“However, in this piece, I will explain precisely why Thinkspot was created. The story starts shortly after the turn of the millennium, with crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.”
have a problem: My interests are esoteric, and most people are simply not very interested in the things that get me going. I do not often have an opportunity to discuss deeply the ideas that I am passionately interested in. So I was excited when Jordan Peterson announced his backing of the social networking website Thinkspot in June of 2019. I hoped that Peterson’s involvement would attract enough people who were Maps of Meaning (Peterson’s earlier and more involved book) readers, as opposed to say 12 Rules for Life (his more recent and popular work) fans. I hoped this would be a place where I might find the types of discussions I was looking for. However, satisfying my personal desire for stimulating conversation was not exactly why Thinkspot was created in the first place. All of the articles that I have read about Thinkspot make many assumptions and usually start with an ill-defined, sweeping gesture towards “free speech.” However, in this piece, I will explain precisely why Thinkspot was created. The story starts shortly after the turn of the millennium, with crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.
The “In” Crowd
In 2006, crowdsourced user-generated content was the rage. Time’s “Person of the Year” was “You,” alluding to those individuals creating the content for Wikipedia, Facebook, Youtube, and countless other sites that would be empty, uninteresting deserts were it not for the content created by users themselves. Around that same time, a group of art lovers was creating a website called Indiegogo to crowdsource fundraising—or, as it soon became known, “crowdfunding.”
So thanks to the demonetization trend, more and more creators needed to find alternative sources of revenue for businesses they had spent significant effort building, businesses that in some cases disappeared nearly overnight due to demonetization.
By 2013, seven years after Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of Youtube, user-generated content was becoming nothing short of big business. And Youtube was accounting for $3.5 billion in advertising dollars being collected by Google. So, for some creators on Youtube, things were getting increasingly serious. Youtube was no longer about a teenager sitting in his or her bedroom talking to the camera; creators such as Jack Conte were raising the bar on production values, creating full-fledged short films. At this point, Indiegogo (and other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter) was becoming a viable option for well-known artists to seek funding for specific projects, such as the $5.7 million raised to create the 2014 film Veronica Mars or the $3.1 million Zach Braff raised for a film sequel to Garden State, the 2014 film Wish I Was Here. However, there was still no platform for artists to seek an ongoing stream of revenue: basically a salary. So Cone created one, Patreon, and he announced its creation in one of his Youtube videos.
The idea behind Patreon was a modern take on one of the oldest business models in the world: patronage for artists. For centuries, great artists, who were not independently wealthy, survived by securing the patronage of someone who was. Essentially, they were given an allowance by their patron (a salary, if you will) to ensure that they continued to create, and, in turn, the whole world benefited from the art they created. Patreon gained users and subscribers rapidly—not least because in 2016, Youtube began, in the words of Peter Kafka, “demonetizing…some videos because its software thought the content was unfriendly for advertisers.” So thanks to the demonetization trend, more and more creators needed to find alternative sources of revenue for businesses they had spent significant effort building, businesses that in some cases disappeared nearly overnight due to demonetization.
Release the Hounds
On December 17, 2014, Slate declared 2014 “The Year of Outrage,” and, six days later, Bloomberg published a response: an opinion piece entitled “Sadism and the Online Mob: The Internet and social media make it easier for people to engage in vicious behavior toward one another.”
The outrage mob was already a well-established phenomenon at that time, with Justine Sacco, a media publicist, making headlines as the poster child for Twitter mobs delighting in ruining lives over moral transgressions. The Twitter mob came to realize that it had significant influence, given that large corporations were willing to fire people just to placate these mobs. After Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for SendGrid, caused a stranger to be fired from his job with just one tweet, the mob turned on her, and she was soon fired herself. Once companies started caving to that kind of pressure, no one was safe.
Over the next couple of years, as Youtube demonetization became more aggressive, more creators sought relief with Patreon. By 2017 the service processed $150 million worth of payments to content creators. Some of the biggest recipients of these payments were Youtube content creators who had been demonetized because of the outage mob’s reaction to their political views. However, Patreon eventually started showing signs of being co-opted by the trend towards censorious behavior, and it began to make decisions about who could (or could not) use the platform based on moral judgments. The consequence was the defection of a few of its highest-profile creator members: Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, and Jordan Peterson.
