March 22, 2024

How Misinformation Infects Minds - Alex Fink | BCL #312

Alex Fink is an accomplished American programmer and entrepreneur, known for his significant contributions to the technology and information sectors. Born in Tiraspol, Moldova, in 1984, he grew up in Israel before moving to the United States. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in computer sciences from the Technion in Israel and an MBA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Fink's professional journey includes founding Panopteo, a technical consulting firm specializing in video, imaging and AI. However, driven by ethical considerations, he transitioned from Panopteo to launch Otherweb in 2021. Otherweb, under Fink's leadership as CEO, aims to improve information consumption by utilizing artificial intelligence to filter out low-quality content. The platform caters to a wide user base, seeking to promote factual, high-quality news and media.

In 2023, Fink also co-founded Swarmer, a military technology startup focusing on drone swarm management software. Swarmer has garnered attention for its application in defense scenarios, notably aiding the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Fink's work, spanning from artificial intelligence to military technology, reflects a deep understanding of current global challenges, particularly in areas like misinformation, digital media, and security. His ventures demonstrate a consistent pursuit of impactful, ethical technology solutions.

Alex: If you're writing to evoke an emotion, you'renot writing to inform. Informingwould require me to basically state the facts.

The way people are consuming social mediatoday, that in itself is manifesting as a kind of addiction where people arestarting to talk about gaps in their day.

Informing would require me to basically statethe facts.  Evoking an emotion would require me todescribe things in the bluntest terms I can think of.

Yes, there are some bad actors out there who are trying tomisinform you on purpose.

If you know what is truein the world, You might end up acting. I always thought information is really important.

I started looking deeper into this problem, and it led me downthis rabbit hole of actually finding out.

We built a bunch of AI models that each determine one specifictrait about an article. We actually assembled all of that into a nutritionlabel, like the ones on food.

Pay attention to what you put into your brain. Be intentionalabout it, plan it in advance if you must.

Julian: Firstquestion for you only because I saw it in an interview and I've been just dyingto ask. You were talking with another I think company who's also focused on,creating this, not filtered, but catered news system that's, really for theindividual, doesn't really have a lot of clickbait information.

We'll get into all that, but You mentioned about our brainsbecoming sick. Just like what we intake in our bodies, physically will manifestin, sickness of our health. So does our mental health. And I would love for youto expand on that idea. What are we ingesting?

How do we not think about it? And what are the facts that we'reseeing from, this brain sickness that we're all coming into?

Alex: So there's really several different trends thatyou're seeing all over the place, just with the way people are consuming socialmedia today, that in itself is manifesting as a kind of addiction where peopleare starting to talk about gaps in their day.

About not remembering what they've just consumed over the pastfew hours. And you're seeing the mental health effects of that on the back endwith depression being on the rise, anxiety being on the rise, people's selfassessment of their own well being being constantly on the decline inessentially every age group in the last couple of decades, right?

And I think those two are connected.

But once you get into news specifically, then you also startnoticing that the way a news outlet is trying to get noticed, the way everyarticle is trying to get you to click on it, is by evoking some sort of strongemotion in you. And they have to evoke a stronger emotion than all the thingsthey're competing with.

Right? And the easiest emotions to evoke are typically thenegative ones. Like, yes, you will click on cute puppies from time to time. Butmost of the time you will click on stuff that outrages you, right? Basically,the group you dislike did something outrageous. You'll click on it, you'llshare it with your friends.

You will all be outraged together. The result is you just gotthe dose of negative emotions without being informed because you already knewthis stuff, or at least you already believed it. Right? And we are starting toaccumulate more and more of this outrage and depression and other negativeemotions with very little informational load.

All we're getting is the bad emotions.

Julian: Yeah, whenyou talk about informational load, are you talking more about, the emotionaleffect or, some things I think about when we ingest information is the depth ofit is not there. I switched from, going into like reading audiobooks orlistening to them.

And there's a little bit more of, peer reviewed information,which is great because you have more depth. When you talk about information isit the type? Is it, the effect of it? Or is it, it inherently doesn't havedepth?

Alex: Yeah, so Idon't know if depth is necessarily the right parameter here.

I think that, in general, ifyou're writing to evoke an emotion, you're not writing to inform. Right? Thosetwo goals are contradictory. Informing would require me to basically state thefacts. Evoking an emotion would require me to describe things in the bluntestterms I can think of, essentially, right?

And those are somewhatcontradictory. You can't get both done. You have to prioritize one over theother. So we did a study withHarris recently where we surveyed more than 2, 000 people. To basically figureout how they consume the news and what they get out of it. And one of thereally interesting things that people told us is that the vast majority of themsay they consume more news now than they did five years ago.

They spend more timeconsuming news and the vast majority of people say that they find it muchharder right now to figure out what is true and what isn't and what is real andwhat isn't. And to be informed about the world, right? So, if you spend more timeand you get less information, then the informational density went down.

Julian: Yeah,describe this, I don't know if it's an economy, but this, what incentivizes these fake news creatorsand Who's behind the act? I, you think about a lot of the cyber securityattacks now are really, these well strategic execute, well executed andstrategic plan.

Are we seeing that same with like fake news and informationthat's going out there? Like what's going on behind the scenes where it'ssomething that seems to not just go away?

Alex: Yeah. So I havean uncommon view on this question, which is both.

I tend to assume thatyou shouldn't ascribe to malice what can be explained by sheer stupidity,right? So yes, there are some bad actors out there who are trying to misinformyou on purpose. I'm not sure there's more of them now than there used to be 40years ago. Right, 40 years ago there were misinformation campaigns orchestratedby the Soviet Union and the US, right?

