Hello, denizens of the internet!
2017 has been a stressful year for many, but for those trying to fix the internet, it's been a delightfully hopeful one.
It's becoming gradually clearer that the Facebook-Google-Amazon dominated internet (what André Staltz calls the Trinet) is weighing down society, our economy, and our political system. From US congressional hearings in November over Russian social media influence, to increasing macroeconomic concern about productivity and technology monopolization, to bubbling user dissatisfaction with digital walled gardens, forces are brewing to make 2018 a breakout year for contenders looking to shape the Web in the service of human values, opposed to the values of the increasingly attention-grubby advertising industry.
Here's my update on how some of those contenders progressed in 2017.
Blockstack kicked off a great year, closing its first major ICO at $50 million and showing some impressive movement in serious application development. They closed a $25,000 bounty for a full-featured cryptocurrency portfolio application, awarded to the team at CoinsApp, and quickly followed up with another $50,000 bounty for a chat application built on Blockstack. Other applications are in development, likely to be indexed at the community site devlink.to as they're developed, which is a good site to keep an eye on in 2018.
Blockstack has some of the most impressive marketing in the decentralization space, hosting people like Edward Snowden in their conference planned for Berlin in next March. If application development proceeds along as smoothly, it's shaping up to be a heavyweight contender against the corporate web in the coming years.
Mastodon, ActivityPub, the fediverse -- whatever you want to call it -- exploded onto the scene in early April with a huge influx of users that has persisted and grown throughout 2017, breaking the 1 million mark (note: this is total accounts created, not individual people). Despite my initial mostly good-hearted negativity, the SWICG / ActivityPub group at W3C have been hard at work evolving the standards powering Mastodon to get it ready for serious, reliable mass adoption (including working on fixes to my follower migration complaint, which I am personally excited about).
- Gargron's 2017 Mastodon update
- Mastodon makes the Internet feel like home again
- Mastodon is big in Japan for... reasons
The Brave browser (and associated crypto token, the Basic Attention Token) also had a great year, raising $35 million in 30 seconds from their BAT token sale back in May, blossoming to a market cap of $335 million (at the time of this writing) for the BAT network overall.
Development momentum has been extremely promising with the Brave creator platform, integrating first-class support for youtube creators through the BAT dashboard. I have yet to play with the dashboard yet, but will report on the experience once I get time after the holidays (Disclosure: I own a minor amount of BAT).
Brave-the-browser is also playing nicely with other decentralization initiatives, adding first-class support for IPFS urls and interop with the DAT project portended for the new year. This is extremely good news, as the #1 issue facing the decentralization movement is the "yet another standard problem", outlined by the classic XKCD comic:
Any project devoting serious development time to working with other decentralization standards will be in very strong position in the world of protocol-heavy applications. Proponents of a successful decentralized web movement will have to work together to build a healthy, flourishing web environment if we want any kind of truly independent web to succeed.
- The Basic Attention Token whitepaper (highly readable)
Speaking of the "standards proliferation problem"...
The Camlistore project recently changed its name to Perkeep, signaling that Brad Fitzpatrick's team has renewed interest in marketing their project a wider audience. Camlistore/Perkeep is very dear to me, as Brad Fitzpatrick's early writing and demos were what first inspired me to get involved in decentralization. He's a titan of the movement and I strongly recommend to anyone interested in web decentralization to follow his leadership on the subject (more excellent bradfitz links to follow in coming posts).
One thing I'm still perplexed about from Perkeep is the parallel development of its sister project, Upspin. The reason I call them sister projects is that their creators -- Brad Fitzpatrick, Andrew Gerrand, Rob Pike, among others -- are all part of the Golang core team and presumably work "in the same office". They know each other and collaborate for various projects, and have very similar marketing with deeply understanding of problems with data ownership.
What I still don't fully understand is: Why they are different projects? I asked as such on Hacker News, and was linked to an explanation about preferred data models that I didn't quite understand. From my vantage point of "can we please kill Facebook / Twitter tomorrow", I don't quite see the benefits of minor technical differences holding back collaboration and unified development/marketing efforts to get either one of these systems production ready, with continual reference to the XKCD standards proliferation problem as described above. Either way, I hope to see more forward movement from both of these projects in the years to come, and they have some of the most talented engineers in the world thinking through very hard problems in decentralized social networking.
