You’ve probably seen the videos making their way around the Internet — an unabashed stab at Facebook and the other giants like Twitter and Google. If you haven’t, then take a moment to watch this:
Today, I got to hop on the phone with Natasha Dedis, the founder and CEO of Unthink. Below is the transcription of the interview, along with the company’s newest video that Unthink has been kind enough to let us premiere with this column.
Could we start off with the quick elevator pitch? What is Unthink? You mention that it’s “not just another social platform.” Please give us a thumbnail view of what it’s all about.
ND: Well, I think to effectively do that, we have to understand why we built Unthink and what problems we are hoping to solve with it, or feel that we have solved with it. In 2007, my son came to me and he asked me to join Facebook. I researched it and wanted to find out more in order to decide whether I wanted him to be on it. At the time, Facebook was only in colleges and MySpace was king.
The debate in the press was: Is social media going anywhere? Is it a fad? What’s up with this social media craze? Half the people were saying that it was not going to be around long and was just going to go away. Other people were saying, “This is going to turn into something.”
After researching it at first, I got into further research because I saw their terms and I couldn’t believe it. Then I went over to MySpace and looked around, and realized that there were all these websites operating under the same business logic. To me, that logic seemed to not be logical. It was totally irrational and exploitative.
So I felt that they were basically taking my son hostage. He was giving them a perpetual license to do whatever they wanted, they could change the terms at any time. So I thought, “Oh my god, in the real world, no business could ask its clients to enter into such a legal relationship. So how is this even legal on the Web?” It just baffled me.
So I started researching more and more. After almost six months of research, I had definite evidence that shaped my opinion of where this was going. This was my take on it at the end of 2007: I felt that MySpace would die because of several reasons. One of which was the fact that the profiles looked so peculiar. Everyone could do them in a different way, making it into a confusing place. I felt that there was no potential for mass market — the way the site looked.
I felt that MySpace would capture a piece of the market, but would then be replaced by something like Facebook that was more clean-cut, more suitable to the mass market. I felt, for sure, that Facebook, given the research I did on the personality behind it, Mark… I felt that, for every company, it is key to figure out who the people behind it are, what their intentions are, what’s in it for them? Having researched him and finding that he was a young guy who really had something to prove to the world about how smart he was. I felt it was going to go down a path where it would eventually get to the point of mistreating the users.
So my estimate was that social media was here to stay, it would be the key influencer in our lives in the future, and that MySpace would die a very sorry death. Facebook would overtake the market and eventually become a dictatorship on the Web. I felt that it was a huge danger.
My life has been, up until 10 years ago, spent in the real world and very little, if any, on the Web. Having a 15-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter, I felt that their lives would be 50, 80, even 90% virtual and that this would affect their temperament in the physical world. If this thing continues, and we allow it to go down this path where Facebook is leading the market and everybody is following, it would be detrimental to my kids. So I set out to “unthink” this system and set it on the right logic.
Would you fast-forward up to the present and give us an idea what Unthink will be unveiling soon? You have a history of being critical of Facebook and other platforms’ data policies. Am I to take it that user control of privacy and data are core ideals of your project?
ND: No. I feel that privacy is a side effect of a much, much larger disease. Privacy is like having a fever, but you’re a cancer patient. Are we going to talk about privacy, i.e. your fever, or are we going to talk about the fact that you have cancer? To me, this is about ownership and freedom. It’s about them taking away what belongs to us. The side effects of that are: privacy; disrespect, such as constantly redesigning the interface with no warning; or the fact that you are basically told what to do. And then, they do all sorts of things like spy on you, download spyware and follow you, [use] facial recognition, and more.
Today, I saw an announcement that [Facebook is] doing a joint venture with Ticketmaster. Now they can see if you’re at their concerts. All these things are part of this large disease. People’s ownership and freedom have been taken away. So privacy is only one aspect of it.
To me, right now, social media is sitting on the wrong foundation as far as how they make money. You’re sitting there, and you have built a profile on their pages, and made their pages valuable. Think about it, the minute you settled on Facebook, you started with an empty page. The value of that page was zero. You then add your photos, your life, your relationships, and your conversations on it — and now you’ve given that page value.
So, what is the value exchange from Facebook? They would like the world to believe that they are providing a “free” service, but they are exploiting you in every way they can. The price of their service is giving up your freedom and your privacy, and everything else.
