As part of the initial material contribution to the platform topic of the Making Public! RAAK project, and specifically thinking about networked publishing, I immediately focused on the recent new wave of peer 2 peer, decentralized technologies that took shape in the last few years, and about the possibility of publishing in a torrent-like fashion. Unlike the current internet scenario, these different ways to share informations again create actual bi-directional (if not multi-directional) ‘webs’ of links and points of connection to heterogeneous bodies of published material.
The Creative Independent
Excellent example of the slow-web approach to web publishing, The Creative Independent made a series of articles on the question How do you use the internet mindfully?, using the Are.na collaborative research platform to show all the material that is used to write an article but does not make it into the final piece. More than hyperlinked footnotes, the are.na collection acts as a shared archive of references that can be mixed together to jump off to new places.
Are.na is a curious experiment in building a social space on the internet that feels calm and pensive and centered around giving tools to its users, instead of sucking up their life blood.
Think of a mesh of pinboards, Tumblr or Pinterest, but still very different. You can link every item you add (text, link, image, audio, video, pdf file) to everything else, and ‘organize your internet’ from the shared, somehow ‘global’ internet. Offload your brain onto Are.na and download your material as a zip file, epub or pdf any time. No walled-garden. As tool-y as you can get.
A possible good example of “shared commons”?
Foreword: the founder and main programmer behind Urbit has debatable politics (aka the neo-reactionary movement, or nrx). This said, the user politics of Urbit strives to be more democratic than most other social platforms (eg Facebook).
Urbit is an application to manage your user identity and social interaction on the internet. Rising as part of the p2p new-wave of experiments that came out in the last 3 years, while it has been in the making for a decade, Urbit claims to be in effect, more democratic than any other social network. It does that by giving users full control of their data and making any other social networks ask permission to publish a piece of information from your central hub. It sort of reverses the web API paradigm.
The curious bits come when looking at Urbit own language: for example, it organizes itself spatially (its network topology), through planets, galaxies and so forth, sort of implementing a feudal hierarchical structure to give shape and order to its social space. Urbit programming language is also self-consciously obscure and runic-y, making it a huge commitment effort for anyone interested in picking up the language and test it out.
Since things are still in the making and only a bunch of beta-testers are using it at their own risk, we can’t know yet how the actual social implementation will play out — when enough of a critical mass of users will start adopting it and probably bend it for their own needs.
Scuttlebutt is another p2p, fully decentralized, and offline-first, protocol built around the need of user sociality. In particular, it uses a gossip protocol at a technical level, to spread messages across the network (being ‘scuttlebutt’ a nautical slang word to refer to the ‘water cooler’ on a boat and, by extension, where sailors would gossip about the latest news coming from other boats, a gossip protocol now starts to make sense).
Scuttlebutt works by downloading all the messages from the peers you follow on your computer, and synchronizing that with the network whenever you have an internet connection (or whenever you connect to the right network — e.g. also to a LAN if that’s where your network lives). This approach allows for an offline, fully decentralized protocol, breaking down the fever of the constant feed updates, and most importantly, it introduces another way to look at user friendships: by having to download a peer’s messages, and all their peers messages as well, you are giving away some of your disk space. This means that 1. your scuttle friends are your data-centers, and 2. that you need to build some level of trust in order to want to keep hosting someone’s feed on your computer (= digital hospitality).
Unlike Urbit, Scuttlebutt does not aim to compete or overthrow current major social media platforms, but rather building a complete other social space for the web in the first place.
Beaker Browser was born in 2017 as part of the launch of the p2p dat protocol a few years ago, and effectively was the first web browser able to surf the p2p web (recently the Brave web browser added support for dat as well, and there are new specs for adding the same functionalities to Firefox in the form of a plugin).
The main interest in Beaker Browser lies in the affordances that it gives to the user: you can build and host static websites from your computers, without the need to upload your files to a server (your computer becomes your server). But Beaker, by leveraging the dat protocol functionalities, introduces the idea of website forking (make a full copy of another dat-website) and, because of this, it allows you to re-host someone else website, and / or build on top of someone else work.
This means that, like Scuttlebutt, also in this case your friends and anyone else willing to do so, can become your data-center, by distributing the cost of the bandwidth across multiple users and re-hosting your content. Think how torrent file-sharing technologies work and apply that to websites!
In the love explosion of dat-based application made possible by Beaker Browser, Enoki came out as a little tool to create and manage websites (aka CMS) right from within Beaker. Make a fork of the Enoki application to your local Beaker library, and start building website with a few clicks, or put your hands down in the source code and recompile the app fitting your needs.
Whereas Scuttlebutt is, for now, mostly one big ‘universe’; and while they are working on implementing private groups and the option to have multi-verses in your Scuttlebutt environment, Cabal simply lets you create Slack-like chatrooms and invite whoever you want by sharing the public key that identifies that room.
Cabal runs on the dat protocol like Enoki. Dat can be described as if Dropbox would be made with bittorrent technologies. Make a folder and share it with others, work on those files offline and sync them as soon as you have wifi, or bluetooth, or LAN access.
This gives enough affordances to build all sorts of application using dat as data-storage and manager, from website builder to chatroom application.