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The Coin Talk Interview with Maria Bustillos

Writer Maria Bustillos discusses Popula, the publication she is launching on the Consensys-backed Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism project, and why journalism needs the blockchain.

This interview appeared in Episode 10 of Coin Talk, a podcast produced in partnership with Medium and hosted by Aaron Lammer and Jay Caspian Kang. (Apple Podcasts / hi@cointalk.show)
“Journalism needs a radically new operating paradigm. Media innovation and consumer behavior trends over the past 20 years have eroded the business model of journalism, leading to shrinking coverage throughout the ecosystem, increasing reliance on an unsympathetic advertising industry, and record-low public trust in mainstream media. However, this same wave of innovation also yielded progress in social networking, global marketplaces, and massively collaborative self-governing systems, including the recent invention and development of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and cryptoeconomic business models.
We propose a solution called Civil, an Ethereum-based decentralized platform that can be used to create “newsrooms” and “stations” — blockchain-based marketplaces where citizens and journalists form communities around a shared purpose and set of standards, financially support factual reporting and investigative work, and substantially limit misinformation through effective collaborative-editing methods. The net result is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence.”
Maria Bustillos

Maria Bustillos: Hi. Gentlemen.

Aaron Lammer: Great to talk to you.

Maria Bustillos: You too, I’m thrilled to be here.

Aaron Lammer: So, I actually heard you talk about your project, Civil, last week at Postlight, check out me appearing on their Track Changes podcast talking about Coin Talk. All sorts of inter-promotion going here. But when someone asks you who knows a little bit about crypto but nothing about Civil itself, what it is, what’s your elevator explanation?

Maria Bustillos: Well, I tell people that this is project that uses the blockchain to insure integrity in journalism. And if you’re interested in immutable archives, if you’re interested in changing the economy of journalism and in making it more difficult for sort of Cambridge’s Analytica or bad actors in Russia or trolls or weirdos of various descriptions and agendas to interfere with what gets printed with your information, you’ll be interested in this project.

Aaron Lammer: Okay so how does that work, ’cause all that sounds great, but how does a blockchain sort of solve some of those problems that are happening?

Maria Bustillos: Okay, so I’ve been writing about Bitcoin and crypto in general since like 2013, when I first wrote a piece for the New Yorker blog. And at that point after talking with these sort of early pioneers of crypto it became evident to me that the important thing about this technology wasn’t the currency part of it, it’s the incorruptible information part of it. Like really that’s all it is. All that blockchain technology does is produce a means of making information incorruptible and unfalsifiable, on a distributed basis. So you don’t have to go to the government to figure out whose driver’s license this is, or whatever, you can make any kind of network to guarantee that something happened, whatever kind of human event you want, a contract or whatever.

And I think anybody who understands a little bit about distributed networks or peer-to-peer technology can kind of imagine this, because we’ve all seen Mastodon and other sort of attempts to create distributed networks for producing all kinds of information, but the important thing that Satoshi did is make a fail-safe system for verifying that information outside the need, sort of absent the need for a trust in authority.

Maria Bustillos: So if we have the capacity to make networks of any kind to guarantee the integrity of information, I mean obviously that’s of interest to us as journalists, right?

Aaron Lammer: Sure.

Maria Bustillos: So, that’s kind of where my thinking started and I was sort of interested in that concept, all the way back years ago. But there was no kind of way of substantiating it. And I was looking, I contacted people at the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT and all kinds of other places, to try to figure how to do this. At some point last summer, Josh Benson, who’s formerly of Capital New York, gave me a buzz and said “Look, you know we’re making a blockchain-based publishing platform and we think you might be interested in it,” and I’m like “Oh hell no, please sit down I’m gonna tell you exactly what we’re gonna do.” I mean I was just so excited about this because I’d been thinking about it for years, right?

Like to give a quick example on the archive scene. Popula, my publication, and any of the other ones on Civil, and there’s gonna be over a dozen by the time we launch I think, can create archives and publish them to the Civil network, and they’ll always be there. They cannot be removed. You have to shut the internet off to remove those archives. So no matter what happens later, I always tell people we’re returning to the age of microfiche. When you go to the library, even if you lost a libel suit, they don’t go and destroy every reel of microfiche, right? You can make addenda, you can make corrections, and you can retract through addenda, but never by erasure.

