[The power of the opponent that Minds faces -- and Minds' own game -- have jolted up several levels. Much has happened since the last installment, prompting some interim posts; I've woven key passages of them into this section. This is Part VI of Bill Ottman's Minds.com, Leading the Charge Against the Globals. The first attempt at writing this section, made while nursing a loved one through a serious illness, was basically a first draft, rambling. Sorry. He's fine, thanks. Here the section is, clean and tight. This book is unauthorized by Minds but those creating Minds have as always been generous in answering my questions. Banner graphic by @Infinite2D. I'm @GailMcGowanMellor a.k.a @authorpendragon. ]
40. MINDS TAKES AIM AT BIG TECH
"The momentum is shifting. Can you feel it? With open source and the blockchain, we can restore control of the Internet to the individual," Minds co-founder and board chair John Ottman wrote in January 2019. John elaborated in an interview, "Minds has emerged from the pack as the leading alternative social network. Our competition is the big guys now. It will take time to catch up. Facebook's collapse is for us a double-edged sword....
"They have severely damaged themselves over the last 12 months which opens the door to us, but they have sullied the entire social media market, cashing in the US Constitution in order to enter China. They are so big, they must do it to grow. Few American companies have lost their way so badly. Thanks to Facebook and Google's evil business practices, the social media industry is trashed every day by mainstream media. We need not only to introduce Minds to the world, but also to educate the world that social media, instead of being a threat to freedom and democracy, can benefit society."
In October, 2018, venture capitalist Patrick Byrne, who is the owner and CEO of Overstock.com and of its subsidiary Medici Ventures -- in return for 20% (1/5) ownership of Minds and a seat on the Minds board -- invested $6 million in Minds. Minds was suddenly flush.
If the competition is indeed Big Tech, the contrast is stark, and not only in numbers: Facebook's two billion to Minds' three million unique visitors per month, one million of them a steady base. On Facebook, moreover, users are used, the material from which data is extracted, fed to growing AIs, then sold to advertisers, political movements and governments, who are Facebook's real customers. On Minds, the users are the customers. Overhauling the site, Minds was working partly from wish lists that users -- or "the minds" -- compiled. A vision was also materializing. Minds for example introduced videoconferencing and chat rooms. Videoconferences are called "Gatherings", a word which as you'll see has deep significance to Minds founder and CEO Bill Ottman....
The goal from the beginning was to get out from under Big Tech. Any type of platform though has its uses. When for example Minds outgrew its own set of private servers in the Ottman family basement and could not yet afford to buy sufficient servers, they expanded into the Amazon cloud. Simultaneously, Minds moved videos to WebTorrent and the Rewards for Work program and Minds' own accounting system to blockchain (encrypted, verified, permanent, interactively-linked ledger entries). That is a path of the future.
Blockchains however are carved forever in stone. A single edit in the sacred chain in 2018 embroiled the web in a shouting contest, split an entire online community and caused a hard fork. Imagine trying to edit an essay.
Answering the obvious need for more flexibility, Minds began a new research and development project, Nomad. It potentially combines the blockchain with fast, secure, resilient, decentralized "DAT" applications, which communicate between computers. From a blog-poster's perspective for example, I might one day be able to download the Minds Blogs software to my personal computer, write a post, edit, collaborate person to person, then upload it to Minds, get public feedback, and -- only when it's exactly what I want --- inscribe it on blockchain for all time. The goals were freedom of speech, decentralization and flexibility....
It was the flexibility, the quick-witted agility, that saved it this time.
41. BIG TECH FIRES BACK
Whether or not I mention it, the Shadow Tyranny is always a part of this story. A despotic bunch, which the Left calls "The One-Tenth of One Percent" and the Right calls "The New World Order ", judging from articles in Foreign Affairs, calls itself "the order", probably writing it on engraved ecru vellum By any name, it is a clump of mega-billionaire financiers, totalitarian dictators, and global corporations including Big Tech. Neither Right nor Left, the Tyranny is neolib/neocon, using corrupt politicians to try to build a global corporate government at world level.
