Founder of crypto social network ‘thrilled’ to add 100,000+ Thais in 1 day (Interview)

A file photo of Bill Ottman, founder of Minds.
A file photo of Bill Ottman, founder of Minds.

At some point Thursday, a day that saw more than 100,000 new Thai users sign up, blockchain-powered social networking site Minds came crashing down.

Service was quickly restored and one of its founders says he was “thrilled” to be slammed by the wave of Thai netizens, some of whom migrated from Twitter to stake out a new home for dissent after losing confidence in the California tech giant.

“Yesterday we saw 100,000+ new users. We are thrilled to provide privacy, internet freedom and digital rights for Thai netizens. This is exactly the reason Minds exists,” Bill Ottman told Coconuts Bangkok by email.

Prominent digital dissidents ditch Twitter over privacy, security fears

Since Wednesday night, a number of Twitter luminaries – including academics, opposition MPs and government critics – announced that they had opened accounts on the platform. A few said they had quit Twitter for good. That seemed to motivate other Thai Twitter users to quickly follow suit.

Some of the popular Twitterverse figures now on Minds include Wiroj Lakkana-adisorn, an MP for the disbanded Future Forward Party; social critic Sarinee Achavanuntakul, writer-translator Tomorn Sookprecha; and satirical TV host Winyu “John” Wongsurawat. The list goes on. 

Even self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun yesterday announced his return to the platform, which first drew a wave of defections four years ago during a previous privacy scare. “Returning home at Minds!!!!” Pavin wrote.

The sudden phenomenon, which pushed #MindsTH to trend on both Minds and Thai Twitter, came after fears spread that privacy and free expression were under threat on Twitter, which has been a bastion of unrestricted speech for Thais online. 

Twitter said last week that it remains committed to both principles as “core values” and has built many public and private partnerships in Thailand. Asked yesterday about fresh objections raised to its data-sharing policies by platform defectors, a publicist said it had nothing further to add and referred a reporter to updated privacy policies.

When @TwitterThailand launched on May 13, Ottman said Minds saw a surge of “10,000 or so” Thai sign-ups. As of Thursday night, Ottman said that number had grown 15 times – in Ottman’s words, “Around 150,000 from Thailand and growing exponentially as we speak.”

https://twitter.com/TwitterThailand/status/1260399485907320832

That would undoubtedly account for a strain on the network that last year the 34-year-old American entrepreneur said last year had about 200,000 active monthly users. 

He said developers are building features into the open-source platform to accommodate the large influx of Thai users.

“We are immediately building out our translation and localization framework for Thai and many other languages,” Ottman said. “This should be finished within a few weeks. All of our project is fully open source at https://developers.minds.com and people can submit requests at https://gitlab.com/minds. They can also inspect our software to make sure we aren’t manipulating algorithms or user privacy. We already have Thai developers helping with the code and building new tools.”

Bill Ottman on Thursday morning embraced the new audience on his Minds channel.
Bill Ottman on Thursday morning embraced the new audience on his Minds channel.

As anger has grown in recent years over the major tech platforms’ privacy abuses and vulnerability to disinformation, platforms like Minds have benefited.

Its first wave of Thai migrants came in 2016 during a wave of anger at Facebook, following the arrest of a pro-democracy activist who was charged with insulting the monarchy computer crimes for basically typing “okay” in Facebook messenger. That prompted a segment of Facebook users to quit the platform and join Minds. 

Hit by users over @TwitterThailand, ‘unbiased’ platform says it’s committed to free speech

Founded in Ottman’s basement in 2011, Minds went alpha four years later. The free and open-source platform uses blockchain to reward users has drawn 2.5 million users worldwide, according to Ottman. He didn’t say how many of those were now active. 

Like other unregulated digital outposts, the service has also come under fire for providing safe haven to extremists. As hate groups such as white supremacists have been booted from commercial platforms, they have migrated to content-neutral platforms like Discord, 4chan, 8chan or 8kun.

The service promotes its commitment to privacy, decentralization and free speech. This has drawn praise from digital rights advocates and criticism from those who worry about real-world consequences, such as last year’s 8chan-born mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Ottman said content would not be regulated from the top-down on Minds but instead be policed by users through a so-called jury system.

He said its policy was based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech. 

“We provide extensive filtering controls for content but firmly believe that free expression is the best way to reduce extreme content,” he said.

That said, Minds has not taken an entirely neutral role. In August, Ottman and Minds invited mostly white reactionaries to discuss their views on race at an event they were forced to move due to protests.

For now Ottman’s happy to welcome Thai users and has been greeting them via hashtag #MindsTH. 

“Dear #MindsTH, we love your passion, creativity and principles. Let’s work together to build a platform that amplifies your voice without suppression. We are listening to all of your feedback closely,” he said.

If blockchain is the currency of the libertarian internet; memes are its heartbeat. Ottman said he’s excited to see more of the Thai-style ingenuity which has shaken up the online world in the past. 

“We also love your memes. Please make more memes about Minds ;P and boost with your tokens,” he said.

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