Inside the Movement to Build a Bitcoin-Powered Reddit
Furor over management decisions, an abrupt CEO exit, a rising competitor.
The last few months haven't been kind to Reddit, the social networking giant that raised $50m in new funding in September from an A-list cast of VC firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital alongside angel investors including Snoop Dogg and Peter Thiel.
However, if one former employee and bitcoin developer succeeds on his vision, Reddit's biggest challenge could be a decentralized, bitcoin-based alternative. Called DATT (short for Decentralize All the Things), the still-in-development social network recently held a global hackathon on 1st August aimed at kickstarting the project.
Project leader Ryan X Charles, who was previously hired by Reddit to helm its short-lived cryptocurrency initiative, suggested that work on the idea is pressing forward, and that a prototype of the project is expected soon, providing CoinDesk a glimpse at what his team of 10 part-time developers have so far built.
Charles suggested the project, kickstarted by a 5th July blog post that convinced him to leave his post at bitcoin security firm BitGo, could become a more "more professional" version of the social platform all too easily overtaken by frivolous bickering.
In short, he said, it might not look like Reddit at all if successful.
Charles told CoinDesk:
"I don't think we'll replace Reddit. We'll make something different that services a different need. By integrating payments, it will feel different than Reddit. As soon as people have incentive to host good content, this will change the dynamic."
Though much about the exact design of DATT remains to be determined (and currently lies in uncompleted GitHub form), the open-source project is so far built around a series of principles, that the network be uncensorable, feature strong anonymity and require nothing more than a web browser to operate.
The principals were developed at the hackathon, held in a distributed manner across Buenos Aires, Bombay and San Francisco. It saw some 100 participants take part in, or at least investigate, a Slack group for the weekend-long brainstorming session on how the project could be developed, designed and marketed.
"We did quite a lot of stuff in one weekend," Charles said.
Throughout the interview, Charles framed the project as one that serves as a culmination of his professional skills. He says he's always wanted to start a business and is uniquely suited to creating a product like Reddit, having spent a short time at the company.
"The pieces all fell into place and I have the right skill set, it's exactly the type of company I'd want to start," he said, recalling the series of events that led former CEO Ellen Pao to be replaced by co-founder Steve Huffman.
"I thought about my time at Reddit and realized that some of the stuff I was working on had the potential to fix problems with Reddit, and the validation [from the blog post response] was big enough for me to pursue it full time," he continued.
Charles indicated a handful of investors are interested in the project, having reached out after his blog entry received widespread media coverage.
The post wasn't so much critical of his former employer as a referendum on social media platforms in general, which, in his words, "focus a little more time converting content into money ... and a little less on building better tools" for users.
Under the original vision, users will pay to download and upvote content to the website, with bitcoin being used as the currency to incentivize all the parties – readers, writers, moderators and developers – to keep producing valuable content.
"Any user can run a business by running the app full-time," the post explained. "Any user, including Reddit, Inc, can censor content they themselves deliver to other users, but cannot censor content other users send to other users."
Users would pay content creators through votes, while creators would add posts and comments, in turn paying moderators for hosting the content. Node operators would then pay moderators who would finally pay DATT at a percentage determined by nodes.
Project developers argue this will financially incentivize mods to increase the number of votes, and that nodes would be motivated to provide mods "friendly policies around censorship".
Power to the people
As for how the project will aim to improve on Reddit, Charles was quick to downplay decentralization as a "technical detail", as opposed to something that would be the main value-add of the service.
Charles suggested that DATT's most important feature will be its ability to return ownership of content to the site's users, who he said will be free to publish their own comments or content.
“"The way the ownership works on Reddit is that, in effect, the company owns everything."”
"If some moderator doesn't like them, then the moderator shouldn't be able to ban them from the experience," Charles explained. "With Reddit, the moderator can moderate in a community, but users can be shadowbanned or mistreated by mods and the mods mistreated by the company."
He's clear in his critique of the service and what it hopes to change, adding: "The way the ownership works on Reddit is that, in effect, the company owns everything."
With DATT, moderators would in turn be able to host multiple versions of the content published through the platform, effectively creating different versions of the same content streams. DATT nodes will connect to the platform's peer-to-peer network, broadcasting content for download.
Though this might lead usability to suffer, Charles said content creators will be able to take their content elsewhere if they feel slighted.
"Even if a Reddit user is a perfectly good user, but they make the wrong mod angry, they can lose access to their content or their account unjustly, and there's no recourse other than leaving Reddit," he continued. "If they go to [Reddit alternative] Voat they have to start over."
DATT won't be built completely from scratch, however, as Charles indicated the project will seek to use other open-source technologies.
Resources on the project's GitHub suggest the project may eventually implement the Lightning Network, a proposal to add payment channels to bitcoin, should it be developed.
For now, the project will be built on bitcoin due to the additional developer resources that are already available, with payments and proof of ownership handled on its blockchain.
"We're using the bitcoin blockchain for payments, [and] we're going to use the bitcoin blockchain for putting the hash of your content on the blockchain, so someone can query if content exists even if they can't download it," he said.
As for the user experience, Charles indicated it was his goal for DATT to serve as an onboarding tool for new bitcoin users, meaning users won't have to pay to create content.
"That's how the bootstrapping problem is solved," he stated. "Write compelling content and people who do have money would be willing to pay for it. So long as we can draw some bitcoin users, the rest of the people will be able to earn bitcoin by using the app."
As of now, Charles is optimistic a prototype of the platform, complete with payments and comments features, will be in place sometime in September. A minimum viable product (MVP), he suggested, could be as many as three months away from this milestone.
"We don't want to build something really complicated that doesn't solve the problem, so we're trying to carefully move in the direction of enabling users to own [and sell] content," he said.
The MVP, as currently described, would feature a light node and a full node, with traditional bitcoin transactions being used in lieu of any payment systems.
Of course, Charles is cognizant of the challenges ahead. Monetizing any content from consumer payments remains a challenge, even for the most well-capitalized publishers in an age where readers expect content to be subsidized by advertising.
Further, while he suggested bitcoin enables micropayments for perhaps the first time in history, he acknowledges the idea has been around for some time, always failing to take flight.
"You can say the same thing about any idea, sometimes companies fail," he said in response to this line of questioning. "I think the thing is we have to execute correctly."
Still, he expressed optimism that DATT would become useful for an early batch of users, whether disaffected Reddit participants or even professional writers and content creators, and that the project has a unique combination of factors that could propel it to success.
Charles believes he has at least one advantage that could skew the results, concluding:
"The earlier projects didn't have the technology."
A full log of project developments can be found on the project's official GitHub.
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