An actual introduction

Penned on the 16th day of June, 2019. It was Sunday.

Hello there. I’m Alexander, the computer scientist behind the HALO Project. There’s a lot for me to discuss, so I’ll take a chance and assume you’ve never heard of us before. What are we, then?

In short, HALO is a self-hostable, federated video sharing platform. To expound on this, let us share a brief background on the history of online video, as it’ll help explain the reasons for what HALO does differently than platforms before it. Needless to say, federation is only the first of several innovations at hand.

Originally, the internet was a highly fragmented place, filled with content penned, curated and hosted in a truly natural global fashion. Then, a few years into the dawn of the 21st century, that began to change. A regime change took place from the tribal, confederate internet of old to a centralised and American internet of social media and content platforms. One of the platforms to rise in this time was YouTube, a video sharing site that was acquired and fostered by Google into a billion-dollar company.

The crux of YouTube’s profitability lied with its subordinate relationship to Google, a company whose attitude towards the online advertising market was “katy bar the door”. As the years wore on, Google monopolised online advertising, leaving little else but a minority market share to its peer and competitor, Facebook. This kept the lights on at YouTube, ensuring it would never have a reason outside Google’s control to starve or bankrupt.

This plan was pretty much ironclad as far as anyone could’ve known back then. By most accounts, nobody foresaw the societal shockwave beckoned by this incredible accleration of human communications, as we have been in the midst of for several years by now. All the issues, scandals, drama and debates that were had with social media companies front-and-center has undoubtedly left a mark on each and every one of them. Depending on who you ask, YouTube may have fared better than some in how they were forcibly sculpted by the blast. But a subtle detail of this should not be missed: for everything YouTube dealt with, their character held influence not just on their own whims, but also at the discretion of their parent, Google. In the past year, it’s perhaps become more obvious than ever that this is a conflict for YouTube. Much of YouTube’s track record has been rife with lethal hemmorhage and discord, that would have surely spelled its demise had Google not been present to overrule.

Even in a world where this chaos hadn’t manifested to aggravate its affairs, YouTube would still have as much of a dilemma as Google does with their advertising platform. Outside of the social spheres where Silicon Valley reigns supreme, the reputation of Google is starving. Compare their esteem at home to what they have abroad, for example in ASEAN, and this reality becomes most obvious. National media conglomerates and all of their biggest brands and clients struggle to work with the tooling of an online presence, and in doing so find that fielding YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter profiles and so on is a regrettable necessity rather than something they appraoch with vigour. It’s difficult to say exactly why, but it is quite troubling: is it not preposterous that a media company should struggle to find its feet in producing and networking media?

These media conglomerates, strangely enough, find company in the West with content creators and their agencies. For an unexplained reason, advertising with Google is an increasingly poor value proposition for those fielding the ads. It’s no secret that social media platforms have some of the worst value ad systems, when you can just compare a promoted Tweet to a paid RT from an influencer to see. This unavoidably hurts YouTube just as badly if not more so than it does Google.

One of the biggest ironies of Google’s failings in advertising is how colossally they have missed out on the pot of gold that brewed with YouTube. Fundamental to advertising is eyeballs: while people love to talk a big talk about metrics, engagements, clicks and so on, at the end of the day everything is secondary to whether people end up buying or not. Since the dawn of time, the number one form of advertising is word of mouth, and the only thing that holds a candle to hearing about products from people you know is hearing about them from personalities and celebrities you follow and like. You notice what’s not right about the picture now?

Whew. That was a lot to take in, wasn’t it? Did you notice how it all revolved around the economic woes of the platforms in question? Well, that wasn’t exactly unintentional.

A lot has been spoken about the social woes of big tech, and indeed the internet at large. For HALO, its answer to most existing suppositions and delimmas presented is simple: the technical answer to the social issue is simply modeled after Mastodon, with some adjustments. The social answer to the social issue is to harken back to the internet before social media, and find some better models of moderation and administration than the current norm of block buttons and permabans where everyone loses. (Note: this isn’t my expertise, and is addressed more enthusiastically by my partner.)

Really, HALO’s secret sauce, and indeed its answer to the failings of Mastodon and platforms like it, lies in the money. Eugen Rochko is known to us to have generally struggled, not in his innovations or genius of design, but rather in finding purpose for the communities he creates. Like the places he ran before it, Mastodon suffers from this as well. Unfortunately there is no obvious answer for it, either. At the scale of Mastodon and HALO, people need career incentives to truly build up and match its scale with the kinds of interactions and congregations we expect. So, HALO finds its purpose in platforming content creators with money.

I think I’ve spoke enough about the platforms, and if you’ve read up to this point, congratulations. The stage is set.

What if I told you that setting up a HALO network is as easy and free as setting up a Minecraft server was in 2012? That all you need is a Linux install or a MacBook, and you can just go from there? Hard to believe, right? As the technical lead, making that happen is my job.

I’ll explain this in greater depth another time, but one crucial aspect of HALO that makes it economically coherent is access control. The ability to do creator-controlled paywalling, run preroll ads, integrate viewer patronage and have it all monetised the way it should be would be impossible without this.

Access control happens through a concert of cryptography and network policy. At the software level, your network is empowered through crypto to ensure that interactions and identities match up across the fediverse. As an administrator, you set policies and limits for what your network Arbiter will accept or not from its users, and also from other networks in its federation. Set the right policies and make the right moves, and your network prospers. Set unreasonable limits, and perhaps other networks may disassociate.

In the moment, access control makes it practical for the money driven to the network by content creators and personalities to be used to pay the bills at scale. Of course, it is still up to the creators to make the money needed to do this. We foresee two main avenues of fulfilment: patronage, and advertising contracts. The latter will be out-of-reach for all but the largest and most connected creators, but since the market is open, competition is at play and so it is not unrealistic to obtain.

If you’re wondering what an Arbiter is (I mentioned it earlier), I will explain that along with some other technical fundamentals soon. There is so much more to discuss about HALO, but it’s getting late so I will end it here for now. New posts will be up each Sunday, so look out for those both here and on Twitter. Until next time.