Latest Alex Asseily News
May 15, 2014
tip @techmeme Opinions are everywhere, pretty much everyone in the world has them. These opinions have a right to be aired irrespective of who you are, where you live and what you do. This what Jawbone founder Alex Asseily believes. It’s this belief, more than anything else, which inspired the launch of State, a new global opinion network that links individuals based on their point of view. The London-based company was founded by Asseily and his brother Mark. The opinion platform recently made a move into Africa through South Africa and has been targeting emerging market countries in the last few months. The company has taken a very unique approach to its product by launching its global brand in specific regions to better localise content. Most media or social networks like this launch a product and watch it grow organically to a global audience. In an interview with Ventureburn, Asseily spoke about the need to create specific topics and hone in on specific regions. He also explains the need for a platform like this and why it is time for the web to begin to empower the average person. Memeburn: Tell us a bit bit about State. How different it is from Medium, which is also a thought-sharing platform. Alex Asseily: Good question. What we’re trying to do is to create an opinion network. So the idea is that medium is in a sense trying to create a system for commentary, a new type of medium. We’re really trying to usher in the advantage of a semantic life and what we are basically saying is that people have opinions about different things and that those opinions are not captured, and we only really hear from a small number of people. One thing we are focused on, and something that Medium doesn’t really solve, is if you make it very easy for people to express their opinions and you automatically count those opinions, you are going to get way more people wanting to share their opinions and it’s intrinsically a more accessible approach. We think that’s a good business position, because the vast majority of people are not participating, and Medium is really not going to solve that. Medium is what people are doing already it’s just like more. Twitter didn’t really solve that either, the reason being that you are only going to write something that is 140 characters or 600 characters if you have an audience and if you are comfortable expressing yourself. What we focus on, is how do you make it very simple for average people to express their views quickly in an unintimidating way, and not require them to have followers. MB: Would you say that the idea is to make sure everyone gets chance to be heard? AA: Yes. So that their opinions get counted and get relayed to the people that most need to hear them. So it’s a completely new kind of system, and the idea is that your opinions not only get counted but they connect you to people you know, people you don’t know around the world who not only have similar views but also diverging views. And so, in a sense, your opinion network stands to be much greater than any other network you already have. MB: Do you think currently the mass of opinions are lost in the noise? AA: The reality of today is that 99% of those opinions are not heard. There is a lot more articles coming out recently about how we specifically think about twitter, the amount of writing, the amount of publishing that is now being tweeted is really restricted. It’s a really small proportion of the population. The reason is the motivation for expressing opinions has a lot to do with having your loudspeakers, and there just aren’t that many people who have a lot of followers. The reason why like I participate online today is largely to make comments, on like the comment section, on a newspaper on YouTube or something. And that’s unsatisfying for many reasons, and you’re just not heard, and then why would you even bother. The job of an opinion network is actually to deliver your opinion to the people that most need to hear them, irrespective of who you are. MB: Medium for me is about the content, it’s about publishing content, it’s a publishing content platform. So my impression here, and you can correct me, is that State’s not actually about publishing content, but about sharing thoughts. AA: That’s right, and it’s intended to capture thoughts going from the simplest thoughts like Johannesburg is exciting and gritty to much more elaborate thoughts like writing a blog. The point is that those thoughts are networked. And it’s just like a completely new technology platform. The moment you state something or state a view, for example you might state something in the form of a tweet, a view, that statement that you made gets networked and gets discoverable based on the meaning of it rather than the audience you have. So for example, when someone wants to learn about Johannesburg they might discover your thought because they want to see what the best point of views are for Johannesburg being exciting. M: That’s great. What I’m interested in is some of the feedback, or the response that you’ve seen since launching this. What are the most pertinent thoughts? How are people using the platform? AA: I think the place where we are succeeding is when people see the vision and are really supporting it. There isn’t hardly anyone that doesn’t go like wow. Everyone we meet is like this is needed and it’s transformative. The other thing that’s been great is people that have a problem stating. So obviously any platform would love their users to just come on and stay on the platform. In the larger scheme of things, we have about 10 times the amount of people writing as a proportion of the total number of people, as other social platform paths. I mean usually people are just reading. In our case, we have people engaging, because they just feel comfortable doing so. I think we have about 30 opinions per user, which is a huge amount. Of course we have some users who have only expressed a few opinions and some users who haven’t expressed any. M: That’s actually quite interesting but how will the experience evolve? AA: I think that what we’re looking for now, is that we are continually refining things. If you have an iPhone, then you’ll be able to use the iPhone app, it’s the most advanced, it’s the most streamlined, and the sexiest. We are constantly trying to refine the experience towards one where people feel their opinions are not just counted but that they matter. The iPhone version is connected to a world map, so the moment you state you are connected to people on that point of view and you are seeing what they are sharing. And of course when you go to a topic you are able to drill down and navigate on that topic in a way that is much more intuitive. All of that is happening next week, so we will see all of the changes. Also, the users. We have users from 95 different countries so we have a lot of appeal from different places, and it tends to be like emerging markets and penetration from like Turkey and South Africa and Brazil and Hong Kong, that have had a lot of pickup in relation to the proportion of the population. And obviously on what is going on in those countries. So for example in Turkey, we have a lot of attention in terms of what is going on because of the political turmoil. There have been a lot of discussions around twitter being banned. So we have a lot of unusual opinions coming from Turkey around these events. In South Africa, there are lots of opinions around it just being a new form of democracy where people can express their views and see them being counted not in a theoretical kind of way but in a very real-time kind of way. MB: You mentioned emerging markets and there