Pop artist Niamh Aughney bounced around jobs for years, working within marketing and design teams for tech companies, until she was ready to admit that she hated it.
“When I realized that, I knew I had to take a risk,” Aughney said, fixing her focus on how to provide for herself exclusively with her vibrant acrylic renderings.
That’s when she thought — why not non-fungible tokens?
Every NFT is sold directly on a blockchain, forgoing the intermediary food chain built into cultural industries. Each second-market transaction produces royalties to the original creator. Online wallets give insight to a collector’s taste and act as an artist’s CV. Smart contracts give agency to the artist over their work in a digital forum — a revolutionary concept in the norm of streaming services.
Defining Decentralized Internet
Public transaction histories auto-absolve doubt of a piece’s authenticity while self-maintaining a fair exchange of value. These are all made possible by emerging technologies inspired by the concept of decentralizing the internet, the driving force propelling the next generation of the web.
“You don’t get any of that in the ordinary world,” Aughney said, now a full-time NFT artist. Her work includes marketing prep for NFT collections, UX projects and logo design.
Aughney regularly gives talks at universities local to her, based in Dublin, Ireland, on successful practices in NFT marketing — the risks and the rewards — and how to get involved in decentralized applications.
“It’s definitely not for everyone, but I believe that this is the way that we’re going to be purchasing everything, like houses and concert tickets, in the future,” she said. “It’s good to get a head start.”
What Is a Decentralized Internet?
As summarized by WebTorrent founder Feross Aboukhadijeh to Syracuse University, a decentralized web is imagined as “a system of interconnected, privately owned computers that work together to provide secure, censorship-resistant platforms, providing open-source access to information and services.”
By creating an ecosystem built on a peer-to-peer infrastructure — often by way of blockchain technologies — the control and decision-making transfers from a centralized entity to the distributed network itself.
At this point in time, the decentralized internet exists only in theory. Its possibility edges closer with the ongoing development and application of Web3 technologies, like decentralized finance, cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens and blockchain, which have successfully replaced Big Tech intermediaries with permissionless, trustless protocols.
What’s the Difference? Centralized vs. Decentralized Networks
How Did the Concept of a Decentralized Internet Start?
Calls to decentralize the internet vary in pitch, but hit the same note — to take back power.
“Really, the whole point of this space is that we are trying to fight the existing monopolies,” said Marta Belcher, president and chair of the Filecoin Foundation, an independent organization that funds decentralized projects. “We really experience so much of our online, daily lives through just a handful of large corporations, and we have no choice but to trust that those companies aren’t going to misuse the troves of data they have about us.”
By the end of 2023, nearly two-thirds of the world population will use the internet, according to online reference library DataReportal. The majority of our information, however, is stored by just four companies.
“Really, the whole point of this space is that we are trying to fight the existing monopolies ... We really experience so much of our online, daily lives through just a handful of large corporations, and we have no choice but to trust that those companies aren’t going to misuse the troves of data they have about us.”
It’s no secret that Alphabet, the parent company of Google, owns search. Amazon dominates e-commerce. Apple is the go-to for the hardware and devices needed to get online. Meta, formerly Facebook, stewards social networking and Microsoft rules business software.
This was never the intention.
Original iterations of the internet focused on data and information storage. The first generation of the World Wide Web, Web 1.0, was a military ops hand-me-down that debuted to civilians as a read-only web, as described by inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee, in 1989. The colossal digitized encyclopedia consisted of static pages designed to establish an online presence and surf information.
Then, in the mid-2000s, Web 2.0 landed. Nicknamed “The Social Web,” this is where we saw the emergence of a rich user experience, when social online activity — comment sections, content sharing and direct interactions — became possible. Social media as a subculture has since evolved from humble beginnings of Friendster dating and Myspace bulletins to million-dollar income channels pocketed by Instagram influencers. The superhighway of connection and transaction operates on a closed system that hosts centralized platforms in contrast to its open-source predecessor.
The promise of Web3 hearkens back to the openness of Web 1.0 with the usability of Web 2.0. Ownership belongs to the network participants who are incentivized to contribute in order to gain credits that act as property rights. Perhaps best summarized to the New York Times by Packy McCormick, an investor who helped popularize Web3, it’s “the internet owned by the builders and users, orchestrated with tokens.”
The Promise of a Decentralized Internet
The endgame of a decentralized internet is ownership. Here are some additional perks proponents of Web3 look forward to.
Builds a Trustless Environment
Although it may sound counterintuitive — as we’ve been conditioned to value trust as an honorable virtue in most aspects of our lives — the usual understanding doesn’t apply here.
In a decentralized blockchain network, trustlessness is a practice of transparency. Forgoing a central authority means that there is no need to trust companies or governments with your data.
Here’s how it works: Each member owns a copy of the exact same data stored on a public, distributed ledger. This means that there is no need for permission from an intermediary to process a transaction and, if an attempt is made to alter or corrupt any one member’s ledger, the majority of the members in the network can easily squash the raid via verification against their own copy of the ledger.
Aids Data Reconciliation
Storing systems oftentimes transform data upon intake to a database or silo. Each time the data is changed, it opens up opportunities for data loss or incorrect data to enter the file. A decentralized data store alleviates this pain point, hosting potentially millions of participating nodes that store extra copies of data in case of transmission errors.
Tackles Points of Failure
Systemic failures that interfere with service provided by a central entity, like a bank shut down for maintenance or glitchy email transmission, can be brought on by a number of factors, some of which are unforeseeable — exhaustion of resources, periodic outages or corruption.
No one node in a decentralized network is capable of taking down the entire ecosystem. Regardless of how many users suffer a cyber attack or exit the network for good, applications remain up and running while information stays accessible on the blockchain.