Free speech sites, including Minds, welcome almost anyone not actively doing harm. Freedom of speech is a human right and a huge relief valve for society -- but or therefore the Tyranny regards it as dangerous. It can and does cut any individual it chooses off from speech online worldwide by threatening the free speech sites. Working in concert, for example, PayPal, Mastercard and Visa as of November 2018 shut off payment-processing for all social media sites that welcomed any individuals whom big tech had imperiously declared "banned".
Minds was however ready for them. Minds' John Ottman says, "Attacks on Minds are underway by multiple bad actors. Some may be nation states and others likely not. Culture wars are full on, and we seem to be ground zero. We are however fully funded, and our payments cannot be halted by PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. Our use of crypto protects us from that. With each attack, our defense improves."
Why and how is still-small Minds weathering the storm while others blow away? What are Minds' secret strengths?
Let me briefly rewind this film to 2011....
42. POTENT DREAM
As 2011 dawned, Bill Ottman had not yet decided what he wanted to do with his life. He was adept at putting on festivals which he called the "Gatherings of the Minds"with open discussions of key issues, plentiful food, colorful wares and good music. The Gatherings were popular on the East Coast. However he couldn't reach many people with them, let alone make a living that way. He could program, but having smashed a few cellphones in his time, Bill especially hated what those datamining subterfuges with kittycat memes -- social media -- were doing to human relationships and the quality of thought.
A free speech absolutist, at home in the Deep Web, basically believing that nothing should be censored or blocked, Bill envisioned a new kind of social media site that would operate like a village, or a festival with an internal market, with everyone free to speak.
The online place he imagined would not sell users' personal information and/or snooker them into providing the site's content for free. Instead, it would pay them for their content creation and for any interactions from posts to likes to comments, anything that got people talking. Bill did not think of them as "users": he called them "the minds". Each would have an individual channel or lots of channels if they wished and could sell wares in public spaces or sell space on their channels. The site itself would make part of its money by selling into that internal market, for example by selling ad space to the minds.Transparent, providing privacy and free speech, Minds would have no access to readers' private information so anyone who wished to remain anonymous could. He would structure the site so that it couldn't datamine, and would keep the site's code open source so that the people could see that he was keeping his word.
Like many others, Bill wanted to decentralize the web, slipping the world out from under Big Tech, and thus launch a new era of privacy and free speech.
Facebook was proprietary, its code hidden, so he would have to find an adept programmer, far better than he, who could reinvent a social media site. Future groups however would then be free to use this site's code, forking off from it into a network of nodes, a community of communities, around the planet. Naming it Minds, Bill incorporated it, choosing an incandescent lightbulb, the cartoon emoji for inspiration, as his logo.
Members of anonymous are perforce anonymous, cannot vote and do not endorse anything. Although immersed in Anonymous, Bill was therefore not formally endorsed by it, but his pioneering free speech site idea was riding high on Anon's approval and encouragement. He needed advice on funding it. So Bill explained his company and concept to his dad, John Ottman, a security expert and former president in the top global corporate sphere, retired and running his own company....
43. THE PHASES OF FUNDING
John says that he saw that Bill's plan was solid, innovative and could help change the world for the better. He believed in it. John also saw that its internal market, paying people for contributions, would attract armies of spammers and hackers. Threatened, big tech would try to either kill Minds in its crib or wait until Bill was cash-starved, acquire Minds, and then smash it. Precluding that, John became Minds' co-founder, chairman of the board, and first investor. That money would have to last.
Most new online businesses as soon as they have a solid proof of concept or even a one-line idea on an envelope immediately reach for a venture capitalist, trading stock for money. Yet the wrong venture capitalist, one in it for a quick profit, could force-march timetables and run rough shod over the site owners' fundamental principles, not letting a project develop its dream....
