Web3 CMO Stories

From Meerkat to Towns: Ben Rubin's Journey | S4 E14

June 14, 2024 Joeri Billast & Ben Rubin Season 4
From Meerkat to Towns: Ben Rubin's Journey | S4 E14
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Web3 CMO Stories
From Meerkat to Towns: Ben Rubin's Journey | S4 E14
Jun 14, 2024 Season 4
Joeri Billast & Ben Rubin

Send us a Text Message.

What if blockchain could not only revolutionize finance but also transform how we communicate online?

Join us for an eye-opening conversation with Ben Rubin, the innovative mind behind Meerkat and Houseparty, as he shifts his focus to creating digital spaces that prioritize human connection and community.

From his early days in architecture school to the development of his latest venture, Towns, Ben shares valuable insights and hard-earned lessons. Learn how his journey from physical to digital architecture has influenced his approach to building platforms designed for interaction and connection.

In this episode, we delve into the intricate ways blockchain technology can enhance trust and accountability in online interactions. Ben explains how introducing cryptographic proofs and ownership stakes can create more reliable and sustainable digital environments.

We also compare the unique features of Towns with platforms like Discord, focusing on the promise of user-owned, transparent, and secure communities. Don't miss out on the excitement around the upcoming launch phases of Towns and the River protocol, and discover how these innovations could reshape the future of online community building.

This episode was recorded through a Podcastle call on May 13, 2024. Read the blog article and show notes here:  https://webdrie.net/from-meerkat-to-towns-ben-rubins-journey/

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Send us a Text Message.

What if blockchain could not only revolutionize finance but also transform how we communicate online?

Join us for an eye-opening conversation with Ben Rubin, the innovative mind behind Meerkat and Houseparty, as he shifts his focus to creating digital spaces that prioritize human connection and community.

From his early days in architecture school to the development of his latest venture, Towns, Ben shares valuable insights and hard-earned lessons. Learn how his journey from physical to digital architecture has influenced his approach to building platforms designed for interaction and connection.

In this episode, we delve into the intricate ways blockchain technology can enhance trust and accountability in online interactions. Ben explains how introducing cryptographic proofs and ownership stakes can create more reliable and sustainable digital environments.

We also compare the unique features of Towns with platforms like Discord, focusing on the promise of user-owned, transparent, and secure communities. Don't miss out on the excitement around the upcoming launch phases of Towns and the River protocol, and discover how these innovations could reshape the future of online community building.

This episode was recorded through a Podcastle call on May 13, 2024. Read the blog article and show notes here:  https://webdrie.net/from-meerkat-to-towns-ben-rubins-journey/

Ben:

What if you had the same group chats that you know or the same user interface that you know, but with the idea that you can actually trust that the motivation behind the other participant in that group chat, in that broadcast, are actually aligned with yours?

Joeri:

Hello everyone and welcome to the Web3 CMO Stories podcast. My name is Joeri Billast and I'm your podcast host, and today I'm stoked to be joined by my guest, Ben. Ben, h How are you? How are you doing? Nice to be here, Joeri. Y yeah, great, and I like the way that you pronounce my name, Ben. It's always a challenge. It's always a challenge, Guys. If you don't know Ben Rubin, he's a serial tech entrepreneur who formerly founded and led Meerkat and Houseparty, and today Ben is focused on his next venture, where he's building an on-chain communication platform. Towns Towns is defining a digital social that is both user-centric and community-driven, leveraging blockchain tech to ensure trust and security. You have an interesting background. You're doing interesting stuff, but let's just start from in the beginning. You have a background also in architecture, so how did that influence your approach to creating digital platforms? And, yeah, and now how it evolved from there.

Ben:

Yeah, so first, thank you for having me. I still look at myself as an architect. I've studied architecture at school. On my third year, I realized that there is much more opportunity to do what motivates me about architecture, which is to bring people together in the most human way possible, which is the main motivation of why I went to architecture school to build spaces that facilitate an intimate human interaction and inspire different kinds of user human interaction. And I've realized that, especially as social networks and online presence became a big deal as I was in school, in university, that maybe there's a new type of material to build buildings for, and buildings don't have to be physical. Maybe you can build buildings for users or humans that are not inside of them. And at that point I decided. It took some time to marinate, but by the end of the third year I decided to leave school and become an architect of digital space and build places that provoke the imagination, to feel a certain sort of togetherness and a certain sort of communication and intimacy and connection, despite the fact that you're not together at the same place.

