They are going to leave Facebook: A chat with social networkers Revolution Populi

Famed Yale professor David Gelernter and investment banker Rob Rosenthal field questions about Revolution Populi, their startup effort to build a blockchain-based alternative to Facebook. Will the desire to control our personal information prompt us to abandon the giants that control today's Internet?

Why social media fatigue is spreading Dan Patterson and Jason Hiner discuss how early adopters of social media are turning away from it, and what that could mean for the future of Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms.

David Gelernter, famed Yale University computer science professor, is a pioneer in software, having invented in the mid-1990s a program called Lifestreams. It would come to be regarded as one of the very first social network programs. 

Gelernter has teamed up with a group led by former Goldman Sachs banker Rob Rosenthal to create a new social network, based on blockchain and cryptocurrency. The group, Revolution Populi, unveiled its thinking in a screed by Gelernter a week ago on Medium that makes the case that people's data should belong to each individual, not to the tech giants that horde that data. Facebook, Gelernter's primary target, is a failed example of a social network, and an "opium den," in his words. 

In a companion white paper, Gelernter and Rosenthal and the team sketch the broad outlines of a plan to give the database of user data, in blockchain form, to the people, and to let a thousand flowers bloom, in the form of new social networking apps that will be built on top of the blockchain. Various goods and services will be able to be transacted via crypto through those apps, including people being paid for the ad revenue their information generates if they so choose. Gelernter and Rosenthal sat down this week for a chat with ZDNet about the tough questions facing anything trying to disintermediate Facebook. 

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Many details of the infrastructure, and an initial app that Revolution Populi will provide remain to be revealed. The duo promises more information in the "coming weeks." But Gelernter and Rosenthal are sure about one thing: Whether now, or some years from now, people will leave Facebook.

As Gelernter puts it, social networks "need to do important things they don't do today. There is no way Facebook is the stopping point. It may not be us who knocks them out, but someday, somebody will."


ZDNet: What gives you confidence people will switch to another social network, given how they've built their habits around Facebook?

David Gelernter: I really do think there are a lot of people who have been thinking in this direction. I think this is a huge area, and we will see developments over a matter of decades, not months, and that Revolution Populi is a step in the right direction. Facebook is not the end of the story; it is just one awkward step. It's not their fault they were the first out there, but it's hardly surprising that there's a desire for something else. 

Rob Rosenthal: The other aspect of this, in terms of a killer app, is that it's not going to be just one. We are going to be shepherding a public blockchain on top of which anybody can build apps. So it's more like death by a thousand apps. We believe David is going to design a brilliant new social network, that is incredibly elegant in its design, on top of which you will be able to get not just music streaming, which is cool, but also a system whereby you make the money from your data.

david-galerneter-headshot-2019.jpg

Gelernter is passionate in his belief people crave, and will respond to, elegant software, which he says Facebook lacks. 

Revolution Populi.

Gelernter: Rob's point is tremendously important. We're talking about a bunch of apps. The best thing about this medium is that anyone with this idea can build it, you don't need a huge group backing you. It's been impossible to make room for yourself in a world dominated by, monopolized by, a very strong player. You're losing what ought to be software's biggest source of strength. 

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Rosenthal: Think about it, Facebook is worth half a trillion dollars not because of the users, but because of the data. 

Gelernter: Rob's point is tremendously important. There is nothing dazzling about the Facebook application; it's that data is a remarkable resource. 

ZDNet: But it can be mysterious why some things succeed, and others don't. Before Facebook, there was Friendster, which was hot and then failed, and there was MySpace, which was hot and got bought out [by News Corp.] and went out of popularity…

Gelernter: It's still true that, although the workings of the market are deep and mysterious, people do respond to a well-defined app with a well-designed user interface. That is something that people care about. They respond to a lot of other things also. If you get out there with something that really is first-rate, there is interest and curiosity in building on it.

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Rosenthal: There's no question about that. Also, basically, blockchain has been around for 10 years. No one has come up with a use case. No one has come up with a killer app for it. David has. A database, a publicly governed, democratically controlled database, where any other app can attach itself. When we developed MyFix, we had to either build a database or pay for an SaaS [cloud database.] In this system, every user has control over their own data. It's that elegantly simple. It's not a new internet, it's not a new OS -- not yet, anyway. We are engendering and shepherding a creation of a public database. 