And this is so important for the integrity of information in a democratic society. Nobody can come and mess with the actual history of what happened, even if you decide later that part of it was wrong or needed to be revisited.

Aaron Lammer: I have a question that’s a little bit off topic, but a couple of episodes ago we had Adrian Chen on, our mutual friend, I think actually the first time we met was when Adrian was staying at your place in L.A., he had written about Bitcoin around the same time that you did, and he’s a vicious no coiner.

Jay Kang: I believe he was described on Twitter this week as “patient zero of the no coiner movement.”

Maria Bustillos: Wait a second. Does he now have his Dogecoins anymore? I know-

Jay Kang: He did confess at the end that he had some Dogecoin.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah but…

Jay Kang: -but he tried to play it off like he didn’t mean to get them.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah.

Aaron Lammer: Take us back to that moment in 2013, when you were writing about this before I think many many people ever wrote about it, what was interesting about it to you? And more importantly did you buy at a low price?

Maria Bustillos: I did. I did buy at a low price. I bought my first Bitcoin for $64, I think. It was either $64 or $67, I forget. It was exciting and I wanted to know what I was talking about. I don’t really think that you can describe it adequately until you go do it. And I had at first intended to buy at like seven bucks but then there was this huge scandal at Dwolla, and it crashed, and I loved the technology. I love the theory of it. Even when it was at seven bucks I ran across some of my early notes about it, and I thought, “This’ll be fun, let me try it.” And I wrote, at $7, I put a copy of a chart up and I said “You know I kind of feel like the fast money, that period is over.”

“But I’m gonna try and buy some anyway.” And then I just kind of, for a little flutter, I bought some in I think 2012, 2013, just so I would know what I was talking about. And at that point Matt Buchanan, who’s also a friend of ours, had gone to the New Yorker blog, and he asked me, it’s a tech deal, he was running this blog called Elements, which you’re familiar with, Jay, and he said “What do you wanna write about?” And I’m like “Oh, Bitcoin, most definitely.” He’s like, “Really?” Like, okay, whatever lady. And I’m like, “No, seriously, it’s gonna be a thing.” And he’s like, “All right, go ahead.”

And so, I wrote about it and at that exact moment there was a huge banking crisis in Cypress, and the price had just jumped, you know, over a hundred bucks for the first time, right around then. Or maybe it got to 60, or something like that. And 100 by the time we published, and I mean it was really evident that- I mean and this is one of the big things that crypto currency, I’m talking about the banking aspects of this technology, can do for people, is it’s a way to move a store of value absent borders. It’s just borderless transmission of money and we see every time that there’s a banking crisis like pretty much anywhere in the world, you’ll see a spike in crypto prices.

And it’s very important for people to understand, right? That like the entire Bitcoin universe right now, I mean at the current price, I don’t know how many hundreds of billions it is, but, it’s not even trillion dollars, it’s not even half a trillion. So-

Aaron Lammer: Just gettin’ started.

Maria Bustillos: The whole universe of crypto is really tiny compared to the fiat world, and so it just cracks me up when people are saying, “Oh Bitcoin’s going to impact the markets.” It can’t, it’s minute. I mean we’re at the absolute just infancy of this thing. By saying this I don’t think that prices are gonna go up or down. I have no idea. You know we’re in the wild west now. But it’s a very very tiny universe, even now. It’s minute compared to, you know, Fiatlandia. So, we’ve got a long long way to go.

Jay Kang: Fiatlandia, I like that term.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah, I mean but back in 2013 it was just really evident that this thing was useful immediately useful in the currency markets. But even back then, I thought the holy grail of this thing is like voting, you know, title. If we’d had a blockchain-based system of figuring out who owned a house, which would be really fairly trivial for a government to implement, we would not have had the 2008 crisis. That would not be possible, you would not be able to do robo-signing or falsification of chain of title, or any of that sort of shit that they … shenanigans that the banks got up to and the run-up to that. So it’s useful.

Now there are constituencies that have agendas that arrayed against the adoption of these technologies, but I mean I think some kind of adoption of them is almost inevitable. There’s gonna be a power struggle like there always is for entrenched interests to keep hold of their power. But still, the usefulness of it is such that so many different things, you know, supply chain, [inaudible 00:09:45] chain, it’s just endless you know?