Today there are probably some misinformation campaignsorchestrated by the GRU still in the US. I don't think there's more of them.What there's obviously more of It's just pure junk clogging the system, right?And some of that junk is misinforming. Not all of it is innocuous. Like, someof it is CNN with articles like Stop What You're Doing and Watch The CellophanePlay With Bubbles.

That's an actual news article in the news section on CNN.Right? And then some of it is thePope endorses Donald Trump for president. That's from 2016. It got more than800, 000 views. Shares, right? And that was the most widely shared article of2016 on Facebook. And that clearly misinforms people, right?

But I don't think it was published with the intent to cause youto believe something that isn't true. It was published just because it's thesort of thing people will share. And if they share, then they click, they seeads, you make money. So, I think that is the primary bad guy in this story. Thebad guy is ads.

Or specifically the fact that we are so good at tracking them.And probably it wasn't that big of a deal before 2003 when we basicallycouldn't track ads this well. But now you can track every click, everyimpression. You know exactly how your article is performing. And we are at thestage where if somebody is about to post an article, they write 15 headlinesand they test which one has better click through.

But I can almost guarantee that the one that will get betterclick through is not the one that is accurate.

Julian: Right, yeah.

Do you have a personal experience that kind of led you down towanting to tackle this particular problem of, receiving the wrong informationor, I guess storylines or narratives that go on to have the life of their ownbut maybe the truth isn't really there?

There's so many ways I think it affects us And I like the,don't try to describe I don't know how you said it, but stupidity and malice,but I I like that. But, yeah, I guess back to my question, did you have apersonal experience that led you to tackle this particular problem?

Alex: Yeah, so I think this might be somewhat explainedby my childhood experience of being born in the Soviet Union, where essentiallymisinformation was everything you ever got in an official news channel, right?

And I remember myparents waking up in the middle of the night. Locking themselves in the closetor the bathroom or someplace where the neighbors can't hear and listening toVoice of America on the radio. Because that, that was a way to find outsomething useful about the world and it led to us actually making differentdecisions, right?

We left the Soviet Unionbefore everything blew up because we knew something our neighbors didn't. Andso I think this imprinted in my head this idea that if you know what is true inthe world, You might end up acting better, right? You might end up makingbetter decisions. And so I always thought information is really important.

I always consumed a lot of it. I always remembered a lot of it.And at some point in my thirties already, I started noticing for some reasonit's becoming worse. And I wasn't quite sure why, but I'm still reading all thesame outlets. I'm still consuming just as much data, but like I mentionedearlier, the information density is going down.

There's much more elephants blowing bubbles. And much lessactual facts about the world. And if there are facts, then there's many caseswhere the facts are contradictory. And one outlet says this, the other outletsays the opposite. And as long as there's no overlap between them, how do Iknow what's true?

And so I started looking deeper into this problem, and it ledme down this rabbit hole of actually finding out. Being the CEO of a companythat does that full time, right? I wasn't actually involved in this marketbefore. I was building video cameras of all things.

Julian: Yeah, yeah. Idefinitely want to tap into your background because I think it's very uniquethat, you weren't directly tied to this particular space, but one thing I wantto touch on is, what is that junk?

What have you seen? What is it composed of? That is, whetherit's missing from morming, or lacks in density what is, what is it, if I wereto see an example of it on the web, I think you mentioned a few and why is ithappening?

Alex: I mean, there'sa lot of it, and there are different severity levels to it.

Right, so, if you go from the very bottom, you will probablynotice that the vast majority of the web is content that is written for SEOpurposes only. And it used to be written by contractors who, that was theirentire job, to produce content by the word with the right keyword density,essentially, right?

And right now it's mostly done with generative AI. But you havean entire economy of these websites where there are marketplaces I can go to. Ican select any website that I want based on what their domain authority is andhow many backlinks, what traffic they have. And I can have them write anarticle to order.

That links to me and says whatever I wanted to say about me,right? In fact, the oddest example I found of that is I used to work for acompany called Aura Which was making a VR camera and at some point I decided tocheck, well, how's the company doing? I went to our old website, which is, and I noticed that that website that used to be our corporate websitethrough which we sold cameras, we had specs in it and things like that, rightnow that website is basically a content mill with over 300 articles written bythe same guy posted on the same day.

Wow, really? And then I started searching content marketplacesand I found that if you go to the NoBS marketplace, you can actually buy anarticle on Aura. co that will link to you for about a hundred bucks.

Julian: Wow.

Alex: And that usedto be our website.

Julian: So did thecompany dissolve? Did they change name? Yeah. Okay.

Alex: Yeah. So I leftit in 2017 and in 2018 it went bankrupt. And so you can actually see if you goto archive. org. To the time machine, you will see that in 2018, that websitelooked like what I remember it had the camera on it and all the informationabout it and things like that. And then from 2021 onward, it is a content mill,which basically tells me that's probably how long the bankruptcy process took.

And then somebody bought that website that already had somedomain authority to it and repurposed it for basically selling backlinks. Nowthat is the bottom 90%. You go above that, you get slightly higher qualitycontent. You have content that is actually meant for humans and not just forsearch engines, right?

But it's still not supposed to deliver any value to thosehumans. It just tries to mislead humans into clicking on it, right? And sothere are outlets that just do that. That's 100 percent of what they produce.And then there are outlets that are somewhat mixed and they produce some thingsthat you might actually want to read.

