Bill Ottman (How to build and run a ‘free speech social network’?)
00:00:34 What drove Bill to start minds.com back in 2011? Why minds.com is fundamentally different than other social networks?
00:07:31 Why did the ‘legacy’ social networks get so big?
00:11:22 Is there a better engagement algorithm? How ‘manipulative’ is the current engagement algorithm?
00:14:20 Why social networks all have such a similar business model and why they all struggle to keep you on the site (through emotional manipulation).
00:18:15 Are conservative media outlets really at an disadvantage on social media platforms? Why some make it and some don’t?
00:23:01 Is banning ‘offensive accounts’ by Facebook/ Twitter a good business decision?
00:29:48 How does minds.com run their backend? Can they easily be shut down by one cloud provider?
00:34:35 Could you run a whole website based on ‘blockchain web services’?
00:37:50 What should be the content moderation policy of a free speech social network like minds.com? Should ‘hate speech’ be a bannable offense?
00:52:06 Will we continue to put ‘social layers of separation’ between us?
01:02:46 Why are we all still on Facebook if we feel it is so bad for society?
Bill Ottman is the CEO and co-founder at Minds.
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Torsten Jacobi: Hey, so you run Minds.com since 2011, right? So it’s an alternative social network. If you can give us the 30,000 feet view of Minds.com.
Bill Ottman: Yeah, Minds is an open source crypto social network. Basically, functionally similar to major social platforms except under the hood, we’re trying to do everything the opposite. So we actually care about people’s privacy. We have end to end encryption in our messenger. All of our code is fully transparent so anyone can inspect our algorithms. Anyone can even clone our whole site and make their own app with our code. We have a First Amendment based content policy. We’re very passionate about free expression. And we also reward creators with both crypto and dollars cash for their contributions. And we’re very focused on revenue sharing. And we’re also community owned. Over 1500 members of Minds actually own stock in the company. So we sort of are building a much more kind of people powered ethos.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, I’d say you’re the Green Bay Packers of social media. They’re owned by their fans. Nice. At least to a good extent. I don’t know, it’s 100%. Yeah, but you know, they really built their brand well with that little ad on when you when you start in 2011. We know that social media has gone crazy in the whole debate about social media really exploded last year, especially with the election. When you start in 2011, what was the rationale behind it? What was your moment where you said, okay, we need to start minds?
Bill Ottman: Basically, the combination of all of the surveillance scandals and just total lack of transparency. I mean, if you if you look at the leading networks on the planet, you know, most of them, I mean, they’re basically all closed source and proprietary, meaning they don’t share their code. But then meanwhile, you have projects like Linux, or Wikipedia, and Firefox, and, you know, major players who are open source and community powered, and, you know, not exploiting their users, and they have managed to, you know, enter into like the most competitive, you know, they’re like Wikipedia is like a top 10 site, Mozilla Firefox is a very popular browser. You know, and we see the same thing happening with Bitcoin, it’s like open source software is eating software. So that’s just going to keep happening and it’s going to happen in social, social is going to become more decentralized, it’s going to become more respectful of users, going to give users more power and control. It’s just where things are going. So, you know, we we kind of saw that coming back then.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, well, that’s a lot of foresight, man. When we look into open source, a lot of people doubted in the first place, because it’s a bit of you exploit the developers, you just said exploit the users, it doesn’t do it, right, it exploits the developers. So speaking, I was I was talking to Daniel Gross a while ago, runs an accelerator. And he’s like, so it’s still being in the open source industry for 10 years, it’s all mystery to him, that there’s so much going on in open source, but so little in close source, because there is no monetary incentive, right, there is just an incentive to be rewarded with human recognition that you have produced some great code, but there is no monetary incentive. And he says to his surprise, this might outweigh actually the monetary incentive.
