Jordan Peterson’s Thinkspot has not one, not two, but ten of my stinkin’ dollars, and I want them back.
I should probably explain how Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor who gained sprawling, cultish following among a conservative-leaning audience by ranting about about LGBTQ+ peoples’ preferred gender pronouns and “cultural Marxism,” has my ten dollars. It is because Peterson is now an internet entrepreneur.
Peterson specializes in a type of pop psychology largely centered around his rambling, authoritarian insights on immutable cultural archetypes and ability to pose as a father figure for disaffected young men. He’s been described as one of the “renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW), which is more or less a swathe of popular internet commentators that specialize in comparing “social justice warriors” to Soviet secret police.
Peterson himself has claimed to make over $80,000 a month in donations from fans. In December 2018, he and fellow IDW goon Dave Rubin responded to news that Patreon had banned Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin—an anti-feminist YouTuber who promoted the Gamergate conspiracy and more recently lost a UK parliamentary bid on the far-right UKIP ticket—by leaving and creating an alternative site. That brings us back to the subject of Thinkspot, Peterson’s attempt at doing that, and my ten dollars that I want returned.
Gizmodo obtained an invite to the site, which is still in beta and appears to only have a few thousand users. Thinkspot bills itself as the ultimate “anti-censorship” platform, saying in its “Free Speech Statement” that the “great democratic project is ensconced foremost in ideas and the uninhibited articulation of thought.” Because “without fertile ground for free expression, our purest exhibition of free will congeals into a reductive calcification,” and to successfully “navigate the throes of misinformation, and polarization, and mono-cultured group think,” something something “ideology and dogma undermine first-order principles” something something “deep reverence for the First Amendment.”
Thinkspot’s community guidelines, in fact, prohibit a long list of activities: defamation, obscenity, pornography and adult content, “language or threatening behavior that plainly contravenes U.S. law,” terrorism, cyberstalking, doxing, transacting in harmful or illicit goods, brigading, spam, impersonation, and multiple account abuse. (In other words, these policies mainly differ from others like Facebook’s in that they do not expressly ban hate speech.) There’s also a process for users to appeal violations.
Almost immediately after that, Thinkspot prompts new signups with two ways to contribute to the grand democratic experiment. This first is an annual, auto-renewing “Platform Plan” billed up front for a minimum of $10 a year (with a suggested contribution of $30). This is where I lost my ten bucks. See, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing out on any hot Peterson content, and the message displayed to users seemed to imply that I wouldn’t be billed until the start of 2020 and could simply cancel my account:
This purchase is non-refundable. As a beta subscriber, your billing cycle will not start until January 1, 2020. Your subscription will automatically renew at the full price 1 year from the billing cycle start date. You may cancel this renewal up to 72 hours before the renewal date by going to your account settings.
Moments later, the charge for $10 to become a Platform subscriber appeared on my card. It is totally unclear to me what this $10 gave me in return, though Thinkspot claims I now have access to “unique posting privileges” and “curated content.” (It’s possible that by choosing the minimum possible contribution, I locked myself out of features hidden behind the $2.50 a month level like becoming a contributor.)
The second option, “Contributor + Platform,” is more obviously based on Patreon and allows users to pay to follow a specific “Contributor” on the site. Clicking it brings up a list of seven pre-selected contributors who charge for access to “exclusive content such as Live Q&A’s, newsletters, annotations, and subscriber only events.” This section features Peterson’s feed at the supposedly low low price of $120 a year, also billed up front. That’s half off the regular price of $240! What a deal!
Other contributors include Danish climate change skeptic Bjørn Lomborg, libertarian Skeptic editor-in-chief Michael Shermer, progressive commentator David Pakman, Objectivist philosopher Stephen Hicks, and sex therapist and “Fake Rape Crisis Tour” creator Bettina Arndt.
Bizarrely, it also includes British DJ Akira the Don, whose intro video begins by stating he’s “very excited to be on Thinkspot broadcasting from this cavernous room! You hear that? You hear that? That’s reverberations of glory, that’s what that is... This is a brand new place, this is brand new country, maybe, in cyberspace, which is a very civilized nation.” (Screenshots on social media suggest that Peterson’s daughter, Mikhaila Peterson, can also be followed for $70 a year, but her profile didn’t show up in the options on Gizmodo’s account.)
Moving forward, users are introduced to a baffling number of popups and tutorials, including explainers on the “discourse button” and how to leave Genius-style “references” and comments on contributor posts. To complete the tutorial, users are asked to comment on one of Peterson’s public posts.
Sadly, I was not able to leave my intended comment on a Peterson podcast, as it was shorter than 25 characters and thus was apparently denied entry at the Free Speech Statement’s southern border.
By default, Thinkspot subscribes new users to the public feeds of 20 featured contributors, again including Peterson. Peterson’s feed site seems to be in large part recycled, such as his own tweets, old podcasts, and videos previously uploaded to YouTube (the lack of recent, fresh activity could partially be because Peterson went to rehab in September 2019, or simply that paywalled content isn’t shown on the Platform Plan feed). There’s also the official Jordan Peterson forum, where users can weigh in on such intellectually stimulating topics as whether sterilizing drug addicts is eugenics or whether “SJWs are Chauvinistic White Supremacists.”
There’s also quotes from his books, which users can purchase via a Thinkspot store which warns that they can only read them on Thinkspot:
Books purchased on thinkspot will only be functional on this site and are non transferable. Limited pages will be available for annotation without purchase.
Elsewhere there’s a number of other headache-inducing design choices, including the ability to respond to contributor posts by clicking puzzling reaction emojis. Those include two arrows pointing upwards, a heart, a handshake, a lightbulb, a fire, and a hand ready to do either the high-five or the Smash Mouth L thing.
I did not bother to investigate what any of these buttons do beyond checking to see if they returned my ten dollars, but clicking a button to the side brings up a chart of how many users clicked each one. Said chart’s y-axis is unlabeled.
Other features noted by Twitter user @skeptical7th include a lack of “Do not track” functionality and password protection billed as “robust and immune to breaches,” but which reportedly allows users to change their passwords to anything (such as the word “password”) after setting up their account.
Additionally, looking around in the FAQ shows that Thinkspot prohibits users from uploading profile pictures or using memes and emojis:
In accordance with thinkspot’s commitment to quality discourse and long-form discussion, we do not allow users to upload profile pictures and do not allow the use of emojis or memes.
Note that, as previously mentioned, reaction emojis are a core feature of the site.
The term IDW is, actually, wrong in and of itself. A great deal of Peterson’s “intellectual” output is conservative grievances repackaged as science. While the “dark web” is the portion of the web not indexed by search engines, IDW content circulates and is monetized mainly through mass-market platforms like YouTube and crowdfunding site Patreon. So it makes perfect sense that this is the jumbled-up mess that came out of its leading figures.
The internet has no shortage of ill-fated platforms and bizarre grifts, ranging from useless fact-authentication site Verrit to Japanese crane game sites that idiots lose money on. Thinkspot may claim to have bigger ambitions, but it looks a hell of a lot like it’s nothing more than the defunct Jeremy Renner fan app with a thesaurus and a guy who thinks Frozen is sinister feminist propaganda at the helm.
In retrospect, this was not worth spending $10 to find out. So give it back, Peterson. Give me my goddamn $10 back. Give me my dollars. All ten of them. The ten bucks. Return the ten bucks. Do it. Do it now.