John says, "Our Phase 1 funding plan was to bootstrap for as long as we could." Minds' offices were therefore in the Ottman family basement, and the whole family pitched in. Although John heads a company of his own, he coded with Bill in the basement. Bill's mother, John's wife Peggy, joined the board as secretary-treasurer. Younger son Jack, who is now COO, helped during the summers when he was home from college. The Ottmans all could, as Bill phrases it, "code well. Well, well enough", but co-founder and CTO Mark Harding, an undergraduate in Scotland, carried the main coding load. Keeping costs minimal, Minds did not have a second developer until 2016, five years after Minds started. Ian Crossland came in as a contractor in those early years, went away, and is back fulltime. He says that when he joined the admin team, he often slept in the Ottman basement [see video], a lair of computers, couches and musical instruments.
The Ottman Family Band [known to the cognoscenti as OFB] already had John on guitar, mandolin and harmonica, Bill on classic or electric bass, Jack on guitar and drums, with daughter and attorney Elizabeth doing vocals. Co-founder and CTO Mark Harding was a French horn player, indeed a particularly fine one, cybercommuting from a music conservatory. Ian played guitar. Musical gifts are not exactly required for employment on Minds, but chief administrator Nick Lewis plays cello and conducts. Good times.
Granted, as @ThoughtRevolution says of start-ups, "Sometimes it's a garage and other times it's a basement. Sometimes it seems like a good idea and sometimes it becomes Microsoft...."
By 2015, when Minds entered Beta, the site was already offering innovative tools and getting favorable international press. By July 2017, the Phase I bootstrap money was running out. Valuing independence, Minds leadership still did not reach for a venture capitalist. With its deep roots in Anonymous, Minds was part business, part free speech and privacy movement, fascinated by blockchain and cryptocurrency.
Phase II financing was therefore a Wefunder, making an innovative cryptocoin offering [ICO] to the Minds community. In nineteen days in July, 2017, setting an SEC record, 1500 Minds users raised $1.2 million. Minds hired more coding staff, and got an office in New York City, but kept the servers in the family basement. Coming into fall 2018, Minds was still only nine men (four admins who could code "well enough", five dedicated coders) scattered across the planet trying to service a million users. Minds had moreover just phased Ethereum crypto tokens into its Rewards for Work program, bringing a horde of spammers down on the small coding team's heads. The crew had used up John Ottman's original investment, and the $1.2 million from the 2017 ICO; the need for an expanded staff and serious equipment was acute.
44. Patrick Byrne
Phase III was accepting a venture capitalist. Choosing a venture capitalist, the Ottmans found someone who shared Minds' vision of a decentralized, blockchained world living in privacy and freedom AND had no illusions about the tightly centralized old world that was trying to take out Minds AND who knew the global players AND who knew how to fight them. Enter controversial Overstock/Medici owner and CEO Patrick Byrne,....
Patrick Byrne's father was the founder of GEICO Insurance, which had been bought by legendary trader and (at the time) richest man in the world Warren Buffett. Young Patrick was mentored in the markets by Buffett. Wikipedia notes that an avid learner and traveller, Patrick Byrne "holds a certificate from Beijing Normal University, has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese studies from Dartmouth College, a master's degree from Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University."
Byrne, a black belt in Tai Kwan Do, a professional-level boxer who packs an automatic with hollow points, and has a hot temper which he on occasion expresses in a decidedly non-PC vocabulary. has survived fatal cancers twice and another lethal condition which he acquired while being treated by a barefoot doctor on one of his rougher journeys.
In short, Patrick Byrne is well-travelled, extremely well educated, boradly experienced and not awed by anybody, including Buffett.
In New York, three years before the world markets tanked in 2007, Byrne was a constant gadfly on Wall Street, accusing major traders of fraud, denouncing criminality, exposing the corporate world's corrupt relationship to governments, insisting that the world market would unnecessarily crash. Though Wall Street worked to discredit him, many of its big players one by one have settled with him out of court. In 2016 when the world was recovering from the crash, a seemingly minor lawsuit based in his no'-holds-barred fight with the Street however came back to haunt him. The appellate judge's 102-page findings were scathing, accusing Byrne and a writer working for him of "an indifference to truth" perpetrating a "vendetta" with "an indecent and pitiless desire to wound" a Canadian trader. Byrne was fined $1.2 million.
