For journalists who are also into new technology, Jarrod Dicker has a pretty compelling CV: He was the head of product management at Huffington Post, director of digital products at Time Inc., helped run operations at online-publishing startup RebelMouse, and ran a digital-research lab at The Washington Post. With a career like that, lots of people in media pay attention when Dicker says something is interesting, and so many heads turned when he said he was leaving the Post for a blockchain startup called Poet.
For many people, “blockchain” is just the latest buzzword to infect internet-focused discussion and more recently media futurism, and there is no question that the topic is surrounded by almost unprecedented levels of hype, in part because it provides the foundation for crypto-currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, which have ballooned in value over the past year due to what many see as speculative hysteria.
That isn’t why Dicker is interested in it, however. Much like Civil, a blockchain-based media platform that wants to use the technology for journalism, Dicker sees Poet as a way of using blockchain to empower individual content creators—not just journalists or news organizations, but anyone who creates words or images or music or video for almost any purpose, including advertisers and brands. In effect, he says Poet is trying to build an open-source, blockchain-based licensing system for content.
To try and understand a bit more about what this means, and why Dicker decided to throw in the towel on a promising career at a traditional media entity, I talked with him recently by phone. What follows is a transcript of some of that discussion, edited for length and clarity.
CJR: Can you tell me a bit more about the background of Poet, and who is involved? I understand that it’s connected to Bitcoin Media in some way, yes?
JD: Yes, the Poet Foundation, which runs Po.et, is a separate entity. The parent company is BTC Media, and it’s based in Nashville. They bought Bitcoin magazine from [Ethereum founder] Vitalik Buterin, they own a few other publications and they do events and so on. They did an ICO for the Poet Foundation [an “initial coin offering,” which is a way of raising money for a blockchain-based business, like an equity IPO but with coins or tokens] and I think the documented raise was about $10 million, but since then the foundation has grown and now I think the market cap is around $160 million. We have about 58,000 content creators using the platform right now, we have a WordPress plugin and we also signed a partnership with the Maven network, which is James Heckman’s new venture, so all of those sites will be leveraging it.
CJR: And what is it about Poet that convinced you to join the company, or the foundation? What does it offer that you couldn’t get running the digital lab at the Post?
JD: So for the past few years I’ve been trying to figure out how to build a better media business, and it was just a constant effort in running uphill, not just in terms of financial struggles but ownership and platforms and so on, it’s hard to react in a marketplace where you feel like there’s literally no real control. The Post was great because we had investments and things like Orc and so on, so we had pretty diversified revenue, but it just felt like most people still aren’t looking at the real issues and how to fix them. There are people working on things like subscription tiers and what things should cost and so on, but a lot of it seems like a crapshoot. The bottom line is that media is being consumed more than ever, but there are two major issues: One is attribution, which you see with things like fake news but also sourcing and copyright, and the second is more of a macro idea, which is what is the value of content, whether it’s a story or a piece of music or art? We know how much it costs or how many ads we can put against it but what is its real value?
CJR: And how does Poet propose to solve that problem by using the blockchain? Does it use the blockchain’s “distributed ledger” structure the same way that Civil is?
JD: Yes, the name Poet comes from “proof of existence,” which was the first non-currency related implementation of blockchain technology, organized around attribution and valuation. And the potential of that kind of structure extends into things like smart contracts [for licensing content] or even just building a kind of seamless technology to allow any creator to have proof of the existence of their content in the blockchain that is meta-data enabled and be able to track that. We at Poet are working to be the standard for the world’s creative assets, by building seamless integrations within the Poet marketplace for anything involved in content. So that could go in WordPress or any kind of CMS [content-management system], or music creation tools, so when a piece of media is created, with the click of a button it is documented within the Poet platform, there’s a timestamp, and that allows for attribution of all these assets.
CJR: And what would having that centralized database of content allow Poet to do? How does it make content more valuable, or empower creators?
JD: That kind of marketplace with attribution and so on benefits the creator but also the publisher, and anyone who wants a record of that content. Once we have all of these assets within the Poet Foundation, the idea is that it’s very easy to access and it’s open source, so it doesn’t cost money to access, and then it allows us or anyone to build a front end to index and search and find content to license and curate, a central marketplace for content, like a Getty Images or a Wikipedia. It’s not just a technically-driven opportunity for content management, but also a community of token-holders who go in and contribute content or license or commission new work, or to resolve conflicts of attribution, or stamp out bad actors—there are a ton of different opportunities. We’re working on plugin integrations, so we’re having conversations with creative platforms like Medium and even with Twitter. So we don’t really look at a tweet as a piece of content or something that has intellectual property value that could be tracked or licensed or whatever, but with Poet we’re trying to build a system that would allow you to do that.
