“This is actually the first interview I’m doing as me rather than a pseudonym. It’s a big moment.”
So begins a call with Nader Al-Naji, the former Google software engineer who has long been suspected of founding the controversial crypto social network BitClout but who never formally revealed himself—until now.
Al-Naji admits that ending the guessing game is a huge relief. Indeed, he sounds incredibly relaxed, almost buoyant, as he chirps on about the growth of BitClout (it launched last March) and the emergence of DeSo, which he also created, as the first-ever blockchain dedicated to redefining social media apps as we know them.
BitClout lives on DeSo, alongside over 100 other social crypto apps, such as Pulse and Flick, all of which are attempting to decentralize social media and take it out of the hands of a small group of companies such as Facebook and Twitter. The idea is to allow creators to control and monetize the content they post. With BitClout, for example, celebrities like Elon Musk and Katy Perry have accounts with personalized tokens assigned to them that can be traded by users. The more popular the celeb, based on what they’re posting and/or what’s going on with them in popular culture, the more trading that takes place, driving up their value on BitClout. Celebs also have coins set aside for themselves, which they can use to raise their own value, and they receive a transaction fee whenever users trade their coins.
BitClout sparked a lot of debate and criticism when the project came to light in the spring. It received criticism for the fact that its coins have no real-world value and can’t be taken out of the system. Worse, when BitClout launched with the top 15,000 celebrity accounts from Twitter, none of whom had been contacted about joining the app, the media—and some of those celebs—cried foul.
But Al-Naji is not on a forgiveness tour, but he would like to clarify. With $200 million in backing from such A-list investors as Sequoia, Alexis Ohanian, Social Capital, and a16z, among others, he is keen to talk about not just DeSo and BitClout, but the future of social cryptocurrencies and why Twitter, he says, will soon feel like Craigslist. He says the $200 million raised will go toward setting up the DeSo Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “taking the decentralized ecosystem to the next level. There’s a strategy to use the treasury to support everybody from developers to NFT artists to smaller creators and their coins.”
Fast Company: So it’s been six months since BitClout launched so mysteriously. Why is now the time to come out from behind the curtain and reveal that you’re the company’s founder?
Al-Naji: The reason I was initially anonymous was I believed it would essentially inspire the community to decentralize everything and build more decentralized apps faster. The less that people rely on a centralized entity to call the shots, the more they feel empowered to improve the ecosystem themselves and build on top of it. Not dissimilar to Bitcoin itself. Bitcoin launched with an anonymous founder, and it really inspired people to feel like it was their thing and to own it.
But obviously anonymity came with drawbacks. [Now] I can do podcasts, interviews, town halls, Clubhouses. I couldn’t do any of those, because they require voice, and voice modulation is not good enough to disguise someone’s identity without sounding super weird. We checked. We probably tried every voice app, every voice-changing app in the App Store.
Without a public face and voice, it was not only hard for reporters, but also for people on Twitter. There’s no single source for information, and so everyone started making up their own narratives and kind of running with them and no one really had the full story.”
So what is the story?
At a high level, the inspiration for DeSo comes from the fact that today when you make a post on Twitter or Instagram, that post doesn’t really belong to you. It belongs to a private corporation. And what that means is that your content, and more importantly all the money that’s made off of your content that should belong to you as a creator, actually is being taken by these companies. Not only that but because these companies have everyone’s data in a big pool that only they control, they become the singular place where everyone goes to for news and entertainment. They’re keeping all the monetization that really should be shared with the creators, but they also effectively control all public discourse in a highly centralized fashion.
With DeSo, I’ve been focused over the last two years on how we solve these problems. The answer always comes back to opening up the content into a utility that anyone can access and build on, rather than what it is today, which is a privately held monopoly.
The way we do that with DeSo is we put all the content that would ordinarily go onto a private data pool owned by Twitter or Instagram onto a blockchain that’s public, that anyone can build on. That’s DeSo. Think of all the data that Facebook has, imagine if it was open, anyone could add to it it or use it or build on top of it. That’s what we’re trying to do with DeSo. And seeing some of the ramifications. When you do that, when you make all of the data open, suddenly there’s no corporation between you and your followers. You don’t need the middleman in between you anymore.
