Interviews with Smart People: Frank Speiser, Co-Founder of Social Flow

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As technologists, strategists, and innovators, we may sometimes view social and political ills as “cruft” and the result of “anti-patterns” in policy. We’ll be exploring this from several perspectives starting with today’s interview with Frank Speiser, the founder of Social Flow, and in future programming.

In working with coders/programmers/developers since the mid-’90s, I’ve noticed a degree of confluence between people who have taught themselves to code (most everyone who does, even someone with a Comp Sci degree — because technology changes and adapts so quickly that it’s necessary to continue to learn and evolve) and people like Frank who believe in a political/social/economic philosophy of personal freedom and responsibility. I caught up with him to ask how he arrived where he is, about the relationship between his work and his political philosophy, and about how technology will impact the economy in the future.  -F.G.

What is your company/project/mission?

That would be SocialFlow. We maximize engagement for your social status updates. It’s a betaworks company, so we work with a lot of real-time web services.

What do you do?

I run and am responsible for development of the product and the company (both its culture and its valuation).

How and why did you strike out on your own?

My Co-Founder and I accidentally started this business. We had a podcast based on free market anarchism and philosophy, which no one would listen to, and it got no traction. We started trying to find a way to get people to interact with us. This led us to examine the way in which people share and consume language, and after a few implementations of this, we noticed that we’re in this business.

How is it working out?

Amazingly well. We have a product, a culture, and a philosophy that is unique. It makes coming to work every day great, and I really like working with the other people at betaworks.

How did you become a developer?

I have been coding since I was 8 years old, but I think I started down this path in 1994. I built my first website after seeing Mosaic. The concept that you could click a “thing” and I could discover or share more about that thing was a Eureka moment for me. I still think back to how mind-blowing that was.

After that I was hooked. The thing about technology is, you are your own bottleneck. You can learn as much as you want, as fast as you want. Right up my alley.

How did you become a libertarian?

I’m not sure I did. Or that I am. I definitely don’t believe in the “Big L, Libertarian” party. If you can manage to talk to people about this kind of thing, you’ll notice that just about everyone is at the conceptual level, a “libertarian”. People instinctively want self-determination. They know they own at least themselves. Giving up your free will is the objective of class politics, and it sustains itself by getting people to violate their rational self interests.

It’s just a matter of principle and how much you’re willing to violate those principles. At the core, it’s really about peace and non-aggression. What “rights” I have exist only so far as where you can not violate mine. I don’t have positive rights to anything. That is, I can not lay claim to something you make, or you have. I own myself, but I don’t own anyone else. I expect and demand that people reciprocate this.

Everyone despises poverty, and nearly everyone wants more healthcare, and for it to be better – but at what cost? Is it right for society to demand, under threat of force, that I work a certain amount of time to pay for things which I didn’t sign up for? There’s a number of great causes out there, but are they greater than being able to buy better food for my family or make my own choices? It’s true, I might go to the movies with my kid while there are people who could really use the price of that ticket for more critical things, but I earned that choice. It’s mine. If we just let ourselves be treated like a giant time-labor ATM, we’ll just be prisoners with fancy cages. That’s no way to live. So, I guess I developed my philosophy around trying to own as much of myself as possible, and I have a coincidental alliance with some libertarians. I just started trying to find the right way to live and somehow managed to get here.

Do you think there’s a relationship between these two?

I think some people want to make their own way in life, and some people either think it is hopeless or the obstacles insurmountable, or that they are owed a “better way”. You see this in the development community. It’s a core way in the way I evaluate the contributions of people I work with. I like to see how much a person is applying his or her abilities to make things better and optimize the value of their world. That person is obviously going to do a good job, and the task at hand is just another way for them to prove their professional value. I seek these people out, and try to pay them disproportionately well – because they’re worth disproportionately more. People that can’t hack it tend to fall off pretty quickly. There are people I work with that have worked with me on five or more projects, though. So, those people are out there.

Have you known a lot of other developers who agree with libertarian principles?

Yes, but I am probably at the far end of the boundary both in terms of the way I think about these things. Some people are OK with some level of freedom, but the idea of people operating to their full free capacity scares most people. Developers are good at arguing the mechanics of implementing a free society, so those discussions usually make a good proving ground for the theoretical implications of a free society. If you can’t back up your philosophical position when it is challenged, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

Are there certain factors of personality or experience that you think causes people to be both?