being a lot of activity there. And I feel like right now for emerging markets, that is the best place for activism and the best place to state an opinion and almost fight back. Why was it important for you to have a country specific launch, especially for emerging markets? Most social media networks don’t do that. AA: I’ve never been asked that question and it’s a really, really, good one. The benefit and the implied requirements of building a network like we have. So Facebook is a social network, it’s build around social connections and sharing things with friends. Twitter is also a social network, still people, they might be friends they might be strangers, but it’s still built around people. It’s a media organisation, Twitter, it’s a distribution network, it’s a publishing network. The difference with State is that we are a new type of animal. Which is a social network, because it’s people interacting with each other, but the difference is those interactions generate content. We are also like a media platform, as well, because the peoples’ opinions, either individually or an aggregate, become content. So then when we go to a specific country like Brazil. It’s sort of important for us to have a mechanism, and for Brazil we have gotten a lot of traction about like globalisation. In Brazil for example, if you talk about the major of London, or banks of London, it’s kind of like you might get it, but they probably wont. You have to more like look for the theme. So in Brazil for example, it’s much more about like preparing for the World Cup, or the mayoral elections in Rio, or corruption in the transit system, because that is much more the things that are on people’s minds in Brazil. That’s not to say that their not expressing their views on Edward Snowden, which tends to be like a global topic, but just that like news there tends to be localisation in a way that platforms like Facebook don’t need to. I mean people are people and they connect to other people and share pictures. The only localisation Facebook really needed to do was to localise the actual copy on the sites. I mean like the South African election is another example. If you think people are participating, if you are thinking about civic engagement if you think about democracy, about people engaging, which is what State does, presumably it will be interesting for South Africa. We have to address that you have an election coming up, which might create opinions around how the country is dealing with HIV or whatever the big issues are. MB: That makes perfect sense. There seems to be a move towards localised content and making the content relevant to the people in that region. Do you think something like State would contribute to the idea of a hive mind? AA: Again, great question, I have never been asked that before. No one has ever brought up the idea of the hive mind in any kind of discussion that I’ve had, let alone in an interview, I actually really appreciation it, I always think about this stuff, but I never really get to talk about it. Another way of putting it is that for, if you think of people as being nodes, and you think of a hive mind being the efficiency of connecting those nodes then State is trying to make the efficiency much, much, greater. People are connecting today, social media live connection it always has, but it just happens too slowly. So as a result, you have to wait for things to get very, very, serious before people will go through the effort of coordinate action. What State does, is it is specifically designed to aggregate like-minded people. So coordinated collective action becomes like automatic. In the way where sharing on Facebook is like really easy. People could share before Facebook, people could share before Facebook, they could use email, email is like a social network, it’s just not current and efficient, when Facebook came along it made sharing stuff easier and connected you to people that you might have emailed before. We are taking interactions that happen in real life, that happen online today, and we are facilitating them to such an extent where things that previously happened very rarely, or didn’t happen at all, are suddenly able to happen a lot. Things like we are already revealing, to people on our site, we haven’t even done promotions with Apple or Google yet. We’ve already revealed that capitalist and socialist agree on a whole bunch of things that they didn’t realise they agreed on before. MB: That’s quite cool. AA: And actually they all define, they all think that the root of all evil is cronyism. So it’s actually cronyism that everyone is upset about, not the state of the market economy. And so back to the hive mind thing, one of the things that the Deepak Choprah was really keen on was this idea of global consciousness. So can you create a system in which everyone participates, and if everyone participates what you end up having is a world that is self aware in real time. Which means at any given time you can get an accurate view of what people are thinking, why they are thinking it, and our organizations and governments anywhere can make smarter decisions based on the facts of what people are thinking and feeling and wanting rather than inference and guesswork and limited data, which is what happens today. MB: That makes perfect sense. Although, I must ask this, it’s quite a step from Jawbone. It’s quite the move from that product, from hardware and wearable tech, to some sort of a social network. AA: Yeah, well it is a step, it is a step away, Jawbone is a hardware company first and foremost, a hardware and mobile lifestyle company while State is consumer aware. They are both consumer thinking products, they both need the right kind of product thinking, and they both deal with consumers in different ways. Certainly our headsets were designed to make people hear each other more clearly, and you can think of State being a little bit like that. I think that’s about the extent of the parallels. Personally, I get motivated by challenges worth solving, and if I think I have I have a shot at solving them, possibly better than other people could, then I try and do it myself. And you know State for me, is solving a problem, that if solved, is much more transformational than products which I love and support and admire, but speakers and headsets, mostly headsets, are going to help obviously. But what we are doing at State, and I mean it could go wrong, if it works, if it works even a tenth of the degree that we hope it will, it’s truly transformational. What it will do, it will neutralize a bunch of the problems with communication in the world that are just not being solved. MB: Would you say then what you are doing would be to strip down the idea that freedom of expression and freedom of speech to not be whoever shouts the loudest gets heard, but every voice gets heard? AA: I think that the web has not yet empowered average people to be counted and participate, stand up for what they believe, in the way that democracy promises. And the biggest reason why democracy hasn’t been able to really transfer into the web is largely because it’s hard to aggregate opinions, it’s hard to aggregate points of view. Voting, what is voting, but just aggregating points of view, very basically. We do it every four years, why? Why don’t we do it every two weeks, because it would consume our entire society. The spirit of democracy is that you listen to the people in the way in which everyone has the same equal voice, unfortunately because of concentrations of money and power, as you say, the biggest loud speaker, there is a perpetuation of asymmetry, and I think State can play a role in leveling the playing field.