Aaron Lammer: I have a question that … you’re different than a lot of the guests that we have on the show because a lot of your interest in the blockchain seems like it’s in supporting rather than deconstructing civil society. So you’re interested in journalism, things like title and voting. A lot of people that we’ve talked to on this show believe that decentralization technology will sort of destroy the state. And I also understand — while I don’t agree with that perspective I do understand that how crypto currencies could lower tax collection and that kinda stuff. Do you see decentralization as a threat to the same stuff that you’re kind of trying to support also?

Maria Bustillos: I think that blockchain technology is a value neutral tool. It’s like saying, “Is a knife good or bad?” The answer is yes. Depending on what your political goals are, you know we see a lot of [inaudible 00:10:46] aren’t libertarians and people like this involved in this space because they think that they’ll be able to get away without paying taxes. I don’t support that. Also I think that they’re vastly underestimating the power of the forces that are arrayed against that kind of use for this technology.

When I first spoke with Gavin Andresen about this, he told me that if the U.S. government were to speak to him and say “Stop what you’re doing,” he would stop. Most serious people how have been involved in Bitcoin for any length of time are paying taxes on it, ordinary capital gains. We’ve seen that Coinbase was asked for information about heavy users. It’s simply not possible to hide this kind of activity from the government indefinitely.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah, I think the cutoff for Coinbase was $20,000, which at this point is anyone who has two Bitcoin.

Maria Bustillos: I know, it’s … I mean I’ve never understood what it is that the Panama crowd or the Puerto Rico crowd, what is it that they’re intending for this world to look like. I mean to me what they’re talking about sounds an awful lot like Somalia or something.

Aaron Lammer: Scorched earth is a term that’s come up on the show a lot. The scorched earth vision of Bitcoin.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah, I don’t subscribe to that in any way and I don’t think it’s realistic. I think the players who think like that have neither the rhetorical force nor the brains to pull something like that off, frankly.

Jay Kang: That’s actually something that Aaron and I talk about quite a bit and I don’t think we fully agree on it but I think we’re closer than maybe us and like some of these Puerto Rico, as you say, Somali, you know, try to recreate Somalia where they’re like these are landed oligarch warlords of their own society. Which is that the messaging around Bitcoin so often is from the original cypherpunks, it is from the libertarians who got in. A lot of it is about how we should no longer eat plants and only eat meat.

I mean as somebody who is a journalist who has different politics than that, who just from the first few minutes from talking to you, I think anyone can discern that you are very very bullish on blockchain and Bitcoin in general. Do you think that there’s a way to change that messaging ’cause we’re not doing this podcast because of that. Actually Aaron and I probably are closer to them than either of us will admit in polite company. But how do you change that messaging?

Aaron Lammer: Jay, don’t out me.

Jay Kang: You’ve been outed.

Maria Bustillos: I have literally devoted my life to instantiating what I think oughta be done with this. So I kinda think that’s the way to do it. So a good thing to do with it that works really well. I have absolutely no beef with scorched earth libertarians, I don’t agree with them. I mean I’m waiting to hear, like, you know, would I want to live among these people? I mean the answer is an extremely emphatic no. I’m a harmless mom. I have no interest in this.

Aaron Lammer: Do scorched earth libertarians even wanna live with other scorched earth libertarians? I feel like I sort of agree with libertarianism, but I wanna live with like a bunch of warmhearted empathetic people.

Maria Bustillos: Right. That’s kind of a hard circle to square there, as far as I can make out. I don’t know. I mean I just don’t know, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people. I’ve been to blockchain conferences and, I just feel like a lot of them are just raving maniacs, who have no brains at all. I mean they’re really dumb. But I mean that’s just me. I don’t, I mean, go ahead, knock yourself out, son, you know,. Whatever.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah. Well it makes sense that there aren’t a ton of people doing the kind of project you’re doing-

Maria Bustillos: Yes!

Aaron Lammer: -because this world is not totally interested in these kinda projects, so I’m curious, what kinda reaction have you gotten from within the cryptocurrency world, to Civil?