Bill Ottman: Oh, the recognition? I mean, that’s a that’s a there’ve been studies about it, the proof developers are much more motivated when they’re contributing to open source software, as opposed to, you know, some corporation who’s just going to hide everything they did forever. And, you know, you don’t get to have other people build on top of it. But I would sort of reject that open source cannot be profitable. Because, you know, there are a number of licenses and strategies, which can be used, you know, and a typical like Apache or MIT open source license, which gives the, you know, whoever’s using it the ability to basically take the changes and make their stuff proprietary, you know, there, that’s one route. And there’s a lot of that that’s a great license. But, you know, for instance, our code is agplv3, which is actually like a copy left license. So anyone can do whatever they want with their code, they can monetize it, they can make their own app. But if they create changes, they have to share the changes with everybody, including us. So that’s the difference between a copy left license and a typical open source license. But then you have things like what Uniswap is doing. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, they’re a decentralized trading protocol on Ethereum, very popular project, Uniswap.org. For their newest version, they’re doing a time delayed GPL. So basically, for two years, nobody can fork them and compete with them. But after two years, they can. Because look, I mean, you’re not going to attract developers if you’re not open source at this point.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good strategy. Because, you know, in the end, and we know that code is moving so quickly in the software industry, six months later, a year later, usually, whatever you produce is outdated. And I realized this myself when I write code, that I was really proud of two years ago. And I look back and it’s completely worthless, because AI have grown a little, you know, my coding has gotten better. But B, also the solutions that I proposed that were really difficult problems at the time, they’re like, they’ve been solved millions of times now. So that’s just really fascinating with this whole Github repository where we download and upload our code. So we have this brain, this supercomputer brain of all the humans together already works on Github, right? And it’s quite amazing. And we also obviously see this now rolling out to different industries. When you look back into the social networks that have sprung up, they, they’re the opposite, right? They’re very close source and not very open with the users, but seeming that they have become extremely popular, right? So they have attracted the masses, they have 100 million users, I don’t know how many uniques they actually are, they’re the active uniques they have, but Twitter or Facebook, there’s an incredible amount of users. And I’m, I saw them happening, right? I’m here in Silicon Valley in 2007, I never realized this would be such a big deal. Why do you think they made it so big?
Bill Ottman: Well, they tapped into the venture capital nerve, and they were able to basically fund it until they made it. And, you know, they were first to market. So when you are the first, you know, really functional social networks coming onto the scene, that’s, it’s a big advantage. And I think that, look, I give them credit to a certain degree for pushing through and hitting the critical mass and, and being the first to really connect to the planet. I think that, you know, that takes a lot of hard work. They have great designers and developers who work at these companies, researching retention and growth and virality. And so, look, there’s a lot of great thinkers there. And so they did it because they worked hard and they studied the market and they knew what people wanted. And then, but they also use dirty tactics with their surveillance in order to grow. So, you know, they basically spy on people in order to grow. They target, you know, they extract contact information, they do all that kind of stuff. So it makes it harder for more, you know, companies focus on privacy to grow, because they’re not willing to use the same 30 tricks that, that the big networks used, we’re sort of relying on more word of mouth and, and sustainable campaigns. So, you know, but, but what I find interesting is that most of the mainstream apps are now all basically the same app. I mean, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Instagram, all, they’re the same app. I mean, essentially, they have slightly different features, but they all have group chat, they all have feeds, they all have, you know, comments, it’s, it’s the same thing. So it’s coalescing where the humanity has almost sort of decided on the functionality that it likes. That’s why we have a lot of those features. You know, our unique characteristic is that we have this whole like monetization feature and this whole crypto feature, and we’re trying to decentralize the infrastructure, which none of them are. So yeah, I think that we learned a lot from Web 2, but Web 3 is sort of flipping Web 2 on its head, but taking what was valuable from it.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, one part that a lot of, a lot of researchers would seem very valuable, deemed very valuable, is the whole engagement algorithm, right? It’s the way that they, that Facebook, I think started with this 2013, they said, we don’t really care about how many followers subscribers you have, what we’re really worried about is how we see engagement happening for one particular item, and then if it is above a certain criteria, we start propagating it to users, to your friends, basically, and then it goes through the whole social graph. And it was very, it’s very limited, but it can measure, right? So there’s only likes, there’s comments, there’s very small user base, how long you look at the small amount of data that you actually have, but they started changing that, and they, it’s being credited as a way to, like a, like a, like a global voting machine, right? So be wrote on whatever is interesting, and that pops up to the, to the homepage of whatever you’re reading, your feed, right? And that seems to have been adopted now by everyone more or less, and TikTok seems to go all the way out there, right? So followers don’t even count anymore, it only matters how you, you know, viral your video is. But on the other hand, we’ve also seen that it, it, it bubbles up content that seems, and it, it makes, gives people a lens on content that’s really strange, right? It’s not the reality. And the question is still out there, I think, is a, can it, can there be a better engagement algorithm? A, and B, do you feel it is, it is an experiment worth taking over? We are messing with people’s you’re messing with people’s reality too much.
