Interview With Former Reddit Cryptocurrency Engineer, Ryan X Charles
Ryan X Charles had what many readers here would consider a dream job. He was the Cryptocurrency engineer for Reddit. More than that, he was the first Cryptocurrency Engineer for a major social media company. The most cutting edge position in a cutting edge company in a cutting edge industry. It must have seemed like a dream to Charles, because nearly as quickly as it came, it vanished. As someone who has had dream jobs turn sour and then disappear completely, I can relate. I can also relate to the desire to break away and create something of my own, something Charles implied was important to him during our talk together.
A few days ago, Charles posted an essay on Medium titled “Fix reddit with bitcoin”. Reddit, as you may or may not be aware, is going through some inter community drama. Recently, and just a day after my chat with Ryan, their CEO resigned. Why isn't really important for this article, just that there are a lot of interests at play. Reddit has to worry about its stockholders, its moderators and of course, its users.
Whatever the issue of the day is, that dichotomy will always be in play and hanging over it all is the specter of law enforcement, who have proven in the past that hiding behind the shield of “the users uploaded it” is not an excuse the courts will accept, at least when it comes to a centralized app like Napster was or Reddit currently is. What they will do with decentralized apps are another question entirely and something that hasn't been answered. Will people be held responsible for what happens with code they no longer control? If code is speech, but it is also a tool, then tools become free speech. The government never had any problems banning tools, but now “tools” are something else entirely.
That was something I planned to ask Ryan X Charles about. When it comes to decentralized apps, from OpenBazaar to conceptualized social media apps to even Bitcoin and the Internet at their invention, that seems to be the first question that comes up: what happens when the users post or sell something illegal?
While the likes of Amir Taaki and Cody Wilson have put up their middle fingers to the authorities, philosophizing that the government can only control what it has the ability to control, and things like the 3D printed gun and OpenBazaar are going to change the relationship between citizen and state. I suspect that they will ultimately be proven correct, but I doubt the government will let that power slip through their hands so readily, and people may be hurt in the meantime.
I never got around to asking Charles what he thinks about this. In explaining the technical aspects of his imagined decentralized reddit, it became clear that it won't be a problem, at least not for the creators of the program.
First thing first: this decentralized Reddit will not take place on the bitcoin blockchain. It could have its own distributed ledger of sorts, but it will be much different that the kind of ledgers that run cryptocurrencies.
Ryan X Charles imagines a system where, in layman terms, nodes replace subreddits. In a decentralized application that isn't based on monetary value, there is no reason every node has to reach a consensus with every other node. When talking about content rather than value, things open up significantly. Nodes, in his proposal, would only host the content that they want to host. Other nodes could host that same content, but it would be up to the node owner to decide what to host and what not to host.
While I was aware that his proposal didn't require complete consensus, I had imagined that there would be a base of “subreddits” and hosts would decide what to take out. This, presumably, would result in some instances where a node owner hosts something illegal on accident, but with the node owner having to actually decide what to host, that possibility becomes more remote.
A “proposal” is the correct term to call the mostly theoretical decentralized Reddit Ryan X Charles envisioned in his post. He was very adamant that this project is still in the fetus form, and depending on who joins him on it and how they envision it, things could change significantly. But, how he imagines it would have all that node business on the back end, out of the view of the user.
Regular users, once the system is ready for the mainstream, would likely access it using a web browser, through a gateway that runs a node and then links that content on the web. Users who want to publish will pay a small amount of bitcoin (on the level of 100 bits, or about 3 cents) that money is given to the nodes for hosting the content. At the same time, anyone else can up vote that content, for a similar or perhaps even smaller amount of money, therefore rewarding positive content and disincentivizing spam.
In concept if not practice, it actually isn't that much different than the old pre-Napster file sharing program Hotline Connect/Client, only with a bitcoin twist and a focus on social interaction rather than file sharing and eventually, access from a regular web browser.
The bottom line though is this: it would break that dichotomy mentioned earlier. Users would be free to run whatever they want on their node, so the free speech issue is taken care of. Each node would be responsible for what it hosts, so the legal issues are skirted, at least from a corporate standpoint, which should put any investors at ease.
I talked to Ryan X Charles about his proposal, decentralized apps and “mainstream” companies, compared the challenges of making a bitcoin powered social media app to a bitcoin powered messaging apps and more.
Ian DeMartino: You recently mentioned that you are now full time on the project, how did this come about?
