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Galt.io and the Road to Online Suckerdom

BY David Karpf | Monday, May 5 2014

“This is going to be, for lack of a better description, sort of a Facebook plus an AroundMe app… it’s going to finally allow [libertarian conservatives] to organize the way the left is organized.” -–Radio personality Jason Lewis, on Fox Business Network’s “Stossel”

The latest entry into the “It’s like Facebook, but with less functionality and far fewer people” sweepstakes is Galt.io. The site, which just beta-launched this week, says it will be a location-based social network for libertarians, and invites its visitors to “Go Galt’ Without Leaving Home.”* Of all the technology-revolutionizing-politics websites I’ve encountered, this is by far the silliest. Their one success thus far has been claiming to raise nearly $700,000 in crowdfunding membership pledges from 6,475 supporters. Converting those donations into meaningful political action is going to prove a lot harder for them.

Here are five good reasons why Galt.io is a sucker’s bet:

1. The supporter model. The site tells us, “Galt.io is NOT open to the public. Unless you are a Founding Member you must be invited by an existing member. This system ensures that the people who are part of the community are here to support the mission and the Founding Members determine who else gets invited.”

Libertarians enjoy ideological purity, so one can imagine the marketing appeal of this gambit. But there’s something strategically perverse about branding yourself a private, exclusive social movement, while promising that it will “evolve into a force that right now can’t be fully defined.” Generally speaking, the aim of a social movement is to achieve your political goals through mass action. If you’re looking for an exclusive, location-based network of “makers, not takers,” it’s not clear what you need the Internet for. Just head over to the local country club! The promise of online social networks is that they can expand your reach, not limit it.

The promised exclusivity poses an even bigger problem for Galt.io as an online social network site. It exacerbates the biggest problem that new internet politics sites generally face –the Field of Dreams Fallacy (“if you build it, they will come.”). What usually kills an online political site isn’t that too many people show up and start disagreeing with each other. What usually kills them is that, after an initial wave of media hype, they quickly devolve into digital ghost towns (for example: the recent demise of Ruck.Us).

For a location-based site, the Field of Dreams Fallacy is an even bigger threat: (1) No one is active in your zip code when you first register on the site, so (2) you have no reason to come back for a second visit. It’s a participatory death spiral.

Instead of offering an innovative solution to the participatory death spiral, the founders of Galt.io are promising it as a guarantee.

2. The “coins.” The one real innovation at Galt.io is the invention of Galtcoins. The site promises: “Galt.io is based on merit. Members will use ‘coins’ to perform activities in the network. For example, if you invite a new member, it will cost you a coin. If that person accepts your invitation and registers, you will get your coin back and one additional coin. The new member will be a given a starting balance to begin supporting causes and earn coins for their efforts. Once they have earned enough coins, they will be able to invite other new members, create causes and eventually use their coins for all sorts of functions in the network.”

I can imagine the initial appeal of Galtcoins. It’s a simple formula: Ayn Rand + Bitcoin = libertarian fanfic paradise. But peer a little deeper and (like plenty of fan-fiction) the plot falls apart.

Initial coins aren’t based on merit; they’re based on cash. The initial exchange rate is 1 USD = 1 Galtcoin. You can invest these Galtcoins into actions, which can earn you more Galtcoins if your actions are popular. For 100 Galtcoins ($100), you earn the privilege of launching a Local Cause. For 1,000 Galtcoins ($1000), you can launch a State Cause. And for 10,000 Galtcoins ($10,000), you can be the proud creator of a National Cause. Each Galt.io member who clicks “support this cause” rewards you with an additional Galtcoin for your efforts, potentially replenishing your stock.

Ten thousand dollars for the privilege of launching a webpage with a “like” button devoted to protecting the right to bear arms might sound like a lot of money. But just think of the Galtcoins you can earn when all those Galtians support you! Keep in mind, though, that you can’t convert galtbucks back into real currency. There’s no exchanging them for anything, in fact, except additional Galt activity options. And with only 6,475 members currently registered, it’ll be awhile before any national Cause reaches the 10,000 threshold.

3. The empty Cause pages. The real point of this network should theoretically be the Cause pages. Advanced functionality could put serious self-organizing tools in the hands of grassroots libertarians. I wrote at Techpresident last September about the launch of ActionNetwork.org, which provides customizable petition, event management, mass email and list management tools for progressive organizations. Several conservative organizations rely on NationBuilder.com for a similar suite of tools. For $100 (non-Galt)bucks a month, the entire Galt.io community could construct their own NationBuilder “Nation.” Instead, it appears they’ve invested $700,000 in a cheap NationBuilder knockoff.

4. The nearly blank "About Us” page. Galt.io describes itself as “the brainchild of Jason Lewis and people who believe that private property, the rule of law, and voluntary association are the cornerstones of individual rights and human liberty.” Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk show host, not a technologist. The technologists behind this supposed technological breakthrough have chosen not to list their names on the site. Jason Lewis is a spokesperson for the company. If no one else is willing to stand behind the technology, then you should doubt the technology.

5. The exit strategy. Galt.io’s Terms of Use page clearly states that “Galt.io reserves the right at any time to modify or discontinue – temporarily or permanently – the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice. You agree that Galt.io shall not be liable to you or to any third party for any modification, suspension or discontinuance of Service.” The homepage also announces in ALL CAPS that “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO CHANGE EVERYTHING BEFORE GALT.IO – THE NETWORK GOES LIVE.” So that $700,000 in crowdfunding might lead to a flurry of Galtcoin activity, or it might not. Caveat emptor.

Galt.io has been heavily promoting itself in conservative media circles, trying to drum up more Founding Members willing to convert dollars into Galtcoins. They promise that (1) the Coins, (2) the Causes, and (3) the Founding Members will provide three unique advantages for the conservative-libertarian activist community.

Look a bit closer though, and that three-part scheme looks an awful lot like a pyramid.

[*That’s an actual quote from the landing page. I wouldn’t write that myself, it would be too mean.]

Frequent techPresident guest contributor David Karpf is Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (Oxford 2012).