ZDNet: But it's often the case that there's this dilemma: You have to get users signed up to make developers interested, but then you have to get developers building things in order to lure users…

Rosenthal: It's a little bit of chicken and egg, it's true, but that's why David's design of a maiden app will sit on top of that. It needs to start somewhere. When one is shepherding the creation of a true public database, there's something to begin with, to sit on top of it, as a portal to the data.

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Rosenthal is adamant that the database of information on people must be a public possession, not owned by the "colonizers" of the Internet, as he refers to Facebook and Google and other tech giants.

Revolution Populi.

Gelernter: We don't all have a perfect agreement and emphasis. I think the ball is in our court to provide an app that is tremendously attractive, a beautiful app. It's our turn to supply beautiful software. It's the beautiful app that's going to draw people. The strength of this operation lies in the fact that the database is important, and the app is tremendously important, and then everybody is invited to design his own application. 

ZDNet: So, if you had to give an elevator pitch to a consumer -- not to an investor, not to a developer -- but to a consumer who already uses Facebook, as to why they should switch, what would you say?

Rosenthal: It's simple, download your data from facebook and upload it to this new database, because there's no downside, and you will use it because it's a beautifully designed, better application, and if you don't like it, there will be tons of other apps that you may like better.

Gelernter: Yes, invest 10 minutes in this, and the next 10 years, you will be happier. The initial investment in time is so puny, versus what the average user spends over a month or a year on social media. People are serious about finding good software, and they will be attracted to this. 

Rosenthal: And, guess what, you know, you could actually end up making some money. In the case of someone like LeBron James, with 50 million followers, you could potentially make a lot of money. But you don't have to be LeBron to make money here.

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ZDNet: Let's talk about that premise. There is some economic theory that the value of some activity only can be monetized in a context, such as your activity in a social network. Outside of Facebook, one could argue your social activity doesn't mean much to an advertiser, and so it cannot be monetized. 

Rosenthal: There is the notion of a concentration with a public database that belongs to everyone. The assets of the United States belong to everyone. If you have content, it is yours. It's your property. If you do concentrate on a decentralized database, with everyone's data individually, that's the power of centralization in a decentralized database that is separate from any single entity. Now, Facebook is a blank sheet of paper. If ZDNet, or any publication, if they produce content and put it up, in this system, the advertiser pays them -- they don't pay a blank sheet of paper; they pay the people who produce the content. Your data is yours, it belongs to you, and you can choose to sell it if you want.

Gelernter: And beyond your content, there is other content. Market demand is based on something people want, and we know they rank social pretty high on the list of what matters. This is an area where if we connect with first-rate software, a lot of people are going to be interested. In a sense, we have it easier than Facebook and earlier networks. The demand is known and proven. When I built the Live Stream system in 1994, nobody knew what it was. It would have taken a huge campaign to educate people on it. That's very difficult and very time-consuming. Now it's an area where people know what a social network is, and what it can do, and why it's worth their time. We are in a position to take advantage of that fact. 

ZDNet: What about fair use? Sometimes I want to 'retweet' something, or share someone else's photo. I don't necessarily want to pay for that every time.

Rosenthal: There will be fair use, yes. We address this in the white paper. There is software out there that through various different ways, we can very elegantly attach a user's likeness to them. Therefore, they will be the beneficiary of transactions. I was a musician previously. I didn't want people taking my songs and making money off of it. If you take a picture of a sunset, it's fair use, but if someone takes a picture of you, and an ad pops up against that, you should get that money. 

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Gelernter: There's a larger point here. These guys convinced me of something: it seemed to me very few people will attract a non-trivial number of followers, because most people are cared about by no one. But, there are all sorts of people who are outstanding in a field that you've never heard of. But there are people who care about them, maybe just on their block, or at the school board meeting, or the local garden sale. They may have a couple of thousand followers. These are not movie stars and sports heroes, but they have distinction in fields that people care about. There are important gradations between having millions of followers and being of no interest to anyone. There are people who do have their own modest followings.

Rosenthal: There is a moral issue beyond this as well. There are lots of people who don't sign up for streaming music because the price is too high. It is the height of elitism to contend that $10 a month is meaningless. It's meaningful to some people. Now, if you have a following, it's your natural resource, it belongs to you. Our belief is that it will find a way to make money. We believe, like I said, that if people take this up because we do the social net better than it's been done, because it's righteous, and people accept that notion, and accept that they should be the ones making the money for it, we're offering people a service which we know is going to be attractive to them. 

Gelernter: I've seen the software industry respond arrogantly since the day it was born to the idea that consumers care about quality, and whether it makes a difference to people. The fact is, it makes a lot of difference to people. There's so much crummy software out there. We will have a better social network than Facebook. It will have a better package of services, and they are going to leave Facebook. 