Matrix has been diligently working on improvements to its core protocols, releasing a huge upgrade to Riot.im chat application supporting a highly requested "Communities" feature, which enables Slack-like groupings of users and chatrooms. In addition, they've been steadily releasing improvements its homeserver reference implementation, Synapse, while doing various forms of outreach and fundraising for its members.
They even released a very cool decentralized VR demo earlier this year, raising interesting questions about the future of data ownership in VR and the next wave of computing mediums. Not many people are thinking about the centralized data- and social- ownership challenges that VR offers, and it's worth watching the demo to get a head start on what the decentralization battles of the 2020s will look like.
Finally, I have a great amount of excitement for the Urbit project, which has seen an incredible amount of maturity over the last year or two. Full disclosure -- I have been personally working with the Urbit project since July, and am privy to an exciting product roadmap in development throughout 2018 and beyond. Urbit is both different-in-scope than other projects (No other projects are writing a full new operating system, accompanying typed, functional programming language, assembler language target, etc. in service of decentralization) and has a more focused approach to community growth than traditional mass-market "startup" growth strategies.
As such, Urbit in 2018 will be great for systems engineers and social UI geeks willing to spend time learning new paradigms to traditional computer systems. It throws away C and Unix entirely, and being fully comfortable in Urbit will mean learning at least some Hoon, a zany-at-first but ultimately elegant FP language that achieves some impressive innovation in programming language design while boasting surprisingly decent performance.
With my bias hat fully secured, Urbit will be worth paying attention to in the coming months and years.
- Galen Wolfe-Pauly, Urbit cofounder, presenting at IDEO CoLab
- Isaac Simpson on "Urbit and the not-so-dark future of the Internet"
Other projects I'm excited about
Many other projects in this space have sustained a lot of momentum this year. I don't have time to mention them all, and I hope to spend some time in 2018 getting more familiar with them so I can report on them more closely.
IPFS launched a new cryptocurrency called Filecoin, raising a record-breaking $257 million in September of 2017 as a way to scale the IPFS network by incentivizing users to offer storage space for IPFS data. IPFS's founder, Juan Benet, another titan of web decentralization, is worth following and paying attention to.
Dat project and the associated Beaker Browser is probably the most exciting project I regret not spending much time with. They launched an experimental social network called Rotonde earlier this year (accessible only from Beaker), which I can find scant information for outside of some sparse user documentation. Paul Frazee (creator of the Beaker browser) has been an excellent person to follow in essays and on social media, and I'm looking forward into delving into DAT once the holiday season wraps up.
Finally, the Secure Scuttlebutt project garnered a lot of buzz as perhaps the best contender for a social networking system that remains fully workable in a post-apocalyptic landscape, where the global internet itself has been removed as a dependency, and the network works just as well (indeed, it shines) on old old-fashioned sneakernet and mesh nets alike.
I'm not joking -- it was pioneered by Dominic Tarr, a node.js developer in New Zealand who mostly lives out of a sailboat and built a mesh-based social network for his unique situation.
With the hegemony of a global internet under fire from national firewalls like those in China and Russia, as well as net neutrality protections being rapidly revoked even here in the United States, more attention will be paid to "semi-online" and mesh-ready networks like SSB over the coming decades.
Other links and errata
That's about for significant news from the decentralized web movement in 2017 that I've been following. There's a lot more stuff out there, of course, and I haven't covered nearly everything. I'll wrap this up with some good essays that provide some great context for why this scene was so interesting in 2017 and will just gain in importance and momentum in the coming months.
- Andre Staltz, "The Web began dying in 2014"...
- Andre Staltz again, with his plan to fix it
- Ruben Verborgh on paradigm shifts for the decentralized web
- Tony Arcieri on the dangers of blockchain monoculture" (from 2016, but excellent nonetheless)
- Decentralization in 2017
I hope everyone had the best year they could in 2017. I'm very optimistic that 2018 will be a huge year for decentralized web advocates and everyone hoping to take back control of their digital lives.
See you next year!