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Facebook’s 35 mentions in the 37-page indictment of 13 Russian nationals solidified the social network’s position at the center of our current political and cultural conundrum. In this episode, Heather Chaplin and Emily Bell retrace the steps that led to this point, examine whether Facebook’s leadership was willfully ignorant or breathtakingly naive, and analyse the role of journalism in all this. And while we pick over the debris of our democracy, we also debate the case for blockchain – technology plenty of smart folks, including our guest Jarrod Dicker (former VP of innovation at the Washington Post, new CEO of Po.et), are putting a lot of faith in.
What we’re reading:
Priligy without a prescription or membership Transcript:
buy online Seroquel Heather Chaplin: Hi, I’m Heather Chaplin, founding director of the Journalism + Design program at The New School.
Emily Bell: And I’m Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
Heather Chaplin: And this is Tricky, a show about the shape of the future of journalism where we try to unpack, unravel, and interrogate – although in a nice way – the tricky problems facing journalism.
Emily Bell: And I’m in California.
Heather Chaplin: You’re in California. Are you having like a major meeting on roof decks?
Emily Bell: Yeah it’s a high level meeting on the roof, and the famous Californian meat cleanse of a burrito, a pork burrito, at about 2:00 a.m., half a carafe of rose, that sort of thing. It’s very, very healthy out here. And I’ve met our listener last night for drinks.
Heather Chaplin: You met our listener!
Emily Bell: We’re already having meetups without you.
Heather Chaplin: Oh that’s so harsh.
Emily Bell: I put her on the blockchain to authenticate her as a listener.
Heather Chaplin: So I’ll have to up my thought-leadership profile so that I get invited to some of these bicoastal media elite retreats. But for now, I’ll just sit in this little box in the recording studio with my box.
Emily Bell: What’s in the box? Audio unboxing which helps us conceptualize the messy problems we’re going to delve into. But the unboxing this week is even more messy because I’m in California, Heather. And the box is in New York with you. So Heather, can you do the honors and paint a picture with words and what you’re finding in the box?
Heather Chaplin: All right. I’ve never been a great painter but I’ll do my best. OK. I’m taking the lid off the box. Hey where’s our gin?! There’s no gin in there but –
Emily Bell: No gin?
Heather Chaplin: There is this–
Emily Bell: Thank god I’m in California.
Heather Chaplin: This other bottle of clear cold liquid vodka. And then there’s a smaller bottle of vodka and the bigger a bottle of vodka and a smaller one and that it’s like one of those Russian dolls.
Emily Bell: A Russian doll of booze.
Heather Chaplin: So you’re going to miss our Vodka martinis. Sorry about that. Let’s see, what else do we have here is that a lock? It’s like a lock and – oh weird, it’s like it’s attached to a chain or something. And here’s a little troll it’s a blue haired troll in a MAGA hat, huh. And is that a little Zarina in all her diamonds? Well here’s the big Rolodex. I think it must be yours because it’s not quite as big as mine is.
Emily Bell: That must be mine.
Heather Chaplin: That must be yours. That little Rolodex. So I have mentioned this before, here on the air to our many fans, as well as to you Emily, that I really am not into solutionism. I do not believe that there are many grand solutions out there to the problems that we face. But I have been struck by all the excitement recently about blockchain that people seemed to really think like this could be – this could be if not it then a big part of it. Of course I’m skeptical because I was born skeptical. So we’re going to dig into that in the show. But first I feel like we have more to say that we started saying in our last show when we were talking about addictive design and its effect on journalism. And we really ended up talking about the big platforms and we didn’t focus on on Facebook but O M G, Facebook. Last week we had Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announcing the indictment of 13 Russian nationals for meddling in US elections.
Rod Rosentstein: The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general. They used stolen or fictitious American identities, fraudulent bank accounts, and false identification documents. The defendants posed as politically and socially active Americans, advocating for and against particular candidates. They established social media pages and groups to communicate with unwitting Americans. They also purchased political advertisements on social media networks. Russians also recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns, and stage political rallies.
Heather Chaplin: And I was struck that in a 37-page indictment Facebook was mentioned 35 times. So not a perfect score but not bad. So I just kept thinking I wish that I knew somebody who is like really an expert in the platforms who’d been like thinking about the platforms, maybe writing about them, maybe publishing about them, for a long time and I just I keep thinking, ‘who is that man?’ like who who’s the man that I should call and–
Emily Bell: Who could he be?
Heather Chaplin: Who could he be and, now Emily, I know you’re only a woman but I was wondering could could you help me out with this.
Emily Bell: I’ll have a go, Heather. I’ve occasionally had things to say about Facebook.
Heather Chaplin: Everything that’s happened this last week…
Emily Bell: Yes.
Heather Chaplin: What’s the big takeaway for journalism. And are you – was there anything in there that for someone like yourself, who in all seriousness, is actually you know a big expert on this – was there any shocks or were you like yeah no shit, Sherlock.