And a lot of things that are basically this stuff that you willclick on. Daily Mail comes to mind, where if you go to the science section,it's not science, right? It's all clickbait. But it's clickbait that is somehowrelated to science, typically. Like, you won't believe how many people canguess what these expressions mean, that kind of thing, right?

So it will be based on some study about expressions, but that'sthe connection to science there. And then you can go up the chain, and by thetime you get to the top of it, then yes, you get those GRU agents that arespending three months faking a particular article, right? That takes a lot ofeffort to create, and it probably takes a lot of effort to filter out, becauseit's really well made.

Julian: Yeah. Andwhat do you think is the, there's, there's this huge position about how Web3 isgoing to solve this problem with, the ownership data. People will be lessinfiltrated by I guess the algorithm getting stuck in a loop of contentinformation.

I'd like to touch on, the differences between an algorithm and,what you're building, which is, More sophisticated and I think has a little bitbetter of a system, an incentive system. But, when you think about Web3 and itsposition in helping create more governed content how far along are we?

Do you believe in it? Do you not believe it?

Alex: I'm going toget myself in trouble by saying this. But I can't think of many industries thatas they became more complex and started handling larger amounts of money. Theybecame less centralized. Typically the opposite is true. And so I'm not a bigbeliever in the future of Web3, even though I believe in the ideas.

But I don't think it's likely to happen. I think that the moremoney that flows into it, the more centralized things will become. And youmight at some point maintain the veneer of decentralization. But in reality,there will be a few big servers that everything flows through, right? Thishappens to the vast majority of networks, to the vast majority of industries.

This happened with essentially a whole bunch of forums and BBSsconsolidating into social media at some point, right? Money got into it, andnow the economics just favor the big guys. So, I don't think that isnecessarily the solution to that problem. Now I want to touch upon somethingyou mentioned, which is this scary word, algorithms, right?

Algorithms are basicallya sequence of operations, right? And so, an algorithm that just says, Sort allthe posts in anti chronological order, basically from newest to latest. That'san algorithm, but it's fairly benign. It doesn't do anything bad to youbecause, well, there's nothing there trying to hack your brain.

It's just antichronological. What most social media does, or at least what their algorithmsdo, is try to optimize for maximizing your engagement, make you more likely toclick, to share, to react. However, they measure engagement, which differs alittle bit between them, right? Now that is slightly more nefarious because nowthey have an interest to evoke emotions in you because that's what will makeyou react more often to things, right?

And that's notnecessarily good for you. In fact, I would almost phrase it as ifthey're getting engagement out of you, you're not getting much in return.You're just giving. They're getting the engagement out of you. What you wouldwant is a system that tries to give you as much value as possible for as littleengagement as possible.

That's your interest as the consumer here. But most of thesesystems, they have the opposite interest to yours.

Julian: Is there aninflection point where you've spent so many hours On a particular platform orwithin a certain algorithm that, locks you into this loop or makes it morechallenging, does it matter how much time you spend in it or is that kind ofnot, is that a smaller piece of the puzzle?

Alex: I'm sure itmatters, I just don't think that there's a binary inflection point that appliesto everybody. I'm sure that no matter where you are on the curve, if you spendmore time on it, then you get more addicted and you get more of the negativeeffects of it, right? And a lot of people catch themselves at particular pointswhere they decide they've hit rock bottom and they quit cold turkey just likeyou do with any other drug, right?

So in my case, my drugof choice is YouTube. And I just noticed at some point that basically theentire period between 9pm and midnight is missing every day. Right? I wouldjust go to my computer at 9pm and I don't remember what happened and then, oh,it's too late, it's time to go to bed. Right? And my solution at some point,once I realized that is the case, was basically to delete my entire browsinghistory on YouTube, delete all my subscriptions, delete all my likes anddislikes, and at some point YouTube gave up on me and they don't even show meanything right now.

They don't even Offer mevideos I might also like because they have no idea what I might also like. Andif they do offer me something, like when one video ends and they offer youanother, usually it's just something that is completely uninteresting to me,right?

Julian: I'm dealingwith the same thing. Yeah.

Alex: Yeah.

That's exactly the stateI was looking for because now when I go to YouTube, I have to search forsomething, otherwise there's nothing interesting there. And well, that meansI'm actually getting something useful, right? I'm only getting the stuff that Ichose to search for. So I think most people should do that with most socialmedia, but it's hard for me to say what other people should do, right?

People make their ownchoices.

Julian: Yeah, arethese types of, like, social catering algorithms, obsolete in regards to, howcompanies or even how Otherweb is operating and providing, more useful content?Are those types of algorithms obsolete? Because I have the same experiencewhere at some point, I'm watching the same thing that I've seen or have seen apart of, and it becomes so less interesting and inviting of the excitement ofthings like YouTube, which is new information, new experiences.

Just as much as, things I like, I like to find, and I thinkmost discover more. Are algorithms now obsolete, being that, our experience offinding the same thing and being caught in this loop and dissatisfied? It's notuncommon.

Alex: Well, I thinksaying that engagement based algorithms are obsolete is like saying thatcookies are obsolete, right?

People are addicted to it. They're consuming a lot of it,right? The majority of people consume more than they would like, and yet theycontinue to consume. So, I think that you have a kind of a counterculture ofpeople who are trying to rebel against it, at least for themselves. And, it'sthe same as the Probably the same people who shop at Whole Foods and try to eatkale and not cake all day, right?

But the majority of people still eat cake, not kale. And Ithink the majority of people still spend way too much time on TikTok andInstagram and all of those other services. And less time on services likeOtherweb where they can actually get a lot of information in a small amount oftime.