Maria Bustillos: Well there’s been an enormous change in the last six months, and also I disagree, the activity around this thing, it’s like being inside a volcano. It reminds me so much, I mean you’ve heard this a million times, it’s like the dawning of the internet, where people had all these insane ideas and you really could not tell which of them would have legs, you know? And some of them did. But in the last six months I have gone from asking people “Well have you ever heard of Bitcoin?” and now people are calling me. Like my best friend, my best girlfriend, who’s like, not a computer guy, called me two weeks ago and said like Randy her husband … “Randy wants to buy cryptocurrency and he wants to talk to you.” I’m like, “Randy?” I mean he barely knows how to use email. What’s the-

I’m like, he’s gonna need to come over, this is like a two bottle of wine conversation, I’ll try and help him but like, it’s completely changed. And the other thing is, I was so surprised myself to find, because I was working on other things when this came up, after the election I thought, “Oh you know, I gotta change my life.” I mean that’s really what happened here, you know, after the election I just felt so complicit in the bullshit materialism and … I had been sold this incremental bill of goods. Believe me, compared to the sort of harmless mom to the left of centrist that I used to be, I’m now relatively this raging pinko. I actually think we just need a new book, you know? I don’t want any anymore 19th century books. I want a new book that tells people of really strong leftist convictions how we’re gonna rear-end society in a more equitable and egalitarian way. I really feel strongly about this.

So anyway I thought, “I’m gonna do something that I really believe in.” And that’s kinda how I wound up here. But anyway, in the last six months I discovered so much stuff that I didn’t know about, how many resources the banks have put into this now. IBM’s work on supply chain. There’s like a lot of energy going into this that I had absolutely no idea about when I kinda got back into it last summer.

Jay Kang: That’s something I’m also interested in, which is that, to me it seems like, look the far right obviously, and members of the actual alt right are very into Bitcoin and also the sort of idea of a narco capitalism, the original cypherpunks, who I don’t think would have politics like you, but it also seems like some of the old Occupy crowd, and some of the people are very against centralized banking who, were very angry about the 2008 bailouts. Which is at this point 80% of the country is angry about the 2008 bailouts and half of the political conversation is about that on either side. But I would say that in terms of actual interest, the right is far more interested in crypto than the left. How do you get the left more engaged in this and show them, “Hey, look I know that when you go online that all you see is a bunch of people shitposting Pepe memes, but maybe this is good for us?” Like how do you start that conversation?

Maria Bustillos: I wonder, you know, I’m sure you guys are familiar with Rachel Rosenthal’s [inaudible 00:42:39] Block Project. I mean, it seems to me like it’s not so much that the right is more interested than the left, it’s just that the right is noisier than the left, and they have nothing better to do. I mean I feel like the rest of us are doing stuff that’s gonna interest people and be cool and make money. I’m like, dead into this thing, I mean I’m so into it.

Here’s these guys that came to me and said, “Do your dream publication and we will stake you,” and it’s gonna be published on a blockchain and of course I completely jumped at this. It was literally what I’d been waiting for, for years, to happen. And I’m in love with publication, I’ve hired some amazing people. It’s gonna be a beautiful thing. But I keep telling my staff, I love this, I love Popula, I’m gonna crawl on broken glass for Popula. I care about Popula less than I care about this platform, because I’m into this because of what happened at DNAinfo, I’m into it because of what happened to Gawker. I’m into it because I see the Peter Thiels of the world getting too much power and this is a real way of countering that.

So I feel like the way to start the conversation is by demonstrating in real life what it can do, and we’re gonna do that.

Jay Kang: For the listeners that are unfamiliar with Peter Thiel Gawker DNAinfo, can you just give us a refresher on just how this is a solution to this in your mind?

Maria Bustillos: The listeners who will likely be familiar with the Hulk Hogan trial, that concluded in 2016 I guess, where Gawker was basically brought down by this washed up wrestler and the blurry excerpt of a sex tape. Well, I covered that trial. I was in St. Petersburg when that whole thing went down and when we were all writing about it and talking about it, none of us understood that Hogan had been bankrolled by a billionaire named Peter Thiel who like just hated Gawker. He claimed that he hated Gawker because they had outed him, but I actually don’t believe that because it was kind of an open secret in Silicon Valley.

I think he hated Gawker because they mocked him relentlessly at Valleywag, and effectively, and he could shut them up with money and that’s what happened and it’s a real travesty and a complete bastardization of the courts and a failure to protect the first amendment that had a huge effect on me. So if Gawker had published to the Civil blockchain, it would be impossible for Peter Thiel to shut them off. Ever. Whoever had access to that blockchain would always be able to read those articles.