That has already turned out to be a really powerful concept even in the early days. The blockchain has kind of been running in a beta mode until now. Creators using DeSo-powered apps, like BitClout—which was the app that I kind of created as a test app on DeSo—they are already earning hundreds to thousands of dollars a week posting the same type of content that they normally post on Twitter or Instagram, where they get zero. It’s all because of that more direct relationship with your followers, essentially leading to better monetization.
There was a huge backlash when you launched over the fact that you hadn’t asked for permission to put celebrities’ accounts on BitClout. You even received a cease and desist letter. Do you regret that move?
We made the decision to reserve the profiles of the top 15,000 people from Twitter. We put them onto the blockchain, and essentially pre-created their profiles for them. The biggest reason was actually to prevent people from impersonating them and from squatting their usernames, which is especially harmful with apps built on DeSo, because you have a coin associated with the profile. Social tokens, money, is basically moving around people’s reputations, and so it’s really important that we don’t have impersonating or bots taking those profiles. So that was mission number one.
Then we made what I think you could argue was a controversial decision, which is we allowed for people to trade on those reserved profiles rather than leaving them totally dormant. The reason we did that—and I think that’s where the controversy comes from—is that it allows the creators who have reserved profiles to capture and accrue value on the platform before they’ve even joined, which is incredibly valuable.
For example, a lot of the top profiles have hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, dollars that have accrued to their profiles from all that economic activity of people investing in them, with the hope that they join. So the decision to allow people to engage with the money and the features on those profiles, is what people thought was controversial. But we did it because there’s just so much value for them to capture. For every 10 people who claim their profile, it’s less than one who asks to have it removed or to have it hidden from BitClout. I don’t know of any social network where you have $100,000 just kind of built up before you’ve even joined.
So it’s controversial, but I don’t know. What matters is when your heart’s in the right place. You’re trying to do a net-positive thing. By the way, I never expected that people would be upset about it.
Which influencers are seeing the most traction on BitClout?
The user base on BitClout and all the apps built on the DeSo blockchain are incredibly diverse. We have everybody from hedge-fund investors to the CTO of HubSpot, Dharmesh Shah. We have mainstream musicians like Diplo and 3LAU; actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow. Pamela Anderson’s on it. Antonio Brown’s an athlete. All of them are different levels of active. Tyga posts every day. What’s interesting is just how diverse it is. There’s not really any particular niche. I think the reason why is the value proposition of DeSo and apps built on DeSo like BitClout: We want you to own your data, and we want you to own the money that’s made off of your data. That appeals to a very wide section of people across industries.
What’s your vision for the future of social cryptocurrencies?
The future of social media is taking all the content and making it open so anyone can build on top of it, like a utility. Rather than what it is today which is a privately controlled, walled garden by just a couple of companies. The value of that is tremendous, because when the data is open, when the content is open, anyone in the world can build their own feed, their own curation of it. For example, if you like sports content, you could have a social feed curated by ESPN, which you can’t have today because Facebook would never allow that. Or Politico can curate a social feed. Again, that’s not possible, because Instagram doesn’t allow other people to access their data. We’re going to bring competition and innovation back to social media.
Another example is that people in other countries can create localized feeds. So today, Silicon Valley basically creates all of the feeds for the entire world. If you’re using Twitter in India, a Silicon Valley person essentially wrote code for that. When I was at Google as an engineer, we had an Indian American who barely spoke Hindi working on the cricket experience for literally a billion people on the Google Cricket [platform]. An Indian American sitting next to me who doesn’t really speak the language was fully in charge of it. That’s going to change when all the data’s open and anyone can build on top of it. Suddenly someone in the actual country can build the actual experience, whereas today they don’t have access. That’s really the dream.
Will Twitter ever go away?
There’s going to be so much iteration and innovation in social media, that the existing apps are going to start to look like Craigslist looks today. Not to hate on Craigslist, but it looks like this old, crusty kind of app. That’s how they’re going to start to look in comparison to the innovation that’s going to come from the entire world. Right now, you have these 10,000 engineers at Twitter and Instagram. They don’t compete with anyone. How good are the apps going to be when they have no competition versus when they compete with the entire world? This opening of the system is going to drive a lot of competition, and the social apps that we’re going to see going forward are going to make what we have today feel obsolete by comparison. You’re utilizing the entire world’s ingenuity versus, like, one, centralized team. It has to be better.
Speaking of operating more openly, how does it feel to be honest about your identity?
The anonymity was the right thing to start with, but I can not tell you how much better it feels to have a normal conversation with you. One where we’re both people here, and we’re talking normally.