Bill Ottman: Oh, absolutely. I think that they have invaded your newsfeed to a malicious degree, where essentially what you are seeing is what they want you to see. It’s what, you know, it’s, it’s how it is what they know they can best manipulate you with and get you to engage with. And, you know, I’m not anti algorithm or anything like that for promoting popular content and whatnot, but I, I, you know, the stance that we’ve taken is and minds.com on the newsfeed, it is still reverse chronological in the discovery feeds, you know, we’ll do trending content. And, you know, I believe users should have the ability to turn on different algorithms that, you know, fit their taste. I think there’s a lot of potentially positive stuff you can do with algorithms to, you know, not necessarily even build echo chambers to break echo chambers. There’s, there’s a lot of interesting experimentation that is already being done. But when they force your feed, you know, they make it so you’re not seeing the people’s content that you follow. I mean, what is the point? That’s why we all signed up for those sites. And so if you built up a million followers on Facebook, suddenly you’re reaching 2% of them. I mean, that’s a, that’s a contract violation to me. I mean, the contract that everyone signed up for was I follow you, I see your stuff. Now, it’s, I mean, TikTok’s a little bit different because they did that from the beginning. And, but, but, you know, when people spend years building up an audience, and then suddenly that audience is like, you can’t even reach them. It’s just like, okay, this is, I don’t trust them at all. I mean, we per, you know, we had some huge pages on Facebook that in our early days, we would drive a lot of traffic from. But, you know, for, for independent creators, for independent brands, the most important thing is that you maintain access to your users and audience. If you have a middleman in between you and them, your business has a very high risk point, and we know that they will betray you again.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, I mean, I look at Facebook pages, I have 80 million subscribers or followers, and you get three likes on most of their posts. Unbelievable. They do 30 posts a day, and there’s really good content, right? It’s, it’s content that is unique and original, and it’s not crazy. It’s just, however, I don’t know how they build it of date, what they invested into this subscriber count, but it clearly is a lost investment, and you have to write it off completely. I think that’s true for most people who went with this idea on Facebook. And I feel the fraud too. I think that’s, that’s a real problem. When I see it from the other side of the Facebook side, I obviously see that it was probably easy to hack. It was easy to, to, to, what Facebook is interested in is spending a lot, or Twitter, a lot of, and you guys, a lot of time on the same platform, right? You want to keep that user as long as possible and extract money in terms of advertising revenue, right? So that the, I feel the incentives are very strong on the social networking side, on either social networking to keep the user within that ecosystem. And the question is, you know, how far are you willing to go? And obviously, Facebook and Twitter, they have a lot of venture capital to answer for, right? They pushed it all the way. But I think the, the business model is the same, right? Because it’s free content in the end.
Bill Ottman: Oh, I absolutely understand why they did it. They do know what you want to click on. And they do, they’ve proven this. They know how to alter your emotions. They know how to keep you hooked. But to me, you know, your newsfeed is, it’s not in its core function that different from like your email inbox. You know, your email inbox is some, you know, if your email provider, if Gmail suddenly started, which actually I’ve noticed that I don’t use them, but I, I’ve noticed that they have started to like kind of put certain things in there. But people would freak out. I mean, no one would accept that. Oh, Gmail’s just going to sort of decide how my inbox is ordered. No, you’re going to decide how your inbox is ordered, because that is your ground truth for your information and your, in your communications. So the fact that to me, the newsfeed is an important source of information for, for everyone who spends all their time kind of curating their own feed. And so what these companies have decided is we know better than you what you want. And that I just disagree. Facebook, no, no, no, you do not know more than me what I want to read. I want to read, I want full access and they don’t, they won’t give you full access. I mean, they, maybe they say that they’ll let you, you know, go back into subscription mode. But and again, you should have the option to tailor your feed the way that you want it. But when, you know, there, there are thousands of variables involved in their algorithms and behind the scenes, it’s not simply they’re feeding you what is most popular, what they think you’re going to engage with the most. They’re also hiding things that they don’t want you to see. So it’s not simply a, you know, there’s rewards for popular content. And then that goes to more people. It’s that if they deem these are blacklisted sites or whatnot, they will be hidden from reality.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, I find that interesting. There is, and I don’t know if you follow that, the case study of a daily wire, a daily wire is a conservative publisher, right? What they’ve actually have done, and there’s been quite a bit of controversy about that, that they have about 20 Facebook pages that have each about a million followers. And I think they inherited, they bought them, I don’t know where they got those from. And what they do, they basically push out the whatever they publish on dailywire.com to those news feeds. And apparently now have more engagements than anyone on Facebook, including CNN and everyone else. I don’t really know how that worked. But Facebook and Zuckerberg in person, realize this is something that they, they’re okay with, right? So it’s a strategy that’s very aggressive. So someone is obviously trying to to get enough engagement for these daily wire posts, a very conservative nature where you feel like Facebook would not allow those because they obviously have a left dating agenda. They always had, I feel. But they’ve gotten away with this. And when we look at other conservative accounts that didn’t make the cut, especially in the last two years, I always felt like, man, these accounts were pushing it a little too hard. Like, yes, they were banned for reasons that their hardcore conservative agenda, we had this with Alex Jones, definitely played a role. But I think they pushed whatever they can, they can to hack the algorithm in the first place. And maybe that’s what annoyed Facebook. What I, what I felt is that there was, especially in 2020, and maybe that’s just the way I look at news, there was a big debate that conservative media was, was having a hard time on most social media. And they ascribed it to, and I, I’m still surprised by this, because all of these organizations are heavily left leaning. And of course, they look at stuff that doesn’t really vibe with the ideology of most employees. They of course look at it in, they try to push them off as much as they can. Let’s put it this way, right? It’s not, it’s not, they are enforcing their own rules slightly different, depending on the content and who’s on the other side. And I was always surprised that they would, they have waited so long to push people off, they didn’t like on the platform, right? So, I was surprised by this, but it seemed like most of the US public was very surprised by that fact.