Rosenthal: And guess what, we are also putting ourselves in competition with ourselves. 

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Gelernter: Yeah, the bar is set pretty low, we really want to do something good, and there are going to be other apps as well. 

Rosenthal: It's a gut check, knowing there will be hundreds of thousands, even millions of other social networks.

Gelernter: Yeah, right. This is an important area. Social networking is failing to do some things it ought to do. A lot of societies on this planet are going to have to deal with social networks, which has a lot to do with the emerging shape of public discussion. When I first described the social network back in the 1990s, I had ridiculously inspirational ideas. I thought the first social network would be used to discuss the forthcoming elections. It's obviously not going to change human nature, but it will affect discussion, among other things. The main use of social networks, it turns out, is gossiping. Gossip has always been mankind's second-favorite activity.  But they read the newspaper, also. They watch news on TV. Not everyone in this country cares, but some people do. And the public function will be important, and the private as well. For people to put their own stories online, and also to find out what goes on in public life, generally.

Rosenthal: I think David's point is so well put. The other thing is, this system will be controlled by the people. No one entity considers what is the right information for you to see, that's critical. 

ZDNet: Why did you decide to include crypto-currency in this system? It seems you've brought on yourselves all the problems that crypto has, such as which crypto is the right one for transactions, and all the fraud and theft that has been seen with crypto. You could have just made this a blockchain effort supported by fiat currencies.

Rosenthal: Crypto is elegant, and it's part of the stack. It's an elegant way to do straight-through. If an advertiser pays you directly, you go straight through to your music or movie streaming, or whatever else is offered in that system. This is a blockchain initiative, with crypto attached to it as an elegant way to do that, and to have smart contracts for people to control who they want to see. It's just an elegant stack.

Gelernter: I have an idea that crypto is becoming more important to people. As they overcome concerns with storing stuff on line. They have had the luxury of not thinking too much about it so far. 

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ZDNet: And the matter of fraud in crypto?

Rosenthal: We will be releasing our technical details in coming weeks, but we have been thinking a lot about all those issues. They are all solvable. This is relatively new technology, but it's getting better every single day. There are a lot of smart, interesting people working on solutions to the issues that have come up. As David said, people are interested and excited about it.

Gelernter: There's real interest and excitement about these algorithms. These are not new, but they are becoming more and more important. Computing and computer science and the technical fields generally are fascinated with the algorithm and its application. They are fascinated with crypto and crypto-currency. It's just too hot an issue not to be exciting to people in the field. There is technical interest, and the technical knowledge is growing. 

ZDNet: What about the supposed transparency of the blockchain? In some aggregated, perhaps anonymous sense, the blockchain knows what you've been doing. That might disturb some people in the context of social media. How do you reconcile the transparency of the blockchain with privacy?

Rosenthal: We will be releasing more details in coming weeks, but we are absolutely confident all these issues are addressable. As I said before, this is a new, burgeoning technology, and there are lots of people working through many known issues.

Gelernter: These are important questions. We have been talking with people about these substantial questions. The good news is that there is a tremendous amount of interest and excitement in the community. We have been seeing seeing a lot of people who have been working on this. 

ZDNet: What's the role of government in all this? Given that the Internet was created through a public-private partnership involving ARPA, one might imagine a blockchain-based social network could emerge out of some public project that would be similar to how the Internet got started.

Rosenthal: Well, there will always be temporal law! At the same time, we believe that in terms of this conundrum, or issue, facing the world, that instead of hand full of colonizers, the database needs to belong to everyone. I don't think we believe government is the right solution. We think the problem should be solved outside of that.

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Gelernter: Government did something very important, and reliable, with the release of TCP-IP. In building infrastructure, and defining protocols, and generating protocols in the community -- these are some of the more technical accomplishments. I don't think people are giving enough credit to the defense research agencies and the NSF. They did tremendously important things. The American taxpayer was willing to pay for scientific research for the country's defense. And so government has done something extraordinarily important. But having created this beautiful and fascinating cyber-world, the private sector is called upon now for something new. Government has done the hard protocol work that we can take for granted. It's now up to us, not the Defense Department anymore, but the software thinkers of the world, to do something interesting. And there is a lot of interesting stuff to come. We haven't seen anything interesting yet…

Rosenthal: That's exactly right. Who owns the internet? Why can't the database belong to the people? 