What is fundamentally different about the approach that Unthink is taking as opposed to those that have come before?
ND: We’re trying to release this one piece at a time, so I won’t give you specifics, but I will give you the big picture. What we feel needs to change is the legal system, the legal relationship between a user and the site. So, if I’m launching a social domain, the legal relationship to that domain needs to be radically redefined. That is first and foremost. You should have to trust anyone, you should be in a legal relationship where you can trust the terms of service. The site has to be accountable. The site has to make good on its promises, not just bait you in with promises and “trust us.” The site should be legally obligated to do what they promised you. We will be announcing how Unthink will do that in about a week.
Hand in hand with that is the financial model, the business logic. Why do Facebook and these other sites have these terms? Because it suits their business model. They couldn’t change these terms without a change in their business logic. If you’re looking at Facebook as a user, you’re looking at the building, but the foundation of these social media sites [is based on] the same flawed business logic.
Right now, when you are on Facebook, do you have quiet enjoyment? No. They can redesign the interface [and offer] pop-up ads. Every ad has spyware on them, they follow you even when you’re not on Facebook. All these things need fundamental change. The foundation of our model is a new legal relationship, a new contract which defines the rights that emancipated users should have. The service will remain free, yet will also allow people to retain their own freedom and a way to make money that is win-win.
Right now, when Facebook makes a buck, the user loses something. It could be an interruption in the form of an ad or some other intrusion such as spyware. Facebook wins and the user loses. This sort of business logic can’t take anyone very far. It’s about time that someone figured out how to make a site that is free, allows users to retain their freedom, and at the same time can make money in a way that is win-win. Every time the site makes money, the users should win in some way, rather than [be] exploited.
So, when you speak of a win-win for both the site and the users, are you talking about some sort of revenue sharing?
ND: No. No, not at all. See? That is why we are called Unthink! If it was that simple to figure out, we would simply be rethinking existing things. UNthink means that we recognize that there is structural damage ingrained in social media. Much like there is structural damage in our economic and political systems around the world. As citizens of this world, we have had enough! Enough with “let’s rethink this,” and “let’s rearrange that.” With structural damage, you cannot rethink anything, you need to unthink, which means going to a blank drawing board and start thinking from scratch how to make things right.
I there anything else you can tell us at this point about the capabilities of Unthink itself as a platform?
ND: First of all, as I mentioned, the legal system and the business logic are completely different. Here, you have Facebook saying you do this, but only in this way, and likewise with LinkedIn and Twitter. We are going to give you a tool that makes all these sites null and void, it will be your online social home where you can do everything the way you want to. The functionality will be unlike anything you’ve seen and will make everything else unnecessary.
So you’ve got the new legal relationship, the new business logic, and the new platform. The fourth element here is brands. What are brands right now on social media? Intrusive advertisers, and the afterthought of Mark Zuckerberg’s. He built a network, baited everybody in, users came, and two or three years later, his VCs said, “Guess what? You need to make money now.” So he changed everything and brought in brands. So now brands come in and they are not part of the community. They’re intrusive.
Brands are part of my life. I talk to friends, I talk to business associates, and sometimes I go shopping and I deal with brands. The difference is that I choose where and when to do so. Where I want to allocate my time and what I feel like doing. The way I relate to my friends is different from the way I relate to my business associates, and is completely different from the way I relate to brands. I have already decided how I am doing these things in my life. So have you. So has everybody. I don’t need Facebook telling me how to interact with people or how to change my behavior. I do not need to be bothered while I am socializing or doing other things. I don’t need to be guinea pig, with lots of ads moving around in the hope I will click one. I’m busy.
So we have brought the brands in in a completely new way, very much the same way that we communicate with brands in the real world. Brands are part of the community — just a different part of the community. They will not be able to advertise, there will be zero ads on our platform. Not now, not ever. We want people to be able to interact and think with quiet enjoyment. We want our users to have ownership of the place and not be worried about what might get pulled on them tomorrow. Brands will be able to be a part of the community, but they will have to communicate with users in the way the users want. Not through ads.
We will never make money by intruding, interrupting, spying on your data, or selling your data. We will never turn win-lose on you. That is a 360[-degree] view.