Julian: Yeah.Describe how you tackle the problem and for the audience who doesn't knowOtherweb, a chance to really dive into how you're tackling the problem ofhaving, whether it's not just fake news that things that have a negative,direct negative impact, but even incomplete news, I would say, or, things thathaven't had, peer review.

Yeah. That, throw an opinion or perspective off and causes,residual destruction. Why are you tackling it the way you are, and what'sexciting about what Otherweb is doing that people can be excited for?

Alex: Our generalapproach has been, first of all, let's figure out how to measure stuff.

And we don't know what quality is, that's a big, fluffysubject, right? So let's define things that we can all agree on, like, what isa clickbait headline? Or what is a hateful statement, right? Or what is formalversus informal language, or what is language that is mostly informative versusmostly descriptive or language that essentially attempts to persuade you insome way, right?

And so we built a bunch of AI models that each determine onespecific trait about an article. We actually assembled all of that into anutrition label, like the ones on food. And then we allow people to sort theirfeed based on some parameters, including these. Right? And in addition to that,we added a summary for every article, and we did what I think every news outletshould do, and we separated punditry from news because they're not the samething.

Right? And all the filters that I just described, they'reapplied mostly to news, but if you're looking to read punditry, then I don'twant to tell you this article is too opinionated. You wanted an opinionatedone, right? That's what you're getting in that section. So that is the generalapproach. We are trying to apply it to more and more types of content beyondjust news.

But for the most part, I think most people still download theOtherweb or go to our website to read hard news. And over time, I hope theywill start reading more other types of content. Now, why we took that approachis a complicated question. One of the assumptions that we made is that. It'sreally hard to tell whether something is true or not.

If you tell me that there's a line in your kitchen right now, Ican't really tell you whether that's true or not without breaking into yourhouse, going to your kitchen, taking photographs of it, etc. fact checking isalmost a losing battle. It's impossible to win. Right? What we could do is formchecking.

Like, I can tell you that if you make the claim that there's aline in your kitchen, you must include a photograph or Eyewitness accounts fromat least two neighbors or something like that, right? I can make requirementsabout the form in which you should make that argument. Otherwise, I'm going toscore it as a poor argument.

Sometimes it will be a poor argument that ended up being true,but that doesn't change the fact that it was a poor argument. Because knowledgeis justified through belief, right? You could end up having a true belief, butit wasn't justified, then you didn't have the knowledge beforehand. So that'sour view on it.

Maybe slightly more philosophical than it should have been. Butthis is why we're mostly focused on form. And I think you mentioned peerreview. I think peer review works the same way. Right? If you say I started theexperiment with 20 mice and 14 of them survived being given this lethal dose ofpoison Right?

Sorry for being a little bit morbid there, right? The peerreviewer isn't going to drive to your lab and count the mice. What they'regoing to look at is the structure of the experiment, the structure of what youreported about it, whether or not you reported all the data that is relevant tothis kind of claim, etc.

They're not going to fact check you about the mice. They'reonly going to foreign check your claims about them and the structure of theexperiment itself and that works remarkably well, right? Yeah, you still havefake studies out there, but there's not that many of them. Last I've seen it'ssomewhere between 10 and 15 percent.

But in the news, it's much worse than that. So I think if weadd foreign checking to the news, that in itself is going to work relativelywell. In fact, you could almost make the claim that in the old days it alreadyused to work. That's what editorial review used to be. Until everybody startedcompeting with BuzzFeed.

Julian: Right. Yeah,yeah. TMZ, all the outlets. You know it's wire, you know what's interestingwith this form review is how, when you set up the process you, and I heardthis, maybe it was in a talk or maybe it was on your website, there is thisfeedback loop. At some point, if you are, not practicing good I don't know howyou describe it, but if you're not, giving great news, not setting it up right,don't have maybe the checklist off, there is a negative feedback loop thatshows the author that less people are ingesting their content or that it's, notbeing well received.

Have you built that in already? Is that kind of on the futureplans? Because that was an interesting piece on, and how it's going to change,I guess authors and how they will approach making more news or writing morenews.

Alex: Yeah, so youhave to consider that authors are writing for their own publication and thenthat content ends up being aggregated by the middlemen in the story, right?

Of which Otherweb is one, but all social media is another one,right? So for us to actually create a feedback loop that convinces people towrite in a different way, we have to become a very large percentage of themarket, right? If right now we have something like 8 million users. AndFacebook has 3 billion users, then Facebook provides a much stronger feedbackloop to people writing articles because they want those articles to be sharedon Facebook.

And they want those articles to appear high in people's feedson Facebook. Right, we have to become large enough to really create a situationwhere people will be concerned about whether or not their article will rankwell on Otherwebs. Before they write or in the process of writing it. Rightnow, I don't think that that is enough of an incentive.

So we just have to grow.

Julian: Yeah. Yeah.

Thinking about your story, taking a step back here, did youalways, plan on being a founder, take the audience back, when did that decisionto, test out ideas, start to iterate and really have ownership of a product,when did that first hit you?

Alex: I think since Iwas a child, I knew I was going to do that, but it wasn't clear in what way orwhen or where. It took a little longer than I anticipated because I also knewthat I need to be in the U. S. to do that, or at least that was the vision. Andgetting from Israel to the U. S. required some effort that had me postpone myfounder plans, essentially.

