The Plug View of Content Moderation

Building a system that puts communities in charge

If you’re reading this and it sounds familiar, you might be right. We read Substack’s moderation policy and found that it is so aligned with our own views that we were inspired to use it as a basis for our own policy. Chris, Hamish, and Jairaj, we hope you will take this as the sincerest form of flattery 🙂

As we set out to grow Plug into a social network with global reach that is also deeply embedded in local grassroots communities, there is considerable onus on us to make our position on content moderation and censorship as clear and early as possible, and explain how we got there.

It’s a complicated issue with no perfect solutions. We could say, for example, that we are advocates of free speech, but the uncomfortable truth is that this aspiration requires short and medium term compromises. It is obvious that saying things that are clearly illegal should be suppressed, but some people also say things within the law that we are uncomfortable facilitating. On the other hand, discernment doesn’t scale, and no human moderators or censors, however independent, have the resources to regulate contextually meaningful speech. A word in one context, uttered by one person, is not the same as that of another in another context. Machine learning results in a kafkaesque experience for users who have to navigate constraints that they are not allowed to fully understand, and it is often expensive for developers to reverse engineer the patterns used by AI systems to make their opaque judgments – and thats before you get into the fraught terrain of the debate around algorithmic bias. Then there are the policies themselves, blunt instruments at the best of times, which cannot account for the nuance of context, and which become shifting sands in a politically charged environment, sometimes selectively applied.

When you are faced with two bad options, it is necessary to get to the root of the problem, to forge a third way, and this article covers our thinking to date. In short: 

  • How the Plug model puts integrated communities in charge
  • How our company’s beliefs and values inform our approach to content moderation
  • Why we promote quality content & events on the platform

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Plug is different from social media platforms.

In conversations about content moderation on the internet, there will be a tendency to consider Plug in the same category as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, all of which also host “user-generated content.” But there are fundamental differences between Plug and these platforms that have major implications and go way beyond the superficial similarities in the UI and basic functionality.

Difference 1: In fact, we don’t consider ourselves a social media platform.

The term ‘social media’ was coined by the founders of MySpace when they were pitching to sell their burgeoning platform to News Corps. The pitch was simple, that MySpace is the perfect media company, where the consumers produce the content, and the profiteers just add ads. Before this time the standard term was ‘social network’. Once Facebook adopted this business model the dye was cast. Therefore, without ads is a good ol’ social network, and we aim to bring back the feelings of community and safety that those early social networks engendered.

A lot of people will suppose that we started Plug to be the next big thing in social media. But what we’re actually trying to do is subvert the power of the attention economy. We want integrated communities, not engagement-motivated platforms, to ultimately be in control. We think this path offers a better future for our partners specifically, and for culture generally.

Difference 2: On Plug, users are in full control of what they see.

Today’s dominant social media platforms dictate to a large extent what you see, pushing content to people in news feeds. The content that appears in these feeds is filtered and ordered by algorithms that have been designed to maximize engagement. For billions of people, these engagement-optimized feeds have replaced newspapers, magazines, and TV news channels in being the main deciders of how timely information finds its way into our brains.  

But with Plug, users choose what they see. A user makes a conscious decision about which other people and organizations to follow, about which subjects, and which ones to support with money. If you want to follow a salsa teacher, why would you also be interested in their politics? If you want to follow an author, why would you be interested in their dictates about public health policy?

Difference 3: On Plug our partners – organizers, artists, creators, thought leaders and experts – are paid directly by users.

All of today’s big social media companies make their money from advertising, which means they compete to dominate your attention. For these companies, no metric matters more than engagement, which is why the world now has autoplaying videos, trending tabs, and clickbait. It also means that these platforms succeed by amplifying irresistible content, which is often sensational material and conflict-driven exchanges. 