Speedy Resource Distribution
A multi-node, peer-to-peer network stores multiple copies on different nodes, therefore allowing more copies of the data which then leads to faster download speeds. Without a central server, network bottlenecks caused by an overflow of traffic are eradicated.
Whether you’re team Android or Apple, your smartphone is anticipating your every move. It’s showing you targeted advertisements and relevant content, essentially curating your online experience influenced by a data-tracking algorithm.
The product, service or content sitting at the top may not be the best, but it’s either the most relevant to your recent doomscroll or a paid-for placeholder. Within decentralization — where participation is deliberate and the same rules apply to everyone — these phenomenons are a non-issue.
A Decentralized Internet: Too Good to Be True?
Decentralization is the ethos of Web3, carried out by blockchain technologies. Currently, this trifecta is made possible in the Web 2.0 era through decentralized applications, or dApps, already in use.
With the proof of concept in place, the decentralized internet now stands in front of a brigade of skeptics.
In a blog post, expert software developer Stephen Diehl describes Web3 as a “vapid marketing campaign that attempts to reframe the public’s negative associations of crypto assets into a false narrative about disruption of legacy tech company hegemony.”
He argues that there are three dead ends for blockchain technology: the compute problem, the bandwidth problem and the storage problem. Blockchains can’t scale without taking the same shape of the centralized, plutocratic systems they’re trying to replace, he explains. They’re also more expensive to maintain and will lose every time to centralized systems when it comes to serving data to users. Through his lens as a developer, Diehl finds the narrative framing decentralization is naive — someone will always have power to control our lives lived online, it’s just a matter of who, he says.
“Web3 is a deeply polarizing topic for technologists because it’s designed to be that way,” Diehl writes. “It’s a rhetorical trick to set up a false dichotomy between the legacy internet world of pop-up ads and Zuckerbergs — which legitimately does suck — and a fantasy world built on technologically incoherent pipe dreams and phony crypto-populism.”
“A decentralized internet is just an iterative thing ... I don’t think we’ll ever necessarily get there. And I don’t think we should.”
Hitting a similar note in his white paper, Brett Palatiello, a blockchain partner at venture capital firm Interplay, which funds entrepreneurs scaling the Web3 space, said that decentralization must hurdle the deep-seeded philosophical concepts it was bred out of — What does it mean to be permissionless? Without censorship, how do you deal with bad actors? Is a fully decentralized platform even in the best interest of a user? — before jumping to faulty, technical-application conclusions.
“A decentralized internet is just an iterative thing,” he told Built In. “I don’t think we’ll ever necessarily get there. And I don’t think we should.”
Decentralization is as much a sociopolitical problem as it is a technical problem, he said. The ideal, he said, falls in the middle of the spectrum between centralization and decentralization. While he understands the calls for decentralization — finding it to be a rational response to the current, overly centralized internet — he recognizes it as a pendulum swing in the narrative rather than a viable, practical solution. The movement would be best served as an effort to restore equilibrium of power.
“The optimal society looks like a regular corporation, where the people making the decisions are believed to be the right people to be doing that,” he said, adding that a board of directors sits to provide a cross-check on separation of powers. “But the ownership, instead of it belonging to big banks, investors or traders, it belongs to the users, the people that are actually invested in the protocol by usage or participation.”
Using Uber’s business model as an example, the power plot twist Palatiello imagines would promote the drivers and the riders to the top, as the company itself is powered and held accountable by those creating the demand for the app.
As Palatiello has it, total decentralization is not actually in the best interest of the user. Ideally, decision-making powers within a community would still center an elected elite. He’s currently involved in five decentralized autonomous organizations, shorthanded as DAO, and it’s exhausting.
“It’s extremely hard for me to participate every time a decision needs to be made across a platform — there is a reason why centralization works in some contexts,” he said. “It’s very difficult for the whole community to come around to certain decisions, especially things that need to be made quickly.”
The Next Steps to a (More) Decentralized Internet
While some say that the decentralized internet is already here, others say it’s never going to happen. This puts us in a place cheekily referred to as Web 2.5, where users are navigating Web3 technologies via Web 2.0 platforms as the infrastructure builds.
Over 34,000 new developers committed code to Web3 projects in 2021, according to a report by Electric Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in Web3 companies. This tallies the highest number of developers to join the Web3 space than at any point in history, according to the report.
In crypto’s “biggest year ever,” venture capitalists invested $33 billion into Web3 startups in 2021 — more than all previous years combined, according to a report by digital research firm Galaxy Digital. Of all the blockchain technologies, Web3 is the choice sector for investment, winning over seven out of the top 10 most active VC firms, Cointelegraph reports.
Both Palatiello and Belcher have it that, in order to recruit the next cohort of users, the next step for Web3 technologies looks a lot like adapting its current sophisticated interface with one that replicates the automation built into the Web 2.0 experience.
Essentially, people will be using blockchain and NFTs without actually knowing they’re using them.
For example, a user signs up to play a game where developers gift a wallet upon enrollment. Tokens and awards won in the game double as NFTs. Until a user decides to transfer their digital assets to a private key — which requires a learning curve from traditional password protection — the gaming platform stores them for you, on a semi-centralized basis.
Belcher points to an application called Slate, which takes the familiar concept of DropBox and applies it to a decentralized web. On the back end, all of the information is being stored on the Filecoin network, a multi-node network that has amassed 18 exabytes of storage capacity in its two-year lifetime.
“To put that in perspective, that size can store all of the written works of mankind in all languages, from the beginning of recorded history to today, more than 20 times over,” she added. “The technology for a decentralized web is already here — we have it.”