Rob Guinness

@guinness

How I went from quitting Facebook to starting a social network company

A bit more than two years ago, I quit using Facebook. I didn’t quit 100%, as in deleting my account entirely, as I wanted to keep a lifeline to my friends and acquaintances around the world. I just stopped visiting and posting there.

I wrote one last post to let my friends and family know. I wanted them to understand that it wasn’t about them. I still really wanted to be in contact with them. I just didn’t want to continue feeding the beast that is Facebook, which I increasingly viewed as a negative influence on the world. I told them, “I plan to post updates on my life using an alternative platform, most probably something I will build myself.”

A farewell to friends on Facebook, posted more than 2 years ago.

At first, I started with something simple. I created a new blog, and I had an email list with a small group of friends and family. I also started using an open-source end-to-end encrypted messaging app called Wire, asking some of my closest friends and family to download it and start to use it. This setup worked to a certain degree, but it wasn’t exactly the same as having a social network like Facebook, where 99% of my friends are easily accessible.

But I didn’t give in. I started to look into alternative social networks, including Minds, Mastodon, Steemit, and many others. None had what I was looking for, and some were outright terrible in terms of user experience!

So I started looking into building my own, which would use similar technology to ensure privacy as in Wire (or Signal) but would have a user experience closer to what you get with a social network like Facebook.

It was clear to me from the beginning that I didn’t want to just clone Facebook, adding an end-to-end encryption layer. There were many things I didn’t like about Facebook, apart from its inherent anti-privacy nature.

At first things went kind of slowly. I worked on it in my spare time and mostly alone. I didn’t have any specific timeline of when to get it off the ground, although it was clear to me that this was needed as soon as possible. It just wasn’t clear that so many people would be willing to join me.

Enter Stage Right…Cambridge Analytica

Then came the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I had actually read about Cambridge Analytica already back in January 2017, when a friend forwarded me an article about how they helped Trump win the 2017 election. The article described clearly how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to profile Facebook’s users, and then used the models to target very specific groups of voters with specific messaging. I shared the article with some friends (via email), but for some reason it never really went mainstream…until March 2018.

Undercover footage of Cambridge Analytica peddling its psychological profiling services, which were largely based on Facebook data. Source: Channel 4 News

That’s when the British Channel 4 News released a video of undercover reporters chatting it up with Cambridge Analytica staff, who were trying to sell their voter manipulation services. Finally, this important story went mainstream. Countless articles and reports followed criticizing not only Cambridge Analytica but also Facebook’s willingness to sell out its users to the highest bidder.

One morning in late March, I was reading an article with the headline “Bye Facebook, hello Instagram: Users make beeline for Facebook-owned social network.” I decided then and there that I have to either step up my game, or watch society crumble into a Facebook-owned dystopia. I went to my office, and I founded a company.

A Company is Born

I gave the company the name Pondenome. This was inspired from one of my scientific heroes Claude Shannon. Some people have said they like the name, whereas others have said it’s too complicated. Obviously I like it, and I think it grows on you, too. I wanted to choose a name that bucked the trend of mashing up two or more English words (Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, etc.). I wanted something truly unique, fit for a unique online service. Plus, I have lived all my life with a name that is hard to spell, which happens to be a very famous global brand. So I think Pondenome will do just fine.

Article by Claude Shannon where the name “Pondenome” comes from. Source: The Bell System Technical Journal

But a company is more than a name and even more than an idea with a name. So I began to do my research. I wanted to find out if anything like Pondenome had been attempted before. Apart from a few academic papers (e.g. SNAKE), I found almost nothing. One project, secushare, had some similarities, but it seemed to bite off more than it can chew and is not actively developed (at least that we could unveil).

While continuing my research, I decided to write an article on Hackernoon to let others know what I was up to. I asked others who are interested to join along to get in touch. The response was huge! Many people volunteered to help out in various ways, so I set up an organization on Github for us to collaborate. (We later decided to migrate to Gitlab after Github was acquired by Microsoft.) All in all, about 25 people have joined our team in some capacity.

Our First Media Splash

In August, I was contacted by a journalist from YLE, which is Finland’s public broadcasting company. She was doing a story about data privacy and asked to interview me. I happily obliged. In late August an episode on the TV program A-Studio was aired on YLE1, in which Pondenome was broadly featured.

Pondenome was featured on the TV programme “A-studio” on 29th August 2018. Source: Yle/A-studio

This created quite a splash (in Finland at least), and I was contacted by many people afterwards who expressed their support and wanted to be involved in some way. This gave me a boost of confidence to keep pressing forward.

Getting Down to Business

After discussing within our team for many months about the technology stack and the features that we wanted to prototype, in September we got down to work writing code for our first full-on prototype, which we hope will also become our minimum viable product (MVP). For the prototype, we are using the phenomenal Meteor web framework, which allows us to implement and try out new features quickly. The front-end is being built using React. One team member wondered allowed if it was good idea to base our site on a Javascript library maintained by Facebook. I reassured him that this was not a problem, as it is released under the very permissive MIT License. One of the beauties of open-source software is even your competitors can use it and try to do something better with it than you.

Truth be told, we are still in the beginning phases of our ambitious project, but with each commit to our git repository we are one step closer to launch of the service.

A Social Network Supported by the Crowd

In September we also launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. At the time of this writing, 35 visionary people have backed Pondenome by pledging a contribution. Our goal is to reach $30,000 in funding this year from backers. Even if we don’t achieve this goal, we are not giving up and will continue towards our goal of launching Pondenome as a live service in February 2019. The more people that back us, however, the more features we will be able to include in the initial release. So if you believe in our vision, please consider backing us!

Screenshot of our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

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