CJR: So you see this as a way to give back a lot of the power that individual content creators have given up to platforms or to traditional media companies?
JD: Definitely. You can see with people like [YouTube star] Logan Paul or whatever, creators will go wherever is most beneficial for them to go, and you can see that with people like Ben Thompson of Stratechery and [former ESPN star] Bill Simmons, where they decide to build their own brand. Right now we’re confined to what the status quo is because that’s the way it’s always been, but most creators want to own their own IP and strike their own deals. So with something like Poet, you can own and archive your own content that’s recorded on the blockchain, and then license or syndicate it to whoever you want. The scary idea for media companies is that if this is possible, do we really need media companies any more? If you’re a sports blogger writing for SB Nation or Deadspin, and all your content is archived in Poet, you may get offers from other media companies, but also brands might say: “Hey look, you’re a big player in this space and we are willing to sponsor you,” and you can cut your own deal.
CJR: So you see Poet as being a way to reinvent sponsored content and advertising too?
JD: I think sponsored content as it stands now is a bubble, they are still using all these old-fashioned KPIs (key performance indicators like impressions or pageviews] and they just don’t work any more. There will be a change in that model. I don’t think there will be an ad-supported business model in five years, I think that is going to go away—not just because of people blocking ads but because brands are learning. Media companies keep telling them you can only do this and this, and users aren’t engaging, and at some point they will turn around and say “We have all the money, so we don’t need you.” It’s the same with platforms like Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter. They’re saying to publishers you can engage with your users on our platform, but you need to do A, B and C. I think everyone is looking for a new model, but I think that model has to come from outside, and that’s what made Poet attractive. There’s no real centralized marketplace for media, and we’re trying to leverage the blockchain and decentralization to fix that.
CJR: It doesn’t sound like traditional media companies are going to like this model very much, if it takes away their power and gives it to the creator?
JD: As CEO of Poet, I don’t want to be part of an organization that takes down media organizations, and I think in a way news is different, there will probably always be a model there for companies—and just because we are focused on the creator doesn’t mean media companies can’t use Poet as well. They can still own and archive their content and syndicate it through the platform, or find new writers and commission them to do new work. But could the model wind up disintermediating news or media companies? Yes, it definitely could. There’s just a lot more liberation of value in this model—maybe people working in news, instead of just working for CNN they create their own brand and then use Poet to leverage that brand in a bunch of different ways. It’s all about how we can acknowledge and attribute the value of the creator.
CJR: One thing that interests me is how a centralized technology that tracks every piece of content, no matter how small will affect fair use, which is a pretty important principle in copyright. Any thoughts?
JD: There could be issues there, definitely, if every piece of content can be time-stamped and tracked and attributed. But they’re very fixable I think—and I’m thinking of something like Creative Commons vs. Getty Images. There could be certain settings or limits or restrictions set up by the creator of the content to allow certain uses and not others. So if you’re thinking about sampling for DJs, what if a content creator was notified every time they were sampled? There’s value to the artist in knowing what is used and in being able to say yes or no, and they might decide that there’s value in being seen or heard so they don’t need to license it. There’s a lot of opportunity there to help come up with a way of solving some of the low-hanging fruit like sampling. Could it disrupt the media and the ways things currently work? Sure, but good things could also come out of it, with something like Napster you could say a lot of bad things happened but it forced everyone to react. The question is can we create something open source that allows us to try to get ahead of that kind of change and figure out how to make use of it or control it.
CJR: And when it comes to journalism in particular, what do you think of what Civil is trying to build with its blockchain-powered platform for publishing. Are you competing with them?
JD: Civil is focused on journalism specifically, where we’re broader and bit more macro-focused. So we see huge opportunity in what brands could do and how they could leverage Poet, and obviously that could be huge for journalists but also for any kind of content creator. Poet is open source and non-profit, so we’re not really competing with anyone, we’re not trying to generate revenue from it—it’s a very altruistic effort, so we’d love to work with Civil if they want to do that. And if someone wants to build something on top of Poet that they can generate revenue from, they are free to do that, just like someone building on WordPress or Github etc. There’s a lot of cynicism around ICOs, but we generated tokens to help support the foundation, so all of the dollars coming in go to support the foundation and the protocol, whether it’s through tokens or grants or whatever. So people can invest in our tokens the same way they would a stock but those investments go to the platform and building the community.