Some of the highest-profile blockchain projects to date have made it their mission to transform the way journalism and other content is monetized on the web. Civil has proposed a gamified system that would let readers punish newsrooms for spreading misinformation. Brave wants to use a token, BAT, to align the interests of readers, publishers, and advertisers. And Steemit, the granddaddy of them all, turned social “likes” into a form of currency.
There have been serious challenges for these efforts, but a new contender is entering the ring. Pack, based in New York, wants to use crypto-based payments and smart contracts not only to make real journalism more sustainable, but to create communities that both add value and keep the people managing those communities accountable.
Though still in its early stages, Pack has already notched a significant milestone: Columbia Journalism Review is testing out its front-end publishing product with a sub-site called Galley. Pack founder and CEO Josh Young describes Galley as “like a forum, or a niche social network, about journalism and for journalists.” It feels something like a collective blog, with a single stream of posts and stories from roughly a dozen featured users, directly curated by CJR staff.
Galley has a lot of unique social-interaction features, but what most sets it apart is users’ ability to limit comments on items they publish to a select group they flag as “trusted.” It’s an attempt, Young says, to save the interactivity that makes the internet so valuable from the flood of trolls and other bad actors that have led to the withering of comment sections under online news stories.
But Young has much bigger ambitions. He’s working to build what he calls the Pack “ecosystem,” with many different publications resembling Galley, supported by an experimental crypto-economic structure. He’s passionate, even obsessive, about how journalism is structured: The 42-page Pack whitepaper is a tour de force summation of decades of thinking about the intersections of economics and technology with journalism, citing a roster of big thinkers like Harvard’s Yochai Benkler and UNC’s Zeynep Tufecki.
Young isn’t just a big reader, though. He comes by that passion through years in the business, first as a designer of comment systems at Huffington Post, then as part of the team behind a startup called Sulia. Sulia started life as a Twitter curation service, but had to pivot when it lost access to Twitter’s API integration. Then it became a VC-funded “subject-based social network” whose business model relied on ad revenues. Those ad revenues never arrived at scale, and the service shut down in 2014.
Sulia’s crash taught Young, first, the riskiness of building a business on top of another service that could change its terms at any time. Second, he learned the near-impossibility of creating an ad-based service on the web. “Short of aggressive regulation of Google, Facebook etc.,” Young says, “I think an entrepreneur would be really just insane to come up with an ad-based business model for anything. Not just journalism, but anything.”
Instead, Pack will focus on a paid-subscription model, which is showing promise for news businesses. “There’ll be a software package that’s completely open-source, and anyone can download and run,” he says. “That will enable a product that looks a lot like Galley. You can have it be an open, free forum, but we’ll also be able to charge a subscription.”
Young hopes this paid-niche model will cement communities of users who will add value to publications not just as subscribers, but as participants – informed commenters, sources, and even contributors. And he wants them to be rewarded for those additions. “The next level [of Pack] is, if you want to take in money, keep some of it, and share some with your community members, you can do that too,” says Young. “Within a given community, people other than the journalists are going to know a lot. So providing fair incentives to bring their wisdom out feels really compelling to me.”
“People today are really suspicious of networks —'I’ve been tricked one too many times, and I don’t trust what you’re going to do if this thing is successful. I don’t want to get Zucked again.'"
The final element in all of this is making sure there’s a balance of power between these communities and the people running them. Subscription payments and even dividends, he grants, don’t require blockchain or crypto-payments. But it presents a solution to an even deeper problem. “People today are really suspicious of networks —’I’ve been tricked one too many times, and I don’t trust what you’re going to do if this thing is successful. I don’t want to get Zucked again.’ Where crypto comes in is people who operate a [Pack community] can opt in to having their revenues controlled on the blockchain, and the site subject to partial common ownership.”
“Partial common ownership,” also known as the COST taxation system, is an idea developed by Glen Weyl and Eric Posner in their recent book Radical Markets. It’s a bit nuanced to get into here, but the upshot is that if the operator of a Pack site starts abusing their position, such as by providing bad content or cutting community incentives, users or others can simply buy the site. The operator can’t block the takeover if they’ve opted in to Pack’s full smart-contract backend, and the motive for signing on in the first place is simple: “It enables an operator to tell her prospective community up front that she won’t ever be able to have dominant power over the network,” says Young.
Young is still working out the details of the broader system, but it addresses one of the major shortcomings of crypto-publishing efforts so far. “One of the critiques I have of crypto in general,” says Young, “is the attempt to throw a market at any problem. When you go to a dinner party at your friend’s house, you don’t leave 20 bucks on the table.” Micropayments, Young argues, simply add too much friction to content consumption, while he considers gamified systems like token curated registries a form of gambling.
By contrast, Young says, Pack wants to keep economic decisions infrequent and meaningful. “The way Pack uses markets is in the basement, in the foundation. We subject the network itself—not every single decision about what you want to read or how much a message is worth—to a very specific kind of market governed by partial common ownership. These networks can be bought and sold, and they should flow into the hands of whatever operator maximizes their value. It means that a rational network operator-owner has to do what’s in the best interest of the membership.”
Pack has a long way to go before it’s up and running in its full form, and Young is taking his time refining the ideas and systems at its heart. But after the false starts we’ve seen so far by similar efforts, that might be exactly the right approach.