
Certainly, the influencers hold a huge amount of the power. That is where the waves of migration to more decentralized, incentivized networks will come from.
KM: I feel there would be a self-selection process for decentralized social network adoption, with people who are more concerned about data ownership being more likely to make the switch.
BO: For sure. Probably 90 percent of our current user base are people who are very aware of these issues and personally invested in helping to build solutions. We had an equity crowdfunding round last year, actually setting the record in the US for fastest to raise a million – and it all came from 1500 members of our community. That's a lot of people who are invested in these causes and are willing to become shareholders.
KM: Some new entertainment platforms are trying to change the advertising model to a framework where users choose to engage with advertising and get rewarded for it. Is that something that Minds is considering – third party advertisement for token compensation?
BO: We're certainly looking into having users watch ads and get compensated for that, with a distribution model that will support the creator as well. But we're staying away from third-party ad networks. We actually built our own internal ad network specifically because of issues with surveillance. I would say probably 99 percent of ad networks out there are basically spyware.
KM: With user generated content, there are always going to be issues with content quality control, legal considerations. How is Minds handling that? What is your stance on curation and censorship?
BO: In terms of copyright, we handle it like anyone else. If we get a DMCA request, we take content down, but that hasn't been much of a problem at all. We spent a lot of time over the last year working on our reporting, blocking and filtering tools, so that users can have as much control over their experience as possible.
This is actually one of my main interests right now – content policy and the best strategy for diminishing hate speech online.
Dozens of studies show that censorship amplifies hate speech.
Networks that have extensive hate speech policies think that they're fixing the problem, but what's actually happening is that they aggravate the trolls and the discussions get inflamed. If you look at the rise of political polarization in the last year or two, it is directly related to what's happening on Youtube and Twitter and Facebook.
We're not standing up for free speech just for the sake of it – we believe this is the strategy the Internet needs on a long-term macro basis. We have that larger mission to not polarize politically and create an honest, open and positive tone for the network.
People really appreciate that, even if they have drastically different ideas.
KM: That’s a very challenging thing to do because it seems like the system selects for extremity, and then it becomes difficult to defend moderate positions.
BO: I can't agree more. It's called the Streisand effect – when you silence something, it makes it louder. If you ban books, it makes people want to read them more. It's certainly tricky, but the right to freedom of speech and First Amendment protection exists for the purpose of defending ideas that most people find controversial. You don't need freedom of speech for things most people agree with.
I do think that we need to start having this conversation with the bigger networks. Reddit knows as much as anyone that the amplification of extremism happens when you censor, but they’ve gone down the rabbit hole over the last couple of years, censoring things arbitrarily. They've fallen away from where they originally were, and so has Twitter. It's very hard because the public pressure to cave is intense.
KM: A lot of these social media companies started out as mavericks, giving users freedom of expression, but years go by, they get big and they become the establishment. Do you think that’s something that can affect crypto and Blockchain companies as well?
BO: Well, look at what just happened to Coinbase– it banned Julian Assange. First he got banned from PayPal and there was a big uproar. Then he started taking donations in Bitcoin, and now Coinbase said no.
That's a perfect example of a crypto company that ends up becoming the establishment, but it’s very nuanced. Nuance for me is the word of the year, if not the last few years.
Obviously Coinbase is essential to the growth of crypto in general and it's a great company, but it’s also fully, totally proprietary. They've had transparency issues a little bit over the years.
Now there are also issues with privacy and Blockchain because Blockchain is immutable and forever. When people talk about publishing things to the Blockchain, but then wanting to delete them – you're getting into a complicated situation. Which would you prefer? The ability to delete or the decentralized power of the blockchain?
KM: What's the roadmap for Minds over the next months? What are you hoping for?
BO: We're certainly aiming for a token sale this year. I think that we are seeing other examples like Steemit working – the SEC is not taking them down. Also, we are definitely focusing on further decentralization, but balancing that with the nuance of privacy versus the immutability that comes with Blockchain.
Our technology is fully open source and decentralized, so anyone can take our stack and start their own app. That's really important because those apps can be independent, but they can also potentially federate together.
We don't see the next Facebook being a singular centralized entity. It really can't be. Realistically it's going to be some sort of a federation – whether it's a federation of networks or individuals in control of their own data joining networks that are a decentralized.
KM: So you see the future of media as stepping back from monopolization – being fragmented, but interoperable?
BO: For sure. It’s naive to expect everything in social media to be decentralized all at once. Sure, that's a great goal to have. But pragmatically and realistically, there's a reason that it hasn't been achieved yet. A lot of this tech is still very immature.
There's value in having a big community and making the process easy for everyone. Our strategy is more of centralization moving towards decentralization, as opposed to starting off in a scattered mess and trying to get everyone involved that way.
In order for Blockchain and open source, privacy networks to compete with Facebook, we have an obligation to become competitive functionally.
We're getting much closer. Our mobile apps are much better, we have a lot of the tools that they have. If you look at what's happening with Instagram, Snapchat, Google – all these apps tend to coalesce, they have the same features and compete with each other. What we want to do is provide those services, but with a different set of core values.