FAQ (the long version)
|Alex Koszycki||Dec 13, 2020|
This document is a deeper dive into the frequently asked questions we have up on Indiegogo. We feel these issues and questions deserve more thoughtful responses than can be communicated effectively through the tab on the crowdfunding page.
This FAQ will be a living document.
I welcome any and all feedback, both from the customer’s perspective as well as the journalist’s perspective. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How does Assembly prevent the spread of fake news?
The Assembly platform is centered around live-streaming news rather than individual articles. Additionally, journalists will be vetted before joining the platform. Although preventing misinformation completely is difficult, these factors should help us keep the spread of fake news to a minimum.
Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral published a research report titled "The spread of true and false news online" in which they studied the spread of true and false news stories on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. Here are their conclusions:
Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.
The design of the Twitter platform is not ideal for sharing news stories. From a product design perspective, the issue lies in the low barrier for entry and the brevity of the information being transferred.
Assembly’s response to false news is twofold.
1. Ethical journalism (high barrier of entry)
The key to making Assembly work is a community that is dedicated to upholding journalism’s code of ethics. This community is made up of customers and journalists.
Assembly will first launch a news channel at the local level, for a town or city. I’ll use my home city of Denver as an example. People in and around Denver would be subscribed to the local news channel for the city. They can then interact online in a small goal-oriented social network.
The journalists that are added to the Denver news channel will have to go through a vetting process that involves the customers and the journalists of this region before they are approved. The process will be built purposefully into the structure of the social network.
The details of this process would be thoughtfully designed and tested. We will have iterative development cycles at a small scale, at the town/city level. Product design of the online community will incorporate academic and industry expertise. Most importantly, we will work closely with local journalists every step of the way.
What this gets us is a stable process that is anchored in physical locales, after the model of the current local news industry. There would be some organic trust from seeing the same people produce quality stories over time. Assembly journalists within that community would also have a stake in making sure incoming journalists are up to snuff.
Local news is the most trustworthy news out there, but waning demand has been devastating to many communities. Local papers are closing down, and we need them. Assembly creates an opportunity for self-starting journalists to support themselves while offering an exciting way for customers to engage with broader news categories.
2. Live-streaming (creative, high-effort medium)
In a local news channel, journalists want to stay in the channel and continue to make money. This incentive is paired with a creative outlet for the telling of their story. The combination of these two factors would allow us to grow a platform with endless possibilities for the communication of a story.
How these factors minimize misinformation
Even if someone somehow cons their way into a news channel with bad intentions, they would be up against some stiff competition from people creating stories that are true, creative, and authentic. Would the bad actor put as much work into generating a false story? Would the community even allow that pitch to move forward to be aired? Would the journalists in the channel be okay with such a story finding its way into the news channel?
A lot of checks have to fail for misinformation to happen. For much of the time, it just won’t be worth it to go through the hassle of creating and spreading false news. It would take too much time and work. It might still happen on rare occasions, but then the other journalists in the channel would most likely speak up and have the imposter removed.
There is always going to be the danger that someone with a good record makes a mistake and spreads false information. The channel’s community of customers and peers should be the ones to drive the resolution of these situations, not the distant corporate headquarters of a faceless tech company. If Assembly needs to step in, it should only be as a last resort.
Our goal is to design the platform in such a way that the company has as limited a role as possible, and the community is fully empowered to collaborate on generating quality news while maintaining journalism’s code of ethics.
This is because it is in our best interest (as a platform) to minimize our influence until we are no more than a boring organization running a necessary public utility - smoothly, transparently, and without controversy.
How do journalists make money on the platform?
Customers will rate and review journalists on the platform, in the same way as they would for an Uber driver or an Airbnb host. Higher ratings will equate to a bigger cut of the profits, encouraging good quality. The exact incentive breakdown will need to be vetted through careful testing, but we can assure you that simply having more views won't automatically mean the journalist makes more money. We won't be recreating the incentives of ads under a different system.
I expect this may be one of the more controversial aspects of the platform. The knee-jerk reaction to this idea is that giving people the power to rate a journalist is an easy way to encourage news content that is sensational or of low quality. I would like to challenge that notion by showing how Assembly’s incentive structure is designed purposefully to prevent those problems from occurring on the platform.
In many rating systems, any viewer can leave a rating or a review. This sometimes reinforces popular but undesirable content of low quality. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong.”
This system of popular reviews is much more narrowly implemented within Assembly. The platform is designed around local journalism, and many of its incentive structures rely on the interaction of local customers with their local journalists. In Assembly, only local customers will have the ability to rate and review their local journalists. Out-of-towners can watch, but they won’t be asked to provide a rating.