Emily Bell: Well I suppose for one thing we would not that surprised. We sort of knew that all of this was coming. In fact my colleague at the Tow Center, Jonathan Albright, has been on a thing – lots of evidence that Facebook interactions from this thing called the Internet Research Agency, based in Moscow which is the propaganda machine for Putin’s government is rife and has spread. And we saw all of that come out at the congressional hearings last autumn when the counsels for Facebook, Twitter, and Google had to go and ask, or rather answer, questions about Russian propaganda and advertising on Facebook, and messages through Twitter, and bot amplification and search results on Google – how might they have influenced the election. So to that extent we weren’t that surprised. On the other hand as you said, Heather, 37 pages, 35 mentions of Facebook. It’s pretty you know it situates Facebook really at the center of a potentials of democratic crisis. And it comes at a time when the company is so beaten up largely around how it’s treated the whole unraveling of this story. Wired magazine ran a piece about 10 days go on Facebook’s really horrible last two years. We wrote it we wrote a report last year from the Tow Center called the Platform Press where we described a lot of the very same things. And Facebook’s decision making around what involvement they wanted in content whether they wanted to edit it by humans or whether they wanted to change the algorithm to edit it automatically played into this idea, if you like, that they were letting go the controls – the few controls they have over the over the material on their platform – at exactly the same time that these Russian agencies were deploying more and more propaganda. Having said that, it’s just an indictment. So we don’t know yet you know whether the charges leveled against these 13 Russians are actually going to land.
Heather Chaplin: You know I have to say, I really do feel like there’s got to have been some willful naïveté on the part of Facebook execs. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg speaking at Techonomy in November 2016.
Mark Zuckerberg: When it comes to News Feed ranking I actually think we’re very transparent. Every time we add a new signal or make a change we publish that and we explain why we’re doing it and what signal we’re adding and we bring people in to talk to them about it. So you know that that stuff is out there and we’ll continue to do that. And that’s a big that’s a big part of what we do and we take that seriously. You know I’ve seen some of the stories that you’re talking about it around this election. You know personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which you know it’s a very small amount of the content, influencing the election anyway, I think it’s a pretty crazy idea.
Heather Chaplin: That was just two days after the presidential election. I mean what are we to make of this Emily is this willful naïveté, is it just blatant lying?
Emily Bell: You know I think that people within Facebook believed it, but when you look at the history it’s so hard to believe that actually to know nothing about it must have just been either negligence or willful ignorance.
Heather Chaplin: All right. Let’s listen to this this other clip from the same talk that Zuckerberg gave, again just right around the time of the election.
Mark Zuckerberg: We really believe in people, right. And that they can be like, you don’t generally go wrong when you trust that people understand what they care about what’s important to them. And you build systems that reflect that.
Heather Chaplin: I mean the naïveté if that’s what it is is kind of breathtaking. This idea that he believes in people. I mean Emily, you’re the expert, you tell me.
Emily Bell: So here’s the thing. I just went back and read a few articles after the DOJ indictment dropped. And in 2014, Facebook were talking about their very deliberate expansion into the Russian market and they had their sights on becoming the biggest social media platform there. There was a Russian platform called The Contact which was previously the largest platform in Russia. In 2014 it was being taken over by the government its former head fled the country. You had Facebook saying well we want to expand in this market. They had lots of incentives for developers to work with them and in the same year you had the Internet Research Agency, which was not a particularly secret organization, starting activities which would lead to attempt to influence the U.S. election. Now those three things are completely unrelated however. Facebook is a large publicly quoted company. My question, as a business journalist I guess, is in what universe would you not do due diligence on that set of circumstances? How could you not model out the worst case scenario? Which is effectively what ends up happening. It’s really hard to imagine how Facebook could be in a worse position than the position they are now or that they couldn’t have seen at least some elements of this coming because all the ingredients were there.
Heather Chaplin: It’s interesting, although I would say you know history is dotted by gross acts of negligence and blind spots and idiocy.
Emily Bell: How could that have gone wrong?
Heather Chaplin: Yeah. Nothing could go wrong there. I mean what I find myself thinking, and it’s interesting the example you give about them going to Russia, I was really struck by the Nick Thompson article in Wired. Which again, really terrific article I thought, this seems like just like a little backstory piece but I really feel like it’s telling that the whole reason that Facebook started pumping up news into people’s News Feeds which used to just mean like personal information from friends was an attempt to bring down Twitter.
Emily Bell: Yeah. Yes.
Heather Chaplin: You know I just find myself thinking, again all through history you see this but this idea of a few powerful people battling it out for their own profit and wreaking havoc on the way the rest of us live.
Emily Bell: Well I think you know that for journalism again that year 2015 – 2016 was when all of the platforms suddenly went from being the tacit vectors of traffic and content into being very explicitly about courting more producers and more publishers. So if you remember Snapchat came to the market and launched a Snapchat Discover in January 2015. Very shortly after that you had Instant Articles being launched by Facebook which was their own attempt to give rapid stories to the public. Then you have Google doing the same thing with Accelerated Mobile Pages, then you have Apple launching Apple news. It was as though suddenly, as you say, as a body – and Twitter doing Twitter moments – as a body the tech industry decided that news was important, that they had to compete on it, and that they wanted to kind of bash each other around the heads you know with their various products but they didn’t at any point stop, or if they did stop, it was not a thoughtful stop, and consider what it really means to be more active in publishing.
Heather Chaplin: It really does make me think of– so you know I’m a big history buff and I spent some time being very obsessed with medieval history and it reminds me of you know this reminds me of a British civil war in twelve hundreds. I’m not even kidding, but where there was this vacuum of power and what you see is all of these different players coming in and competing to be in charge. Which sounds fine if you tell it from their perspective. But what you see underneath is the havoc wreaked on everybody else’s lives who had the armies come tramping through and destroyed their potato crops. So I just I find myself thinking– and when I read these history I always feel really irritated with these princes. Like do you not consider the consequences of your actions? Like I know you want to live in the big castle but you just destroyed everybody’s potato crops because you had to feed your army to get there. And I find myself thinking the same thing with these Zuckerbergs. On some level, I do sort of buy that he didn’t really think oh this might end up screwing up democracy as we know it. But then there’s part of me that’s like, dude stop and think about it before, you know, you drive your army through my potato field.
