Crypto Is Still the Frontier for Journalism

An interview with ERC-20 co-creator Simon de la Rouviere about his new media project combining NFTs, DAOs and cryptocurrency.

AccessTimeIconApr 15, 2021 at 4:21 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:41 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconApr 15, 2021 at 4:21 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:41 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconApr 15, 2021 at 4:21 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:41 p.m. UTC

Media is broken. No one is getting paid. Advertising is gross. Writers are incentivized to write garbage. The only interesting publications have rich benefactors – and all that can change in an instant.

The internet was supposed to revolutionize the way we share, consume and produce information – a democratization of content and creation. A revolution it was. But the slippery borders of the internet have made it hard for anything to matter. There’s a lot to process.

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Someone once told me, “Writing on the internet is like breathing water.” I think that’s a pretty accurate description of the joys and horrors of the internet.

Not to mention the corporate entities that own the web, which have ad- and data-driven business models that corrupt the original vision of the internet. It’s difficult to say anything specific here – as no one really knows how these systems work. (A sit-down my colleague Ben Powers did with Shoshana Zuboff is a good place to start.)

For years, people have looked to cryptocurrency as a solution for the media crisis. Cryptocurrency adds friction to the web to make it more life-like. There are costs associated with even small acts. It disincentivizes noise. It makes the electronic indelible. If you have something to say, it better be worth it – it’s there forever (also preventing the sort of influence powerful people can exert, as with Peter Thiel and Gawker.)

Needless to say, many crypto-media projects have failed. Civil, a three-year experiment in tokenomics and media organization, folded after a series of internal disputes and the collapse of its token. But a new class of media projects and platforms seems to be emerging.

Substack, Ghost and Mirror are all promising platforms that are finding real use. These projects apply many of the core ideas of crypto – empowering individual voices, uncensorability and crowdfunding – if not the technology directly. Brick House, a writer-owned media collective involving several ex-Civil people, is partially informed by that project.

Untitled Frontiers is the latest to join the crowd. A new project by one of the fathers of the ERC-20 token standard, Simon de la Rouviere, looks to combine the buzzy world of NFTs with the fuzzier world of DAOs and other “Web 3.0” technologies to explore the edges of content creation.

The project is not yet launched – maybe not even coded – but CoinDesk reached out to de la Rouviere to talk about crypto’s role in the media. An artist and author at heart, it’s the ideas that matter most. His responses sent over email have been lightly edited for brevity.

What is fundamentally wrong with the media that UF is aiming to address?

It's best captured by a quote from internet pioneer Stewart Brand: "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

As we've seen with [non-fungible tokens], we can have the best of both. Information that is free (as in free to share and consume), but also "expensive," meaning, accruing value. Untitled Frontier believes this will be most valuable at the intersection of fiction, because the most valuable collectibles have a story attached to them.

What is currently broken in the media and how could crypto or open-source technology be deployed to fix this?

There's an abundant catalogue of amazing media that can only be funded and enjoyed through:

1) requires content to be restricted and paid for (traditional sales like books, cinema, downloads)
2) ad revenue
3) subscription revenue (e.g., patreon or substack)
4) or crowdfunding

In most of these cases, the content has to be restricted in some form to be enjoyed. With NFTs specifically, it allows superfans to collect meaningful souvenirs related to the media, allowing the content to be more permissive, and secondly allows stronger connections between fans, the content and the creators. It's both a new funding model but also a new way for new media to flourish.

What do you think of open, but not decentralized, platforms like Substack? It seems to be having an outsized effect on the media ecosystem.

Substack is a step in the right direction. Some writers have been burned by platforms like Medium that changed user expectations over time. At least with Substack, the writer will always control and own their audience. If Substack fails or screws up, they can take their mailing list to a new platform.

How are you incorporating lessons from projects like Civil?

Many early media projects in the industry were just early. I learned that lesson with pioneering in the music industry with Ujo Music. We launched one of the first music NFTs back in 2017. The key takeaway isn't always that those projects were the wrong product. It was just at the wrong time.

You're known for your contributions to the ERC20 standard. Any novel technological features with UF?

We have to invent less technical innovations these days and can focus more on the product, users and the market. There's established infrastructure and an established market that will make our lives a lot easier.

You’ve discussed using NFTs as a funding mechanism to help support UF. How does this work?

This is an open-ended question and one that will be resolved by talking to specific writers. Initially, it will be pitched as a 50-50 split, after which it might change if writers decide a different split is sufficient.

It sounds like UF will take some editorial responsibility. Why is this the right path for an open platform?

Untitled Frontier at this stage acts more like a mixture between Disney + publisher, guiding a shared narrative. If successful, we hope to see more projects spinning up similar models for their own communities.
Why might writers want to publish under a permissive license rather than maintaining property rights over their work?

The most permissive content travels the furthest (with a good distribution channel). However, doing so means that the creator won't necessarily make commensurate return on the value of the work due to the restrictions of current business models. NFTs change this paradigm by rewarding NFTs that are the most well known (the 'Mona Lisa' cryptomedia thesis). Thus, permissive stories that travel the furthest drives more value to NFT sales.

How long until The New York Times converts to a DAO model?

Would love to see this, but I bet if we see journalism DAOs it won't start with the NYT.

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