Meanwhile, Byrne had taken Overstock.com to profitability in 2009. A year later in 2010, as noted in a GroundZeroPodcast, "Forbes Magazine named Overstock.com the No. 9 Best Company to Work for in the Country, and Byrne the CEO with the highest employee approval rating (92%). In 2011, Ernst & Young gave Byrne its National Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In 2014, Overstock.com was one of the Most Trustworthy Companies in America as named by Forbes/MSCI ESG Research...."
When the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin arrived in 2009, Byrne's old mentor, Warren Buffett, denounced it. Byrne bought Bitcoin anyway, indeed was the first major corporate head to accept Bitcoin in payment for goods. Fascinated by blockchain, the underlying technology that makes Bitcoin work, Byrne shifted his focus. Through Overstock, he was the first to launch an ICO, a cryprocurrency coin offering.The resultant fund, Medici Ventures, invests only in promising young businesses inventing or using blockchains.
Bill Ottman, networking through a friend in whose company Byrne had invested, set up a meeting with Bill, John and Jack Ottman and Patrick Byrne. (For the occasion, the world was treated to the rare and awe-inspiring sight of Bill Ottman in a suit.) In exchange for 20% of Minds stock and a seat on the Minds board, Byrne gave Minds $6 million.
Those in the Minds community who had invested in the 2017 ICO did quite well. Minds had been worth $15 million. By fall 2018, it had gone to to $24 million. In October, 2018, Bryne invested an additional $6 million, bringing it to $30 million. Minds in a year had doubled in valuation.
John Briggs at Techcrunch wrote that Ottmans' two-punch funding of first iCO and then venture capitalist [VC] was a pioneering move. "Minds is a model for the future of hybrid investing, a process of raising some cash via token and raising further cash via VC. This model ensures a level of independence from investors but also allows expertise and experience to presumably flow into the company."
Everett Cook in his Wefunder blog, praised Minds' choice of partners, "It is not just that [Medici] the wholly-owned subsidiary of Overstock.com’s goal is to change the world by advancing blockchain technology, but also that Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock and an active player in the crypto market, is joining Minds' board of directors."
THEREFORE in late 2018 -- when Big Tech working in concert with other globals like Paypal and Mastercard to hit the small free speech sites full force -- most went flying, but Minds was braced. There Minds stood, with a million fulltime minds, three million visitors a month, fully funded, its crypto system up and running (thus impervious to the withdrawal of PayPal, Mastercard and Visa), with two seasoned corporate warriors on the board.
Congratulations poured in.
Which of course is when something very odd pounced....
45. THE FIRST THING THAT I NOTICED WAS THAT HISS
The immediate whisper campaign was not simply negative. It was a complex lie. Hissing that Byrne had purportedly "bought out 100% of Minds "with George Soros" no less, the whispers insisted that "they" had "taken over the company", "they own it now". Byrne was said to be "the Minds board chairman" and said to "hate free speech", so "free speech is dead". Believing that, some people on Minds were running around in an enraged panic.
IN FACT, those whispers were flatly wrong. Byrne had bought 20% of Minds; the Ottmans and Mark Harding remained in control of 80%. Byrne had one seat on the board -- which remained chaired by John Ottman and was replete with other Ottmans. Mega-billionaire George Soros has nothing to do with this. When Byrne bought 20% of Minds in October, 2018, Soros was not an investor in any of Byrne's companies, much less in Minds. Any person more outspoken than Patrick Byrne moreover would be hard to imagine. Free speech was fine.
Stupid un-fact-checked gossip? Maybe.
