LONDON (Bywire News) - Watch out Facebook. There’s a new kid on the social media block. Launched by blockchain powerhouse Block.one, Voice.com aims to create a new type of social media platform; one in which users must be themselves, because everyone else is taken. No bots, no fake accounts, just real people, and real content. No private data is collected so cannot be sold. It is the antithesis of the business model which turned Facebook into the most powerful platform in the world; one in which fake news is everywhere, where users are commodities to be sold to advertisers and assertions of a post-privacy society are lauded by young, powerful CEOs.
To find out more about their vision, Bywire CEO Michael O’Sullivan, sat down with Voice.com CEO Salah Zalatimo.
MoS: Can you describe to us what Voice.com is and how is it different from other social media networks?
SZ: Voice is a social media platform that stands apart from the rest of social media because its focus is on bringing together real people to discuss real topics and real news and to have real engagement. The emphasis as you can see is on realness. We believe there are a few core problems with today’s social media which are fundamental.
The largest is they are overrun by fake accounts and bot farms and burner accounts. If you believe it, in the past two and a half years Facebook has removed 10bn fake accounts from their platform. You’d think the most accounts they can have is 7.8bn because that’s how many people are on earth, including newborns, but somehow they cross that. This is why people don’t know what’s real and fake anymore. That’s why it’s dividing us because it’s corrupted at its core.
Quite frankly it’s the difference between Voice and all social media. If you were to go back in time and start Facebook from scratch, I’m pretty sure it would be unanimous that we should verify people are people. We have the luxury of being able to do that today.
The second difference is the business model. Facebook, Twitter and all social media are purely advertising-driven. What that means is they are incentivised to track your activity all over the web and harvest your personal data. When you say you’re an advertising-driven platform, your actual product is people’s personal data. It is difficult to imagine any real changes of behaviour happening with that reality remaining in place.
So again, if you go back in time and create a more fair and equitable social media platform that actually has its users’ interests at heart, you’d have to say it can’t be advertising-driven because that inherently sets the platform against its users.
At Voice our solution to that is tokenisation. The advent of digital currencies has enabled, for the first time, a new business model for media as opposed to the subscription and advertising two-trick pony it’s been for a long time.
MS: How will voice tokens work? Why did you choose to incentivise audience in this way?
ZS: A token, especially in this context, has some profound implications and benefits. When you tokenise attention on a platform like Voice what it means in practice is that when you like something you are giving it a token which turns that action into a transaction and when you do it on a blockchain it creates an immutable record of that transaction. So, you have a transparent and immutable entity that anybody can view so that goes a long way to regaining trust.
More importantly, it serves as a universally aligned monetisation path. In simpler terms, the fact that everybody gets a token and everybody will be rewarded through that token and the value of the token is driven by the amount of engagement we have on our platform, demand for the platform creates the demand for the token which increases its value. It means that everybody in the ecosystem wants the same thing for the token to increase in value.
It is truly a unique way to align all interests and that is fundamentally different to what we see today in which Facebook users, publishers and advertisers are furious with the platform and calling on the CEO by name to do better.
MoS: Are you concerned that incentives to drive opinions and comments will drive incentive-based opinions and discussions rather than authentic discussions? The risk of being outvoiced, losing, or winning tokens, is like a form of gambling and some would argue that’s the antithesis of what the ethics surrounding the Voice revolution is all about.
ZS: If you took this in a simple way and said, here are some tokens and you have to follow what you think is going to get the most attention you would quickly find people assuming extreme positions to game the system. That would be the risk. What you describe sounds a lot like what current social media platforms do. You are pursuing extremity.
We are talking about social media 3.0 it’s something we refer to as tokenomics. It’s a full economy in which has checks and balances, you are held accountable and you might gain tokens and you might lose tokens and so it’s in that sense you could say it’s gambling because you might win and might lose.
I’d say it’s more like a stock market where you stake things you believe in and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. It’s not gambling like a coin flick because curating content and the way you can earn the most is by producing content, these are not coin flicks, it's a marketplace and a full economy which is developing and becoming more robust and when we see an unintended result, the beauty of that is that we have mechanisms which can offset that because it is a full economy.
MoS: Is Voice a social media platform for engagement or is it more a news platform? Some have argued that by doing both, you could end up failing at either.
ZS: That is a great question, Michael. I’m reminded of 10 or 15 years ago when I was consulting there was a lot of discussion about what is a tech company and now in 2020 it’s a silly question because everything is a tech company. When it comes to the media it’s semantics because at the end of the day what media is not social?