Ben:

The first iterations of it looked like a live video and presence. As you mentioned, we did Meerkat, which was essentially a foundational work for all the user interfaces that you see today in Facebook Live, instagram Live, twitter Live, video. Those interactions and the user experience there. They're all based in a large part of the type of provocations that our team did with Meerkat. And then things evolved. We did a protocol house party which was for a group video chat, and again that also had it got to 150 million users and was sold to Epic Games.

Ben:

And then we wanted to do something for work, but by the time we got the ball rolling, there was pandemic and everybody was already focused on Zoom and Google Meet. And now we're in this and when I say we, it's always it's talking about my team and the people who support us along the way and now we're working on towns and rivers, which are, by definition, a space for people to be brought together, and a lot of the work that we do is about rearrangement of alignment, of trust and ownership in the online Discord. So that was too long of an answer to what you asked.

Joeri:

It's a perfect start for a conversation, because there are so many things that we could talk about. But yes, you have. Let's now say you have the bag where you have the history, which was exciting for you too, with Meerkat, with Houseparty, before now we start to talk about towns. What were some of the lessons that you learned from that period?

Ben:

I think, one of the biggest. It's funny because they both added fuel to the motivation behind the work that we're doing now. Motivation behind the work that we're doing now because, in different ways, in in meerkat, one of the interesting things is that we were able to tap into the twitter api the developer api, which was, back then, mostly self-onboarding for the developers, and it was really easy to get an api key and, as long as you did the things based on the guidelines, you got access to the Twitter API key and a lot of developers built we're talking about 2015, built a really interesting consumer product based on the Twitter graph. However, as Meerkat gained traction, it was a one button go live to your Twitter followers. Twitter had an idea that they should go into the live streaming business and they have acquired the company to release their own product called Periscope, three months before we launched and where we started gaining momentum, to the point where Seth Rogen and Jimmy Kimmel and Madonna and a lot of big names big names that we have done nothing to onboard the product just grew by itself. They started day by day, I say Twitter started becoming very worried about the threat and they decided to shut down the API access to us, despite the fact that we didn't do anything against the guidelines, and I think that was, if you ask, what is the lesson, that kind of informed that was the first scar I got about being a builder about the importance of open network and why an open network and a permissionless network is really a step forward in building an Internet that is motivated by courage and not by fear, and Internet that is motivated by inclusivity, experiences, by allowing the sort of expansion and extension of other builders. So that's what I've learned from the Meerkat experience the importance of open networks.

Ben:

With Houseparty, that's a different story. That's actually about also with regards to the ownership. Also with regards to the ownership, houseparty was a product of 50 million users with about 20 million daily active something like that, or a weekly active out of it. By the time we decided that we want to sell it, however, it was early 2019, and me as a founder, along with 20 million active users, did not want to sell it, and also not only that, me and some other people on the team. We had a brilliant idea that a lot of the usage to make it sustainable could come from building an extension to House Party. That is specific for remote work and I'm talking about a year before pandemic and we have proposed that to the board and the board rejected it and suggested to sell it.

Ben:

Now, had we not done that, we would have, and if we followed the will of the people and the founders, you would have a different. We followed the will of the people and the founders, you would have a different story to house-pudding, but instead we had an outcome that was very disappointing to the shareholders and the rest of the people. They didn't have nearly as good of an exit as they could have had. They just exercised patience and followed the intuition and the will of the user and the intuition of the founder. And up until today, I still get requests by Twitter DMs and Instagram DMs to please bring Houseparty back from different users around the world. And that's the second lesson about the importance of a network that is not only open but also owned by the users that are using it and participate in it. Then there is a bunch of other lessons about leadership and how to work with the team, but this we don't have enough time to even do the introduction to that.

Joeri:

That's a typical entrepreneur journey, of course, but because of these specific experiences that you had, you mentioned it already as security trust n ow Towns your current mission. I would call it leverages blockchain technology to enhance security and trust among the users. Now this is the Web3 CMOs podcast. Some of people are still quite new to Web3. Some are already in there. Could you explain a bit in simpler words for people to buy into blockchain?

