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Unlock wants to rebuild your feed through a decentralized paywall

DATE POSTED:July 24, 2018

The feed has become the all-powerful determiner of success for creators. Facebook, Patreon, Medium, and other platforms have amassed considerable power over creation, determining what gets seen, by who, as well as the options creators have to get paid. Larger media companies struggle to stay independent against these platforms, complicating their relationships with readers and viewers.

There once was a wholly different vision of the web, one that was far more decentralized and independent. The feed wasn’t sponsored by a company, but rather was an open protocol known as RSS — one that has died, or perhaps has become undead. Yet, that vision of an open, decentralized world still animates some people, including Julien Genestoux.

Genestoux has worked for years to empower creators to spread their content and get paid in the process. He previously founded Superfeedr, which developed a “Feed API” that built upon RSS and Atom to make feeds more useful and real-time. The company was eventually acquired by Medium, which Genestoux joined as well. He also conceived the WebSub protocol, which has been recommended by the W3C, the international standards body behind the world wide web.

Now, he wants to rethink the ways that creators get paid through a new protocol called Unlock. His mission has quickly attracted the attention of venture capitalists, with the New York-based company behind the protocol announcing today that it has raised $1.675 million in pre-seed funding led by General Catalyst and Cherry Ventures.

Unlock’s protocol provides creators the ability to add “locks” (aka smart contracts) to their creations by adding a snippet of JavaScript to their website, similar to how one would add Stripe as a payment option today. The audience for that content then buys “keys” (aka tokens) to the lock. Creators control the economy around keys — whether they expire, how much they cost to buy, and more through their settings on the lock.

This basic framework has a couple of interesting properties. First, keys are tradable — they can be sold to other people. This creates a secondary market for content on the web, which is tough to build using today’s existing paywall technology. Like used books, Unlock’s keys allow users to get delayed access to content for perhaps a more affordable price.

Genestoux also envisions Unlock being the future syndication layer of the web. Here, you might have to stretch a bit to see it, but the idea is that if locks and keys are how access to content gets shared, then Unlock has the opportunity to be the core protocol for all sharing and distribution.

To accelerate that vision, Unlock allows a creator’s supporters to reclaim some of the value of their tokens when others buy keys on there recommendation, creating a referral economy. The hope is that the incentives encourage more sharing of high-quality content, avoiding some of the fake news and other opprobrium that has hit Facebook so hard in the past two years.

Perhaps the most powerful point though is that Unlock is not a centralized platform, but rather just a protocol. Anyone can implement it on the web, and there aren’t any gatekeepers or filters between a producer and a consumer of a creative work. In this way, Unlock tracks back to RSS and other open feed protocols.

It’s an ambitious vision, and one that up until now relied pretty much exclusively on Genestoux to see it through. Unlock also announced today that it has hired its first employee, Ben Werdmuller, who was formerly an engineer at Medium and then Director of Investments at Matter., the digital media accelerator. Unlock has also published the code for its protocol on Github.

In addition to GC and Cherry, Consensys Ventures, Kindred Ventures, Betaworks, 122 West, La Famiglia, and Coinbase Ventures also joined the round.