So I quit my full time job and had my first attempt at foundinga company. On the day I received my green card. So I basically received mygreen card. I announced I quit. Yeah. I tried to create what I thought was acompany. Turned out that I was completely clueless, had no idea what I wasdoing, but I could write code.

And so that thing that I created, I pretty quickly startedgetting solicitations from some big companies to license it and then hire me tocode for them. And so it was a company, but it wasn't a product company. Itbecame code for hire within like two months. And so I did that for a couple ofyears.

Then I decided, like this is not exactly what I envisioned asbeing a founder. I should go back to industry and learn the skill sets that Ilack. And then maybe after that I can be a founder again. So I went to work formy old boss, but this time in a marketing capacity. And then I did a bit ofsales in the process.

I learned all of that. I understood how business works. I didan MBA. And then I quit again and started my own company again. But here again,it wasn't quite a product company. It was a consulting company. So I wasessentially still acting as a VP engineering, but for four or five differentprojects in parallel instead of just for one and now at least I got to do myown financials.

So there was an element of a company in that and I did that forabout seven years and then when Otherweb became my big obsession, Then, overtime, I went on my consulting practice. There was a bit of an overlap initiallywhen I just started building Otherweb. I was still doing some consulting on theside, but then, essentially, on the month that the website itself launched, Igot rid of my last project.

So I went from running one company to running another. And Ishould mention also, in parallel, a friend of mine who used to be the head ofcomputer vision at Ring, the camera company. He decided to create a companylast year and he reached out to me for help because he thought, well, I've donethis before, so I know this stuff.

So I'm technically a co founder in that company as well, eventhough I don't run it, he does. And I don't work in it, I just sit on theboard. But you could say that I'm the co founder in two companies right now.

Julian: Oh, I feellike founders are always, involved in multiple projects. It's like the one thathas the spotlight, but then, there's other things that obviously, I think,attract the excitement to push things forward.

And always continue to see where, testing goes and new productsand ideas.

When you were doing your consulting, I was reading, and I wouldlove for you to share some of the interesting projects you were working on,because it wasn't just, working with companies to install some kind of,solutions based system.

It was, really sophisticated stuff. Describe that a little bit.

Alex: Well, so,essentially, for most of my engineering career, I was pigeonholed into imaging,cameras, video, that sort of thing. Yeah. And it's a pretty unique skill set.But it's also fairly narrow in a sense. You could say that the vast majority ofcameras in the world fall into one of three buckets and the designs internallylook the same.

Whether that camera ends up being an electronic rifle scope ora baby monitor. Internally it looks very similar, right? They just happen to bein different form factors and with different optics and maybe a different appcontrolling them, right? And I've worked on everything in that range. I have atleast three or four military products.

And I have several that are baby monitor, pet monitor, thatsort of thing.

So, yeah, the consulting practice was essentially, since I knewthat I have this unique skill set, I understand that entire chain frombeginning to end. And since at that point I already knew basically everymanufacturer in Asia, or every software company in Eastern Europe, Thatunderstands imaging and that's a small subset of all manufacturers, right?

Most contract manufacturers don't know how to manufactureoptics. That's a unique skill set. I know everyone in the market. I know how tobuild this thing. There's a lot of companies out there that don't, but theywould like to build a product without developing that expertise in house.Right. So that was my sweet spot as a consulting company, right?

Companies that are too small couldn't afford me. Companies thatare too large didn't mind hiring 50 people and build it in house. So I wasusually working with anywhere between series B startups and maybe a publiccompany that didn't really want this as an expertise. Like, I worked with onepublic company that was, let's say, the largest baby related brand in the U. S.In fact, they own several of the largest baby related brands in the U. S. Andthey needed a baby monitor. But they didn't want to hire engineers or managethem, right? Really? Right. Because they're, for the most part, making carseats, et cetera. Like, the baby monitor was essentially the only electronicsproduct in the lineup.

Yeah. And so, I helped them define the project, figure out whatthey wanted. It needs to be done there and outsource it. So,

Julian: and is itbecause the technology, it sounds like the technology doesn't have a lot ofadvancement or is there no push to advance it a lot more in terms of, bettersystems that are optics?

Is that, being pushed outside the industry or inside?

Alex: No, there is alot of advance. It's just the structure remains the same, right? So yes, opticsare advancing. They are different every year. There's a lot more complexitynow, et cetera, but you still have a lens. Followed by a sensor, followed by aprocessor of some kind that does image tuning or image processing, right?

Followed by some sort of a network interface or a storageinterface to push that out. That is still the basic structure of a camera. Orif you're talking about the webcam, that's going to be slightly differentbecause you won't have memory or storage on it. Or if you're talking about whatpeople in the automotive industry call a camera, then it will actually have theoptics and the sensor split.

Then a cable in between, then the processor. But other thanthat, you still have all the cameras in the world that are one of these threestructures, essentially. Either what the guys in automotive call a camera, whatthe guys in webcams call a camera, or the guys in point and shoot or everythingthat came out of point and shoot call a camera, right?

So yes, you have huge advances in every one of these elements,but the elements are the same. The people creating them are typically the same.There's been some startups in this area. And I was Fairly supportive of some ofthem, but it's pretty hard to get into. A lot of the startups fail.

Julian: Yeah, yeah.

Switching gears here back to Otherweb. Tell us, about thetraction you've had so far. Where is the company now? What's been excitingabout the growth you've seen and, some of the next plans that are on the shortterm horizon?

Alex: So we'regrowing pretty quickly in terms of users and the engagement is getting betterand better, even though that's It's a hard problem to solve.

