Home / Opinion / Columns /  How Web 3.0 will put you on top of the internet

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the solution to our content moderation problem is federation. Rather than continuing to fight a losing battle to get centralized tech platforms to improve how they moderate online content, we should, I argued, push these decisions to the edge of the network. This way, servers can determine for themselves which other servers to connect to, while still letting their users stay connected to global conversations. Federation was how the internet was originally designed and was also how I believed modern communications could be made to function.

But even as I made the case for decentralization, I knew that this would never be a complete solution. Decentralized systems suffer from many inconveniences that, paradoxically, can only be solved by centralization. Which means that unless we take active measures to protect against this happening, the current shift in favour of decentralized solutions will meet the same fate as all the efforts that came before as soon as the pendulum starts to swing back. So, what might these measures look like?

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In a recent white paper, Varun Srinivasan makes an argument for finding a balance between the excessive centralized control that characterizes our online interactions today and too much federation—which forsakes many of the features that lay users have come to expect in their online interactions. He refers to this Goldilocks Zone as “sufficient decentralisation".

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

In a centralized network, the name registry is controlled by the operator of the network. Names are usually assigned based on availability, which is why “good names" tend to be taken by early adopters. This is how Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, was able to secure for himself the extremely common @jack username. The trouble is that a centralized platform operates under the direction of the organization controlling it, and nothing stops it from denying you access to your username or, worse, assigning it to someone else. Given how closely our social capital is associated with 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. What this means is that in a decentralized network, your username is only unique on the server on which it is created. Nothing stops someone else from registering the same username on another server. Which means that no one can have a unique username across the ‘fediverse’.

For instance, even though I have secured for myself the rather-common @rahul username on Mastodon, in order to find me you have to search for rahul@thinktanki.social, since I registered my username on the thinktanki.social server. This is what distinguishes me from the other Rahul who had the good fortune to register himself on the (way more popular) mastodon.social server.

For usernames to be uniquely identifiable across a federated social network, we need a decentralized name registry. This, until recently, was believed to be impossible at scale. Varun suggests that we can change this by using smart contracts to build a decentralized name registry. Each new username can be added to those before them on the chain, which in turn serves as the common (yet decentralized) registry of names for all applications connected to the protocol. With this, users get exclusive control over their username while still leveraging the benefits of a federated network.

This idea is being built out in a new sufficiently decentralized social network called Farcaster. By keeping the username on-chain and decentralizing the storage of posts on Farcaster Hubs, 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 built to offer an online experience significantly different from what we are accustomed to. Cumulatively, these platforms are being referred to as Web 3.0 that—unlike the static web (Web 1.0) which only allowed us to read content uploaded to it or the dynamic web (Web 2.0) on which users could create and consume content but not really own it—is being envisaged as a decentralized and self-empowering network that takes control away from platforms and returns it to individual users.

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

This is a wholly different version of the internet from what we use today. Whether it’s better or worse remains to be seen.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Vivek Kaul tells what connects girl education with our per capita income. Rahul Matthan says Web 3.0 will put you on top of the internet. Arianne Cohen tells how revenues shot up with 4-day work week. Long Story lays bare the mystery of missing billions in India's trade.

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