Now, a lot of people out there are thinking, “Why won’t she just tell us what it is?” If you’re unthinking something, there is no reference point. I can’t tell you, “It’s a blond with short hair,” because it’s not a blonde and it doesn’t have short hair. I don’t have a reference point from which to describe it.
You have to offer people a new world that makes sense to them. People have to say, “Yes, this makes sense. I will move here because it makes sense and because I respect the work these people did in secret, sacrificing their lives to create a new world and give it to us. Yes, this is worth it. We can really buy into this proposition because it makes sense in every way.”
Out of curiosity, who besides yourself was part of the founding team and, of those people, how many are still with the project?
ND: Everybody. We have roughly a 100 people and we add about 15 people a month. All the people who have worked on this project gave up their lives. They gave up their jobs. They gave up everything.
At first, they thought I was crazy because I was talking about these things in 2007. Everybody was like, “What is she saying? What is she talking about?” I was saying, “This is the path, this is where social media is going. It will become the key influencer, MySpace will die, Facebook will conquer and set up a cyber dictatorship. It will undo what is good about the Web — that there is no central control — and will become extremely arrogant and become a danger to our way of life.
It will undo everything people have done over years, people who have died and fought in the wars, all the freedoms that we have earned over the years are going to be undone in the virtual world. And why does this matter? My kids’ lives will probably be 80% in that virtual world very soon. I want to undo this.”
People thought I was crazy. I had plotted out events as I predicted them on a four-year graph. I would meet people, very directly targeted people, and not waste time talking to anyone I didn’t want to. I would leave the graph with them so that slowly, over the next month, two months, or a year, they would come back to me and say, “I’m in. I see what you’re saying and now I get it.”
Some people have dropped high-paying jobs, dropped their lives, and moved in here with us to do this in secret. I told them from day one, this is a cause. You can’t go for fame, you can’t go for money, and the likelihood that we will fall flat on our faces is very high. If you think this is a cause you can give up years of your life for, then do it. No one is going to pay you, there is nobody highly paid, and no one trying to make a quick buck here. We are going to put out a proposition that will hit the market at the right time and solve all the problems that I project will hit the market. I’m either right or I am dead wrong, and that is the risk you are taking.
We still have everyone from day one on board, and we have more and more people coming in, willing to lead this revolution. They are all doing it because they are firmly convinced that this needs to happen.
I see on your website that Unthink lists offices in Florida, India, and Ireland?
ND: Yes, we have a wholly-owned subsidiary in New Dehli, India. We have another one in Ireland. We are an audited company and run it as though it were a listed company. We observe all the listed-company criteria for disclosure and audits, and so on. The company was founded on Earth Day 2008, and everything we have from patents onwards date back to that April. There is proof that I’m not just telling you a story right now. You can interview any one of our people and they will tell you the same story.
Do you have a projected date for when the main website will go live? I know you have an announcement of some kind next week.
ND: We are not [announcing] the date yet, but I can assure you that it is just a few weeks away. There are, first of all, a lot more videos to come. We’ve already created more than 20 videos to educate people. Right now, we are hoping to educate and spark conversation. We want people to redefine the problem and see it through fresh eyes.
We want people to understand that this is not a privacy issue. This is much larger than that. This is about ownership and freedom. This is about our future.
Next week, we are going to begin releasing information about the new legal structure. Then we will begin releasing information about every part of our solution. Then we will log on!
We want to give information to people and give them time to reflect on it, and decide if they agree. We don’t want to take people by surprise and say here it is, boom! We want people to think. It’s like, I’m talking to you now. You may think I’m crazy, but tomorrow you will reflect upon it and maybe 10% of what you thought sounded crazy might make sense to you. Then, a few days later, you’ll stumble upon something that makes you think that maybe there is more here than you originally thought. We know that when you want to unthink something, it requires time to reflect.
We don’t want people to be baited into this new tool. We want them to reflect upon it and then join a revolution, whole-heartedly.
Any last words to share with our readers as we close?
ND: Are you an unthinker? Would you like to lead this revolution? Stand up!
And now, as promised, here is the debut of the newest Unthink video. It’s got a football theme.
Image by Unthink, used with permission.
George "Loki" Williams is the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content, community management and social media. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters and Kaiser Permanente. He is one of the organizers of the Rising Tide Conference in New Orleans, and his work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, and NOLA.com, among others.