Ryan X Charles: For a long time I wanted to start a business, I wasn't looking to leave BitGo, it is an awesome company and has awesome people. But I had this idea at the right time.
Reddit is having problems with its users. All I did was write this little article and tweeted it out and suddenly the article was copied two or three times on other websites and it exploded. There is an article on business insider for an example and the feedback I got was extremely positive.
I think right now, there is an opportunity to make a social media app that pays users for their content and bitcoin makes it possible to integrate payments without a central authority.
I want to start a business in this space, but I don't think it will replace Reddit, I think there is room in this market for multiple companies, decentralized and not.
A couple of investors have reached out, but no commitments have been made. We will be seeking seed funding. There appears to be a huge amount of interest, around 30 or 40 people have contacted me about it, from developers to investors to everyone else.
[ Writer's Note: Later, Charles notes that Fred Wilson is not one of the investors that he has talked to]
And it might not look exactly like Reddit, it depends on how these developers, as well as any potential users, want it to evolve. A lot of people people want this to exist, hopefully they will keep giving feedback and help shape what it becomes.
Ian DeMartino: Right.
Ryan X Charles: That's the thing, this is the very very early stage, I basically just quit my job so I can work on it. I haven't figured out the details just yet.
Ian Demartino: I remember a year ago or so, the concept of a messaging app similar to Whatsapp with bitcoin integration or a cryptocurrency was big. Gems had their thing, Nxt had something as well. [Note: Also, Wiper should have been mentioned] But they never really caught on. Do you think there is a desire among regular social media users for something like this?
Ryan X Charles: [Charles notes that he hasn't used them so asks a little about them] My thoughts there, is that it is probably a lot harder to get a viral network effect. If they haven't taken off, it probably has more to do with their function. If you can only talk to your friend, you can't just broadcast something, then your group of people who are able to hear about it is extremely limited.
If you tell your friend about a messaging app, they might not be interested in it. With a messaging app, maybe there are five people in your life who you are interested in talking to using it. Meanwhile, something like a bulletin board that is completely public, you can just tell everyone. You can just post a link on other social media and it doesn't even have to be your friends, it can be anyone interested.
So I think the virality of something like a bulletin board is potentially stronger than a direct person-to-person messaging app.
That would really be it, I am not really pursuing the idea of p2p messaging. You know, it is public, not specific. So they aren't really comparable.
Ian DeMartino: Let's talk about the inner workings a little bit. Are you imagining a system where the content would be stored on a block chain and the network would essentially serve as the web server?
Ryan X Charles: Sort of. So there are a couple technical comments I want to make about that. The only use of the blockchain, probably, will be bitcoin. I don't think blockchain technology would be the appropriate storage for a messaging system. I think its blockchain would get gigantic really quick and it would be a huge pain in the butt for everyone. I think the way to handle the messages, is to hash the content, and then the content is addressed by hash, then you communicate with the other peers on the network and they tell you what content they have hashed and then if you don't have that content you can download it and they only give you the most recent content.
This is already possible with technology today, but what is needed is a rendezvous server in the middle to connect users together. The rendezvous server cannot run in a web browser. That needs to be running on a server somewhere with an open port and IP address on the internet that is not behind a router, so it can accept incoming connections.
Any user can run a rendezvous server but it is not something users will be running when they are running a web app.
That's number one, number two is connecting to the Bitcoin p2p network so you can broadcast transactions or download transactions to see your balance. You can't connect directly to the Bitcoin network with a web browser, you have to connect to a gateway one way or another, to get blocks or send transactions. So that is another thing that requires an app.
In practice, people will run these things on websites. It will look like a normal website. Users will go to a website and download the app, but they won't realize they are downloading the app, they are just going to a website.
It will be very obvious when you go from one website to another, so different websites have different nodes. So, that is what it will look like in practice.
You know, in Reddit, there are subreddits. It will probably be more like each domain host its own subreddits or host other's subreddits. But if you go to a different domain, that would actually be a different subreddit. So, the content they display could be different. Maybe you go to one of my favorite subreddits, r/invisiblebicycles. If someone created the invisiblebicycle node, when you go there you would see that content first but you would still have access to all of the content on the network through that node.
That is how I see this. All the details haven't been worked out yet and I've been talking to a lot of people who are really motivated about this and have been thinking a lot about it, so things might change.