Emily Bell: Let’s let’s go back to that quote we just heard him give in the conference about, ‘hey you can trust people.’
Heather Chaplin: Yeah.
Emily Bell: People covers an awful lot of individuals in the world.
Heather Chaplin: Yeah, yeah.
Emily Bell: And you know a lot of them are there to do not particularly great things and you know like you’re a history buff you’re a fan of history. I’m a fan of metaphors. We’ve mentioned that before. Mixed metaphors. We’ve mentioned this one before but I keep going back to it which is Gresham’s Law and Finance. And Gresham’s Law says good money is driven out by bands money when you don’t have any regulation in the market. And that’s what happens you know as you suddenly have these platforms saying anyone should be able to publish a story. Anyone should have a voice. We don’t want just the opinions or output of a small number of actors we want to democratize communication and it sounds so great and it looks brilliant when you write it down and hand it to venture capital–
Heather Chaplin: Yeah yeah yeah
Emily Bell: –to give you lots of money. In practice you can reduce content to one undifferentiated type of material. And you can’t reduce people to one, idealistic good actor. You know the publishing industry for all its faults has the long history of publishing shows us one thing which is actually kind of you know information is important, how you present that information, you know publication is always the performance of information in one way or another. What sort of headlines you put on it. What do you prioritize over what you marginalize, what do you leave out. You know and there are reasons why a large industry of both mega and small players has built up where all people do all day is think about those choices for good or ill. And I think with Facebook thinking, we don’t really have to do that because that industry will take care of it, was such an enormous kind of arrogant and naive misstep. And a lot of us for many years have been saying this is why defining yourself in your role is really important. You know it’s actually really important to say, yes we’re publishers and we take responsibility. Or if you’re not publishers and you’re not taking responsibility then what are we, outside your world gardens, need to do to protect ourselves or to regulate you in a way that makes sense for society.
Heather Chaplin: I sometimes feel like the sort of the culture of Silicon Valley, this this idea of you know break things move fast see what happens. You know I myself used to be fairly seduced by that idea and I feel like time is passing maybe I’m just getting old. I find myself thinking like, no once you make a change to as complex a system as the way people communicate you know the information system it’s going to have effects that you couldn’t have foreseen or maybe should have foreseen and you only get one shot. And after that you gotta deal with it and clean up the mess. And I feel like this is a great segue into our next topic.
Emily Bell: Is journalism and democracy trying to drag themselves out of the mess spawned by Silicon Valley? Could it be? Could the answer to all our problems be here, right here in California? Could it be blockchain? Is that gold in there them hills? Here I am, panning for blockchain, Heather.
Heather Chaplin: Yeah how’s that – did you invest all your money?
Emily Bell: Yes I did.
Heather Chaplin: Oh good, good. Smart move.
Emily Bell: Yes I thought so.
Heather Chaplin: I can always count on you.
Emily Bell: Exactly.
Heather Chaplin: So it’s funny when you think of blockchain, like what comes to mind? Sometimes what comes to my mind is how utterly confused my mind is. Or maybe you might think about the sketch on late night from Seth Meyers a couple of months back.
Actor 1: What’s Bitcoin?
Actor 2: Bitcoin is the first decentralized digital cryptocurrency that works without a central bank.
Actor 3: Well that sounds interesting.
Actor 2: Yeah! And it’s so simple to use. Transactions take place through the use of cryptography and are verified by network nodes and recorded in an immutable public distributed ledger called a blockchain. What could be simpler than that?
Actor 3: Nothing it sounds great.
Actor 1: Right. So is it like investing in stocks?
Actor 2: Kind of, but not at all.
Actor 3: Well I’m on board.
Actor 1: Really? Because I have so many more questions.
Actor 3: Not me.
Actor 1: Where can I get one of these bitcoins? Can I buy one at my local bank?
Actor 2: Of course not. What a dumb question.
Actor 1: I thought it was valid.
Actor 3: No it was dumb.
Actor 2: Bitcoins aren’t like regular currency in their mined.
Actor 1: In a physical mine, like gold?
Actor 2: That’s ridiculous. Bitcoins are mined on computers using the SHA 2 5 6 hashing algorithm creating 12.5 bitcoins per block. That is until mid-2020. And then afterwards, 6.25 Bitcoin per block for four years until the next having.
Actor 1: Wait, are we are still talking about money?
Actor 2: Cryptocurrency.
Actor 3: This sounds so simple.
Actor 1: Shut up Margaret. There’s no way you understood all of that.
Actor 3: OK
Heather Chaplin: But let’s go beyond all the hype and really there’s been so much talk recently about bitcoin a blockchain and particularly in our interest the potential for journalism.
Emily Bell: So simply put a blockchain is essentially just a continuing growing list of records which are linked and secured using cryptography. So if you think about it, each piece of the blockchain, or each link, is timestamped, so you know when it happened. And it contains all the relevant transactional data like who did this. So my visual metaphor is actually a dusty old book where things have been inked in and you can’t change them. It’s immutable. The blockchain was invented in 2008, for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, you may have heard about it in the news by Satoshi Nakamoto.
Heather Chaplin: Who is that?