And kind of like, where that thing ended up is, the archive of Gawker is currently in the disposition of bankruptcy court. It was put up for bid, Peter Thiel bid for it, and there’s a wide suspicion that his intention is to erase the archive and remove it from public view. And even the parts of the archive that reside at places like the Internet Archives Wayback Machine, are at risk because the Wayback Machine has hitherto quite often honored take down requests from rights holders. So if Thiel should succeed in making the highest bid and the bankruptcy court decides to hand the archive over to him he may well go to the Internet Archive and say “Erase this.” And there’s a possibility that they might do that.

So I’m deeply, deeply committed to seeing to it that that cannot happen, but the information that people need in a democratic society should remain available to them and never ever be able to be threatened by the will of one rich person.

Aaron Lammer: Ironically Peter Thiel is a massive Bitcoin whale, so he’s gonna win either way if the decentralization happens. But at least the information would stay up.

Maria Bustillos: I don’t care how much money he has. I just don’t think he should be able to shut anybody up.

Aaron Lammer: Agreed.

Maria Bustillos: Ever.

Aaron Lammer: Agreed. So is Civil an ICO?

Maria Bustillos: The token launch is due to happen within very few months from now. I mean at the maximum, weeks to months, from now, yeah.

Aaron Lammer: How can Jay and I can some?

Maria Bustillos: Well, the token is called CVL. You could buy it like you could buy any type of ERC-20 token.

Jay Kang: Well so look, I think that the idea of publishing to the blockchain, I think that people can understand that if they understand the blockchain, but what does that actually look like? How do you publish an article to the blockchain?

Maria Bustillos: On the Ethereum network, there’s almost like a notes field, I guess. I understand this really imperfectly so please forgive me, people who know more than I do. But my understanding is that-

Jay Kang: I think it’s pretty safe to say that everyone understands Ethereum pretty incompletely.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah.

Jay Kang: So, you’re in good company-

Aaron Lammer: Anyone who corrects you will probably be wrong so don’t worry about it. So yes, please continue.

Maria Bustillos: So please get in touch with me if I mess this up but I think it’s basically like a notes field in a database that you can-

Jay Kang: Sure.

Maria Bustillos: -put text in. And so what we will be doing, Popula is, we will be paying in regular gas, which is what we call ether, right? You guys know about that part. We’d be paying a small amount of gas to publish to that field. All the text. We won’t be able to afford to do video or audio at first, until the technology catches up with us. But all the text that we publish will be published onto those fields, so it will be on the whole Ethereum network. And then as far as what our publication will look like, it will just be a website that is published using the Civil platform that lives on the Ethereum blockchain. Like any other Ethereum project.

Jay Kang: Does that mean that the website actually reads directly from the Ethereum blockchain? Or are these two different copies for the web …

Maria Bustillos: It’s two different copies.

Aaron Lammer: Okay so it’s not like I have to download a DApp to read this-

Maria Bustillos: Absolutely not.

Aaron Lammer: -like I can just type in a URL.

Maria Bustillos: Oh yeah.

Jay Kang: It’s not, it’s not only available in Toshi [inaudible 00:24:17]

Maria Bustillos: Popula.com my friends. P-O-P-U-L-A punto com.

Jay Kang: Okay. So there’s two expenses you have then. You have the expense of paying the writer, and then you have the expense of paying the gas to add their work to the blockchain.

Maria Bustillos: Right.

Jay Kang: How is that being funded?

Maria Bustillos: Civil is funded by the group that started the company went … you know they put their own money in it, and then they went to ConsenSys, which you guys probably know is the largest Ethereum developer in the world now and they’re based, they’ve got offices in Brooklyn and through Joe Lupin, who is like the number seven person to join Ethereum, is one of the founders, or is the founder I guess, of ConsenSys. So when the Civil CEO Matthew Iles, young guy, super bright, went to ConsenSys, and told him what he wanted to do and please build our token launch and built our platform, ConsenSys invested $5 million in the company. They own a large stake in it.

So there’s … and this is before the token launch. There’s a lot of millions of dollars in this project. So after the token launch we’re gonna raise more money, and part of that money is to stake a number of newsrooms that they’re calling the first fleet of which Popula if the first. There’s a number of others. A few of them have been announced. One of them is [Sledge 00:25:59], that I really love, this guy David Moore who used to do Open Congress. I mean this is my way of telling you there’s a really broad range of politics in this project.

