About Web3

When I wrote about platform risk, the Creator Economy, and the Indie Web, decentralization was only touched briefly. Buckle up, today is going to get technical.

The first phase of the Internet, or the World Wide Web, to be specific, can be considered as a consumer version. There were only a relatively few editors and many consumers. This changed with the second phase, where consumers became producers or "prosumers." This saw the rise of user-generated content, social media, and eventually evolved into the platform economy we know today.

Now the term "Web3" coins the notion to create a decentralized Internet. Side note: the Internet is decentralized by design. At least in theory, as the infrastructure needed to run it is controlled by fewer and fewer providers. You can experience the consequences when, for example, Cloudflare or AWS have a hiccup and half of the web is gone. So, to be more precise, Web3 aims to break up platform silos and centralized solutions and bring power back to the people (exaggerations are mine.)

To build this Web3, on a very basic level, there are two kinds of building blocks: those with "something blockchain" and those without. Let's start with the former.

Bold statement: most people do not understand what a blockchain is. I won't even start to try to explain it, yet to put the technology in context, let's think about it as a database with little capacity shared across different locations by slow and expensive means. Everything else you have heard of (coins, smart contracts, tokens, etc.) is based on this foundation. You probably guess where I'm going with this.

To be honest, it's hard for me to write objectively about anything blockchain. Disclaimer: I hodl coins and a couple of years back I was close to becoming a blockchain evangelist. Things went downhill from there, after witnessing what greed can do to people. And most proofs needed to run chains are built on waste (power, time, capacity, ...), which is just plain wrong on a planet with finite resources and a climate crisis. Furthermore, it's hypocritical to ignore the fact that chains have centralized choke points (code maintained by a select few, seed nodes, proof of stake literally built around accumulated wealth, ...)

From a technological, geeky point of view, blockchain is absolutely fascinating. But in my opinion, it is not a viable basis to build solutions on. Blockchain technology is looking for a problem to solve for more than 10 years now.

On the other hand, we as builders want to create solutions to problems at hand right now. Most of the time, this means that we need proven, stable, and yes, sometimes boring technology. Let me give you some examples.

  • Do you want to check if a piece of data has been tampered with? Use checksums and fingerprinting.
  • Do you need encryption and authentication? Use public-key cryptography.
  • Do you need a way to distribute those public keys? Use public key infrastructure. Some of these systems are running for decades now.
  • Do you need to reach consensus in a distributed system? Paxos comes to mind. (Recommended read plus video for distributed consensus in general.)
  • Do you need a distributed filesystem? Have a look at IPFS.
  • Do you need a "network protocol stack for building secure, distributed, and privacy-preserving applications"? Welcome to GNUnet.

Now, this is all low-level tech. Here are more examples of tools, apps, and initiatives to get a better grip of the possibilities around decentralization.

  • Many filesharing services were or are based on peer-to-peer protocols. The Napster of old, eMule, Gnutella, and BitTorrent for example.
  • Skype was originally based on peer-to-peer technology
  • The Tor Project enables anonymous communication
  • Mastodon uses federation to build a microblogging system like Twitter
  • Git is a distributed version control system. (The version history structure of Git is similar to a Merkle Tree, which is a building block of blockchains.)
  • The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is working on Solid, a web decentralization project
  • Mozilla used to work on the Dweb

Closing, keep in mind that technology is, most of the time, just a means to an end. The press may be interested in the tech you chose. Investors most certainly are attracted to the right buzzwords. Customers don't care. They just need to get their job done.

This post is based on Basic Problem issue #46.

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