Why I got into crypto

I didn’t get into crypto, I got into blockchain – as a means to an end. The end is building a better media future. Blockchain as a technology enables a different incentive structure and systems design, empowering different business models, ultimately helping build this better media future. A future where a handful of companies don’t decide ‘what gets amplified’, a future with better discovery of content, a future with less misinformation, less political polarization and more journalistic independence, and a future where we get closer to the ideal of free speech.

I grew up wanting to be a journalist, and, from time-to-time, still consider what it’d take to become an investigative journalist, or to work at the intersection of journalism and politics. However, I now also think about how I can have the largest impact in the realm of journalism/ free media/ free speech, given what I enjoy doing, and the skillsets/ education I have. That has brought me to web3 – creating this media impact using blockchain.

Some problems I care deeply about, and hope to help address through web3 –

  1. The problem of ‘who decides’ what content/ information gets amplified. Other consequences also follow from misplacing ‘who decides’ –
    • Content discovery is broken (I started Comet to tackle this)
    • Political polarization
  2. Censorship, of the press and of people
  3. Misinformation/ what is the truth, and who decides?

The problem of what gets amplified, and who decides that, is, in my opinion, the most under-appreciated, yet significant problem of our times. Both sides of a narrative can be ‘created’ and ‘distributed’ on the internet, but if social media platforms amplify one narrative over the other, that narrative slowly becomes the ‘truth’. My problem is less with the amplification, but more with ‘who decides’. When the New York Times puts something on the cover, its editors make that amplification decision – accountability, journalistic principles, and trust comes with that. With web2 social media, platforms amplify information driven by profit, click-baits, and polarization, with very little accountability to those amplification decisions, made by ‘the algorithm’. In effect, they’re making editorial (i.e. amplification) decisions, with none of the corresponding editorial accountability. Naturally, the information that gets amplified, is, what the world – regular people like you and I – start perceiving as the truth. I regularly think of George Orwell’s 1984 – the power of controlling information, is the power of controlling truth, and therefore reality.

A somewhat related, yet tangential, problem that follows, is content discovery. There’s so much good content out there – and the amplification decisions being made on our behalf – don’t always result in good content being amplified/ discovered. I started Comet to help everyone discover the “best” content for them, curated by people they trust (which is far from a perfect heuristic). Comet didn’t work, and I realized that new web2 social media platforms cannot fix old web2 ones – because 1) web2 media is setup to be centralized, funded by ads, and algorithmically driven – there is no incentive to be different because profits are maximized through this approach 2) more importantly, web2 social network effects are so deeply entrenched that marginally or even meaningfully better startups can barely scratch the surface.

Second, the problem of censorship is well understood and discussed – 99.9% people will not end up getting censored or de-platformed, but it is the 0.1% who do get blocked/ de-platformed – that represent the fight for free speech, democracy, and the truth. Drawing and re-drawing ‘free speech lines’ is an extremely slippery slope – web2 platforms can keep updating their speech codes to fit what they want to/ are forced by the government to censor. Often, they don’t *want* to be censors or arbiters of truth, but their position has forced them to be. I don’t consider them evil – the incentives of the system just don’t align. For instance, in 2021, Twitter India was forced by the government to suspend some independent journalists’ accounts for reporting the government’s failure in handling the massive second covid wave.

Finally, misinformation – I could write an entire post on this, but will keep it short here. Since the First Amendment was written way before the internet, nobody really knows what to do with misinformation online – do platforms decide what the truth is, and therefore decide what gets classified as misinformation? Is misinformation protected as free speech? Where is the line drawn? The concept of web2 platforms being the ‘arbiter of truth’ can be extended to misinformation too.

Why decentralization/ web3/ blockchain?

At its core, the blockchain represents a change of system and incentives. While web2 decentralized creation, web3 enables us to decentralize editorial, distribution/ amplification, and accountability functions. We can create incentives for people to participate in functions that have been centralized till date – functions like amplification of information, sharing and distribution of content, fact-checking, and labelling misinformation. Finally, the blockchain is censorship resistant at its core. Balaji S. has written/ spoken deeply about decentralized media too, most notably the concepts of citizen journalism and decentralized fact checking.

Citizen journalism – incentivizing everyone to create content, distribute it, and fact-check it

Decentralized fact checking

Ben Thompson wrote about zero-trust information in the context of the internet, but the concept of zero-trust information can be extended to ‘trustless’ information, powered by decentralized fact checking.

BUT…

The ideas above are largely theoretical today, and there are several challenges ahead of us – technological, incentives-design, adoption, and user experience. The question of incentives-design is a particularly important one in the context of media – how do you incentivize people to be citizen journalists or fact checkers? How do you solve the initial adverse selection or echo chamber problem of the people who self-select to participate on decentralized media platforms? How do you design systems that are sufficiently dencentralized to help us distribute the most important functions of creation, amplification, distribution and fact-checking, while retaining the efficiency/ cost advantages of centralized systems? We don’t yet have complete answers, but the blockchain is a technological innovation that could catalyze this new future. It will create its own set of challenges and problems, but I’m optimistic about designing incentives and systems for it to be net-positive to the world.

Crypto’s watershed consumer social moment is some time away – I wish it were here and now. I got into crypto to “build a better Facebook” – as I went down the rabbithole, I realized all the challenges I talked about, above. I realized the infrastructure to power this consumer future didn’t yet exist; I realized that systems and incentives design is harder than it sounds. I’m positive that this future is around the corner – meanwhile, I’m investing* in incredible founders attempting to solve some of the most pressing problems of our time, using blockchain. While startups directly building a better media future are far and few today, and for good reason, I’m optimistic that investing in this technology and these founders will eventually bring us to a point where we see those net-positive, large-scale impact use cases emerge and scale.

*I cofounded and run the Stanford Blockchain Accelerator, where we incubate Stanford’s most promising web3 projects, and am spending the summer as a web3 investor at CRV, a $1 billion early-stage fund.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s