Our new mission: Make the internet more open-minded
I’m giving up on the pursuit of truth in favor of something more pragmatic:
Creating a safe space to debate.
Why am I doing this? Well, over the past year of building TruStory, something has become painfully clear — the problem with the Internet isn’t a lack of truth; it’s a lack of willingness to have a healthy debate.
Everybody wants “the truth.” So here’s some blunt honesty: Attaining the truth is impossible if we’re afraid to have a healthy debate about important topics and hear both sides of an argument, rather than silencing everything that doesn’t fit a narrative.
TruStory’s original vision
When I first started TruStory, my original vision was to build a tool we could use to crowd-source the verification of claims people make.
Basically, we wanted to use the collective knowledge of the crowd to validate claims.
I spent countless sleepless nights designing the product and protocol to make this vision a reality. The protocol relied on a novel use of Schelling points combined with the right incentives and disincentives to collectively confirm or refute the validity of a claim.
“A Schelling point is a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication because it seems natural, special, or relevant to them.”
Schelling points are incredibly useful in coordination games where a group of people is trying to achieve a common goal.
A perfect example is the coordination game that Bitcoin miners play in mining new blocks on the longest chain. Miners are incentivized to produce blocks on the longest chain (that’s how they earn potential rewards) and are disincentivized from trying to create their own minority chain (it’s a waste of hash power and potential rewards). Therefore, the profitable-truth-seeking majority of miners will mine on the longest chain, which is the natural Schelling point.
Similarly, my idea was to use “skin in the game” to incentivize people to vote on the veracity of claims and not deviate from the profitable-truth-seeking majority.
By no means was this an easy system to design. Researchers have spent decades investigating and understanding Schelling points. Along the way, they’ve come up with various reasons for why they do or don’t work well in practice. It’s still an ongoing debate.
But after spending several months designing TruStory’s protocol, I genuinely felt like I had something with potential to work. So I went out and raised a seed round to build it.
It was probably around this time when many of you heard about TruStory thanks to this TechCrunch article:
TruStory, a new startup, just raised $3 million to identify ICO scams before they happen
Investing in initial coin offerings, or ICOs, is a minefield. This isn't just true for people with absolutely no…
For many of you, this is probably the extent of what you know about TruStory:
TruStory, a new startup, just raised $3 million to identify ICO scams before they happen.
This is incorrect. The article framed TruStory in a wildly different light from what I envisioned.
My goal was never to “identity scams before they happen.” It was to build a product that leverages the collective knowledge of the crowd, along with the right incentives, to find a Schelling point on claims.
This would then hopefully give us a probabilistic guarantee of the validity of that claim.
But as we all know, in today’s climate, the truth is much harder to come by than lies, especially in mainstream news. The second I said “verify claims,” the market misconstrued it to mean that TruStory was “crowd-sourced fact-checking of news.”
Is it any surprise this struck a chord with me? Unfortunately, at the moment, I decided to go along with it. Why? Because it seemed to match the first of many use cases I had considered. But deep down, I too was grappling with what exactly this would look like.
A community to converge on the truth
I had a much different, grander vision in my head that I couldn’t really articulate in words just yet. So perhaps “crowd-sourced fact-checking of news” could serve to describe the first use case? At this point, I figured it was better to show instead of tell.
So I started to build out an A-team to make it happen. It takes teamwork to make the dream work, right? Somehow, I convinced rockstars like Shane to embark on this endeavor with me.
Not long after, we were off to the races. The product was fairly complex; its development would take several months. The engineers were hard at work on it, while I attended to hiring, product design, operations, marketing… and everything else in between.
While the product was being developed, I wanted to get a head-start on building the community. After all, if we wanted to use the collective knowledge of the crowd, we needed a community which would serve as that crowd.
Around Thanksgiving weekend, we launched our first community efforts. Over the course of the next three months, we rigorously trained our passionate and tight-knit community on how to find and validate claims.
The TruStory app wasn’t ready yet, so we decided to replicate its function on Discourse, albeit in a rather analog way. Each week, our community would find claims on the Internet and then dig into evidence to either Back or Challenge the claim.
You can see tons of examples here:
Discussions on real-life scenarios where TruStory is / has been useful
Again, our goal was to validate claims using the collective knowledge of the crowd. To do so, we focused exclusively on objective and verifiable claims. Subjective claims were off limits since there isn’t an objective and verifiable common ground for the crowd to converge on.
