We Paid in Freedom:
Justin Hunter on the Creation of Graphite Docs
Feature for Rhythm & Bones
Justin Hunter, founder of Graphite, in conversation with Tianna G. Hansen
I first met Justin in my Master of Fine Arts program and back then, he was a writer with a passion for dark literature that immediately caught my attention. Since graduating with his MFA, he’s become so much more than that. A self-taught coder who designed and founded his own program, Graphite Docs – a decentralized app that allows users the ability to own their information. I bet, as many of us are writers ourselves, we don’t even realize that anything we store on Google Docs is owned by Google. This creates a pressing problem for writers especially, and it’s one that Justin set out to find a solution for. Graphite is now the #1 application on BlockStack with 10k users and steadily growing.
Tianna G. Hansen: So, Justin, where did the idea for Graphite come from originally, and how did you set about creating this?
Justin Hunter: It came about during our MFA program. Towards the end of the program, I realized just how much writing I had amassed on Google Docs. This was my most important writing–short stories, novels, essays, etc–and it bothered me that Google had control over that data. I was already weary of Google at the time, but when I thought about them being able to lock me out of my writing, it really freaked me out. So, I looked for an alternative where I could never be locked out and I’d always have access to my content. I couldn’t find one, and I wasn’t about to go back to Microsoft Word, so I set out to build Graphite.
TGH: What do you want users, especially writers, to know about Graphite, and the importance of this in the digital age we live in now, where data isn’t necessarily ‘ours’?
JH: I think the key is just understanding what you are giving up when you use products that sustain themselves via what many people now call Surveillance Capitalism. If the application you’re using is free and the company makes money by selling ads, then know that they are also selling your data. That means anything you create isn’t truly yours. It’s theirs. I think it’s ok for people to make this tradeoff if they understand they’re making it. But many people don’t realize it, and when they do, they find there are no alternatives. Graphite hopes to be that alternative.
TGH: How does BlockStack work, and how does someone use Graphite? The similarities/differences to Graphite vs. Google Docs.
JH: Blockstack is an open source developer platform that provides the tools to give users ownership of their identity online and ownership of the content they create. It works, first, by allowing users to create what’s called a decentralized identifier. You can think of this like your username with most other applications. The big difference is that neither Blockstack nor Graphite has any control over that identity. You are literally creating a transaction on the bitcoin blockchain to represent your identity and in exchange, you get encryption keys. You can think of those keys are your password with other apps. However, you control the keys and Graphite never has access to them. Thus, complete self-sovereign control over your identity. When you’ve signed up, you can choose where you’d like your Graphite data stored. This data storage model leverages what’s powerful about cloud computing now while making sure Graphite isn’t in control of that data. In fact, Graphite can never access the data, and that’s probably the biggest difference from Google.
As for similarities, Graphite should feel very familiar. Graphite Docs is a rich web editor that allows you to collaborate in real-time while maintaining complete ownership and encryption over your documents. Graphite Files allows you to easily encrypt files of any kind, like PDFs, images, videos, etc.
TGH: You have already traveled the world to speak about Graphite, and recently you were in Oslo and soon to be London discussing it. Where do you see Graphite taking you, and what are your hopes for the future?
JH: The travel has been great, and I think there’s a real appetite in Europe for software that doesn’t surveil its users. So, I hope to be seeing a lot more of the EU. But outside of the travel, I hope Graphite can help solve problems. Whether that’s for writers in the position I was in (afraid of Google’s control) or for activists working in the most hostile countries in the world, I think there’s a place for Graphite to do real good.
TGH: What is the biggest thing you’ve taken from your experience creating your own start-up business, and what advice would you give to someone who wanted to do the same?
JH: It’s hard. That’s my answer for both questions :) I’ve been very fortunate, and I think that’s something everyone starting a new business needs to understand and admit to themselves–there’s just so much that is a matter of luck. Once you recognize that there’s a certain percentage of your success that is completely out of your control, it makes things a little easier. Your job as the founder of a business is to capitalize on any good fortune you receive. A stroke of good luck that you either don’t recognize or don’t do something with is as useful as no luck. Hell, it’s as useful as bad luck. So, my advice is learn to recognize luck. Don’t be that person that thinks they are self-made and controlled their entire destiny. That’s a fallacy perpetuated over our country’s Great American Dream history. Everyone gets help. Everyone gets lucky. You can too.