Sledge follows money in politics. There’s a lot of kind of cross-pollination that I think is gonna happen. Some of the ex DNA are involved in this, there’s a publication called Block Club Chicago, that’s being headed by Shamus Toomey in Chicago [inaudible 00:26:14] DNA, some just wonderful people, I mean that they’re just so freaking funny and great and who are also gonna be publishing on Civil. And there’s a number of others that I can’t tell you about yet, but really exciting. Loads of publications.

And so, we’re been offered the opportunity to be staked to start these things off, and then obviously for some period of time, and then we’re gonna do subscription-based publications, there’s people who are founding on profits, Block Club Chicago, they put up Kickstarter, they were trying to raise $25,000. On the second day, I haven’t checked to see where it was going, it was a 30-day Kickstarter, on the second day that I went to check they’d raised $125,000. ’Cause people really love DNA in Chicago, so much, and they were so sad to lose it that there was just this outpouring of support from their existing readership.

Jay Kang: Just for the listeners who aren’t up on all the news in publishing DNAinfo is a local news site that had different offices in different places, different sites and it all got shut down when their owner decided that he didn’t wanna be in the publishing business anymore. This is not a case where, like, a archive of information was taken down.

Aaron Lammer: Let’s say me and Jay buy the CVL token, which we definitely will, ’cause we’ll buy … if you’ve seen some of the things we buy, we definitely will buy CVL. What does that get us? Like, what does it mean that I send you some Ethereum and you send back a CVL token?

Maria Bustillos: Okay, so you guys know about Ethereum-based tokens like Augur and all these other-

Aaron Lammer: Yeah.

Maria Bustillos: Okay so these tokens are based on a use case that separate from Ethereum proper. All of that.

Aaron Lammer: For people listening, Augur is a prediction market, I think we talked about it in episode five, Coin Talk. Go check that out.

Maria Bustillos: Yes, it’s interesting. I’m a fan of prediction markets. But anyway. And I love gambling, you know, I mean I’m all over it. I just, you know-

Aaron Lammer: You and us both.

Maria Bustillos: I think it’s great, yeah, I mean but the thing is you know you only risk as much as you can afford to lose. Don’t go crazy. But it’s fun.

Jay Kang: And none of this is investment advice. All right.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah.

Jay Kang: What do we get for a Civil token?

Maria Bustillos: You get a stake in the future of independent publishing protected by the blockchain.

Jay Kang: And what does it mean by “a stake,” like how do we get a stake in it? Because there’s all this confusion I think in ICS, we talked about this earlier in the episode, which is that everyone kind of assumes that this is like investing in a startup and that you get shares and that’s what the ICS-

Maria Bustillos: Oh God no.

Jay Kang: -is, but that oftentimes is very not true. So like-

Maria Bustillos: It’s [inaudible 00:29:00] no true.

Jay Kang: What does the stake mean?

Maria Bustillos: It’s not an ownership. It’s nothing like stock or equities at all. I think there’s a hundred million Civil being issued, and I think around half of those will be sold in the token launch. I always tell people to think of it more like Skype credit. Or airline miles. Something like that. Where it enables you to participate in the underlying economy. You can buy it in the same place where you can buy cryptocurrency.

You know I’ve been talking about archives because it’s the easiest thing for people to understand but really Civil is an entire economy for journalism. One of the things that I’m really excited about doing is micro-tipping, I’ve got a lotta plan for this. You know we haven’t been able to micro-tip journalists. We’ve had all these different attempts like Flatter and there’s been millions of them, where if you like an article or you like a writer, you can subscribe to that person and you can give them micro-tips. Now in Fiat it’s quite difficult to do that because processing payments is very expensive on Visa, PayPal, existing systems like this.

But in a cryptocurrency type token economy, like what Civil is, it’s very easy and cheap to be able to tip like, you know a quarter or something like that. So what I’m hoping we’ll be able to do and what I think we’ll be able to do, is offer subscribers to Popula the opportunity to support the kind of writing they like. I’m trying to make it so that only subscribers can do comments. And it will cost some Civil to comment. That’s a way by which we can discourage trolls, and Cambridge’s Analytica, and people like this.