Bill Ottman: Yeah, look, I mean, there are, there are always going to be exceptions. So, you know, the daily wire, if you’re saying that their reach is, is very high right now, I think that I’m not necessarily surprised by that, you know, the, I’m sure there are people at Facebook who fight for them behind the scenes. And, you know, I think a lot of people, a lot of people hate and a lot of people love Ben Shapiro. And, you know, maybe somehow the daily wire is their argument that they’re not being biased, which they, which they like to have. So, you know, I’m, I don’t subscribe to that Facebook only targets conservatives. I mean, they, they typically target anti authoritarian groups across the spectrum. I mean, they, I know, I know far left publications who are, you know, anti war who were banned. I know, you know, they banned a bunch of anti fire accounts, they banned, I mean, censorship will always come for you at the end of the day, if you call for it. So, you know, Facebook’s terms are very restrictive. And, you know, that’s really where my beef is, because their terms, essentially what they’re doing to the internet, they are creating chaos on the internet. That’s what the policies of all of these social media companies are doing. By not having a First Amendment based policy at such a critical mass, I don’t necessarily think that every single social network needs to have a First Amendment based policy. But when you’re that big, I think that you kind of need to be taking more of a common carrier approach. And, you know, when they ban someone like Alex Jones, that just polarizes the world more. And it doesn’t even cause, you know, you can’t hide the information. People are still getting as much Alex Jones as they want. And, but when you ban, especially extremists on both sides, that causes them to, in many cases, get violent. There’s a number of studies documenting this, showing that censorship exacerbates violence and extremism. So, you know, they would say, oh, this is our policy because we care about a safe community. But actually, they’re creating a less safe internet.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, I think what they are not really spending out is that even say, the accounts they ban is probably 1% of their audience. They don’t really need this 1% because there’s no advertising money in that area anyways. Otherwise, they would keep those accounts, right? So, they really make a capitalist assertion, do we make money with this account or not? And how does it reflect back to the rest of our advertisers? And I think the vast majority of content on Facebook, even if there’s a lot of extremes, it’s fluff, right? So, it’s personal content. And this is what, in the end, they want it so safe that every advertiser is fine with this. Yes, there’s a few on the fringes, but they don’t really need them for the advertising model. And I think this is what they’re really concerned about. They don’t feel like they need to be close to the first amendment, right? They don’t feel they’re in this government position or they hope they are not that big that they have been put into this position, right? They feel like we need this little enterprise, we have this little startup and we need to make money for our investors, which I think they should, right? Which is the capitalist role they should play.
Bill Ottman: But I don’t necessarily buy that, you know, I think that if you position it right, a first amendment policy can put you in it, a hand to make a position to make more money. I mean, you know, banning Donald Trump, like, that’s definitely a major financial hit that they’re taking. And yes, they’re weighing the cost benefit of all the bad press that they’re going to get if they let them back on, because, you know, the other social networks aren’t doing it. And it’s this big PR game. But that’s just, it’s not, it is not a reliable communication infrastructure for the planet. It is a exploitive network that is just preying upon its users. And it’s just not something that I care to give an ounce more of my energy ever again. And that’s why I don’t, I don’t participate in these networks anymore, because you don’t need to, you know, I get better reach on mines than I ever did on, on Facebook. It’s, and I know that it’s a real, it’s reliable, like humanity needs to be thinking about open source decentralized encrypted infrastructure going into the future. That is, that’s it. If the platform doesn’t check those three boxes, then it’s not sustainable. And, you know, it can be used, but it’s not what is going to represent the future of humanity. That’s why we’re seeing crypto take off so organically, because it, it spreads itself. The software is so good and beneficial to users that it doesn’t need a marketing department. It just spreads.