Looking for privacy in plain English? It’s probably pretty safe to assume that you haven’t read a ton of privacy policies in your life, and we won’t take offence if you skipped ours too. Privacy policies tend to dive straight into the legalese, so companies can dot their i’s and cross their t’s. In the real world it is often the employees of companies who are a user’s most important allies when it comes to data privacy.

Employees and leadership take responsibility are responsible for adhering to broader privacy frameworks, such as privacy-by-design, and privacy-first, will either speak up internally, even making themselves a nuisance to other team members, or who will have the integrity to be whistleblowers where companies are systematically cutting corners and de-prioritising the interests of users.

In Public Spaces everyone is deeply committed to upholding those interests, and in line with the GDPR (the European General Data Protection Regulation which is becoming the de facto world standard for data protection), I am proud to hold the role of data privacy lead, to ensure that we stick to our founding principles for as long as I am part of the team, and hopefully beyond.

I want to start by breaking down some of those broader consents, without all the legalese.

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]

Privacy By Design

Privacy by design is a framework that helps companies build privacy protections into their products from the very beginning. Its focus is primarily on building privacy directly into the design of products, and it is a specific approach for ensuring privacy.

Privacy First

Privacy first, on the other hand, is an overall commitment by a company or organization to protecting the privacy of its users or customers. It’s less specific than privacy by design and encompasses a broader set of principles and practices that aim to protect user privacy.


If everyone skips the privacy policy, then what is the point of consent? The truth is that companies can abide by the letter of a regulation or agreement, but skirt the spirit, avoiding both the costs of compliance and the consequences of misbehaviour. That is a lot easier when users don’t know what they are agreeing to. So most companies don’t expect you to read what you consent to, for reasons like these:

  • You’re too busy
  • No real choice: You feel like you don’t have a choice not to consent anyway because you already decided that you want whatever services you can’t get access to without consenting
  • Trust: You may think the fact you were given the opportunity to review a privacy policy means that the organization had proper legal advice and is only asking of you what they are allowed to under the law, so you assume it’s all good
  • Indifference: You don’t really care what happens to your data as you are so used to being tracked and targeted with personalized ads, you have become numb to it and don’t want to spend another thought worrying about it. Afterall, everyone consents, so your data hides in the vast pool of other people’s data
  • Nothing to hide: You feel that your behaviour online, unless you are doing online banking or getting your blood results, is not interesting to anyone as you are not doing anything wrong

These are all understandable, and we won’t quibble with your reasons. At Plug.events, we make our best effort to protect your data in a way we think you would want to and in a way that is best for broader societal interests as well.

In fact, we don’t even believe that consent is a good measure for privacy, because it is rarely informed or freely given. If we want to get super philosophical, we would even advocate that some personal data should not be owned by the data subject to which the data pertains, but be a social resource. The reason is, for one, that data about “you” is very commonly not just about you but about many other individuals or communities as well, and second, the data can be used for so many great purposes that can benefit all of society. But anyway, we still obtain your consent, of course, because we have to, but we don’t take that to be the end all be all. And thankfully, neither do the privacy laws, including the GDPR. While consent still takes the centre stage, there are other, in our view more meaningful protections that businesses handling personal information have to put in place.

The Stuff that Matters

So, what do we do other than obtaining your consent?

  • We only collect information that is necessary for us to provide you with our awesome services
  • We only collect information about you directly from you
  • We have a system in place to allow us to know at all times where we have what information stored, and to identify dormant accounts, so we can delete the information we no longer need to hold
  • We have contracts in place with our third-party service providers, such as our marketing service provider Active Campaign, that obliges them to keep your information as protected as we would if we were the ones directly in control of it. We like Active Campaign as they are GDPR aware and have taken active steps to bring their services into compliance. For example, they have updated their code to not track users that did not consent to the tracking of their activity on the website that is using their services
  • Oh, and we also do not sell your information to any other third parties. Duh


There is a lot of demand from users and regulators to implement user verification policies, to ensure that there is always a breadcrumb to the source of user generated content. While well-meaning and important to uphold the integrity of our online communities and society, we take a strong position on balancing these responsibilities with the responsibilities we have towards your privacy, ensuring we do not become another invasive actor in the surveillance economy.

While our fundamental model of verification is based upon a sophisticated system of peer-endorsements, built around communities of shared interests and values that you choose to trust, this is not enough to completely uphold our responsibilities to verify users and keep our platform safe from bad actors and free of negative behavior.

That is why we are exploring partnerships with third-party non-profits who provide encrypted and secure email, SMS, and ID verification services. This way we can never profit from user verification, and will not create a negative incentive to pressurise users to compromising their privacy to access important parts of this service.