Like if it cost you 10 cents to comment, you might do it. You’d wait until you had something valuable to say. But that’s gonna make it difficult if you have to go through a separate subscription process and actually pay something. It’s gonna make it way less attractive to do whatever it is that they did at the internet research agency. You’re putting up some walls to that kind of activity, and you’re also making it a lot easier to detect.

Aaron Lammer: So in a way the CVL token is the native currency of the Civil system, so I could use it for applications, everything from subscribing to a publication, to tipping an author, to buying the right to comment.

Maria Bustillos: Exactly. This is what we consider to be the principal use of Civil tokens. This is why we’re doing this.

Aaron Lammer: And will Civil tokens be like Augur, where they’ll be on like Bit Tracks at some point and I’ll be able to swap ’em for Bitcoin and Ethereum and all kinds of things?

Maria Bustillos: Yeah, I don’t know exactly on which exchanges yet, but it will definitely be on major exchanges, so that you’ll be able to do these things. But, I mean again, the token exists so that we can make the economy. That’s what it’s for. I mean we were talking before about, you know, “How do you change the conversation around blockchain technology?” This is how. You make a thing … that you need it. Just exactly like when airline miles came into being, you could buy plane tickets with Fiat, right? Like I could buy a plane ticket, there’s nothing wrong with that. But when this loyalty programs came into existence, it just really altered how that economy operated, and you were able to make deals with credit card companies where you give miles for those and you’d like … it’s kind of like a currency.

I remember there was a divorce case years and years back where the principal asset in this couple’s marriage was their airline miles. They had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of miles. And they divorce hinged on the disposition of this. It was like an asset. So you can consider it an asset but really what it’s for is to enable a kind of commerce.

Jay Kang: Maria you and I both have been journalists for a while, and we know that the most … look there are many terrible things about being a journalist including the constant existential dread and the sense of worthlessness, however, one of the worst things is trying to get paid for the things that you write. And oftentimes these are very trivial amounts to anyone who actually has money but to journalists they’re a big deal. Trying to get paid by any company, however reputable, is very difficult. For the writers out there, or for even people who want to do things like start their own blogs, like, how does Civil change the economy of writing and journalism?

Maria Bustillos: I’m really excited about this because I think we can be instantiating a new payment model for this profession. All of us have, or all of us who have some kind of career of any length and success in this business, have pieces that have been put on college syllabi or they’re in books, or people are still referring to them years later in other magazine pieces. Now we don’t get paid for that. There’s no such thing as a royalty system in the journalism industry. But on Civil, you’re gonna be able to gather micro-tips for as long as that piece is up. So when you think about it, those really successful pieces that are still seeing thousands of readers every year, I mean even 10 years later, if you consider a successful journalism career where you can stack those things up, and they can still be gathering money for you, and that’s exactly what I’m doing here, it’s possible to envision making an actual living at this without freaking out all the time as you so pithily suggest.

Aaron Lammer: I have a followup question. This is a tough question. I’m playing the tough journalism skeptic here. So I worked on a project called Readability several years back.

Maria Bustillos: I remember that.

Aaron Lammer: Which is somewhat similar to the Flatter system that you described and all of these kind of assume this idea that readers either want to tip journalists or want to pay a monthly fee which gets divvied among journalists, some form of that. And what I always notice as a person who’s not a journalist but hangs out with a lotta journalists and is invested in the journalism world, is that there’s always a lot of creative solutions to getting journalists paid, there’s always a lot of supply on the journalism-saving ideas front, but there isn’t necessarily the same demand from readers and consumers to interact with that kind of a system.

A lotta times when I hear, “Oh, this is gonna save journalism,” it feels like it’s the same a thousand people who are participating on the reader side. I mean you can see that in even some of the venerable publications that, they really have names, you know their subscription lists are under 10,000. So I guess I’m wondering how does an idea like this go mainstream? And how does it break out of that same 1000 people who donate to n+1, and the Paris Review, and are really invested in journalism?

Maria Bustillos: I think we’re in a very different world from the world that existed when Readability came out. And by the way, remember that Readability gathered a lot of money that you guys wound up having to donate, right?

