In October 2017, Julien Genestoux decided that his boss at Medium, Ev Williams, wasn’t thinking big enough.
Genestoux, a software engineer, had been working at the blogging platform since it acquired his startup, Superfeedr, in 2016, and thought a lot about how blockchain could be integrated into his new company, either to facilitate payments, preserve the site’s archives, or even help with the curation and article recommendations.
When Williams didn’t bite, Genestoux left Medium to start Unlock, a blockchain protocol. In late July, Unlock closed a $1.7 million pre-seed round and announced its first hires, the first steps in what Genestoux hopes is a radical reinvention of a flawed media ecosystem.
“Ev Williams would never do the crazy things I think he should have done,” Genestoux says. “We were not making crazy bets. We were just marginally improving things.”
Genestoux is among media professionals including Poet founder Jarrod Dicker and Civil Media Foundation CEO Vivian Schiller who are pursuing a blockchain-backed media utopia.
Most admit this glorious future they imagine is years, maybe even decades away. They are willing to put up with skepticism. They are even willing to put up with the frauds, fast-talkers and con men who have begun piling into the space, making it harder to build credibility or secure funding.
They put up with all of these things because they also see blockchain as the cure-all to eroded trust in media and the perverse incentives of today’s platform-dominated digital advertising ecosystem. Storing an article’s facts in an immutable blockchain ledger could help combat fake news, for example, while a ledger that tallies content consumption could obviate the need to rely on third-party measurement; blockchain has been described as an ad tech savior too, capable of adding a much-needed dose of transparency.
They just have to figure out how to explain themselves and their products first — and get around the inconvenient truth that blockchains are notoriously slow and often quite expensive to use compared to old-school alternatives.
“The trouble with a lot of business applications for blockchain is they just cannot scale,” said David Gerard, author of the book “Attack of the 50-foot Blockchain.” “They’re always aspirational.”
Right now, most blockchain media startups are focused on re-creating businesses that already exist. There is a blockchain-powered YouTube (D.Tube), and a blockchain powered Wikipedia (Everipedia); there are companies using blockchain to fix branded content distribution (Codec) and replace the pipes of ad tech (MetaX).
“Anyone who says they truly understand this and see where it’s going is a charlatan,” says Paul Ford, who is the founder of digital design firm Postlight and has hosted meetups around the intersection of media and blockchain.
That creates a bit of a paradox: The first movers know what they are building may not fit into the future, but they feel compelled to build it anyway, if only to start dragging the industry in the right direction.
“Blockchain is a participatory technology,” says Jarrod Dicker, who left his post as vp of product and commercial innovation at The Washington Post in February 2018 to found the blockchain startup Poet. “The more people that engage and the more smart minds are on it, the faster we’ll start to uncover the values of it as it pertains to different aspects of the business.”
But that requires explaining to people what, exactly, blockchain is and how it works. And by their own admission, blockchain’s earliest champions suck at that.
Some are trying to solve the problem through content marketing. Alpha Networks, which calls itself an “IBM Watson-powered blockchain entertainment platform” has been producing YouTube videos to explain how artificial intelligence, blockchain, OTT and IBM fit together.
“Most of the information around this stuff is really poor,” says Alpha Networks founder Seth Shapiro. “If you don’t know someone who really understands this stuff, it’s really easy to get defrauded.”
Others are trying to build support through events and thought leadership. A group of people from Codec.ai, a blockchain startup designed to distribute branded content, run the Digital Future Council, an invite-only group whose membership includes executives from Burger King, Diageo and eBay.
James Tabor, one of the council’s founders, says that the council has helped get people comfortable with the technology. Plus, the typical media and blockchain meetup in London attracts twice the crowd it did a year ago. But it also hasn’t convinced the big fish to put more of their products or resources on the emerging technology. “B2B spots for processes that are broken aren’t sexy enough,” one council member shrugs.