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The Civil-izing Process

Some of the web’s brightest lights have signed on with a blockchain publisher, but can anyone explain what it is?

With its assorted hucksters, false prophets, and innovation-mongers, media is no better than any other industry. Pound for pound, the chattering class is garlanded with an impressive tonnage of dead weight, and parrots a truly symphonic range of bad ideas. The elites are clueless, the neophytes desperate. Think tanks and J-school faculties are studded with the names of people who haven’t written anything longer than a tweet in years. Beyond shaking the cup for donations and subscriptions, no one has a plan for how to rescue the industry from its digital death spiral. (Salon, for instance, recently took to harvesting its readers’ spare computer cycles to mine cryptocurrency.) Meanwhile, the bulk of us labor under the dual tyrannies of awful pay and the punishing obscurity promised by fickle social-media algorithms. There is, in short, little reason for optimism.

Civil ticks many of the boxes of insufferability, combining a trendy new technology with good-hearted rhetoric about the value and future of journalism.

So it was with something less than millennialist enthusiasm that I greeted the reports of journalism’s newest new thing: Civil, a venture that employs blockchain technology and plans to issue its own cryptocurrency. Civil ticks many of the boxes of insufferability, combining a trendy new technology with good-hearted rhetoric about the value and future of journalism. Its early adopters speak of it, improbably, as a technological bulwark against the censorious power of litigious billionaires like Peter Thiel. Even its name—Civil —implies a kind of pursed-lip, #resistance-approved devotion to the public sphere.

But Civil is also signing up an impressive roster of journalists and promising a varied slate of publications, from an Awl-like internet miscellany to a muckraking investigative outfit to a sober-minded cannabis newswire. (The platform initially plans to have thirty of what it calls “self-directed Newsrooms” and is currently fielding project and story pitches.) In an industry seemingly out of ideas, Civil’s business model is genuinely innovative, if also in some respects bizarre. A venture capital firm called ConsenSys has poured in $5 million—soon to be augmented by however much is raised in Civil’s ICO, its initial coin offering, of its CVL token, which is expected to debut this spring.

Readers will be invited to take part in the ICO and to later buy and sell CVL tokens and to use them to purchase subscriptions, tip journalists, and otherwise contribute to a de facto journalistic economy powered by Civil’s blockchain technology—which in turn is based on the Ethereum platform, which also powers the Ether cryptocurrency. Because of this unusual arrangement — a sort of nesting doll of crypto technologies — journalism watchdogs have taken to covering Civil with a wary enthusiasm, with Harvard’s Nieman Lab calling it “one of the most confusing efforts to fund journalism in recent memory.”

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a recent media venture that requires so much explanation—and I’ve only covered a small segment of the platform’s underlying technological and corporate structure. Besides rooting themselves in the larger Civil crypto-economy, Civil-powered publications will also publish the text of their articles to the Ethereum blockchain—essentially placing them in a distributed database beyond the reach of a court order. The publications also will publish directly to the web, which is where most readers will encounter them. In a journalistic environment marred by the slaying of Gawker and the abrupt shuttering of DNAinfo, Gothamist, and other news sites, the idea of a failsafe blockchain distribution system for published content promises some protection against erasure and obsolescence. (One of the Civil newsrooms, Block Club Chicago, was born out of the wreckage of DNAinfo Chicago.)  

For Maria Bustillos, a veteran journalist who will be heading up a site called Popula—think an alt-weekly vibe infused with lefty global concerns, she said—this protection is as important as anything else. She’s worried about the Thiels of the world and also, more generally, about archival possibilities when the web itself is proving surprisingly ephemeral.

Bustillos covered the Gawker trial in person, filing courtroom dispatches from St. Petersburg, Florida.  In an interview with Coin Talk, a cryptocurrency podcast, she described the felling of the gossip site as “a failure to protect the First Amendment that had a huge effect on me.” Popula’s staff includes A.J. Daulerio, a former Gawker editor whose post of a clip of a Hulk Hogan sex tape inadvertently led to the website’s downfall. For Bustillos, a blockchain ledger offers a fallback mechanism for a publication faced with legal assault after a future Hogan-ite incident. She has long seen Bitcoin, for instance, “as a record-keeping system. I always believed that’s what it was for.” She noted that “in a hilarious twist,” some of her articles from the Gawker trial—which appeared in publications like Spin, Death and Taxes, and the Hollywood Reporter—have disappeared from the web and are only available through the Wayback Machine.

The Gawker disaster, destructive changes in Facebook’s news-feed algorithm, and the quiet shuttering of beloved sites like the Awl have all served to remind readers and writers alike that independent publishing on any established platform is an extremely fragile undertaking. Advertising barely works at scale—much less for small, boot-strapping outlets. And in an era when legal fees alone can bury you, if you don’t have a strong-willed mogul on your side, you better prepare for what happens when you piss one off. As Tom Scocca, whose publication, Hmm Daily, will be part of the Civil network, told me, “Gawker had a working business model—up until the point where the business model failed to incorporate the possibility of sabotage by an incredibly rich, malicious individual.” Civil’s own business model aims to remedy that.

There are many ways in which all of this could go wrong. The value of the CVL token could plummet to zero.

As Bustillos explained, it’s hard to create a decentralized structure, which is perhaps why Civil’s launch date remains unspecified beyond sometime this spring. “As it starts, there’s going to have to be some centralized decision-making to make sure the thing is decentralized in the right way,” Bustillos said. You need an originating force, some entity with power—in this case, Civil and its $5 million of investment capital—that wants to create a distributed, decentralized organization, give it some rules of operation, and then let it run itself. While Bitcoin is one point of obvious comparison, Civil’s distribution model is also not unlike Wikipedia’s—an ostensibly open platform that is actually overseen by the bureaucratic Wikimedia Foundation. In a similar way, Civil will have its own comprehensive governance structure that aims to keep bad actors out and to ensure that Civil-affiliated journalists, who can choose whether to be paid in dollars or CVL tokens, abide by a code of ethics.

There are many ways in which all of this could go wrong. The value of the CVL token could plummet to zero. Someone—perhaps a billionaire bearing a grievance against a Civil-powered publication—could buy up a major share of the tokens that will be issued in a Thielian sort of hostile takeover. The readers might never show up in sufficient numbers. Civil’s governing council could fracture, especially with various publications pursuing different business models. ConsenSys could get impatient with its investment and demand changes. Journalists may revolt at the idea of being paid in a cryptocurrency, much less at being enmeshed in what amounts to a speculative economy. The whole thing might just be too weird.

But these adverse developments remain safely in the realm of the hypothetical. At the moment, things are looking up for Civil: the investment money is flowing, the executives are geeked, and a few dozen writers and editors are happy to be participating in something new. Some of them are even getting paid, although Bustillos told me she’s taken only CVL tokens so far, declining fiat currency. But the novelty—and potential windfall—of getting in on the ground floor of a boutique cryptocurrency isn’t why she’s involved in this quixotic crypto-venture, she said: “I’m doing this because I believe in the promise of it for journalism.” She added that the whole set-up is “surreal, right? I’m working for a currency that doesn’t exist. It’s kind of fun.”