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