Emily Bell: Nobody really knows.
Heather Chaplin: Oh, nice.
Emily Bell: So many mysteries.
Heather Chaplin: One of the mysteries. You know it’s funny when I think about these issues of of what we understand, and what we don’t, how much we understand – I’ve been really banging my head trying to understand this bitcoin business. But at the same time I sort of stepped back and realized I don’t really understand how the internet works. In fact I don’t really understand why an airplane stays in the air but I still get on the plane and if we’re going to be completely honest I don’t really understand how my watch works. So maybe it doesn’t matter that much, all the absolute details–
Emily Bell: What do you understand, Heather?
Heather Chaplin: You know I’m a person of faith, Emily. I don’t actually understand how any of these things work but I go about my day and I trust that when I look at this thing around my wrist it will tell me what time it is.
Emily Bell: It’s god’s will that you will know the time.
Heather Chaplin: It’s God’s will. Or that the airplane will stay in the air. I mean we all put our faith in things that most of us have no understanding of at all, is my point.
Emily Bell: True. In fact we’ve put more faith in things that we don’t understand, generally speaking.
Heather Chaplin: Exactly, and historically as well. But yes, but to stay on course. So my goal for this is I want to understand as much as I need to understand to be able to evaluate the possibilities, the potential implications, the good, the bad, the ugly, all of that. Do you feel like is it important– I mean I guess it’s important that we at least begin to understand why people are so excited. What is the appeal of Bitcoin and blockchain?
Emily Bell: Yes. But like the days of the Internet where people said, oh it’s all about the Internet plus something. You know the Internet plus journalism. And I guess from that perspective the main appeal of something like the blockchain or cryptocurrency is built on the blockchain is it’s secure and decentralized which means it doesn’t really rely on a central authority, like a big bank to establish trust. Obviously there are lots of people who would say you need a central authority, that this idea of this idea – and this is one of the key contentions with Bitcoin – is that if something isn’t backed by banks it’s not really currency. But blockchain technology is being applied beyond currencies and poses lots of new possibilities. So for instance I think one of the most compelling questions for journalism and publishers and citizens, in fact, is what if our digital identities were decentralized and owned exclusively by us. Which is not incidentally a new idea, I think has just become much more possible because of what blockchain technologies can deliver to us. So if you have that instead of third parties like Facebook, Google, [inaudible], you know where you kind of sign into this and you will sign it with Facebook. Imagine if you didn’t have to do that anymore and it was all just your data and your identity held by you on one of those little pieces of ledger.
Heather Chaplin: I’m really impressed you sounded really smart when you said all that. Did you actually know it all or did you cut and past it off the the interwebs?
Emily Bell: As you know I’ve got a team of high level researchers who put words into my mouth. So it’s all– that’s where I got it from.
Heather Chaplin: It’s very, very impressive.
Emily Bell: Like everything, it is actually copied and pasted off the Internet into my brain.
Heather Chaplin: That’s what I figured. Well you know I got to say it it sounds like it could solve a lot of our problems. But the only thing is, sometimes I’m just feeling so skeptical as we’ve discussed of sort of Silicon Valley culture in general–
Emily Bell: No, really?
Heather Chaplin: –do we trust these blockchain bros?
Emily Bell: Well you know you’re not alone. So Steven Johnson, you remember him? He’s that author he did a great book Everything Bad For You is Good, which actually now we’re reverting into everything good for you is bad. But he wrote a fantastic piece in The New York Times a couple of weeks back and he said hey I’m going to copy and paste his words: “The potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries,” for once [inaudible] not talking about us, “not for the first, time,” he says, “technologists pursuing a vision of an open and decentralized network have found themselves surrounded by a wave of opportunists looking to make an overnight fortune.” That doesn’t sound great, does it? When you put it like that.
Heather Chaplin: I don’t know if some mercenaries can be really, really decent people. They’re all decent.
Emily Bell: There’s some excellent people among–
Heather Chaplin: There’s some excellent people in the false prophet community. I don’t want to hear you knocking those those false prophets. Some of my best friends are charlatans.
Emily Bell: I thought all of your best friends were charlatans?
Heather Chaplin: All right, all right. So as so often when we’re talking normally I find myself wishing that we had someone else to talk to. No, I find myself wishing that we could–
Emily Bell: If only.
Heather Chaplin: –reach somebody who actually knew what they are talking about. If only someone who wasn’t just cutting and pasting from the interwebs, but who actually knew. So I think last week, we used my Rolodex, and this week we should use your Rolodex to find someone although I hope everyone does know that that my Rolodex is bigger and I’m not afraid to use it.
Emily Bell: My Rolodex is small but of high quality. So I’m going to give it a go.
Heather Chaplin: Ah, okay, give it a roll.
Emily Bell: Let’s see. Oh, I’ve got one. It’s Jarrod Dicker, newly installed chief executive of a blockchain media company called Po.et. Jarrod I know from his previous job, which is actually a perfectly good job with the Washington Post, where he was one of their product leads and he’s left that to work with an interesting company called po.et or po dot E T.
Heather Chaplin: Jarrod welcome to Tricky.
Jarrod Dicker: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Heather Chaplin: So was it a perfectly good job? Why did you leave?
Jarrod Dicker: That is I think the first question I get is is what is blockchain and the second question I get is why would you ever leave Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, so–
Heather Chaplin: I know I have this image that like Marty Baron was chasing you around the office with a stick or something.
