During Mark Zuckerberg’s over 10 hours of Congressional testimony last week, lawmakers repeatedly asked how Facebook makes money. The simple answer, which Zuckerberg dodged, is the contributions and online activities of its over two billion users, which allow marketers to target ads with razor precision. In which case, asked representative Paul Tonko (D – New York), “why doesn’t Facebook pay its users for their incredibly valuable data?”
It’s a good question, one that alternative social networks like Minds have attempted to answer. The idea isn’t entirely new—Minds launched in 2015—but the site and others like it feel especially relevant as people begin to reexamine the bargain Facebook has made with them.
Meeting of the Minds
Minds is tiny compared to Facebook—it only has around one million users, 110,000 or so of whom are active each month—but it’s a prominent example of what it looks like when a platform inverts the traditional ad-supported model. It doesn’t feel entirely different from Facebook, at least not at first. The site’s home page is a news feed, with tabs for browsing images, videos, blogs, and groups at the top of the page.
If you don’t follow anyone in particular, it quickly fills with the equivalent of ads, which Minds calls “Boosts.” (You can also banish all the boosted posts from your feed with a $5 Minds Plus monthly subscription.)
In a refreshing change from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of the major platforms, Minds has also retained a strictly reverse-chronological timeline. The core of the Minds experience, though, is that users receive “tokens” when others interact with their posts, or simply by spending time on the platform.
“Helping people make money online is such an important focus of ours,” says 32-year-old Minds founder Bill Ottman.
It doesn’t feel entirely different from Facebook, at least not at first.
The tokens users receive for contributing to Minds don’t yet translate to real money, but they can be used within the platform to buy two kinds of Boosts. News Feed Boosts largely work in the same way as traditional digital ads, injecting a post into other people’s feeds. Peer-to-Peer Boosts, meanwhile, formalize a part of the digital economy that has always existed, letting you pay another Minds user to share your post to their followers. It’s the Minds equivalent of a brand paying an Instagram blogger to wear their shoes, or a musician paying a popular Twitter account to tweet out their SoundCloud mixtape. The difference is that the financial relationship is disclosed in the open. “If you use the Boost well, you could have no audience and easily gain like five to ten-thousand followers,” says Ottman.
Minds doesn’t let you use a Boost to target specific users on the platform; your post instead gets shared to 1,000 random people for each token you spend. Ottman says that if Minds ever did build out a targeting capability, the entire system would require users to explicitly opt-in. If you haven’t earned enough tokens from contributing to or using Minds, you can also choose to pay for either type of Boost using a credit card: 1,000 views costs $1.
The Token Economy
The tokens on Minds can be used for more than just ads; they essentially power the social network’s entire ecosystem. Using Wire, the platform’s built-in Patreon-like feature, users can tip creators, or pay for exclusive content, if someone chooses to place a post behind a paywall. You can also earn tokens by contributing to Minds’ code, or discovering software bugs; the entire site is open source. Last month, Minds began testing converting its token system—which were previously called points—into a new cryptocurrency, the Minds token, which runs on the Ethereum blockchain network. In theory, Minds users will eventually be able to take their tokens to exchanges, and convert them into another cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, or even into dollars.
Minds will likely never become the next Facebook—its relatively tiny user base hasn’t grown much over the last couple of years—but it represents a prototype of what could be a very different kind of social network. For one, Minds aims to be community-owned, and it doesn’t consider itself in competition with other, similar open-source projects. Last year, Minds raised over $1 million from more than 1500 individual backers. It otherwise relies on revenue from people buying boosts, and a potential payday if Minds cryptocurrency gains in value. “Generally speaking, I consider every network that’s open source, encrypted, and working towards decentralization, ‘on the same team’ and hope they feel the same way,” Ottman said in an email.
Minds is not the first social network to pay out cryptocurrency for activity. Steemit has a similar model, rewarding users with a fraction of the cryptocurrency Steem for everything they do on the platform. The main difference between Steemit and Minds is the former’s weighted voting system, which values the input of older Steemit accounts over newcomers. While a vote from a newbie on the platform might be worth less than a cent, a vote from someone with an established reputation might be worth several dollars. On Minds, no such preferential treatment exists.
The Minds business model differs from Facebook’s, but it will have to grapple with some of the same ethical questions that mainstream social networks do. The vast majority of content on Minds is innocuous, but posts do appear there that would constitute hate speech on other platforms, including several groups with a racial slur in their name. There’s nothing in the Minds Terms of Service preventing users from posting hate speech, though the platform doesn’t allow doxing, inciting violence, or harassing other users directly.
Facebook and other mainstream social networks have become more aggressive in taking down what they perceive as hate speech in recent years, to prevent their tools from being co-opted by bigots to help spread their message. But on Minds and other platforms like it, the ethical question about what content to remove has an added dimension: Ottman has to grapple with not only potentially helping Nazis find each other, but also paying them to spend time interacting with each other.
‘Helping people make money online is such an important focus of ours.’
Bill Ottman, Minds
Ottman says he believes removing hate speech and other offensive content can unintentionally bring more attention to bigoted ideologies. “While we could ban those ideas from our platform—we would OK, yes, we would maybe be keeping the platform a little bit safer for people—but on a broader social view, we would actually be contributing to the problem,” he argues. “The censorship that’s happening on Twitter and Facebook, it has no understanding of nuance, they’re using AI algorithms to just go through it all and there’s just a lot of collateral damage.”
Minds doesn’t use AI to detect content that violates its terms, and the site has an incredibly small staff—leaving few resources to police content, even if it wanted to. But controlling what users say, especially their political views, has always been incongruent with Ottman’s values.
The Minds founder has gone to great lengths to ensure his site doesn’t appear partisan, especially as other alternative social networks, like Gab, have become plainly aligned with the far-right. Ottman stresses that Minds has been supported and used by people of every political ideology. His focus is ensuring that Minds and platforms like it succeed, just as Wikipedia beat out proprietary encyclopedias.
“I believe that it is inevitable that an open-source solution will rise to the top, whether that’s us or a federation of decentralized networks cooperating,” says Ottman. He has a long way to go. Facebook continues to generate billions of dollars in revenue each quarter, and advertisers don’t appear dismayed by its recent privacy snafus. But Minds and its ilk at least promise something Facebook never could: cold hard cryptocurrency, for the same sort of data the heavyweights takes for free.