It is absolutely a social media platform where you will share blogs, platforms, and points of view and seek engagement. It is less of an address book and less of a banter back and forth between people and less a place to anonymously engage on content and it’s not a place where you’ll network for your career.
It’s a place where people engage on a community level about real topics. So, I think to try and pigeonhole it with what we know of social media today is not useful. This is a place where people authentically share their ideas and hope to get engagement with people.
MoS: Can you talk about your parents, where you’re from and any struggles in life which led you where you are today?
ZS: Thank you, Michael. Most people don't ask about the person. I grew up here in the US in Pennsylvania. My parents were immigrants from the middle east. They moved just outside of Scranton in a town called Dallas, which has a population of 2,812. Tiny town but a beautiful town, it still has a lot of my closest friends in the world. It’s a place I still call home, but I left for the big city to go to University.
I’ve been in New York nonstop for the past 20 plus years. I did some stints in other places, but this is where I grew up as an adult and I spent my career working in the media and trying to build new products and new companies.
I have a passion for building things and that became obvious when I was a kid building computers in my room and whatever I could get my hands on and that’s what got me so excited about Voice because I found an opportunity.
Society needs a better social media. Social media might replace media as the fourth estate, it probably already has, and we need a better one which reflects society. We need one which is democratic in the spirit in which people can engage with it and hold it accountable. That touches on my core values as a person and it feels like the stars are aligning at this point in time for the appetite for this and the technology available to bring it to life.
So, I’m very grateful for meeting Brendan Blumer and Dan Larimer at Block.one who brought that missing piece of the puzzle which was that technology and conviction and so here we are. I’m six months into what has already been a deeply rewarding and exciting journey and a lot of that will start to be outward facing soon.
MoS: Did you have any mentors, and did they help get you where you are today?
ZS: Absolutely. I owe a great deal of what I’ve accomplished to several mentors who have had an impact. It’s something I hold dearly and try to pay it forward. I mentor as much as I can myself. My most impactful mentor of late would have to be Lewis Dvorkin who acquired my startup and was a manager at Forbes.
At every point in your career, you’re trying to develop a new aspect of your skillset. Going into a venture like Voice where we are trying to take on the biggest companies in the world and do something that we believe is so important for society. It’s a heavy concept and you have to be able to believe it and balance passion with logic and reason.
Having someone in your corner can keep you grounded and, in this case, this is what Lewis is for me is very important and it allows me to have a purview at different levels which is critical to keep your ship heading in the right direction.
MoS: A lot of entrepreneurs fail many times before they succeed. What was your biggest failure? How did you overcome it?
SZ: I’ve gotten pretty good at failing. It hurts the same every time. When you learn how to use failure as fuel and a lesson, it becomes very empowering to be able to take a failure.
When I decided to commit to building my businesses. I spent a lot of my time as a consultant for big companies and I became very confident in my ability to coach a team but not necessarily to play. I signed up for a charity boxing tournament. A friend of mine I went to school with was diagnosed with Lymphoma. He’s in remission now.
I signed up to raise money for cancer research and that experience, I trained every single ounce of energy I had in the day was used toward training. If I didn’t feel tired at the end of the day I’d go and hit the punching bag. I trained like an animal for four months and was successful in that.
I look back and think when push comes to shove when in a ring and someone’s trying to kill you, not only can you survive, but you can thrive. Even when you get punched in the face you can’t let it phase you. The most powerful lesson I took from my boxing experience is it’s not how you punch but how you take a punch. It’s against your instincts to stare a punch down and not flinch. That’s what it is to be an entrepreneur. You’re going to get punched constantly and, if you flinch, you’re going to lose.
MoS: Winston Churchill famously said, “Success is defined by moving from one failure to the next without a loss of enthusiasm.”
SZ: Exactly! If you keep doing that for a long enough time at some point it will hit. Some hit early, some hit late but it’s resilience at the end of the day.
MoS: To pivot back to Voice. The biggest problem for any new social media platform is reaching critical mass. How can Voice.com ensure it reaches critical mass and doesn’t just become an excellent forum for tech-minded individuals to have a chat. What would you say to my Mum to make her leave Facebook and sign up to Voice?
SZ: It is a simple question with a complicated answer. There’s a framework I’m keen on by Geoffrey Moore and it’s called ‘crossing the chasm’. You first work on the earliest adopters and the early adopters and then there’s a gap. You have to cross that gap to get into the mass market.
