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The return of the decentralized web

I’ve been having a lot of really inspiring conversations about decentralization lately. Decentralization doesn’t require the blockchain - and pre-dates it - but the rise of blockchain technologies have allowed more people to become comfortable with the idea and why it’s valuable.

Decentralized platforms have been part of virtually my entire career. I left my first job out of university to start Elgg, a platform that allowed anyone to make an online space for their communities on their own terms. It started in education and developed an ecosystem there, before expanding to far wider use cases. Across it all, the guiding principle was that one size didn’t fit all: every community should be able to dictate not just its own features, but its own community dynamics. We were heavily involved in interoperability and federation conversations, and my biggest regret is that we didn’t push our nascent Open Data Definition forward into an ActivityStreams-like data format. To this day, though, people are using Elgg to support disparate communities across the web. Although they use Elgg’s software, the Elgg Foundation doesn’t strip-mine those communities: all value (financial and otherwise) stays with them.

Known was built on a similar principle, albeit for a world of ubiquitous connectivity where web-capable devices sit in everyone’s pocket. I use it every day (for example, to power this article), as many others do.

Much later, I was the first employee at Julien Genestoux’s Unlock, which is a decentralized protocol for access control built on top of the Ethereum blockchain. Here, a piece of content is “locked” with an NFT, and you can sell or share access via keys. If a user connects to content (which could be anything from a written piece to a real-life physical event) with a key for the lock, they gain access. Because it’s an open protocol, one size once again doesn’t fit all: anyone can use the underlying lock/key mechanism to build something new. Because it’s decentralized, the owner of the content keeps all the value.

Contrast that principle with Facebook, which has been the flag-bearer for the strip-mining of communities across the web for well over a decade now. Its business model means that it’s super-easy to create a community space, which it then monetizes for all it’s worth: you even have to pay to effectively reach the people you connected with to begin with. We’ve all become familiar with the societal harms of its targeted model, but even beyond that, centralization has inherent harms. When every online interaction and discussion is templated to the same team’s design decisions (and both the incentives and assumptions behind those decisions), those interactions are inevitably shaped by those templates. It leads to what Amber Case calls the templated self. Each of those conversations consequently occurs in a form that serves Facebook (or Twitter, etc) rather than the community itself.

It’s easy to discount blockchain; I did, for many years. (It was actually DADA, one of our investments at Matter, who showed me the way.) And there’s certainly a lot that can be said about the environmental impact and more. We should talk about them now: it’s important to apply pressure to change to proof of stake and other models beyond. The climate crisis can’t be brushed aside. But we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: blockchain platforms have created value in decentralization, and provided a meaningful alternative to invasive, centralized silos for the first time in a generation. Those things are impermanent; we won’t be talking about harmful, slow proof of work algorithms in a few years, in the same way we don’t talk about HTML 1 today.

What does it look like to build an ethical, decentralized platform for community and discourse that is also self-sustaining, using these ideas? How can we distribute equity among participants of the community rather than sucking it up into a centralized megacorporation or institutional investors? That question has been giving me energy. And there are more and more people thinking along similar lines.

Animated GIF NFTs and crypto speculation aren’t very interesting at best (at least to me), and at worst are a reflection of a kind of reductive greed that has seriously negative societal effects. But looking beyond the gold rush, the conversations I’m having remind me of the conversations I used to have about the original web. The idea of decentralization is empowering. The idea of a community supporting itself organically is empowering. The idea of communities led by peer-to-peer self-governance is empowering. The idea of movement leaders being organically supported in their work is empowering. And we’re now in a position where if we pull those threads a little more, it’s not obvious that these ideas will fail. That’s an exciting place to be.