For reasons of child protection, we may require ID verification in order to access less family-friendly content, what is commonly labeled adult or NSFW on other platforms. But that is with deep reluctance, and again will be implemented through an independent third-party that is dedicated to your privacy while creating a safe and inclusive internet environment.

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]


Fundamentally, Plug.events has a passionate team dedicated to data privacy now. They have written our Privacy Policy and reviewed our processes, including the services Active Campaign is providing for us and it is all up to snuff. If you have any concerns, questions or comments, you can always email us at contact@about.plug.events.

There is a probably familiar quote that floats around the internet, attributed to ancient Chinese mystic Lau Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.  It goes, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; Watch your words, they become your actions; Watch your actions, they become habits; Watch your habits, they become your character; Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” It’s not actually in the Tao Te Ching, but unlike most internet wisdom, it’s not trite or inane.

Thoughts, ideas and concepts flow through us like waves through water,  imposing themselves upon us and possessing us. Some ideas are bad, and we inhibit them with various defence mechanisms. Some ideas are “toxic”, and others simply come in or out of fashion depending upon the zeitgeist of the time. And since human beings are communal animals, the ideas we harbour and express can be signals to others about our alignment and allegiance to various groups.

We may be the pilots of our minds, but we cannot wish away thoughts we encounter any more than a pilot can wish away the clouds. We can only avoid bad ideas by diverting our attention, as the pilot diverts the plane, which in the real world means taking control of the sources of our information: our news feeds.

Long gone are the innocent days of chronological feeds, free from third-party manipulation. Today our news feeds are highly sophisticated learning machines. They respond to our impulses in order to provide to us the thoughts, ideas and stimuli that evoke high arousal emotions, to maintain our attention and nurture habitual behaviour.

In our daily lives, passively scrolling through news feeds, looking at our friends’ faces or engaging in debates, we are given the impression that we are using our applications. We “use” them to connect with friends and talk politics, to stay informed or express ourselves. But when the medium has an interest in gaining an ever greater amount of our attention we can lose control of our own thoughts, and therefore our natural defence mechanisms against bad ideas. The quality of an idea is irrelevant to the machine whose objective is to increase “time on device“, a concept adapted by social media companies from the science of slot machines.

Returning to that memetic internet wisdom, you could say:

Watch your feeds, they become your thoughts;

Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
watch your words, they become your actions;
watch your actions, they become your habits;
watch your habits, they become your character;
watch your character, it becomes your destiny.Some wise person on the internet

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]

News Feeds as News Services

At Plug we wanted to rethink news feeds, and break away from the dominant paradigm of nurturing behavioural addiction, of strip-mining our time and attention to fuel the machine. But what does it mean for a news feed to serve users? We started by reifying the concept of ‘service’.

Clearly social media companies believe that the evidence is in, the mere fact that people use their apps the most out of any app category demonstrates that they are servicing users the best, right? Give the people what they want, of course! This is based upon a concept in economics called ‘revealed preference‘, which proposes that a person’s behaviour – what they do – is the best indicator of their actual preferences.

It’s a kind of naive empiricism that hand waves away the idea that we regret many of the things that we do and that this regret is meaningful and useful in developing an integrated self across time. ‘You at 20’ have to somehow negotiate with ‘you at 30’, and ‘you at 80’. You on a Friday night have to negotiate with you on Saturday morning. It is you-in-the-future who will suffer most from the consequences of the decisions made by you-in-the-past, so we cannot lean on revealed preferences to service an actual person in the real world. We might be ‘feeding’ them, but feeding a person junk is not a service unless you know they won’t regret it.

So what is a service? And, how do you know what a person wants to receive as news if not by tracking their behaviour? A quick win would be to bring back chronological feeds.

Chronological Feeds

If a system is servicing the user it should not adjust the order of notifications to suit itself. It is true that a system cannot know what is of highest priority to a user at any given moment, but in the absence of a good way to order notifications, chronological order is a very good proxy – like a queue that forms organically in a supermarket. In a supermarket, nobody complains that the first person to queue is the first person served is unfair, and if a supermarket were to re-order their checkout queues – taking a leaf out of the book of social media companies – to maximise their own returns customers would obviously revolt.

Of course there are ways to prioritise without changing the order, such as colour coding, or grouping notifications about the same subject to reduce duplication, similar to the ‘10 items of less’ queue, but a mostly chronological feed is a very good way to order notifications that works for the vast majority of people.

If the order of a news feed is not chronological then the question must be asked, who is it serving- the system or the individual? Or are there other ways to order a feed, in service of a community, for example?

Context Switching and Context Collapse

When you last read the newspaper, you may have noticed that they group articles into sections like News, Sports, Lifestyle, Opinion. This made it easier to consume, because on any given page you knew roughly what kind of thing you would be reading next. Moving from a film review to politics or dieting tips is an uncomfortable context switch.