I view it as one step at a time. First, our earliest adopters. If we get them on board, we can demonstrate there is retention and engagement and it indicates a product-market fit and we can move on from there. Right now, we are just focused on our base, our most excited loyal users and providing them with an experience they love. If we can do that, I’m not worried about the future. If we can, there’s no point worrying about the future.
MoS: What’s your biggest challenge facing Voice.com and how will you overcome them?
SZ: The biggest challenge is probably making tokens a mass-market concept. So, it’s clear to me what problems exist in social media. It’s clear to me we’re filling a need in the market today. It’s more about is the world ready for cryptocurrency and how can we make it ready? The secret sauce for Voice is tokens and what they enable. That is what keeps me up at night and that is what our marketing team is focusing on. What can we do to make tokens as mum friendly as possible?
MoS: A very important question and be honest. Can you tell me the last time you used a whiteboard and how it made you feel?
SZ: (Laughs). There’s a mirror which has become my whiteboard. Every window in the house has become one. I feel hamstrung and these four months without a whiteboard I haven’t been able to express myself. People have instruments and artists have canvasses. I express myself in whiteboards and I hope that one day there will be a museum of great whiteboard diagrams and one day I hope I can take my kids to show them how powerful whiteboards were back in the day.
MoS: How do you moderate Voice.com and will there be any democratic and community-based aspect to that process?
SZ: Absolutely. First and foremost, we will abide by the laws of countries in which we are available. We are not pursuing a fully decentralised all-out free speech platform. There are values we uphold and laws we will absolutely abide by. Beyond that, there are a lot of things which are not captured by the law and those are the items which have become the sand in Facebook’s gears and the most obvious is hate speech.
Society has largely solved this with democracy and it’s astonishing to me that the most powerful platform in the world, which makes Mark Zuckerberg the most powerful person in the world, has no accountability to anybody, let alone the users. All of that power which is sitting in the ivory tower will be pushed down into the community. Our users will vote on the ground rules that they want to uphold and will be empowered with tools to enforce them.
MoS: How would that work in reality?
SZ: Let me give you an example. If you’re using Ways the navigation and they tell you there’s a broken down car on the road and they will ask you if it is still there. One of the ways we’ll push power back into the community is in a similar way. We’ll say that this piece of content is flagged as hate speech, do you agree? You can determine that this does look like hate speech.
The ground rules for the community may be that all hate speech is deleted or hidden behind a pop-up. There’s a lot of grey area and nuance we can approach content moderation with which people can’t see because they are in a binary approach of most platforms today.
MoS: Who owns the copyright and are you worried about any liability?
SZ: We’re a platform, not a publisher. We don’t review any content before it goes up. We don’t take liability, but anything that is flagged as illegal, we will take action immediately.
MoS: And who owns the copyright?
SZ: The original creator owns the copyright.
MoS: How decentralised is it? Is all the content stored on the blockchain and why did you decide not to use the EOS Public Blockchain?
SZ: The content lives in a database but a hash of that content lives on the blockchain. It’s a centralised blockchain. It is on a blockchain and it is auditable by the public. People often conflate the existence of a blockchain with decentralisation. There is such a thing as a centralised blockchain which is basically one we are running exclusively and that’s what Voice is today. It is a fully centralised blockchain but has several blockchains within it.
MoS: What’s the ultimate outcome for Voice? Is it about money or something more existential?
SZ: The goal of the platform is to create an environment in which we know the people we’re talking to are real, the content being produced is from real people and not from bot farms or people who are looking to manipulate the algorithms. It is a place for people to turn to get authentic information.
MoS: One final question. Is Voice.com intended to be a force for good in the world or to generate profit? Given that boards have a duty to drive profits & infinite growth, is there a danger it can become another one of those well-meaning companies which become more and more compromised?
SZ: We are not a public service company, we are not a non-profit, we are a for-profit entity, but we believe for-profit does not have to mean for evil. That is an unfortunate association which has evolved over time because there are companies which are evil.
Where we feel comfortable is that we’ve designed a platform where our profits are tied to the success of our users. For me, that’s the innovation. It’s not about saying “are you going to be profitable or good”? Our profit models are flawed. We think cryptocurrencies have the opportunity to correct a lot of that. When you apply that to a social media platform, we’re very excited by the environment it can take.
(Written by Tom Cropper, Edited by Michael O’Sullivan & Klaudia Fior)