I think it is more important to get motivated people who all work well together. And then we will figure out the details that work with the team.
Ian DeMartino: Reddit almost went with this decentralized model. Do you think more mainstream companies will do the same in the near future, or do you think it has to come from a sort of grass roots level?
Ryan X Charles: Absolutely. So I think there are two ways this happens. Yes, I definitely think decentralized apps will be used by mainstream companies. Mainstream companies will not necessarily be the ones that create this technology however. The way this will happen is some decentralized companies will grow up and become mainstream. Facebook didn't always exist, and now Facebook is totally mainstream. Facebook did not occur, within Amazon or something, it wasn't an internal project, it was a new company that was created to create Facebook. So it emerged. That is one way we will see decentralized apps become popular, there will be new mainstream companies.
The other way this will happen is mainstream companies will buy the technology. I think they will hire people and I think they will buy companies and technology and intellectual property. I am a lot less optimistic that mainstream companies will actually invent these technologies, because I don't think incentives make sense for the people at these companies to do this kind of stuff.
When you try to do something really innovative within a company, you have to convince other people in the company that the idea is profitable. Imagine you are at Twitter, and I don't know anyone at Twitter, so this is just a hypothetical, but imagine you do and you are not an executive but you are well respected in the company and you have this cool idea. You can't just do it by yourself, you need to have a team, or you can do it yourself, but then the quality suffers. You need to sell the idea to your coworkers or your boss.
Often those people aren't interested or they are extremely skeptical, they think it might not be the best use of time. So, they sort of block the project, it is not necessarily nefarious, but they are already doing other things that are working.
If you go outside of your company you can go into the entire internet world and find people who are interested and build it that way. And so, that is what I have found. I think other people have found the exact same thing. To try and do something really innovative and new within an existing company is oftentimes politically harder than going out on your own and making your own company.
So, what will happen is if something like this takes off, a mainstream company like Twitter will buy it.
Ian DeMartino: Fred Wilson had a similar post around the same time that was favorable to the idea but also warned that he wasn't sure it would be a successful business model, do you think it could be for a corporation? Acknowledging the fact that some social media companies have struggled with profitability using traditional methods. [Note: Charles states that he wrote his before he saw the Wilson post, but the Wilson post encouraged him to publish as soon as possible and he felt the Wilson post showed an interest in the concept]
Ryan X Charles: That is a good point, Reddit, has struggled with profitability, although they do bring in money.
I do think this can be a business, I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it could be profitable. I need to support myself, I wasn't born wealthy. I need to earn money and I am doing this because I believe it can be a business. So not only can I make an awesome new thing, but I can also earn money and support myself.
Bitcoin makes it so people can pay companies with really small amounts of money, and that is critical to this.
The details could change but this is one way it can work: Since Bitcoin allows micropayments, If people really like some content, they can download the content for free. If they want to post something, they pay a real small amount of bitcoins, something like 100 bits.
That way the company earns revenue every post and it detracts spam while encouraging good content. There is a cost for the user but it is a really small cost. The price for each node could change to encourage more content or better fight spam.
Except for the amount it costs to host the content on the node, the money would go to the users.
Ian DeMartino: The idea of creating new economic systems through distributed programs and the internet in general has been around for a while, do you think crowdfunding, crowd investing and DACs are on the path to create a new one?
Ryan X Charles: Internet money makes all of this possible. Bitcoin might not quite be ready for the mainstream. Things will come, no one has implemented the lightening network yet, but I think that is one way something like this could be done.
I don't think we will see a DAC that actually runs and people actually use in the next year, I just think they are so far off, but I think these things are inevitable. Now, we can see how these kind of things will happen in the future, the path is clear, it is just going to take a while.
I predict the information economy will be the dominant economy. I think the physical economy will be the less significant one. It will still exist but it won't be as big as the information economy.
Ian DeMartino: Anything else you want to add?
Ryan X Charles: I am just extremely excited about this technology and the response that I have gotten. It is really cool to see “internet stuff” become so mainstream. I think that article I wrote is cool but, it only took a few hours to write and then I tweeted it out and the next thing I know, I found 12 people who wanted to collaborate. Just like that, we are connected. I am not a writer for the New York Times or a newscaster. It is so awesome to see the internet enabling not just my work, but everything. Bitcoin, Ethereum, just everything around.
We want to thank Ryan X Charles for taking the time to talk to us. You can follow him on Twitter at @RyanXCharles