If you think about it, we're trying to get people to engage andcome back every day without addicting them. Everybody we're competing with istrying to addict people, right? And so we're almost handicapping ourselves. Andwe're saying, you're going to come back for this thing that is healthy for you.And not because you're addicted, but because you get value out of it, right?

Whereas everybody else just tries to give you whatever drugwill get you to be forced to come back the next day. But it's going well. Wepassed 8 million users in early March, and we're growing beyond that. Nowthat's across all platforms. Web, apps, news websites, et cetera. We decided tofundraise, We're using RegCF, which is basically a law that allows you to takesmall checks from a large number of investors.

So we currently have something like 2, 150 individualinvestors, each investing on average about 1, 000. As opposed to getting onebig check from a big VC for 2, 000, 000. Maybe it takes a bit more time to dothat, but on the other hand, we have a community of people who aren't justusers. Aren't just super users, but they're users who put their money wheretheir mouth is.

And so now if I have a question like, what should we put on ourroadmap next? They really want to give us good feedback, right? And they'rereally involved in the process. So I think that's a big advantage that we havecompared to other platforms.

The other things in terms of direction of where we want to takeit, is, I think that feeds are nice, and we probably have the best news feedout there, but I'm not sure the world begins and ends with feeds.

So we're thinking of other ways to consume content that aren'tjust scrolling one item at a time and seeing what's next. But now AI allows usto explore other options. So I'm not going to say too much here because theannouncement will come in about a week. There's some big news coming there thatI think will just change how people think about how do I consume news.

Right. Because right now it's just not efficient.

Julian: Yeah.

How's the reception been towards the problem that, you startedout to solve? Are you seeing, I feel like it's become even increasingly morepopular for people to really take a, look at how they're consuming content, howlong, when, the habits behind it, how it's affecting their overall performance.

I've definitely been thinking about it more and more as I,listen to other podcasts that touch on it. How's been the reception and, whendo you think it'll really hit that virality where, people are, at least atscale, are really going to start paying attention to this and start exitingsome of those platforms that were, binding them?

Alex: Yeah, I thinkthe reception is good but I don't believe we've crossed the chasm yet. I thinkwe're still at the stage of mostly appealing to people who are early adoptersand we probably extended that period by Catering to the rest of the worldpretty early. So we were actually aggregating local content from India,Bangladesh, Nigeria, a lot of the countries that have English speakingpublications.

And essentially nobody was making aggregator apps for we coverabout 48 countries that way. And so that means the early adopter group that weappeal to is larger than somebody who just focuses on the U S but still at somepoint, We might have to solve that problem of what do normal users want thatwe're not delivering yet because we were catering to people who aren't quitenormal, right?

To people who are willing to spend a bit more time to customizethings, people who want to have more control. And I don't know if you looked,but in our app you can pretty much customize everything and there's a sliderfor everything that you can move it to any position, right? That's crazy if youthink about it as a mass market product, right?

That's crazy. Mass market products don't work like that. So, weare going to have something to do on how we change that when it's time to crossthe chasm. For us, we're still somewhat geared towards the enthusiast type.

Julian: Yeah. Whydon't mass market products do that?

Alex: Well, becausepeople are lazy. Sorry. I love people, right?

But if you tell somebody, here's a way you can consume the newswhere, you just upload your social media and don't click a thing, We'll justfigure out what you like. Just read versus here's a way you can consume thenews. But here's 213 sliders where you can customize just about everything.

Which one do most people choose? Generally speaking, the zerocustomization, there's a group of people that say the sliders, but then theynever touch them. Right. And then there's a small group that actually wantsthose sliders and maybe they're even going to start sharing their particularconfiguration with others.

Trying to follow what somebody else has configured, and yeah, Ithink that that was basically the early adopter group at Spotify. That's howthey grew before they started crossing the chasm, and now nobody does thatanymore.

Julian: I agree. Iagree. I think they're playlist forward approach. The only, I've seen it copiedin other industries and we also become successful, and it's really what a lotof companies are doing now.

which is this community focused and how do we optimize users tonot just use more but benefit more and get other users to almost follow them inan audience, format. I've seen it with the investing company as well and it's asuccessful model. It's just like you mentioned, crossing that chasm is reallythe biggest challenge.

What gets you there?

Alex: Well,iteration, listening to your users. I can't think of a better answer. Try to beslightly better today than you were yesterday, and try to ask people, or notnecessarily ask people, but observe people, because sometimes if you askpeople, they tell you the wrong thing, right? It's just like Henry Ford used tosay that, if I asked people what they wanted, they would tell me a fasterhorse, right?

So sometimes you don't want to just ask people, you want toobserve them in their natural habitat and see what happens. And so in our case,that means watching a lot of The statistics that we see on products likeAmplitude of where people fall off, how long do they spend here? How long dothey spend there?

All of it is obviously anonymized. We respect privacy, etcetera, but we need to know, right? We need to know whether introducing thisparticular feature made people come back to the app more or less. If it's less,that tells us something about what people actually want. And we've beensurprised a few times, like the way that engineers think about the world.

is not necessarily the way the world is or the way that humansthink. So you have to always question your assumptions because some things thatwe thought was going to be a slam dunk basically either kept engagement flat orlowered it. Yeah. And some things that we didn't think would matter at allturned out to have a huge difference.

Julian: Alex, thisnext section I call my Founder FAQ, so I'm going to hit you with some rapidfire questions and we'll see where we get. But the first question I always liketo ask is what's particularly hard about your job day to day?