Still that false Soros aspect of the rumor was so off the wall that it nagged at me. Who would profit by undermining the $6 million Byrne deal? and whose style was that, using Soros? An hour later, while drinking coffee on the front porch in the rain I remembered that in 2017, The New York Times had reported that Republican political opposition research operatives, specialists in false negative campaign ads, the politics of personal destruction, were hoping to break into the tech markets. As another NYT article had noted, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg -- who oversees Facebook’s policy and communications arms -- in 2017 had been the first to bite. She had "embarked on a hard-edged lobbying campaign to discredit the company’s critics and push back on the growing chorus of voices calling for Facebook and other big tech companies to be broken up or more tightly regulated...."
Sandberg had a smoldering rage at George Soros because he was actively opposed to Facebook. In January, 2018, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Soros in a fact-filled, furious speech had attacked Facebook and Google as a "menace to society" calling for the companies to be regulated. Sandberg had asked her staff to find out if Soros had shorted Facebook stock before giving his speech denouncing Facebook. No, he hadn't tried to profit from that speech in any way. Sandberg nonetheless went after Soros. Indeed she killed two birds with one stone by simultaneously attacking him and using his name like a weapon on her other opponents and rivals. Minds for example?
Possibly. Facebook commissioned Definers Public Affairs, a Republican-linked firm, to do campaign-style opposition research, gathering and circulating to reporters public information about any Soros "funding of American advocacy groups critical of Facebook." A conservative website run by NTK Network, an affiliate of Definers and in the same building, began publishing stories defending Facebook and criticizing Facebook critics and rivals like Minds as "Soros-related". Picked up by Breitbart, it the "Soros-related" canard broadcast to the world. Sandberg would later say that she had had no knowledge of what Definers were doing -- then admit that she had.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF] notes, "Delegitimizing civil society based upon attacks on philanthropic funding sources has long been a key part of the authoritarian playbook."
Double-barreled hypocrisy also comes in. Soros is Jewish, as are Sandberg and Zuckerberg. Sandberg is thus aware of the hatred for Jews in some conservative circles. Aiming directly at those circles, accusing her small rivals of being funded by Soros was thus an anti-Semitic move on Facebook's part. Yet, at the same time, Sandberg pressured a Jewish civil tights organization to paint Facebook's critics as anti-Semitic!
Facebook, fighting mammoth competitors like Google and critics, partly by using Soros' name as a weapon, also had a long history of secretly pulverizing new kids on the social media block. Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Freedom from Facebook, said, “In light of Sandberg’s continuously changing story on the Soros research, there’s no way their denials about attacking other critics can be taken at face value." So whose MO was this whisper campaign on Minds? Sheryl Sandberg's operation at Facebook!
Gigantic Facebook had long been trying to undermine tiny Minds, recognizing the threat it poses. That sabotage had picked up considerably in 2018 as Minds came to its feet, and by summer, Facebook was openly trying to impede Minds' growth. Posts coming into Facebook from Minds were stopped by pop-ups informing the reader that Minds was insecure (which it isn't) and could thus harm your computer (no it can't), then by Captchas which did not function quite right. If the user got past that, Facebook often locked the post's content, no matter how innocuous, keeping it invisible. Something else using the politics of personal destruction had turned up the heat on Minds, then on the Byrne deal. Was it part of that Facebook campaign?
46. THE COUPLE
It was so damned odd. A couple who had quietly been on Minds for close to a year, unnoticed or pleasantly enjoyed, had experienced a sudden personality transplant; becoming megalomaniacal. Toweringly arrogant, writing in caps, one of them thundered that he would control the Minds site or bring it down. At first ignored, they tried to destroy the reputations of people who opposed them, even those who simply refused to help them.
Okay, they were obnoxious twerps... but they were strangely well-funded, offering from a seemingly limitless fund to pay any Minds users who were willing to harm other Minds' users' channels at the couple's command. By October 2018 Minds was coming to its feet with the $6 million in venture capital in the offing. The couple, remarkably well-connected, patched through to venture capitalist Byrne and tried to talk Byrne out of investing in Minds.