TGH: You recently made Graphite your full-time job. How has that experience. Also, I’m interested to know how coding is different to writing (or are there any similarities you notice; i.e. creating something out of a blank slate, etc.)?
JH: Switching from working for someone to working for yourself is a strange feeling. For the first couple weeks, it just sort of felt like work from home days at the day job. It took me that long to get into the mindset that I was truly running a business now. So, it’s been fun and scary and exciting all at once.
I actually think coding shares a lot of traits with writing. For example, coding is really a process of solving problems. Finding the holes and fixing them. That’s exactly what we do as writers. What I don’t think many people realize is how much creativity goes into coding. It’s not often recognized as a creative discipline, but software development is not as rigid as, say, math. There is almost never just one possible solution. It’s up to you as the developer to find the best solution for the job. And in that, I think it’s very similar to writing.
TGH: Was it difficult to teach yourself how to code? How long was the process of creating Graphite? What has been the hardest thing? The most rewarding?
JH: It was incredibly difficult to learn to code. When I was in seventh grade, I created my first website. From that point on, I tried to learn computer programming on my own. It wasn’t until I started building Graphite that things finally started to click. So, that was literally 20 years of fits and starts until I finally “got it”.
The hardest thing, now that I’ve gotten over that hump, is not comparing myself to what other developers can do. It’s a daily challenge to focus on what I’m doing and what someone better than me might be able to do.
The most rewarding things is seeing something you built used by other people. I never expected anyone to use Graphite, so having just 1 user that wasn’t me would have been a success. To have close to 10,000 people using it is incredible.
TGH: What is the importance of privacy and owning your own data to you, and why should others (perhaps especially writers in this digital age) care?
JH: There’s been a long tail to the public recognition that we were sold a bill of goods when it comes to the web and the software we used. For about 20 years, we were told, “Hey you don’t have to pay for this product. Just use it, it’s free.” We were conditioned over a generation to expect things to be free without realizing that the software was never free. Instead of paying money, we paid in freedom. We gave in to surveillance capitalism–business built up around the concept of watching everything you do and making money from that information.
People are just now starting to realize the problems with that model. And it’ll still be a while before we see. Wave of change. But writers are especially susceptible to the problems this world we’ve been indoctrinated into creates. Follow PEN America and you’ll see writers of all sorts harassed, jailed, and killed. 50% of the world lives under and authoritarian regime. We take for granted our freedoms in the United States, but the leap from what we have to what someone in China, for example, experiences is not that great.
TGH: One of your most recent appearance was at the Token Summit in New York City. What was your biggest takeaway from that? What is the biggest thing you try to spread about Graphite and what you’re accomplishing?
JH: I think the biggest takeaway from the Token Summit and the entire New York City Blockchain Week series of events is that we don’t quite have consensus on the path forward yet. I equate this to the period of time when there were many groups working on competing versions of what would become the World Wide Web. Time Berners-Lee’s vision eventually won out, but until that point, there was not a consensus around what the web would be. That’s where we are now with the new privacy, user-centric version of the web that many people want to create.
TGH: For someone who doesn’t know much of anything about coding or decentralization, how would you explain it and why it should matter?
JH: The easiest way to understand decentralization is through the lens of American politics. While the United States has its problems, politically, the way in which politics works here is largely decentralized. There are elected representatives, and those representatives help shape the laws. That’s decentralization. On the other hand, a dictator makes every decision. There is no representative democracy and the people have no voice. That’s centralization. You can see how this would play out in software, and I think most people, if given the same products but with the choice of having more control over how things work versus giving all control to the tech companies would choose more control.
Coding is much simpler to explain. It’s just the process by which you tell an application what to do.
TGH: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today about founding Graphite and how it can help writers take back ownership of their creations. I look forward to seeing where you and it goes; it’s an impressive accomplishment. Thank you for giving writers an avenue to take back ownership of what matters most: our personal creations.
Justin Hunter received his MFA in Creative Writing in 2017. It was during his MFA program that he started working on an app to help him maintain true control over all of his writing. That app turned into Graphite, and Justin now works full-time on building a world where writers—and everyone—can truly own their data.