Alex: Specificallytransitioning from being an engineer to being a founder. You are moving from aworld in which every time you do something you get positive feedback, it works.

Every time you do something you get positive feedback. And theone day that you get negative feedback, You have to drop everything and treatit like a huge fire. Things don't work. I have to fix them, right? You'removing into a world where most of the time you're going to hear no, most of thefeedback is going to be negative and you don't need to change anything.

Most of the time you hear negative feedback, that's normal.Just repeat this 150 times. But for an engineer, that's a huge switch. You haveto move from treating every negative feedback as a cause to change something.Saying, that's okay, I just need 150 more reps, so that's a hard switch, and Ipersonally am not used to it.

I'm also generally, I'm not very good at reaching out, coldemailing, things like that, right? I think I'm okay if you put me in the roomand make me talk to people, right? So I'm not entirely agoraphobic, but I'm notgood at cold outreach. So that's been a hard transition.

Julian: Yeah. I guessalso, it leads me to this next question.

What made you start a podcast and what have you really seen itseffect on, you as a founder or has it had an effect at all?

Alex: Probably not.Really?

So, the reason I wanted to start a Yeah, yeah. Well, first ofall, my podcast is not nearly as big and successful as yours. It's a sideproject that I've been running over the past year.

The idea behind it was that But I like talking to people. Everyexpert in the company space tells me I should create content. Well, why don't Icreate content that is out there and people can find and has my name on it andhas the company name on it by doing something that doesn't take an inordinateamount of effort, but just involves me doing something I already like doing,which is talking to people.

Right. And I should mention before even starting work on theOtherweb, I talked to about 300 people. Right. From academia, from journalism,from the startup world, etc. To try to get feedback on the idea, try to figureout what is worth building. Right, so the podcast is a continuation of that,except now it gets published.

Julian: Yeah. What'ssome notable feedback that you received that you're like, Oh, I didn't expectto hear, XYZ. Because there's a lot of different stakeholders you talk to.

Alex: Are you talkingabout in the podcast? I've heard people tell me that I sound like Lex. Maybeit's the accent.

No, I'm talking about during the customer research.

Yeah. Quite a bit actually. I would say without going too muchinto detail that the idea did not start at all like what is out there rightnow. There's been at least two major pivots, maybe even three, where the entiredirection changed entirely. Granted, the mission always remained the same. Likethe goal is to help people consume higher quality information, but how you goabout it, well, initially the idea was not to build a platform.

It's like the first product we sent to the world. To people, orwe let people use was actually just a free extension with the nutrition labelthat was being shown for whatever article they were already reading on anotherplatform. And then the feedback from the users was make your own platformbecause we're not going to do this extra click when we go somewhere else.

But even that was not the initial idea. That was the firstproduct that was actually implemented. The initial idea was in a completelydifferent domain, still trying to achieve the same goal. Maybe we'll circleback to it one day. And I can say relatively vaguely that it has something todo with ads, because I think ads are the root of all evil here.

And so we have to change the way that ad networks work in orderto really change the incentives that people face.

Julian: Yeah. And is,I haven't tapped into the app too much.

Is it, how do you make money as a company? Is it a paidsubscription? What is the business model? And it does, is it the one you? Ifeel like for a lot of founders, you just stumble upon it.

You're like, okay, this, this is what people would say they do.So I'm going to do it.

Alex: So the goodnews for our users is we are not monetizing yet at all. The investors arefooting the bill. So it's free and ad free. Now, obviously that is notsustainable forever. At some point, we're going to start monetizing.

And when we get to that point, I don't think that there's a lotof innovation you can do in the space. I know some companies are trying. Butrealistically, if you have an app that delivers useful content to people, youcan put ads next to that content, you can charge them a subscription fee, oryou can use a combination of those two, like Spotify and Hulu do, right?

Where they're ads, but you can pay for a subscription and thenit's ad free. That's pretty much it. Now, the only place where we could dosomething that is somewhat non standard is is we can be very selective aboutwhere the ads appear in a way that doesn't interfere with the user's typicalflow. So, for instance, there are ways you can search within the app, and whenyou search, you get a list of results like you do in any normal search.

Well, adding an ad there makes sense because a user already waslooking for something to click on, right? Sure. But adding ads in the feed theway that many other social media companies do, that seems almost impossible.Bad taste. Yeah. Right. The user was not looking to click on something. Theywere just looking to cycle through things.

And so giving them something to click on, it feels like we'rebreaking user intent. So I think we'll try to avoid that thing if we can helpit.

Julian: Yeah.

What advice would you give to a founder who's, back to thecontent piece, they're either getting pushed to do content or thinking aboutit.

I've talked to a lot of folks who are like, yeah, I know I needto do X, Y, Z videos and do like this, but they almost, you Make it like a big,complicated studio. It's like, I don't want to answer your question for you,but what advice would you give founders who are needing to do that as astandard of business, to have a pulse online?

Alex: Well, I wouldsay the first advice would be figure out which modalities you like best.Because maybe you're good at talking and bad at writing, or maybe vice versa.Maybe you're good on camera. Maybe you're terrible on camera, right? I don'tknow. And if you choose what you think is the best way, chances are you're notgoing to do it very long.

You should choose whatever is the easiest way for you or theone that takes you the least outside your comfort zone, at least initially,because again, it's just going to be difficult if you do something you don'tlike. Now, in my case, I actually like to write. It's just that I don't haveenough time to do it consistently, right?

But that means that writing articles was actually my first formof creative content, right? Podcast is also something that I can do, but beingon camera Perhaps less so. And every time my marketing guy tells me I need torecord the one minute video. I tend to procrastinate for two weeks before doingit.