Frequent context shifts throughout the day can be extremely distracting and impair your ability to concentrate. Worse, over time they can seriously deplete your brain’s ability to concentrate and make decisions. Ever wondered why, no matter how much you slept the night before, you can’t focus on anything by 4 p.m.? And Now for Something Completely Different: Context Shifting

This is related to another concept called context collapse, which reduces expression to the lowest common denominator of what a person’s entire audience will accept.

Here’s how context collapse plays out online. When you have Facebook friends numbering in the thousands, your audience becomes a little difficult to speak to all at once. What’s Context Collapse’? Understanding it Can Mean a More Fulfilling Online Life

With existing social media platforms users are forced to resort to three sub-optimal solutions:

  • Tailoring content to the lowest common denominator, the cliche, the superficial, the vulgar, the inane
  • Moving to private groups and chats
  • Moving to ephemeral content mediums that disappear after viewing

Plug tackles the problem head on, with humane design and architecture. By categorizing news items it makes it possible to consume a news service dedicated to a specific context before moving on to the next, or up the chain to a broader context, making news more energising, and less cognitively draining. At Plug we group by interests and geographic locales allowing the user to easily digest information and make real world decisions, rather than being reduced to superficial reactions.

For this to work at Plug we invented a concept called ‘contextual following’, whereby a user must follow another person for a specific interest, using user personas, rather than a generic follow where you see all of their posts. Since every piece of content on Plug is about a set of interests, it is then possible to filter so that news is not mixed into the same list.

Priority versus Non-Priority

Most modern apps take advantage of your priority notifications by using them to pull you back into the application, always tapping your impulse to check by inserting unimportant notifications into your important list in order to nurture the habitual behaviour of checking regularly.

At Plug, we clearly distinguish priority from other news with colour coding, and we don’t mix in useless information, so you can trust that notifications are appropriate and not used to needlessly pull you back into the application.

The End is the End

Returning to the analogy of the newspaper, it was possible to reach the end and to have read all of the news that day, or at least all of the important news. Modern social media apps tap into the unconscious assumption called the ‘curse of knowledge’, which suggests that what we can see, others have seen or may see. This means that we have a compulsion to ‘reach the end’ and form a response to what others in our peer groups may have seen and responded to. But when our news feeds selectively present us with an unlimited number of notifications with infinite scroll the result is a hamster wheel of ‘catching up’, an ever receding horizon padded by whatever clickbait will keep us scrolling. That is not natural or healthy.

At Plug users are fully in control of their feeds and we don’t insert anything that they are not interested in. When you reach the end you reach the end, or you can mark all as read without scrolling if you just want to start fresh.

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]


At Plug we aim to serve you, the user, by providing you with the tools to fully control your news feed, allowing you to stay up to date with your communities without collapsing or switching context and algorithmic manipulation; providing chronological news that you have intentionally opted into and not inserting extraneous, unsolicited material.

At Plug this is our goal: To serve you in such a way that the chain between your feed, thoughts, actions, habits, character and destiny leads to an integrated and fulfilled self that is happy in real life, not just on social media.

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

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]

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 Plug.events 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.

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]

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.

Someone once said you gotta serve somebody. But who do social media apps serve? Users? Advertisers? Investors? Founders & Directors? Employees?

The reality is a complex interplay of confluent and conflicting interests, balanced but perpetually unstable, requiring extraordinary amounts of money from advertising and investment capital to resist the sometimes orthogonal and sometimes opposing forces from pulling them apart.

Social media companies are being torn apart by the conflicting interests of powerful institutions and communities.

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]

What keeps social media companies growing is ingenuity and money, and what keeps that money coming in is growth. Its a virtuous (or vicious) cycle.

But when growth slows, either because the app has reached saturation or been overtaken by another, often more addictive app, it becomes more difficult to accrue income from advertising or investment capital. If the social media company is not established enough at this point this is a death sentence, and the owners will usually attempt a fire sale to a larger competitor who may still be able to harvest the userbase or incorporate the app into their existing suite. If the company is big enough, with a dominant share of the ad market, there are more options on the table, such as inflating the value of their ads to bring in more revenue, or buying up a smaller but fast growing competitor, either to run the service alongside its own, or to strip the assets and shut it down.

If these and other tricks don’t smooth out the dip in growth until the next wave, and growth is anaemic for too long, the company will fail to achieve the revenue it needs to pay for the ingenuity that boot loads every growth cycle. Without paying exceptionally large salaries the company will lose the human capital that its success is really based upon. A large company can coast for years or even decades with mediocre employees, but without growth and the prospects of earning huge salaries relative to peers in other industries even the largest players in social media will grind to a slow burn and eventually get sold off for scrap. In social media there is no stable long term play. You grow or you die.