Plug’s key metric is not engagement. Our key metric is partner revenue. We make money only when Plug partners make money, by taking a 10% fee on the revenue they make from subscriptions, with heavy discounts for partners who join as ambassadors. With subscriptions, partners must seek and reward the ongoing trust of their communities. And Plug only gets paid if partners feel like they’re getting ongoing value. Our entire business depends on holding partners’ trust, which is exemplified by how easy it is for a partner to leave the platform. With Plug, as a proud open subscription platform, partners own their content, mailing list, and payment relationships – and they can export it all with the click of a few buttons.

When engagement is the holy metric, trustworthiness doesn’t matter. What matters more than anything else is whether or not the user is stirred. The content and behaviors that keep people coming back – the rage-clicks, the hate-reads, the pile-ons, the conspiracy theories – help sustain giant businesses. In that commercial context a tweak to an algorithm or a new regulation wouldn’t change things for the better. The only option was to change the entire business model.

Plug is a real alternative to this status quo. We created our business model to be deeply aligned with the interests of users, even to the point where subscriptions are a key part of our method of amplifying content, since a monthly subscriber that is tied to a specific interest is a key signal that this partner is adding value to their community.

Plug is not apolitical

None of these views are neutral. Many technology companies strive to make their platforms apolitical, but we think such a goal is impossible to achieve. As the founders of Plug, our beliefs are fundamental to how we have been building the platform. Our personal politics, while differing in specifics, are liberal in the general sense. We favor civil liberties, believe in democracy, and are against authoritarianism of all kinds. We also hold a set of core beliefs that are reflected in every aspect of the company:

We believe that subscriptions are better than advertising. 

We believe in letting people choose who to trust, not having click-maximizing algorithms choose for them.

We believe that the prevailing social media ecosystem is in disrepair and that the internet can be used to build something better.

We believe that hosting a broad range of views is good for democracy.

We believe in freedom of association and in free speech – and we do not believe those things can be safely compromised – but with caveats:

  • If we as a platform are facilitating speech then we must qualify that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach. Everyone has a right to free speech, but nobody has a right to an audience.
  • It is not our right, not even on Plug itself, to decide who has a right to an audience or not outside the explicit rules we set for the platform. We do not have the right to insert our personal politics from an ivory tower into a contextually contingent public discourse.

These beliefs inform how we have designed Plug, which is why, for instance, we don’t support advertising in the product despite many calls to do so, and it’s why we will never use algorithms that optimize for engagement for its own sake. However, we believe that our design of the product and the incentive structure we have built into it are the ultimate expression of our views. We do not seek to impose our views in the form of censorship or through appointing ourselves as the judges of truth or morality.

All things in moderation – including moderation

From the start, we have set out to encourage a broad range of expression on Plug. In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.

None of these are new ideas, of course. The fights for a free press and free speech have been fought for centuries. But, increasingly, there are questions about how to handle questions of free speech when the internet can spread damaging ideas faster, and when vast conspiracy theories are allowed to take root via social media persuasion.

We are aware of the history here, from the emergence of the penny press to the propaganda wars of the early 20th century, and of how initial hopes about the internet’s ability to promote healthy and productive discourse have been disappointed. Look around you: the internet is broken. But we are not convinced that the solution lies in more censorship; nor do we think the problem is that almost anyone can publish anywhere on the internet. The major issue, we think, is that business models based on engagement have created a class of wildly successful media products that distort online discourse. It is increasingly difficult to participate in reasonable discussions on these platforms, or to understand what reasonable peers believe about any politically contentious subject, when we are incentivised to self-censor for fear of base accusations, projection and public recrimination.

There are no doubt some people, alarmed by the events of recent history, who will argue that Plug should put free speech concerns behind a need to cultivate a more controlled community that can guarantee safe spaces to all involved. Some people will argue that we should cultivate communities that fall within a narrow window of a specific conception of respectability; that we should embrace the role of moral police (as long as it conforms with their views).