With popular rating systems, there is a chance that sensational or polarizing figures will find their audience, wherever that audience may be dispersed. With a rating system that is anchored in physical space, this is much less likely. The community of viewers from the local news channel will have their own expectations of the journalists that work in their city.
To reiterate, these structures will be thoughtfully designed and tested at small scales before being deployed to larger audiences. We are committed to the mission of giving journalists a creative and flexible outlet for telling their stories while incentivizing quality and ethical reporting. We will tweak this general framework through iterative testing and development until Assembly is able to provide competitive compensation to the journalist for their work without compromising quality.
How much will the monthly subscription be?
We can't say for certain yet, but we are dedicated to building up as large a customer base as possible. To that end, we will make it as affordable as possible. Our goal is to make it as (or more) affordable than a Netflix or Spotify subscription.
Assembly is built around a subscription model that is a blanket price point for all consumers, regardless of their location. Customers pay a monthly subscription to be a part of the platform community and are able to access all content across the platform.
This subscription model is different from Patreon or Substack subscription models, which have customers subscribe to individual people/publications rather than to the entire platform. The Assembly model is inspired by the Medium subscription model, a platform that incentivizes quality written stories through one blanket subscription for their customers.
Similarly, Assembly will use subscriptions as the piggy-bank for a thoughtful incentive structure. The key differentiator is that this model will be grounded in local journalism. The number of views that a journalist is able to command is not the deciding factor in an algorithmic sliding scale of compensation. This would just lead us back to the problems of the advertising business model.
Rather, Assembly will provide stable and competitive compensation to the journalists streaming live stories on their platform. Ratings from the local community will help journalists make money to a much higher degree than global reach and viewership.
The monthly subscription will be adjusted so that it is as affordable as possible for consumers while providing worthwhile compensation to journalists. The company will take a small and reasonable cut of the subscriptions to support itself. In this industry especially, Assembly is very cognizant that all of its financial workings will be heavily scrutinized. We will do everything in our power to build trust with customers and journalists. It would be an existential risk to the company (and our mission) for us to break that trust through negligence or abuse.
How would you prevent clickbait and sensational content?
This is a great question and a primary focus for our team. We intend to make the live news events long-form as much as possible, at least 30 minutes long, enough for real discussions to take place. We will also incentivize high quality with customer ratings and reviews more than just rewarding large audiences, so journalists will be encouraged to focus on quality over quantity. Every step of the way, we will be committed to improving quality and reducing sensationalism.
Research shows that we’re all attracted to novelty, and especially to information that describes potential dangers. In our chaotic information landscape, it’s so easy for this kind of information to spread like wildfire, regardless of whether or not it is accurately representative of reality.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman describes two systems that drive our decision-making. He calls these “System 1” and “System 2”. System 1 is fast, emotional, and based on one’s intuition. System 2 is slower, logical, and driven by purposeful goals. In his book, Kahneman pulls on a wealth of data to paint a fascinating picture of our implicit biases.
Assembly is designed to create a kind of media that tips the balance away from System 1 and towards the dense, slow, and nuanced realm of System 2. One important design consideration for this effect is creating live long-form stories.
The running time of an Assembly news story will be at minimum 30 minutes, and often as long as an hour. The intention here is to provide the journalist enough time to tell the story with nuance and complexity. Meanwhile, audiences benefit from following along with the journalist. Viewers have a chance to develop a clearer understanding of the material as well as a more solid basis for trust in the journalist. Authenticity will shine through in the live format, and good storytelling will be valued by viewers.
As discussed in other answers, ratings from the local community of customers will play a part in encouraging the creation of quality content. The incentive structure will be thoughtfully designed and tested at small scales to find the most optimal balance of customer feedback and journalistic independence.
How do journalists get their stories on the platform?
We believe the news should be a partnership between journalists and their audience, and that any story should have the chance to be told. Assembly is committed to giving as much power as possible back to the community to make this happen. Journalists would submit their pitches to the customer community, and the community would be able to rank which stories they would like to watch on their local news channel. The higher-ranked events would then be scheduled for a broadcast on that local channel.
I’ve discussed the way that journalists get onto the platform in my answer to “How does Assembly prevent the spread of fake news?” and I will build on that answer here.
Assembly is committed to creating a smooth, well-oiled platform that operates with smart incentives. Part of this goal is minimizing any editorial control that is exerted by the tech company and empowering local news channels to make those decisions themselves.
The journalists in a local news channel would be able to present pitches for their stories in the online Assembly community. The pitch will look something like the below, but the format will most likely be tweaked through development and testing.
Why you want to share this story
Additionally, journalists would have a profile in the community that shows their past stories, reviews, and average rating.
The customers in the local channel’s region would be able to rank which pitches they would like to see make it onto the channel. The most popular pitches would be scheduled for an upcoming live broadcast.