Yelling Fire in a Crowded Theater
There had been a few controversies at Patreon since the censorship began in 2017; however, the tipping point for Harris, Rubin, and Peterson was the banning of British social commentator Carl Benjamin. Harris had already come close to leaving the year before over Patreon’s first high-profile banning: of Canadian filmmaker and journalist Lauren Southern based on the view that she was “raising funds in order to take part in activities that are likely to cause loss of life.“
With Benjamin, Patreon went a step further, however, by banning him because of words he used in a discussion on somebody else’s Youtube video—in other words, for an opinion expressed on someone else’s creative work. Bearing in mind that Patreon had up until that point been perceived as a neutral safe haven for creators, the banning of Benjamin was widely viewed as a betrayal of the long-standing Western value of free speech. Only “social justice” true believers felt that Benjamin’s speech rose to the level of “clear and present danger” (the doctrine adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States to determine under which circumstances limits can be placed on First Amendment guarantees). Most others felt that—as unfortunate and offensive as Benjamin’s speech was—banning him from the platform was overreaching.
I do not really think that Thinkspot’s founders sought to displace Youtube as the world’s premier purveyor of cat videos—or to unseat Twitter as the world’s premier home for inchoate rage.
So this was the proximate cause for establishing Thinkspot: looking to create a free marketplace for ideas, where content creators could seek financial remuneration for their content without fear of having their business pulled out from under them because of the whims of the platform provider. Thinkspot’s answer to this was to combine the content presentation platform with the funding mechanism. Thus, Thinkspot was poised not just to be a “Patreon Killer” but also a “Patreon, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter Killer.”
Of course, the “Killer” characterization is hyperbole. I do not really think that Thinkspot’s founders sought to displace Youtube as the world’s premier purveyor of cat videos—or to unseat Twitter as the world’s premier home for inchoate rage. The idea was to rely upon the reputations of Peterson and Rubin—noted free speech advocates—to assure creators that the platform would remain ideologically neutral, while ensuring that the voices of controversial content creators would not be financially “starved-out” of the marketplace of ideas. Simply put: Thinkspot’s original and primary objective was to provide content creators with a reliable revenue stream.
Jordan Peterson and the News
Much has been made of Peterson’s involvement with Thinkspot, and why not? He is the visible face of Thinkspot and a figure of international acclaim. As such, googling “Jordan Peterson launches Thinkspot” returns just over 30,000 results. However, in reality, there has been little visible evidence of Peterson’s involvement. It is difficult to say what would have happened were it not for Peterson and his wife, Tammy’s, recent serious health issues. So we can only know what actually is. Anyone joining Thinkspot with the hope of interacting directly with Peterson is likely to be seriously disappointed.
As for those 30,000 Google hits, many are articles expressing varying degrees of skepticism and condemnation of Peterson and/or Thinkspot, as well as misapprehensions regarding Thinkspot’s primary purpose. Perhaps I am reading something into them that is not there, but they do seem—on the whole—rather eager for Thinkspot to be a failure. I will simply remark that very few of these reviews or articles bear any relation at all to my actual experiences on the platform.
The Nuts and Bolts of Thinkspot
I submitted my email address to the waiting list for the Thinkspot’s beta edition on July 13, 2019 and received my invitation about five months later on December 11th. I believe I was one of the very early members, having signed up just two months after the very first “Welcome” post was made by the Thinkspot’s administrator’s on October 17th.
The platform was advertised as being in beta, but little further information was available. New users were left to explore on their own. The user interface takes some getting used to, which is a polite way of saying that it leaves much to be desired. The interface is somewhat complicated and definitely unpolished. The biggest problem is nested comments. They are not easy to keep track of, and I cannot count the number of times I have received a comment intended for someone else.
Every member of Thinkspot is called a “Contributor,” in Thinkspeak. All contributors are equal, however, some are just a little bit more equal than others. “Featured Contributors” get to set pricing and charge for access to their content, and they can create Events, Media, and eBooks. It is not that there is really anything wrong with this; it is entirely in keeping with the original mission of Thinkspot. I have heard mentions in various conversations that eventually all contributors will have this option once the website is out of beta testing, but I suspect that only a small percentage of contributors will end up taking advantage of this. One has to build up a fairly large, devoted audience before one can successfully charge admission, and it is not easy to build that audience.
There is definitely an eerie—almost neglected—atmosphere at Thinkspot. It makes me think of Lord of the Flies. I feel like we, Thinkspot users, are abandoned on a deserted island to fend for ourselves.
But, enough about the container, what about the content?
It would appear that Thinkspot is not quite the hotbed of extreme political partisanship that many articles would have you believe. In fact, the distribution of interests is fairly even—something for which the mysterious curators of Thinkspot must be commended.
Personally, I am drawn to only about four or five of the Featured Contributors out of the 44, so no more than 10% of the content on Thinkspot interests me much. My perspective on the other 90% is that of a tourist, someone who visits but does not stay. I have no idea how well my experience in my little patch of Thinkspot translates to the rest—at least no subjective idea.