For a while there, things were going great! Our community was doing some serious investigative work on various topics. And it felt like we were getting to the bottom of something big.
The truth isn’t always so “black and white”
But then something started to feel off.
Lots of claims were coming in that didn’t have unanimous, crystal-clear answers. The answers fell somewhere in between.
For example, we decided to take on Tuur Demeester’s claims about Ethereum. The result? Some people were responding with “Confirmed with CAVEAT” while others answered with “Supporting AND Refuting evidence”:
Tuur Demeester's Ethereum claims
Tuur Deemester posted a long tweetstorm yesterday pointing out his perceived flaws of Ethereum. He touched on a number…
Or take another example where our top contributor, Paul, digs into whether Ethereum is centralized or not:
The answer to some of these claims is obviously not so black and white, so it felt strange that we would punish people for taking the “wrong” side. But we were weeks away from launching Alpha. And I figured the best way to test our assumptions was to see what happened once the product was in the hands of our community.
After months of iterating, we recently did a soft private launch of Alpha and on-boarded the first batch of users from our waitlist.
Within a few weeks, we began to notice something fascinating: The most interesting, engaging claims were the more subjective ones, not the objective and verifiable ones.
With objective claims, there is an immediate and timely answer. So there really was no need for multiple perspectives. One or two experts in the community would verify or refute the claim. We would agree on it. Then we’d move on.
On the other hand, subjective claims required interpretation from different people. It required a back-and-forth dialogue and deep conversation before the most compelling arguments started to emerge. In turn, this process led to the surfacing of insightful, nuanced viewpoints.
So instead of flagging claims as “too subjective,” we decided to just let users do their thing and see what happens. And boy was it interesting!
When did being wrong become so wrong?
It’s been amazing and heartwarming to watch the users we’ve on-boarded take our Values and Guidelines to heart.
They’ve learned to debate without yelling at each other. For the current state of the Internet, where debates are actually fights, that’s a miracle.
But perhaps most surprisingly, the most passionate and devoted TruStory users weren’t using it to win or be right. They were enjoying the process of debating claims back and forth more so than seeing an outcome. The outcome was merely a byproduct of the process.
Arguments had become a profound opportunity for our users to understand different perspectives. To learn from each other. And sometimes, to even change their minds.
Often, each side of an Argument has valid viewpoints. And the truth lies somewhere in between. Examining this space has limitless potential.
However, TruStory’s protocol was built to validate objective claims in which there is a single fixed answer. It incentivized our users to take a stance on one side and penalized them if they deviated from it.
By doing this, we were telling our users that there is a right or wrong answer. Those who were on the right side would “win.” And those who weren’t would “lose.”
In spite of this, the fact couldn’t be ignored:
Instead of existing to validate claims, TruStory was becoming a powerful way to debate them. Its real value is not in finding the truth; it’s in fostering the process of sharing nuanced Arguments.
We knew we needed to embrace this natural development. Who were we to fight it?
Pivoting in pursuit of healthy debates for all
Encouraging our users to seek the right answer and discouraging them for choosing the wrong one just wasn’t going to work. Instead of fostering this behavior, we needed to incentivize our users to write and curate compelling Arguments and disincentivize them from writing and curating Arguments which don’t add value to the discussion.
In doing things this way, the outcome (truth) simply becomes an emergent property of the process (debate). And doing this just feels right! To make this happen, our mission has evolved:
Rather than try to determine a single truth (“Figuring out what’s true and what’s not”), we want to facilitate the process for finding the many truths in between (“Encouraging people to see both sides of a debate”).
We’ve already put this philosophy into practice with live debates on controversial topics such as “Ethereum governance failing” or “Remote work is the future.” But we want you to join in on the fun — we need your help to make our vision of a more open-minded Internet a reality.
The Internet has perverted debates. They’ve become something to run from. They’ve become opportunities to “shut down” opposing viewpoints. This is unfortunate, because they shouldn’t be anything but opportunities to learn.
When I consider the current state of the Internet, I often think about a quote from the famous physicist Richard Feynman:
“Being wrong isn’t a bad thing like they teach you in school. It is an opportunity to learn something.”
The Internet may have forgotten this. But TruStory is here to help it remember.