Jarrod Dicker: Well it’s actually very interesting my work my work at the Post for the past two and a half years was really focused on how to build a better model for the media business. I find that the people that could affect meaningful change are the skeptics so I myself, though focusing a lot on the commercial elements, was not naive in terms of good advertising experiences and what consumers were looking for and what brands were looking for, and found a lot of success by being empowered at the Washington Post to kind of challenge those standards and look to build something new. So the past two years were were extremely fun and successful. We built a team called RED which was our R and D group, and what I realized is that the work that we were doing was so impactful and really helping the larger media industry and that if I came from the outside with a new strategic maneuver I may be able to influence even the broader scope and that is why I went to the world of blockchain because I think it’s ambiguity is what makes it so attractive to everybody in the media space.
Emily Bell: But when you say the ambiguity makes it powerful for the media industry what does that mean?
Jarrod Dicker: I think that a question that I’ve gotten over the past couple weeks is is blockchain actually going to make a difference in media and journalism or is this hype like Facebook Instant and Google Amp and Snapchat and other platforms and why I think the ambiguity is actually exciting is that we’re really pushing towards a directive and not a reactive economy. We’re not going to media companies and advertisers and creators and telling them how to build their products, and what it should look like, and where it will run, and how it should be valued. What we’re going to them with is looking at all the benefits that you’ve seen in the blockchain that is that has happened across the financial industry, and really look to solve two major problems that I think are very prevalent not just in journalism but in marketing and in the entire creator’s scope as well if you look at creators on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, is that one, we don’t do a good job at all on attribution and ownership of content and really understanding how to register and license IP. The latter, which is extremely controversial but I’m sticking to it, is that we don’t really understand the value of of content and the creations that we output. We know how much investment we put in it and we know how much ad dollars we could get from it or what subscriber revenue we could get from it. But we really don’t know what that value is. So similar to what we’ve seen in sports and kind of this this opportunity to build a marketplace or free agency that that the community is able to tell us what the value of these creations are. I think really start to change the dichotomy of what the media industry is particularly on the business side.
Heather Chaplin: I want to ask you to break those two points down in — this is my challenge to you — a totally jargon freeway. Like like say what you just said but in a way that everybody can understand. So when you talk about attribution I don’t think you mean– when I as a reporter hear the word attribution, I think you’re saying, well who said it. But but my sense is what you’re talking about is that news publishers have sort of given away or lost control of what they produce because the publishers are– the platforms are earning more money off it. So are you talking about somehow stepping in there? And even when you talk about value like what do you mean by value? Like how much is that you’re saying there might be other revenue streams off what we produce like, can you can you talk about it in a more concrete way? Like concrete as in like a hunk of concrete like really break it down for us.
Jarrod Dicker: Many of your points are correct when it comes to attribution. What I think we’re looking to do especially leveraging the blockchain is mainly around IP. So when a piece of content is created can we use the blockchain to store that content to be able to manage copyright, to have it in the ledger secured, so that we’re able to see where an original thought or idea and who authored it is. Why that’s beneficial on the blockchain is that we are able to monitor and see any changes or edits or manipulation to that original source. So in simple concrete terms this is a way smarter and new way to organize, catalog, and attribute the- the timestamp of content, the metadata of content, so that it can’t be altered. So that if you want to look back to what a source of content is, or I know the audience of this podcast hates the term as much as I do, but this whole notion of fake news and what is real and what’s not real, to be able to build a decentralized universal ledger that could become the marketplace for all digital creative assets is what we’re looking to do on the attribution side.
Heather Chaplin: Okay. And Emily maybe understands what you’re saying, but I confess that I still don’t really because why would that why would any of that be important to me, as somebody who wants to read or watch the news? And why would that be important to me as somebody who wants to make money producing the news?
Jarrod Dicker: I’ll answer the latter question first. I think there is a huge issue right now when it comes to how creators make money and how they license or syndicate.
Heather Chaplin: When you say creators, do you mean the publishers, do you mean a writer, like–
Jarrod Dicker: I mean anyone who’s outputting content – music, arts, anything. The originator of who is authoring an article so, a writer at The Washington Post, or a musician who is putting a song on the platforms, or anybody who is outputting any sort of creative. What are we gonna be able to do is create a marketplace and universal ledger that has all of that information and ownership stored within it. So creator in the broad sense of anyone who is outputting any sort of art or media.
Heather Chaplin: Got it, thank you.
Jarrod Dicker: And what I think is extremely important here, and we’ve lost it, and why I think it’s critical for both consumers of content as you say and people who are producing content, is that we really— if you replace the word content with music and think about what happened in the music industry ten years ago, there’s a lot of things that could have been prevented if we had a better mechanism for owning the intellectual property and really understanding how much it should cost, how it is being licensed, where you go to license that content, and how it’s attributed. So I think to get extremely macro and look further beyond just the idea of, I’m creating an article for The Washington Post and I want it stored in the blockchain and anyone who wants to license or quote it or attribute it or use it needs to physically pay to do so, is one option. I think where this could really lead to with your question of valuation is there are many people that are creating original content and IP on Twitter, Facebook, Medium all of these channels which is not owned by them. So having 50,000 followers on Twitter and creating a dialogue and putting thought leadership out there is beneficial because the ROI and the value of how we as thought leaders look at those platforms is getting more followers, getting more clicks. What if you’re able to, in a similar way of publishing content on a platform and being able to have it as an opportunity to license and unlock it for payment of consumption, what we could do the same thing on the social platforms as well? That every tweet would go through the po.et Marketplace, and that tweet has a time stamp and ownership of IP and whenever it’s used or quoted or leveraged, that there could be a mechanism to build revenue off of that. And while this sounds insane, cause I’m sure I’m sure there’s many questions, the biggest the biggest criticism I get for what we’re looking to do is, well can that actually work because that’s not how works today. And I think that’s exactly why it will work, because we all know that we’re running uphill when it comes to the business of media and struggling with the platforms and ad blocking and consumer experiences– that maybe we really do need to recalibrate the entire system and maybe it needs to be something that is non-threatening to any pocket of the industry in order to do so.