Ben:

I think the main thing if we take a step back. I think we want to reflect on what is the state of communication between the masses over the internet today, and there are different permutations of the idea that there are nodes meaning participants in the network that is the internet and graphs. Between the nodes, there are connections, whether it's a broadcast graph or it's a friend's graph or it's a contact list graph between groups. There's different types of who is the user that is generating the content and the content and who is the receiving end, and what type of graph connects the receiving end between the user that generates the content, between the user that generates the content Groups, publishing platforms. You have subscribers to your podcast. That means that it's a broadcast graph. That is a two-dimensional graph because it has nodes and this is not a crypto language. It has nodes and it has connections to the subscribers. And I think the one interesting thing that blockchain technology affords us in that situation is a new dimension to add instead of just dots and connection. A third dimension that is talking about what is in stake, who owns it and what is a stake, and once you have that idea coupled into the graph that we have, we can start inserting the idea of trust into the communication online. Why? Because once there is ownership, there is accountability. If you have something and it can be taken away, that means that we have inherent accountability. And if you agree to participate in a discussion in which you put something in stake but it can be taken away, inherently there is a form of trust that you have agreed to engage in.

Ben:

And I think it's important to anyone, even if they don't care about crypto or blockchain and I'm not even saying they should. But what they should care about is how do we have meaningful information that is sustainable online? How do we get into a future where AI can replicate information in the speed of light to be almost as accurate as the real thing? In a situation, like we saw with elections in different places in the world, where there was an augmentation of the information because a different actor took advantage of how the network facilitates, how the internet facilitates, how content moves and what velocity and the impact, I think we should ask ourselves what is next for such an important platform like the internet. How do we make sure that it has the kind of accountability so we can trust better what's going on and we can drive to a more sustainable, positive or productive. Positive depends who thinks what's positive and what's not positive, but let's call it productive. How do we get into a productive results that are more incentive aligned and I've only been in the business of communication for 12 years now and I was lucky to do it in the scale of a couple hundred million users, but I will tell you that, in my personal opinion, I think that blockchain just happened to be the best solution to enumerate the kind of ownership that we need in order to enforce trust and in order to create incentive, alliance trust and in order to create incentive align.

Ben:

And our proposal with what we're working on is not actually to put it front and center, or somebody would ask you to, as a user, to start remembering a seed phrase or doing all things that are not too user-friendly yet, but actually our proposal is what if you had the same group chats that you know or the same user interface that you know, but with the idea that you can actually trust that the motivation behind the other participant in that group chat, in that broadcast, actually aligned with yours, actually aligned with yours? And just to give examples. So I can wrap up, another monologue of mine is that we all saw the trading Discord servers for trading, full of scam and noise and bots, and you have no idea what's going on there. But what if, instead of 10,000 participants in a Discord server that is about trading, that anyone can join? What if it was a group of 10,000 people but the only people who can write, meaning can post messages, are people that cryptographically proven that they have traded in a certain volume or with a certain success over the past 30 rolling days?

Ben:

It changes inherently the dynamic of the group. What if you join a group of a thousand fans that anyone can join about Taylor Swift or about one of your favorite bands? Or you join the same group, but it's cryptographically proven that the only people who can write in this group are people who went to the last three shows of that band? It all of a sudden creates the same openness of the internet, the same permissionness of the internet and inclusivity, but it brings the dimension of trust in which you can understand that the people who are allowed to talk are the ones who, at least for that context, we know that they could speak to it and they're not trying to create some augmentation in which they are benefiting without our knowledge, right. So here I will.

Joeri:

I love that. It's a really good use case. And when you are mentioning concert tickets and so on, I'm thinking about NFTs and how that could work, because how can you prove that you went to the concert and NFTs were a thing? Now people talk less about it, but the technology is still really useful. And now I'm wondering does the whole NFT thing? Is that a part of T towns?

Ben:

Towns. Any on-chain footprint, any on-chain footprint that is on an EVM compatible chain, can be read and programmed by the river protocol, which is the river protocol, is the backend of towns. It's an open protocol. Towns, which is what we're building, is the uh, is one client for the protocol, is the client that we're building and we're also building the river protocol and the river protocol can look at any on-chain footprint on any EVM compatible chain and allow the people who are creating spaces to create programs, create programmable spaces based on their use case. It could be some oracle that looks at certain actions that the user have taken, or it could be in a very straightforward gating by a certain asset. As you mentioned, NFT is one of them.

Joeri:

Yeah, and so I already did this with Discord, so you have also some possibilities. But, as you mentioned already, TwitterX is different from Towns. How is Discord communities different from Towns? Just to make it clear.

Ben:

Yeah, absolutely so. In Discord, essentially, you are renting a space. As a community, you don't own your space. Discord was built specifically to support games gamers to come together fast and coordinate how to play games together.