What I can do, instead, is provide some objective statistic on the contributors and how they interact with the subscribers. For example, half of the Featured Contributors have listed “Culture” as an interest, and almost half have also listed “Society,” “Philosophy,” and “Politics.” I believe, though, that these choices actually say very little about the authors. After all, we all agree that taking candy from babies is bad and helping little old ladies across the street is good. What self-respecting intellectual would not be interested in those things? So it is much more revealing when a contributor lists an interest that nobody else does. Then, we know something interesting about that contributor. Gratifyingly, there are 33 Featured Contributors with unique interests.
Readers might be interested to note that from a political point of view, there is only one Featured Contributor listing “Conservatism” as an interest and just one other listing “Progressivism.” It would appear that Thinkspot is not quite the hotbed of extreme political partisanship that many articles would have you believe. In fact, the distribution of interests is fairly even—something for which the mysterious curators of Thinkspot must be commended. Here is the full list of interests showing how many contributors have selected each one:
I can also provide some more quantitative data:
The top contributor in terms of content creation is philosopher Stephen Hicks who posts—on average— nine times per week for the past 45 weeks he has been on Thinkspot. The leader in terms of average number of views per post is—quite predictably—Jordan Peterson. The runner-up is less obvious: Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Rated third and fourth, respectively, are the publications Merion West and The Post Millennial. Now, let us take a look at which users receive the most “recommendation” tags (Think: Facebook “likes”). The content creator whose posts most motivate readers to leave a tag (“Recommend,” “Like,” “Agree,” “Insightful,” “Provocative,” or “Disagree”) is Carl Benjamin, the source of the aforementioned Patreon controversy. He is followed by PragerU, the contributor who listed Conservatism as an interest, and then by Jordan Peterson.
The posts that generate the most user comments—on average—are written by Marshall Herskovitz, the contributor who listed Progressivism as an interest. (Herskovitz is a writer, film producer, and director, who is committed to the cause of fighting climate change.) Herskovitz is followed by Jonathan Pageau, a Canadian artist and carver focused on Christian iconography, and then by Carl Benjamin.
Thus, the picture that emerges is very different from what most articles about Thinkspot would have one believe. The Featured Contributors are, for the most part, surprisingly heterogeneous, representing an eclectic mix of interests. Some are political, some apolitical, some theistic, some atheistic, some artistic, some scientific, some establishment, some anti-establishment, and so on. The top viewed contributors are not the top commented upon, and the top posters (in volume) are not the most recommended. The heterogeneity in Featured Contributors draws an equally heterogeneous audience, and so the user base of Thinkspot makes for a very mixed bag.
There is one trait the Featured Contributors largely share: They do not interact very often with anyone else’s content. If we keep in mind the original mandate of Thinkspot, this should hardly be surprising, yet a great number of people seem to have subscribed with the expectation of engaging in discussion with the Featured Contributors. Certainly, many unfavorable reviews were based on this premise. Nevertheless, I have had many engaging discussions on Thinkspot, despite the dreadful user interface. I have learned a lot, and I have worked through much thinking in discussions with others. I am a mostly satisfied customer.
The management of Thinkspot is rather opaque with regards to the future. I invited its leadership team to engage with me for the writing of this article, but I received no response. This leaves me free to speculate.
I would say that Thinkspot has a lot of potential. Its heterogeneity is probably a positive portent. The world desperately needs social media that is not just an echo chamber and, consequently, there is a window of opportunity. I would also say that the segment of the community that I interact with comes to the website for discussion among ourselves. This is the case even if this was not the original intent or focus of Thinkspot. If Thinkspot fails quickly to improve the group discussion experience, something better will come along, and the website will lose a substantial part of its community. This is the most obvious threat I see. Finally, there is the issue of critical mass. Thinkspot seems to have about 63,000 participants at the moment, and the statistics that I have pulled together suggest that any given creator could not hope to appeal to more than 10% of the Thinkspot population because of the diversity of taste among its users. Then assume a (very optimistic) conversion rate of 3%, and we have 189 paying subscribers. Even at $240 per year—which most people find very expensive (even the wildly-popular Ben Shapiro cannot charge more than that)—this works out to only $45,360 per year, not a particularly lucrative gig.
Youtube has cat videos; Twitter has outrage; and Thinkspot will have to find its drawing card: the thing that will “pack ’em in to the rafters.” Otherwise, the content creators the system was originally designed for will simply ignore it as irrelevant. 63,000 potential subscribers is not enough for even one content creator to earn a living. Without a flourishing community (because of user interface issues) to provide a sufficiently large audience pool for content creators wishing to commercialize, Thinkspot faces a dual threat that it must move quickly to overcome.
I wish Thinkspot all the best; it is a worthy endeavor.
Adam Wasserman has 30 years of IT management experience and is the author of The Chaos Factory.