Heather Chaplin: So Emily I’m going to let you ask questions in a minute I have one more, one more. Which is I think I might have had an aha moment. So are you essentially saying that instead of a handful of enormous platforms getting to profit off all of the work that all of the millions of people who write, or sing, or make music, the actual producers will get like a little, you know get a– I don’t know what the term is but get a chunk of change every time it gets– someone uses it, or listens to it, or reads it?
Heather Chaplin: Yes. So an element of that, right, and being able to have that catalog, is the opportunity to really figure out how to get the dollars and the value back to the creators. And what I love even more about what we’re looking to do is we’re not assuming that there’s a single entity of creator that should deserve all of the value of the work that’s done. So if you look at screenplays and screenwriting, there’s a lot of screenwriters that that want to get their screenplay out there, but are nervous that someone’s going to steal it, or copy it, and they won’t get attribution. To be able to have a system that catalogs that, and appoints ownership to the many writers and many people involved in this, allows them to be able to spray and play farther in order to get adoption. Or, if you’re creating content on a news site or a lifestyle site, and there’s the writer and an editor and a copywriter, how can we make sure that there’s proper attribution and the latter component – once we get publishers, creators, brands creating advertisements on this platform, we could really start to see what the future media model looks like, right. If Pepsi has the opportunity to engage a creator directly and not have to go through a publisher to do branded content, or brand storytelling, then what does that look like? And are creators more attracted to creating a story for Pepsi that may be able to deliver them more money financially but also be able to give them a bigger platform. Like a commercial during the Super Bowl or a billboard in Times Square, right. Does this really start to change what the media model looks like not just financially but how and where people consume.
Heather Chaplin: Personally I will never get excited about companies having better ways of doing branded storytelling but the rest of it is exciting. Emily what do you think?
Emily Bell: Also I was going to say Jarrod, and again, this was Steven Johnson’s brilliant metaphor in the Times the other day. So you’re really talking about these layers of the Internet. You know, in the first layer of the Internet, you have all of these open protocols, like HTTP that people could build all sorts of amazing things. And then the next layer, you have this sort of corporate calcification of it – you know as you’ve just described these big companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, that aggregates a lot of the open material from the Web into closed structures or highly monetized structures. And then the blockchain or the vision you’re painting of it suggests the on top of that we then almost like correct those big entities into tiny tiny pots, all of which devolve back to the originators of content, is that that’s, sort of more or less if you’re thinking about the kind of the archaeological layers of the Internet, it feels a bit like that. So I wanted to ask you, leaving aside for one second the opportunities for advertising, why is the journalism community excited about this? Because we do have journalistic startups like Civil, is a blockchain journalism company, which talks about I guess different aspects of it like self-governance and permanence. Do you know, is it is this something where we’re sort of we’re looking at more institutional disruption?
Jarrod Dicker: Yes. So I think a differentiator for what we’re looking to do because again we’re not trying to disband media companies but we are looking to empower creators within those media companies. And one concrete example I could give is this idea of independent journalism; where we’ve seen a trend and a value with what Bill Simmons is doing in the sports and lifestyle space and what Ben Thompson is doing with Stratechery. And I believe that more and more creators within these media companies knowing their audiences that they have on social platforms, and knowing their their power and influence within organizations, would be more willing to venture out and create their own media entity — whether that’s as an independent journalist or a bunch of journalists that are like-minded forming a new media entity together if there was a marketplace and technical tools that allowed them to do it seamlessly. And that’s where I think the blockchain, as an open-sourced and decentralized marketplace opens up massive opportunities for wide creators even if they are currently employed at media companies would see value in uploading their IP, because this is going to allow them — and I know this from experience — when you introduce new platforms or technologies to a creator, whether that’s a writer or musician, but mainly speaking for a media company, if it distracts them from their workflow in any which way they will not use the product. So in prior lives I worked at the Huffington Post, I worked at RebelMouse which which was the first distributed CMS and we really wanted to get everyone on board, and a huge focus was how can we build this very seamlessly, in that person’s workflow, so that they don’t even realize that they’re doing it, but that they see the benefits of the output. And that’s what we’re looking to do for these creators. Is, how can we empower the opportunity for them to think beyond needing to work at a publication, if they have massive audience, and have ideas, and really release the confines and restrictions of working at a company, and empower independent journalism, not just from a platform point of view but from a partnership point of view and also of course financially.
Emily Bell: So the big question then is why would the most powerful companies in the world that this seems to operate against Google, Apple, Facebook, [inaudible] , why would they ever allow this to happen?
