Back in June self-help guru Jordan Peterson announced his own new social media platform called “thinkspot” dedicated to “free speech”. I said at the time that it was likely to go the same way as the alt-right Twitter alternative Gab (see https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/06/13/jordan-petersons-new-version-of-gab-will-have-all-the-same-problems-as-gab/ ).
Having signed up sometime ago out of morbid curiosity, I finally received an invite to the Beta version yesterday. Seeing what has been built, I have to reverse my previous opinion. I don’t think thinkspot will necessarily go the same way as Gab i.e. become so overwhelmed with the worst parts of the net as to be abandoned even by the not-quite-the-worst parts of the net.
What is much less clear is what thinkspot is supposed to be. Perhaps the biggest and most obvious difference with other platforms is that thinkspot does at least have a clear business model other than advertising. You can join for free but a free account has very limited features. That “free” part in “free speech” does not mean “free” in the money sense. If you want to post your own content then you have to buy a subscription.
The more basic Platform Subscription costs $2.50 billed annually i.e. $30. That $30 buys you:
“Access to all Contributor forums
Your own thinkspot user page, includes unique posting privileges and verified icon
Exclusive ts. videos, livestreams, and podcasts
Coming soon:Upload your own podcasts and video blogs, start discussion groups, and create newsletters even eBooks.”
If you are thinking that $30 sounds a bit steep you aren’t going to want to click on the other offer. “Contributor” isn’t another level where you get to be a contributor but rather it is another level where you pay an extra fee to subscribe to a contributor. The current list is as follows: [links from me to Wikipedia bios]
- Bjørn Lomborg $60 a year
- Akira The Don $60 a year
- David Pakman $60 a year
- Michael Shermer $30 a year
- Jordan Peterson $120 a year (that’s a special off by the way, 50% from $240 a year)
- Stephen Hicks $60 a year
- Bettina Arndt $40 a year
Those seven are the contributors you can subscribe to but there appears to be 20 contributors in total including Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila.
I’ll acknowledge that for once we have something that looks like practical consistency of thought from Peterson. The man loves hierarchies and that’s what he has implemented. Essentially there are four levels.
- Basic users – free and you get to write comments on things other people write.
- Platform subscribers – $30 a year and you get your own page and you can write things there.
- Subscribers to contributors – a minimum of an extra $30 a year per contributor you subscribe to. This gets you additional content.
- Contributors. How somebody gets to be a contributor is unclear but you can get paid.
So this thinkspot is very much NOT a Facebook or a Twitter alternative. Joining gets you all the privileges of being in the comment section of other people’s content. A better analogy would be with the long-form blogging platform Medium — which itself is a bit vague about what it is supposed to be.
The pay-walls at least do mean thinkspot is unlikely to follow the same path as Gab. The people the platform cares about (the Contributors) are shielded. I don’t know if they can de-subscribe a user they don’t like but at worst if they were being hassled by trolls those trolls would be paying the Contributor for the privilege.
The platform is (and I’m being as generous as possible) a confusing mess. When you start there is a kind of step-by-step guide which is unhelpful. From the get-go I am automatically made a follower of all 20 of the Contributors. That means I’m greeted with a feed/timeline of posts with next to no context from these 20 people. I’m not sure what I get in addition if I subscribe to a contributor as well. I decided to make my experience less confusing and unfollow somebody.
I picked “Bishop Barron” on the grounds that like most of the names I’d never heard of him [“Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles”] and unfollowed the Bishop. That helped a lot as it made clear the difference between different kinds of Contributors. You can use the Bishop’s forum for free, whereas Jordan Peterson’s forum you have to pay for. By the way Peterson himself isn’t actually posting to thinkspot currently. As of October 16 his pinned post says:
“Jordan is still taking some time off, but is expecting to return soon. In the meantime, his team will continue posting his previously prepared content and works in order to keep the thinkspot vision going. Thank you all for your continued support!”
So I wouldn’t spend that $240 yet…OK I wouldn’t spend it at all.
What about the site’s commitment to free speech? The site has a long statement that is linked from its Terms of Service https://www.ts.today/home/speech_statement It starts like this:
“At thinkspot, we believe that the life-blood of the great democratic project is ensconced foremost in ideas and the uninhibited articulation of thought. The innate human affinity for inquiry, reflection, and opinion are natural complements to the concept of ideas, yet the battle over their latitude in society seems to be eternal. So while ideas intrinsically are essential to our existence, it is the context with which they exercise influence that holds equal if not greater significance. It is our team’s conviction that without fertile ground for free expression, our purest exhibition of free will congeals into a reductive calcification, whereby misleading rhetoric is weaponized by autocrats, monoliths, and those who privilege power over principle. “
…and carries on in much the same way, extolling the virtues of free-speech yet somehow never really saying anything.
The Community Guidelines provide a clearer idea of what they mean in practice. “Free speech” is explained in terms of the US First Amendment and US law i.e. if it is speech that you can be sued for or prosecuted for in the US then it is not free speech but something else. I’m not a lawyer or a US constitutional expert but then I’m not sure the author of the community guidelines is either. There are warnings about the following things that can be removed:
- Copyright infringement etc
- Incitement and Fighting Words
- A bunch of other prohibited transactions (e.g. selling stolen goods)
The list is not a surprise — whether it is Twitter or Gab, the primary motivation for a platform to moderate content is the platform’s legal liability. The question is more how the platform will police things and who they will police.
The defamation clause is an interesting example:
Defamation, a false statement about another that tends to damage the reputation of that person, is not protected by the First Amendment. Any defaming language that plainly contravenes U.S. law is forbidden and will be removed.”
Gab (and I think WordPress as well) insisted that they would take down defamatory content only if there was a court ruling. What is or is not defamation in the US is unclear (not just the US obviously). So it is not a matter of simply applying some simple legal criteria and removing posts/comments that break the defamation-law. That’s not how laws on defamation work. Having said that, the guideline implies a more useful standard of removing content that appears to be defamatory.
Of course, whether the sites moderators will do so is another question.
Overall, thinkspot is a service for its Contributors. A contributor gets a moderated comment section and a possible income stream. Low level users get moderated, Contributor’s get “free speech”. The site reflects the Petersonian view of the natural order of things: the big important guy gets to say what they want without censure or criticism, the proles get to listen politely.
P.S. My invite comes with the privilege of sending out 10 free invites to others. If you want one, just ask in the comments and I’ll send it to whatever your comment email address is (or email me if you want it to a different email). I’m not sure why you might want one other than morbid curiosity but you then get 10 free invites also. Gosh! It’s like some sort of scheme that is shaped like a pyramid…