This structure grounds news programming within the context of a geographic locale and would be effective in preventing the rise of polarizing and controversial figures. Theoretically, a bad actor could infiltrate the local news channel and submit pitches of conspiracy theories or baseless fearmongering. That pitch would still need to win over the approval of people in that local region before the story is aired.
In our information landscape today, anybody can find an audience for their fringe ideologies online. Assembly prevents that mechanism by basing the process in a local region. For Instance, if Alex Jones wants to tell his story on Assembly, he would first require the approval of journalists in the Austin local news channel before he could join the platform as a journalist. If he is able to get onto Assembly, his pitches would then need to be ranked highly by a sizable number of Assembly customers in the Austin region before they are aired.
Maybe it could happen, but it probably wouldn't. Even if someone like Alex Jones were to make it through all of those checks, customers would still associate the content he churns out with the local news station in Austin. Other cities in Texas and across the country would maintain vastly different live news programming. The platform as a whole is resilient to local outbreaks of radical idealogy.
What content will Assembly customers have access to?
Assembly customers can watch any live news story on the platform, regardless of whether it was in their local channel, as well as recorded videos of past events. In the online Assembly community, customers will have access to additional media, discussion, and data associated with any past story. Later on, we will have live transcription and translation of stories.
The Assembly platform is designed around live news stories. This is the vehicle for the creation of all news content on Assembly. There will be no uploading of static articles or pre-made videos to the platform.
That being said, there will eventually be a wealth of information that grows organically around the live stories. Each story will be recorded and accessible for viewing in the online Assembly community. The story may show additional sources or information, as well as further data in the form of charts, images, and visualizations. Customers will have discussion boards in which to discuss the story and sophisticated tools (powered by AI/ML) to explore how the discussion has changed over time. They will also see recent related stories, as well as stories that offer different perspectives on the same topic.
Later on, we will incorporate speech-to-text AI to support transcription of what is discussed in the live events, as well as automatic translation for native speakers of different languages. We ultimately intend to grow the Assembly community into a discussion space that breaks down all barriers preventing the timely exchange of meaningful information.
The sky is the limit with what could be achieved with an engaged community of Assembly customers. We’re dedicated to fostering that community spirit and helping it flourish.
Will I get equity if I contribute?
Per Indiegogo's policies, we cannot offer equity in our perks. Additionally, we aren't certain if Assembly will ever go public. If we do, we would have to make sure we can do so without undermining our mission and values. Our #1 priority is growing a journalistic community with a thoughtful incentive structure for news creation, and we will always strive to have ownership that is committed to that mission.
Indiegogo is all about supporting innovation and delivering value to backers, and they are very clear about offering equity: don’t.
You may be wondering why we chose a crowdfunding approach, and furthermore, one that doesn’t offer equity. Here are the reasons:
In an ideal future, Assembly is not a public company.
Indiegogo crowdfunding offers a wider reach with our potential customers and a better chance of spreading our mission.
Assembly’s mission is fundamentally incompatible with the system of publicly-traded companies. To build a high-integrity platform with ethical journalism at its core, we would never be able to prioritize the needs of shareholders over the needs of customers and journalists.
We see Assembly as a software company building the tools and systems that serve our community. To that end, profit will be important - and remains a primary goal of the company. It just won’t be the highest-priority goal.
We need to build the startup as a corporation in order to have the best shot possible at funding (and actually building) this tech platform. Once funded, our goal is to make Assembly a self-sustaining platform that creates quality, trustworthy journalism through a purposefully-engineered incentive structure.
If we can achieve this goal, building the framework for a safe and trustworthy platform for journalism, then we are open to evaluating more equitable ownership structures. Perhaps Assembly could be run as a platform cooperative, a technology business structure owned by its members rather than shareholders or individuals.
Although there are many investors with open minds on these sorts of strategies, we felt that it is only appropriate to give crowdfunding the first priority in our funding strategy.
Crowdfunding is the ideal path forward for Assembly. It allows us the chance to get the idea out there and start a discussion. Even if the campaign were to ultimately flop, it still has the potential to prove that market demand for solving this problem really and truly exists. If that is proven, other entrepreneurs may be willing to take a stab at meeting that demand.
AND crowdfunding on the Indiegogo campaign gives us the chance to show our heartfelt appreciation for the people that believe in us by offering discounts on their Assembly subscriptions for life.
We’re outsiders and underdogs in a world of big media companies. The crowdfunding campaign is our best vehicle to get all of these ideas out there as a foundation for future discussion. We are always willing to listen to and collaborate with people that are smarter than us to solve these big problems together. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Crowdfunding lets us bring the question to people directly: Do you want to see this thing get built?