Jarrod Dicker: So there is a benefit if you look at Google and Twitter and Amazon and Facebook, there are a lot of pockets of business for them to focus on. And I think a direct example as we saw just last week which is trending media and news topics that are false and fake, trending to the top and being distributed because we don’t have an intelligent way to be able to attribute and a smart value ledger to be able to see copyright and truth as this media flows through these platforms. And it’s an extremely hard thing to do. And we see that with the platforms as well. I think it’s a benefit for the platforms. We’re not looking to take just financial dollars away, but we’re looking to say to the platforms mainly, say a great example I think is Twitter, because Twitter has a ton of valuable IP and thought leadership and whether they want to be a media company or don’t want to be a media company which is a constant back and forth argument that we’ve seen particularly with Facebook, there is a lot of original content and IP being created there. So it would be to the benefit of Twitter and to the benefit of Facebook to be able to start storing the ownership of that content and be able to say that that content was created by this creator but sourced and originated on the Twitter platform because then we start to rethink – does Twitter start syndicating and licensing tweets as IP, right? Or does Facebook start having the opportunity to have ownership of videos and content that is user generated on those platforms that starts to open up new opportunity and revenue streams for–
Emily Bell: So, so Jarrod, I’m sitting in Moscow, well imagine I’m sitting in Moscow–
Heather Chaplin: You told me you were in LA! Such a liar.
Emily Bell: Fake news. And I’m at the Internet Research Agency which we’ve been discussing at length here.
Heather Chaplin: Our whole relationship has been a lie.
Emily Bell: How are bad actors and propaganda– see we’re kind of one step ahead of the curve and how all of these things are used. Is this a system that– is this just another system that can be gamed?
Jarrod Dicker: That’s an excellent question and that kind of – I didn’t want to overcomplicate blockchain by talking about tokens and crypto currency but I knew that we’d get there. So where I think we could battle that, is you’ve seen successful community driven projects like GitHub and Wikipedia where, though it could be gamed, there is an incentive of value to contribute towards the truth. And and this idea of crowdsourcing towards benefiting the platform at large and towards a main commodity, which for the most part is is truth and accuracy. What we’re looking to do with po.et is, though it is technically driven through the blockchain and we’re leveraging all the opportunities that that has for us to classify, organize, and archive content, we do have a token. You know the token for po.et in particular is POE. But other companies you know are looking into this as well where how can we incentivize the community to go within what we’re building in this marketplace, and though we aren’t very confident in our ability to leverage the blockchain in order to seed out bad actors, how can we empower the community to then contribute and help us police those bad actors as well. So what’s very interesting with how the blockchain works, and why I see a ton of value in these ICOs and initial coin offerings, because it’s the community investing in the purpose that they believe in. And what we’re looking to do at po.et, is if we can get these creative assets on this platform, and if someone is looking to game the system, there is a massive community of tens of hundreds of thousands soon to be hopefully millions, that are going to go in there and build their own marketplaces in order to push out those bad actors. So if you look at the success of Wikipedia and if you think about taking that to the next level by leveraging technology and actual incentives then I think we have something pretty amazing happening here. And though I won’t say that there will be no bad actors because of course there will be, I believe that the power of community could overcome that and that’s what we’re really looking to empower here at po.et.
Heather Chaplin: I have to say I have some alarm bells going off in the sense that some of these promises I feel like sound very similar to promises that we heard before from what we now talk about as the big platforms or big tech, which now we’ve gone from loving to hating. But both this idea of this incredibly hyper-individualized universe, I wonder, there seems a lot of potential dangerous implications to that, and also this promise of sort of the community policing does not always work so well. I mean I feel like that was one of the things that was sort of supposed to keep things in check on the platforms and has not really worked out so well. I guess I guess as you’re talking you know I can see sort of a dystopian future spinning out of this. And so I just have to put that out there.
Emily Bell: There’s always a point, Jarrod, in the show where Heather sees a dystopian future spinning out of control so talk her down from the ledge.
Heather Chaplin: You know the backstory is I feel like we’re all living in the middle of this big story of the unintended consequences of making very very big changes to our information systems without thinking about it too carefully. I feel like the whole cultural, you know, thing right now is break it and see what happens and talk later. And so this is all being about the individual as opposed to like news organizations but actually empowering like the individual writer/reporter to bust out of it I see a lot of you know pitfalls there, whereas a lot of talk these days that we’re living in this hyper-fragmented, you know, culture already like what what what do you guys think about that? And I guess I’m sort of asking you as a person, not just the new CEO of this, but someone who obviously is, you know, super smart and is in these worlds too– like do you think about those things? Like what can we do to not have my dystopian nightmare come true?
Jarrod Dicker: What I think is interesting about what’s happening in this space is that because it’s open sourced and not owned by a single entity and there’s not a direct profit chain that I’m not as worried of a monopoly or ownership here because it is community-driven. So all the code repos are on GitHub, a lot of the code advancements that are happening in this space, again not just talking from someone to a po.et, but what I’m seeing across the landscape at large, is this idea of community-driven development without a single entity taking the sole revenue and value of what that output is. So what I hope to see within this is this active investment in building something that benefits all, seeing new and exciting things being built on top of what the foundational structure has been. But I think that if we were a company, or of any of these blockchain companies were companies who were raising venture capital, and had to hit certain milestones, and if they didn’t hit those milestones they would have to pivot, which often happens for for both small and big companies, then I would be more concerned that the idea and ownership and the evolution of that will change because it needs to hit business and market goals. In this case, there’s money raised by the community, where the community is contributing and there is no force to change the the direction and hope that we’re looking to get out of these platforms. So that’s why I’m excited about what’s happening in this space and why I was pleasantly surprised when I made the jump that everyone was somewhat excited and not just thinking that I’m crazy because I think the altruistic elements especially to your point of this dystopian future and the big platforms, that that constantly feels like we’re being squeezed, is this new frontier. You know similar to what you’ve seen with projects like ProPublica and Wikipedia, I’m hoping that what you’re seeing in the journalism space on the blockchain is similar to that altruistic approach to building a better future that we could all kind of celebrate, all agreeing of what we’re looking for, right? Which is sustainability in media and success of media and driving revenue back to creators in order to kind of keep this going.