Gelernter: I was amazing lucky during the 80s as a kid, and the 90s, we were amazingly lucky that there were brilliant people at ARPA, and a few industrial labs, that got funded in the very early years of the Internet. But we can't count on that now. It's in fact counter-intuitive that this government project [the Internet] came out so brilliantly.

ZDNet: As you said, it seems a lot of people are thinking about this. What about competition to your efforts? 

Gelernter: If you asked me where the really brilliant social networking software is going to come, I would say from a design group that has a history of understanding the history of elegant design, and why elegance matters. Elegance means something else in software. The average software engineer talks about elegance but hasn't the faintest idea what that means. The average engineer wants features and programmability and switches to set, and that has been out of keeping with what the individual wants. It's the designer who thinks about the user, as opposed to the algorithm. I agree there will be a replacement for Facebook, a social network done right. And there are going to be a lot of them. My bet is ours will be the best.

Rosenthal: Also, think about this: The elegance of a very simple idea. We are not creating a new Internet. The Internet works fine. This is, simply put, a public database that is going to be the solution to the decolonization of the internet. David's software that he designs will flatly be better than anything else you've ever seen. This solution will prevail.

Gelernter: Facebook is not enough. You know, some people would have said that about Unix. We don't really need that much more work on operating systems. That's certainly not the case where social networks are concerned. They need to do important things they don't do today. There is no way Facebook is the stopping point. It may not be us who knocks them out, but someday, somebody will.

Rosenthal: Or several.

Gelernter: Or several

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ZDNet: AI is mentioned at the end of the white paper, the importance of building AI into this system. Why is that important?

Rosenthal: There are a handful of companies that will build the machine; they are building the machine. That's a scary notion. That's why we have to decouple the colonizers of the internet from their databases, and put it in the hands to whom it belongs. David is a pioneer in lots of fields, including AI We will be using AI as an essential part of this. We will release those details as we go.

Gelernter: AI is a central part of this undertaking because I need a social network to do for me what it's not currently. I don't have the time to contract my own meticulously designed environment online. I need interesting things to be brought to my attention, to have interesting candidates for me proposed to me. There is not enough being done for me now. Most people are getting a small fraction of the internet right now. If they had the time to browse and cruise so many other people, well, that would be one thing. We want to make that familiarity more widely available, and AI can do that. It's going to be one of the most important applications in the civilian world of AI in the next century, managing the Internet and the Web in a way that breaks it open, and makes it available to most users. This is the problem of the sort of, semantic completion of your little network, how can we expand your neighborhood intelligently. That's a problem, and we have a way to solve it. Having been interested in AI for a long time, I built a bunch of systems, but other people have different approaches, and I think the problem is interesting enough that it will definitely attract lots of talented people. This problem of expanding, of showing people interesting pieces of the internet, of showing them around the Web, an intelligent guided tour, will be a huge problem, and we will see a lot of AI in that area.

Rosenthal: And, importantly, it will not be a couple guys in silicon valley that will code what the brain is actually going to do. 

Gelernter: We have different approaches to this, but it's a tremendously important area

ZDNet: How is Revolution Populi capitalized?

Rosenthal: We are a private company. We are looking to do either an ICO [initial coin offering, sale of crypto currency direct to investors] or an IEO [initial exchange offering], or some hybrid of the two, a token sale, and we will be talking more about that in the coming weeks. We understand that what we are trying to do, in terms of a public database and anything else, we can't do that with $25 and a pack of gum. We want to raise funds through either an ICO or IEO or hybrid. 

ZDNet: Anything else we haven't discussed that you'd like to add?

Gelernter: I just would like to add that we think this is a  tremendously exciting problem. I have a biased view of this, of course, because I have been fascinated for so long about it. I can't imagine any more exciting problem in software than this problem of getting a social network right. My first effort was better than Facebook is today, but certainly, in the 1990s, it was flawed in many ways. But we know more now, we have lots of user experience and data to draw upon. This is a tremendously important and wide-open area. And we're grateful to Facebook for being so far away from the right solution! It's just as well they didn't do it right!

Rosenthal: I would add to it as well that it is exciting to not just me, but the group, the public interest aspect of this. What is happening now within this framework, that of the colonizers of the Internet is madness. We have a solution to that, and we are very exited about that notion of a public database that belongs to the people.

Gelernter: Yes, there is a really public interest here.

Rosenthal: There truly is, because what happens in the Mirror Worlds happens in the temporal world. [Mirror Worlds is the title of a 1993 book by Gelernter exploring what happens as self is re-instantiated inside public software systems.]