There is a long running debate over whether social media should be administered and regulated as a public utility, as is the case in China. This is another game entirely. If this were to happen in the US we would see regulatory capture, as we see in many other industries, where the incumbents cooperate with regulators in order to suppress competition and innovation. In this scenario growth is controlled by restricting supply of products to a narrow set of options.

In this latter scenario the social media company has another entity to serve: Government. The various bodies and institutions of the state, such as law enforcement, national security and public health, with all of the political baggage this implies, then have greater bargaining chips with which to use the social platform to achieve their own interests, whether those be the public interest or any interests being serviced by these institutions. The source of the real complexity here is that those institutions of the state are even more likely to have been captured by corporate interests across many other industries, and thus the platform is then not simply negotiating with an impartial and benign state, but with a range of large incumbents via the apparatus of the state, using (and sometimes abusing) its legal authority to ensure that the architectural decisions made by the social technology company serve the interests of other large corporations, whether they be in FMCG, healthcare or the media.

And that is not to mention the ideological forces constantly flowing through government and the wider society.

The number of interests that social applications are required to service in some manner is so complex and diffuse that it brings to mind an ominous grey cloud of acrimony and conspiracy. Is it any wonder that these companies become duplicitous? Founders and directors routinely contradict their own lawyers, their marketing pitches being in complete contradiction with their business models and architectures.

What is missing from this picture? First of all, you might say a meaningful central theme or purpose, a set of foundational principles that are public, coherent and morally justifiable, to use the Silicon Valley cliché: core values. But more glaring than that is civil society and the needs of the individual. Is it any wonder that the individual cannot be heard by these platforms? When was the last time you were satisfied by anything like “customer service”? No, your role as an individual in this maelstrom is to have your attention strip-mined in the interests of advertisers on behalf of… something so far outside your awareness that it begins to resemble the cosmic. Cthulhu?

Is Mark Zuckerberg a servant of Cthulhu?

Maybe this picture is too pessimistic. If you have read this far I am going to assume that this story resembles reality, at least for you. Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we’re overthinking it. But that is getting harder to believe.

Lets Start Again

At Plug we’ve taken a green field approach to social media. We’re not playing the growth game for growth’s sake. We’re not dancing to the fiddles of venture capitalists and angel investors. We’re thinking about what social media and social networks should be from first principles, to create the impossible startup.

Everything is on the table, and anything is possible. We haven’t even decided upon our formal structure, whether we will form as a standard for-profit company or a not-for-profit foundation or something in between. Maybe we’ll be completely radical and create a DAO, governed by an algocracy.

This is our starting position: Social media serves relationships on behalf of communities. That big dark grey cloud that resembles the coming of Cthulhu is an outcome of the lack of recognition that communities are the entities that social technologies service, and by serving them badly they have become angry. The essential definition of social technology, as opposed to a tool like a hammer or a calculator app, is that it serves the relationships between individuals and organisations on behalf of the communities that they share as their primary function.

And what is the best way to serve a community? By creating a game. A good game serves the relationships between players, building bonds and creating stable communities out of independent individuals and groups. Games channel the purposes of groups and individuals into a set of acceptable constraints (the rules or the environment) that help us to resolve conflicts and come together, without taking away the autonomy of individuals.

Social media apps are social games, the algorithms are the rules, and reach is, in the abstract, the goal. Users and businesses and other organisations play in order to come into confluence or alignment with each other by resolving conflicts and contradictions.

In a separate post we have created a glossary of terms that we hope will clarify how we understand the process of social game design and our role as stewards of Plug. We are not claiming our definitions are objective, just that this is what we mean when we use words like ‘governance‘ and ‘game‘ and ‘purpose‘.

Our role as stewards of Plug is to foster community through good governance. We do this by creating and maintaining the interface, architecture and algorithms within the logical constraints of the meta rules – Difficulty, verifiability, universality and independence. You can consider these to be our core values. This means that our purpose is facilitate the creation digital social spaces that amplify the people who contribute the most and exemplify the purposes of the space, in other words the values, without introducing our own biases and interests into the game.

Communities are nested inside each other, and often come into conflict. By various techniques, such as incentivising real world meetings between members and amplifying bridge builders – individuals who have reputation in orthogonal spaces (meaning spaces who have very few members in common) within the broader spaces that those communities share, such as geographic spaces or broader “realms” (e.g. dance or music) – we hope to maximise the chances of resolving conflicts through the generation of shared norms and values.

[activecampaign form=1 css=0]

If this works…

Without exaggeration, we see this as a paradigm shift in social media. If successful, we hope to see competition from other social tech startups, and even other kinds of applications, like marketplaces, dating apps and sharing economy startups, moving away from the lip-service given to community-focus and an over-emphasis of behavioural psychology and opaque machine learning algorithms, towards robust social game design.