Emily Bell: I think that you really succinctly captured why people are excited about this and they’re excited in places which are not, as you say linked to revenue. They’re excited about things like archiving. You know, we’re losing a lot of stuff into the ether as sites are closed down, [inaudible] people will [inaudible] archives. There’s a whole set of discussions in the archiving world about what a great thing blockchain may be because it will enable us to keep and really identify where those bits of archive go. I’m a little worried about one aspect of this. And that’s the aspect of the individual. And I think you’ve used a couple of sports metaphors, Jarrod. And I think that what happens in, say, basketball is you have the value go from the league to the franchise to the player. And we’re talking about a similar migration of value in journalism and creativity. And I think one aspect of that is, as you say highly benefit. I think the other aspect to that, particularly for journalism, is really worrying. Because journalism is really not exclusively done, but best done as an institutional team sport, simply because power tends to reside in big institutions. And we’ve seen the flimsiness, if you like, of new institutions not really being able to stand up to power or the economic woes of the market, as easily as for instance something like The Washington Post, which is now really sort of revived under a much larger institution which is Amazon. I’m not sure that we want a future which doesn’t allow the possibility of these strong institutions.
Jarrod Dicker: I agree. You know when it comes to news, those institutions are extremely important. You know Marty Baron is something that cannot be replaced with a machine and and algorithm, which I think we all know very well and he’s one of the one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. And I think when it comes to curation and editorial, we’ve seen that human effort and these institutions are extremely important not just from a perspective of of what the consumers see but also from an ethics perspective. And and where the companies came from and why they exist. So by no means do I want a battle and see a world where there are no newspapers and no editorial curation and purveyors of truth. What I’d like to see out of their leverage of what we’re looking to do here, is again, can there be more of a value of syndication licensing? Can we through this metadata and uploading of information, better understand that content should be more expensive than what it is today? Whether that’s being advertiser-driven or what consumers pay for it. But then there’s this other world where we have lifestyle brands, we have content being created directly to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, where I think there is an open opportunity for what those models should look like. And again I’m hoping that the same technology that we’re building to help support the traditional, important, and legacy of media companies is also what will help drive and dictate what a future media company should look like.
Heather Chaplin: I want to ask I mean the the model as you outlined at the beginning, this notion of taking back the profit on something created on a news story, or a video, or even a piece of music, as you said from just the platforms which is how people get it to how the people who actually created it– does it have to be literally the guy in his room strumming the guitar? Or the guy who wrote the story? Or why can’t the quote unquote creator be a news organization?
Jarrod Dicker: It absolutely can. So I think, you think about where where that value comes from. You think about evergreen content syndication and licensing efforts that happened today. I think that it’s absolutely a possibility. And frankly a probability that publishers and media companies, that would leverage this platform, would get the revenue back to them at a larger scale. So not just the writer who wrote the article, or the copywriter, or the editor, but the Washington Post. And what we’re– I’m very weary to think too big without proving the concept first in smaller pockets. And that’s, again, why I love the idea that this is open source and easy opt-in for media companies, engineering teams, anyone, to really build upon. Because while I’m setting the strategy for where I would love for this to go, having a background in technology and also in publishing, I am not naive enough to know that a lot of the product roadmap and dictation will come from conversations with media institutions with brands, with platforms, to really help better the plan and the picture of kind of what we’re looking to do in this space. So I think that it’s just community driven, which I’ve used that language many times when describing this, but it’s also going to be driven by, by partners and platforms that see an opportunity to take the foundation and code that will be built and go run with.
Heather Chaplin: Listen, I think we probably could sit here all day. I feel like I have many unanswered questions but I also know we’ve taken up a lot of your time so I want to thank you so much for joining us and being open to our dystopian concerns.
Emily Bell: When you solve the future, we very much want to have you back so that you can describe what that looks like.
Jarrod Dicker: I’ll be more than happy to do that and hopefully sooner than later.
Heather Chaplin: Let us know how it turned out.
Jarrod Dicker: Thanks very much indeed, Jarrod. Thank you so much I really appreciated it.
Emily Bell: We’re going to keep picking at these issues here on Tricky. In an upcoming show we’ll be taking a deep dive into the information apocalypse, or infocalypse, as we like to call it, issues of propaganda. And we want to hear from you, our listener. Do you want to be added to our Rolodex of fortune and future discussions? Or do you want to put something in the box we’re trying to unpack? We’re very happy to take contributions to the box. If you have a new angle or an unforeseen consequence or a burning question you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s all one word, email@example.com or find us on Twitter and write us there because we love that.
Heather Chaplin: And you can subscribe to Tricky wherever you get your podcasts. And please do rate us, and review us, and tell your friends about us, because that’s how other people find us. This has been a production of The New School’s Journalism + Design with help from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia. Funding from the Knight Foundation, our producer is Sara Burningham, our engineer is Wayne Shulmister. Thanks also to Kayla Christopherson and George Civeris. If you want more, you’ll find links and show notes at Trickypod.com.