When Byrne invested anyway, the whisper campaign began, yet more of the politics of personal destruction, this with a broad false Soros brush, trying to turn part of the Minds community against the completed deal in which global financier George Soros had in fact played no part. Although deluged with user complaints, Minds' leadership hesitated, investigated, researched, talking to everyone involved, then by popular demand in late 2018 banned the couple and a few others involved in fighting them. The whisper campaign all but disappeared. After being banned, though, the couple while smearing Minds on other social media sites, returned to Minds with different usernames -- that is, set up sock puppet accounts ["socs"], which spent their time proclaiming the couple's victimhood and digging dirt. They seeped into any small division, encouraged resentment, pitted people against each other. Slithering toward anyone angry, they collected lists of anything negative said about Minds.
Making false accusations against named people, they sounded more like Shakespeare's Iago than honest critics. Apparently blind to irony, the couple moreover had done all of this attempted reputation-destroying in the name of stumping for a Reputation System.....
Reputation Systems are all over the world right now. At one end of the scale, everyone's familiar with the useful Reputation Systems of say Ebay or Amazon in which customers report whether sellers deliver good products on time, well-packaged and in good condition, then let the buyers decide. Great feature. The Deep web runs on it. That however does not translate well to social media. Consider Steemit, where a Reputation System has created "whales", users with the power to judge and ax other users. Imagine it in the hands of that couple, using personal destruction to try to tear the site apart in order to create fiefdoms or feed their own (or someone else's) ends. Minds users decided no.
By late 2018, moreover, Minds was up to its ears in Big Tech games. Google was refusng to allow Minds ads in its search lists because they contained the word "crypto". Apple iPhones and Google Android refused to give Minds admittance to their aps stores, because Minds refused to cesor political speech. That cut Minds off from its mobile users until Minds figured a workaround -- enabling them to download directly from the Minds website. As noted, PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Stripe were withdrawing funding mechanisms from any online sites that welcomed people with the "wrong" views.
Had Vietnam's totalitarian government also retaliated against Minds at that crucial moment? Accepting 100,000s of Vietnamese dissidents who were fleeing the repression both in Vietnam and on Facebook, Minds had offered them free political speech. Yet when the Vietnamese dissidents came, spam rings working from central batches of graphics immediately sprang up, all posting the same thing in every group they could find, always way off topic. Then spam went through the roof with pornbots featuring young Asian women -- clogging the galleries, repulsing would-be new users, even triggering a brief explosion of redheaded porn pics as some Celtic pornographers in effect demanded equal time. 'Seemed a rude way to repay Minds.
Thing is, the Vietnamese dissidents had not been known for anything like that level of porn on Facebook. Why would they suddenly start now? Was this conceivably not the work of the Vietnamese dissidents as was supposed, but a probing attack by a ticked-off Vietnamese government, known to be quite adept in cleverly-veiled cyberwarfare?
John Ottman says that many of the bots hitting Minds were Artificial Intelligence, and affirms that the Vietnamese government was active on Minds. He doubts however that it was behind the porn spam: "In July their government announced a punitive cybersecurity law, then colluded with Facebook. To their shock, thousands of activists were triggered all over the world. We are aware of Vietnamese state activity on Minds. So far Vietnamese government agents have not been disruptive on Minds because they probably realize that it would backfire."
Minds meanwhile took a huge step.
"Declaring independence", to protect the dissenters on board, Minds redoubled its efforts to cease to deal with Google, Facebook, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and Stripe altogether, instead building independent processes, a time-consuming endeavor. That has been the trajectory from the beginning. In a letter to the community, the Ottmans said, "Minds is prepared to take any and all steps necessary to protect your digital rights. We are powered by freedom -- the most powerful idea in human history."
User complaints have hit hard, especially because the search engine that tiny Minds is building is not as good as Google's, and Minds censors some things like child porn, tries to stay on iphones by "fogging" rants etc. What parts of Bill's dream have materialized, been empowered, what parts are still to come, and which have been sacrificed for it? Part VII coming up.
To read the book from the beginning, and understand the choices, go to Part I.