Aaron Lammer: I was not a part of that. That was after I had already left.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah, I remember hearing about that. After the election, I think it became really evident to people that leaving their information in the hands of untrustworthy entities like Facebook and platform companies in general, Google, was dangerous. And I don’t think that that’s a difficult case to make in this world. You see the results of this new skepticism in the increased subscription rates at every major publication in this country. I mean another difference it’s like worth pointing to in this environment, between what Popula’s doing or what Block Club Chicago is doing, is the native platform of Civil, it’s not like … you know in the case of Readability you had to share the platform where the publication took place, was like say the New York Times or whatever other publication.

As worthy as that idea was, and I was quite interested in it at the time and I thought it was great, it was to diffuse a universe, to sort of embrace with one idea like that. I mean I think about Readability and Flatter and other sort of efforts like this a lot, you know in designing what we’re doing here. I think the time is right, the climate is right. We have the example of efforts like yours before us. And I mean we just have to keep trying because the cost is too high not to.

We may not have the hugest readership to start with, but we are going to demonstrate what’s possible. And, if it, you know, turns out to be the rough draft of another effort that comes later I’ll be happy.

Aaron Lammer: I think these are all rough drafts at this point. We can assume that anything that’s on the blockchain is a rough draft at this point, right?

Maria Bustillos: I don’t know, man. Everything about it has surprised me, or shocked me. Every time I think I have any idea what’s going to happen next I just am wrong.

Aaron Lammer: Where can people who would like to read more about Civil and understand this and find Popula, find it?

Maria Bustillos: Popula.com. You can sign up for our mailing list. Please write to me. My email’s open. Maria@popula.com. Follow me @mariabustillos on Twitter. I love Twitter. So, yeah, I’m around, and Civil’s around. Join civil.com. And yeah, there’s a lot out there that you can read about us.

Aaron Lammer: Okay last question. So you told us you bought some Bitcoin at, what was it, 60?

Maria Bustillos: It was either 64 or 67, I don’t remember.

Aaron Lammer: 64. 67.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah.

Aaron Lammer: What’s in your bag right now? Are you an Altcoin speculator? Are you deep in the ERC-20 tokens?

Maria Bustillos: Lemme see. I’ve got … I have some Bitcoin, still. I sold a lot of it, okay. I mean, my husband was like, “Oh my God, this thing is worth $500.” I like SNT, I like Status. I like the developers there.

Aaron Lammer: I don’t know what that project is-

Maria Bustillos: Oh really, Status network. Oh it’s very interesting. Look into it.

Aaron Lammer: You heard it here first? On Coin Talk?

Maria Bustillos: Yeah. And some Ethereum. I think that’s all I’ve got right now.

Aaron Lammer: I’ll say that I think my understanding of these ERC-20 utility tokens is really gonna change when I actually use one.

Maria Bustillos: Yes.

Aaron Lammer: Like, I guess Augur is maybe launching soon. I’ve heard so much about them, but I’ve never actually done the thing you’re describing. And in the same way that I think Bitcoin’s really different when you actually have some versus when you talk about it? I think ERC-20’s gonna be the same way.

Jay Kang: Yeah and I think that that moment is coming soon.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah.

Maria Bustillos: Very.

Jay Kang: I mean like this is a very interesting project. I don’t think just to those of us who are in the journalism world. Like you said, anyone who’s interested in information security, or bad actors, I think that this is gonna be super compelling to, and it seems like you guys have brought on a lot of very interesting people both from our world and also the sort of crypto … our world being journalists … and also the crypto world so we’re excited to see what happens.

Maria Bustillos: Thank you so much.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah I’d love to have you back on when the CVL token launches, maybe we could tip you on air or something?

Maria Bustillos: Oh heck yeah. That’d be so cool.

Aaron Lammer: I wanna do all this stuff and I feel like it’s all coming. When does the token go on sale again?

Maria Bustillos: The announcement is in a matter of days, so, watch this space.

Aaron Lammer: Okay, soon.

Maria Bustillos: Yeah.

Aaron Lammer: Okay.

Maria Bustillos: It’s really happening. Yeah. Get on MetaMask-

Aaron Lammer: Are you gonna get a bunch of Civil as part of having a Civil thing? Are you a stakeholder now in Civil?

Maria Bustillos: You guys know I like to roll the dice. I’ve been working for only Civil. I’ve been working for only Civil since the summer.

Jay Kang: Thank you Maria.

Aaron Lammer: Thanks Maria.

Jay Kang: We’ll talk to you soon.

Aaron Lammer: Bye!