Ben:

I think that for communities that have an ethos that is not around how we come together online to play a game, but also having a conversation that is longer standing and builds value, Towns really allow community to own their destiny and own their value. Because, first of all, there's no central entity that owns the space and can decide the rule. It's a permissionless protocol called River that is owned and operated by the groups that run it. Second, it gives them programmable spaces in which not only they own like on-chain they own but they can also. Every town is a smart contract and that issues the memberships to the town have the programmable aspect in which you can really get into create specific use cases about who can read, who can write and under what circumstances. You can look on chain and see exactly when channels are minted, roles are minted.

Ben:

If you're collecting subscriptions or some form of payment for people to interact with the town, your community can actually see where the subscription money go, how it trickles down to different moderators to different participants and where there's a lot of transparency around it.

Ben:

And it gives the members also some form of liquidity because of the ownership of their passes to their town. So it's really designed to create accountability between the members and the space facilitators, while allowing to the transferability of value and building that value. And, lastly, it's end-to-end encrypted, which is really important for a network that is permissionless and owned and governed by its user. So all these three things makes it fundamentally a different product, even though it looks quite similar on the surface, because it allows to organize. The main goal of the reason why we come here is to have a productive conversation, but what we're trying to achieve together as a community, it allows that product to be order of magnitude more. It allows this product to be order of magnitude more meaningful for you because you can trust the participant, you can transparently see how value is being flow, you are protected from your privacy because it's an end-to-end encrypted and the value you created is actually something you can take with you.

Joeri:

When I hear you talk about towns, I just want to test, try it out. But is that already possible? Is it available, or when will towns be available? What is the current?

Ben:

The River protocol, which is the backend of towns, is right now in testnet with all the nodes. Actually, if you go to riverbuildsstatus, you can see the different nodes that are operating on testnet. We also onboarded successfully external node operators, which is a really important milestone where you're trying to build a decentralized network. That testnet period is set to conclude within a couple of weeks and then we are launching River to mainnet. The protocol part that supports town is going to be live. At that point we are going to start testing with specific launch partner communities for a few weeks to potentially a month or so, and somewhere in the summer, hopefully, everything goes uh right, the towns will be uh launched and that's where we're at. So very soon, a matter of couple of weeks, uh, river is is launched and shortly after that, uh, if everything goes smooth, uh, we're gonna have the, the client, uh launch. We're very excited about that yeah, that's what mostly.

Joeri:

It's one of my questions. I asked what are you most excited about? But probably this is this, of course upcoming launch. It's always exciting because you don't know what will happen and you want to want to stay on target. But I guess, with everything you mentioned, I really feel your passion and the whole story behind that. You said monologues, but it just is well everything which you explained to me, so thank you for that. I think also my listeners who are not yet in blockchain that they really understand the principle. And, ben, if people are now listening and they want to try out Towns or just they want to keep, they want to be notified when it's available. Yeah, where would you like to send them?

Ben:

If you're interested in T towns, you should just follow townsxyz on Twitter. We're constantly posting updates there. It's really it's going to be. It's very soon. It's not something far away. If you are a developer and you are you want to understand how the river protocol work, and this is a week or two from being on mainnet. Then we have riverbuild and you can go and sign up to the newsletter and also follow us on Twitter, and that's very soon.

Joeri:

So great. So if you're now listening to the show today when we are recording is the 30th of May, but probably when it is launched, maybe it's already available, so go check it out. We will put all the links in the show notes, as we always do. There is also a blog article. The links will be in there too. Yeah, Ben, it was really a pleasure to have you on the show.

Ben:

Pleasure meeting you, Joeri.

Joeri:

So, guys, what an amazing episode and what a really good use case for blockchain Community is so important. I was looking for a solution that Ben is building, and now I know it will be there. So thank you for that, ben. Thank you, everyone for listening A few things that I will say at the end. If you think this podcast episode is really useful for people around you, be sure to share it with them, and I guess this is really the case for a lot of people around you. If you're not yet following the show, this is a really good moment to do this. If you haven't yet reviewed the show, this would really help me to give me a five-star review, because I will even reach more people and, of course, I would like to see you back next time. Take care.

How did your background in architecture influence your approach to creating digital platforms, and how has your approach evolved since then?
Given your history with Meerkat and Houseparty, what were some of the lessons you learned from that period before moving on to Towns?
Could you explain blockchain in simpler terms for those who are just getting started?
Does the whole NFT thing play a part in Towns?
How are Discord communities different from Towns?
Is Towns available now, or when will it be available? What is its current status?