Web 3.0 smart contracts could empower Internet users

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the solution to our content moderation problem is federation. Rather than continue to fight a losing battle for centralized technology platforms to improve how they moderate online content, we should, I argued, push these decisions to the edge of the net. This way, servers can independently determine which other servers to connect to, while still allowing their users to stay connected to global conversations. Federation was how the Internet was originally designed, and it was also how I believed modern communications could work.

But even as I advocated for decentralization, I knew this was never going to be a complete solution. Decentralized systems suffer from many drawbacks which, paradoxically, can only be solved by centralization. This means that unless we take active steps to protect ourselves from what happens, the current shift towards decentralized solutions will meet the same fate as all previous efforts as the pendulum starts to swing back. So what might these measures look like?

In a recent white paper, Varun Srinivasan argues for the need to strike a balance between the excessive centralized control that characterizes our online interactions today and the excessive federation, which gives up many of the features that non-expert users expect in their interactions online. He refers to this Goldilocks area as “sufficient decentralization.”

According to Varun, only three things need to be in place to decentralize a social media network sufficiently: (i) users must have the ability to claim a unique username; (ii) must be able to post any message under that username; and (iii) they should be able to read that message from any username. Of these, the former has so far been extraordinarily difficult to implement.

In a centralized network, the name registry is controlled by the network operator. Names are typically assigned based on availability, which is why “good names” tend to be taken from early adopters. This is how Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey managed to secure the extremely common username @jack. The problem is that a centralized platform operates under the direction of the organization that controls it, and nothing prevents it from denying you access to your username or, worse, assigning it to someone else. Given how closely associated our social capital is due to our online presence, this lack of control over our online identity is unacceptable to many.

Federated networks have different problems. While users have more control over their username, they are loose networks of separately established instances and as such have no way of recognizing a given username as unique across the entire federated network. This means that in a decentralized network, your username is unique only on the server it was created on. Nothing prevents someone else from registering the same username on another server. Which means no one can have a unique username in the “fediverse”.

For example, even though I’ve secured the rather common @rahul username on Mastodon, to find me you’ll need to search for rahul@thinktanki.social, since I’ve registered my username on the thinktanki.social server. This is what sets me apart from other Rahuls who have been lucky enough to register on the (much more popular) mastodon.social server.

For usernames to be uniquely identifiable in a federated social network, we need a decentralized registry of names. This, until recently, was thought to be impossible on a large scale. Varun suggests we can change that by using smart contracts to create a decentralized registry of names. Each new username can be added to previous ones on the chain, which in turn serves as a common (but decentralized) registry of names for all applications connected to the protocol. With this, users gain sole control over their username while still enjoying the benefits of a federated network.

This idea is being developed into a new, sufficiently decentralized social network called Farcaster. By keeping the username on chain and decentralizing post storage on Farcaster Hub, it is possible for users to get a modern social media experience with full control over their online identity.

Farcaster is just one among a number of protocols and solutions that are being created to deliver a significantly different online experience than what we are used to. Cumulatively, these platforms are called Web 3.0 which, unlike the static Web (Web 1.0) which only allowed us to read the content uploaded to it or the dynamic Web (Web 2.0) on which users could create and consume content but not really own it: it is conceived as a decentralized and self-empowering network that takes control away from platforms and gives it back to individual users.

If successful, these new protocols will build a very different online future than we expect. Once we are able to rely on blockchain, I can see us extracting, in the paraphrased words of Balaji Srinivasan, the first draft of the story from raw facts written directly on the distributed ledger. Once smart contracts become ubiquitous, our laws will be written directly into code, interpreted by unbiased servers, and cryptographically enforced.

This is a completely different version of the internet than we use today. Whether that’s better or worse remains to be seen.

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