Personality, maybe not so much. Experience may contribute a little more. Once you have been denied your free will, you start to realize it more when it is being infringed. Whether you are an introvert, extrovert ambitious, doesn’t matter once you decide to try to determine “what is fair and how should I live”. It’s just a matter of working through the questions.

To what degree do you think Open Source aligns with libertarianism?

This is sort of a conundrum. The ideas you have are shared, but your implementation of them (both in terms of using them professionally and contributing to the open source project itself) is merit-based. You’ll find a wide range of property rights positions within the open source movement.

Do your politics influence the way you work with your partners and employees?

Absolutely. First, I have no politics because I have been diligent about not viewing people in terms of affiliation or class. It’s a tough habit to break out of, because society is set up to make distinctions based on some indicators which lump people together. Individuals have so much of a delta in their thinking that anytime you make decisions based on individuals, but apply class-based rules to them you will miss opportunities. I think I have managed to spot some approaches to solving problems simply because I did not start with the class approach first.

On a personal level, people know they can trust me because I value voluntary contracts as the basis of business. When I’m on your side and committed, and you hold up your end of the bargain, I’m going to do anything I can to come through for you. You can ask anyone that’s worked with me, and I think they’d agree with that. At least, I truly hope they do.

Technology has become, as Jim Robinson put it not too long ago, a horizontal rather than a vertical — it touches every aspect of the economy. Clearly, it has the capacity to radically transform our capabilities to do business with one another, witness EBay and Etsy. How else do you see technology impacting the economy, the state, and/or culture?

Technological evolution will make it easier to listen, harder to hide and will make it possible to isolate people based on what they believe. If we allow ourselves to be broken down into factions and played off one another, then that’s what we’ll get.

On the flip side, technology makes it easier to distribute your thoughts and ideas. It’s a lot harder to stop you from reaching 1,000 people now than it was just 15 years ago. The cost of acquiring an audience of hundreds of thousands of people is pretty much the opportunity cost of your time. We can find ways to co-operate now that have not been possible in the course of human history until now. Hopefully the more capable of us choose to go that route.

I predict that eventually we’ll have a P2P barter system, a competing set of social currencies, and new derivatives based on social receptivity. It might take a while, but that’s coming. We’ll probably also pick up a whole new set of jerks that attempt to abuse all of the above. That’s just life.

What’s the biggest vacuum for technology or digital media? What vertical or purpose is begging for a pack of really smart digital problem solvers?

We let a few isolated politicians and economists derive the time value of our labor. For the whole world. Every single person is beholden to what the whims of a few thousand well groomed and lazy people think is going to keep them fat and happy.

You can make “X” per hour, but through monetary policy, taxation and inflation, they can take away as much of that “hour” as they want. So, you go out and spend eight hours a day away from your family, but in return you get to keep maybe three of those hours. Tops. It seems like we could do better. The world is networked enough that we no longer have to tolerate a top-down, command and control style approach to what we’re worth.

But they’re not going to give up the power that easily. We need to work together to get out from under that. I’m also not saying the world needs all that much upheaval. We just need to establish a fair, trustworthy way to establish exchange parameters and contracts. If some smart people get on this, we can knock this problem out in short order.

Who’s better, Ron Paul or Linus Torvalds?

Eesh. Tough question. Linus has implemented so many things that have brought value and advanced the way we work, but I’m going to have to say Ron Paul. He is doing everything he can so that free will, agency and self-determination have a place in the future. Free will and principles are a rare mix. He has managed to make being free cool again. Last time I checked, there was no git-hub I could pull from that could do that.

What’s the coolest idea (that you’re not under an NDA agreement for) that you’ve seen that hasn’t been built yet?

Water-based economic development. You can establish and bootstrap an economy by issuing purified water credits which people can trade. When the economy matures, you can move off that method of exchange if you prefer. It will happen someday.

Frank Speiser is the Co-Founder of SocialFlow. He lives with his wife, two children and two cats in New York City’s Upper West Side. In his spare time, Frank trains in Muay Thai at The Wat in Tribeca.

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