We appreciate that there are reasonable arguments to be made on all sides of these questions. We just disagree with those who would seek to tightly constrain the bounds of acceptable discourse. We think the principles of free speech can not only survive the internet, but that they can help us survive as a society that now must live with all the good and bad that the internet brings. We welcome competition from anyone who thinks we’re wrong about this. Anyone can attempt to recreate the software platform we’ve made and we make it easy for participants and organizers to opt out at any time. We are happy to compete with “Plug but with more controls on speech,” just as we are happy to compete with “Plug but with advertising.” 

With that in mind, we commit to keeping Plug wide open as a platform, accepting of views from across the political spectrum. We will resist public pressure to suppress voices that loud objectors deem unacceptable. If you browse Plug’s spaces in a year’s time, we hope you’ll see organizers and artists from the left and the right, the populist and the elite, the low-brow and the high-brow, the secular and the faithful, the activist and the academic. We will endeavour to foster this range and strongly believe that diverse and heterodox integrated communities are stronger, more resilient, more equitable and more civilised.

Ultimately, we think the best content moderators on Plug will be the people who have earned their influence within their own communities: the partners themselves. On our platform, each space is its own dominion, with people who have gathered there through common interests. And users, in turn, choose which other people to follow, boost, and subscribe to and which communities to participate in. As the platform, we cannot presume to understand the particularities of any given community or to know what’s best for it. We think it’s better that the organizers and trusted members of those communities set the tone and maintain the desired standard, to amplify and suppress content that is not aligned with the shared and emergent values of the space, and we will continue to build tools to help them to do that. Such an approach allows for more understanding and nuance than moderation via blunt enforcement from a global administrator.

Where communities become isolated, or siloed, due to some form of legitimate dissidence or an otherwise intolerable set of values by the majority, where people create multiple discrete accounts just to engage in taboo or hateful discourse, we must consider this on a case by case basis. Since there was a time when homosexuality was marginalised and excluded from society, a righteous ban hammer can be wielded against the vulnerable as much as the hateful, and we don’t always have the tools to tell the difference. Where possible we will create incentives for bridge building and greater integration, so that people don’t feel afraid to be who they are, that they can express their moral instincts in an environment that nurtures nuance and fosters a spirit of diversity and shared humanity.

Of course, there are limits. We will not allow porn on Plug, for example, or spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment. We will have content guidelines (which will evolve as Plug grows) with narrowly construed prohibitions with which users and partners must comply. But these guidelines are designed to protect the viability of the platform at the extremes, not act as a filter through which we see the world. There will always be many users on Plug with whom we strongly disagree, and we will err on the side of respecting their right to express themselves, and the right of other people to decide for themselves who they wish to associate with.

At the same time, while we take a hands-off approach with who may use the platform, we will continue to take an active approach in helping, nurturing and promoting exciting and thriving communities that we identify as groups we would like to actively support. We are doing this by improving discovery on the platform and building programs, such as ambassadorship, to share the wealth and value generated by the system with those users who contribute the most to its growth, integrity and health. Our partnerships team will also be built to work with high-revenue and high-potential organizers & influencers. We do these things because they help Plug’s business – a partner’s financial success is our financial success – which in turn means we can make larger investments in the overall health of the platform and the level of support we can offer to communities generally.

Through this mix of philosophies and measures, we hope that Plug’s approach to content moderation improves on the status quo and allows a diversity of voices to flourish while letting users retain full agency.

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To recap:

Communities are in charge. Users can opt in and out of spaces as they wish, and they are in control of what they see. Partners can choose to leave the platform at any time while retaining ownership of their content, mailing list, and payment relationships.

Plug holds liberal ideals on matters of free speech and free association. We will continue to encourage a broad range of expression from viewpoints across the political spectrum. Our content guidelines will evolve over time, but the prohibitions will remain focused and with a strong presumption of protecting that freedom.

We will support quality content & activities being created and promoted on Plug however we can, including by helping users more easily find those people and organizations who are held in the highest regard from and contribute the most to their communities.

Thank you for reading, there’s a lot more to come.