Even though it's one minute and I can read from a teleprompter.Still, I will postpone it for as long as I can because it's terrible. I don'tlike it. So, that's my biggest piece of advice. Now, you already alluded toyour piece of advice, which is don't overcomplicate things. Generally speaking,Yes, if you're a professional, you have 3 million people following yourpodcast, the quality of the microphone matters a lot.

Does it matter that much if you're just starting out and you'retalking to people and you want to get feedback on how to improve? Probably notthat much. Now, in my case, at some point, my wife forced me to get this goodmicrophone, to put those sound isolating panels behind me, and to make mybackground look nice.

Because before that, it was just a bare white wall with like apiece of paper just stuck to it with some quotes that I like. But again, youjust get there iteratively. You don't have to over optimize initially. Andespecially again with engineers, I'm talking to my people here, engineers useplanning as a form of procrastination.

Really? Interesting. I know that like the best form for anengineer to not do the thing is to tell everybody that he's making the perfectplan of how to do it better than anybody in the world. And that's going to takea As long as he wants to not do the thing, right?

Julian: We have anaudience full of engineers who just called out, I'm sure a majority of them.

Alex: I'm calling outmyself here, right? But, but yes, so you have to at some point just decide, Iget this far and then I release, right? And we have to do this in engineeringtoo, right? Even with my engineers working on the product side, at some point Ijust tell them, Remember 3DFX? Nobody does. NVIDIA won. Why?

Because NVIDIA released every single year. And 3DFX releasedwhen it was perfect. So you have to release on schedule, not when it iseverything you hoped it would be.

Julian: Yeah, onschedule. That's a good reminder for a lot of folks.

Throughout your career, I always like to ask this selfishlybecause I add it to my reading list, but any books or people who've, reallyinspired you or stand at the test of time, or even just recently fed you areally good idea that you, you wouldn't have had if you didn't, go through theexperience of learning some new information.

What books would you bestow upon us?

Alex: There's a lotof good books. I, I tend to, well, I don't tend to read these days. I mostlytend to listen, but still I usually go through at least one a week and it'sbeen the case for, well, I don't think I read a fiction book since I was 18. Soit's mostly nonfiction. What have I seen that really changed my outlook onthings lately?

If you're in the business of strategic thinking or trying tomake decisions, then Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Dermelt is onethat. I really enjoyed in the past couple of years. It basically tells you allthe things that people call strategy, but aren't strategy, right? And it tellsyou what the real strategy is.

And it's very useful. In terms of just viewing the world andthinking about things the right way, I would say the evolution of everything byMatt Ridley has been a pretty big one for me because it's, it's a mind bender.Really? Start thinking about the world that way. And especially again, as anengineer, you have this bias that you can design anything, right?

You need to figure out that the really good complex things,they evolve, they're not designed. So the best you can do is figure out whatthe selective pressures are going to be and then wait. Wow. Right? And that issometimes a better way to design a complex system than to try to plan theentire thing in detail because you're going to fail.

Yeah. You can't design a language or at least We can't designone that people use, right? We've designed a lot of languages. Like I'vestudied Esperanto when I was in college. Nobody speaks Esperanto, right? Eventhough it's technically perfect, but nobody speaks it. There's 30 millionspeakers, I think, right?

You can't design an economy. I was born in a country that triedto do that. Didn't go very well, right? So for the really complex things, youhave to figure out what the evolutionary process is and what the selectivepressures are. and how you affect them. Other than that, philosophically, Itend to be a bit of a stoic.

So you see a whole bunch of stoic quotes behind me. So I wouldrecommend reading any of the stoics. Pick the one that appeals more to yourpersonality. If you want the quintessential rough stoic that gives you thebitter medicine right away, then Epictetus is your guy. If you like morecolorful, artsy language, then, Seneca is your guy.

But pick one and read them. They're very useful, I think. Asalmost an antidote to all the bad natural tendencies humans have. It's not thatthat philosophy is objectively true. It's just, it's wrong in the oppositedirection from where your nature is going to be wrong. So, I think that's veryuseful.

Julian: I love that.

Thank you for sharing. It's like the precious things. That,that's something I never really thought about keeping an eye out. And whenpeople talk about signals it's really hard to know, like, what's the signal,terms of a more broader scale, but the selective pressure pitch I've never,I've never heard it so, so well put.

Alex, last question I always like to ask before we get, yourtime to give us your plugs and everything. Any question I didn't ask that Ishould have?

Alex: No, you prettymuch covered it all.

I should only mention circling back to the very thing that youstarted from, right? What we put into our brain is going to determine howhealthy our brain is, just like what we put into our mouth is going todetermine how healthy our body is.

So, I would just want to ask all the people who are listeningto it now, all the people who will listen to us in the future, pay attention towhat you put into your brain, right? Be intentional about it, plan it inadvance if you must. And you mentioned books, maybe you should plan how muchtime you're going to devote to books.

Versus social media, versus talking to your neighbors. It'sgoing to make a huge difference.

Julian: Yeah, lastlittle bit, where can we find you, where can we be a fan of you and what you'rebuilding? Give us your LinkedIns, your Instagram, wherever your, wherever youcan find your content.

Alex: Yeah, And don't focus on the man, focus on the mission

So I would just follow the company, not me. I just talk a lot.

Julian: Oh yeah.You're the more interesting bit, I would say. Right. Well, Alex, such apleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us today.

Alex: Thank you somuch, Julian. Of course.

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