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February 08 2018

Return of the Decentralized Web

image courtesy of personal data ecosystem consortium

Recently I’ve seen signs that are promising in the pursuit of returning focus to a decentralized web / internet. There are still many hurdles to get us there, but we have a good foundation to overcome the technical obstacles. There has been a surge of many prominent people working towards this goal. However I feel that making a compelling argument for the average person to care and adopt the concept is lacking. The prospect of moving their online activity and personal data investment will be the greater challenge. So with that preamble I’ll list a few of the reasons why I have a positive outlook and feel progress is on the right track.

The Background

This Wired article provides some great context as to why we should return to a decentralized web. It discusses how big companies now control most of the web along with our personal data. It then provides thoughts from the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee on how he wants to change things through his open source project Solid. From the article:

On the better web Berners-Lee envisions, users control where their data is stored and how it’s accessed.

This is something I’ve always felt passionate about. It was the promise of the now defunct Locker Project which I’ve written about extensively which was supposed to allow us to create and store all of our personal data on our local machines and provide us with controls for where and how we wanted to publish it. It’s a similar concept to what has been modeled by the IndieWeb group (another big proponent for a decentralized web) with their POSSE (Publish on your own site and syndicate elsewhere) with regards to websites.

The Framework and Tools

Besides Solid and the concept of POSSE there are other technologies that can help with the underlying framework of getting us back to a decentralized web. IPFS is a peer to peer protocol that aims to make data distributed, making it more permanent and not as susceptible to current limitations. IPFS can work in conjunction with the Blockchain which is another rising technology that you primarily hear about with regards to cryptocurrency but has also been mentioned quite a bit with regards to web decentralization. Hell, even Richard Hendricks wants to create a “New Internet” so that’s obviously a sign that we should do it. Right?

Every year Mark Zuckerberg takes on an annual challenge. This year’s challenge is to fix Facebook. He acknowledges how abuse of the service has negatively impacted people and his goal is to change that this year. In his announcement he stated the following:

…one of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization…Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force… many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens

The fact that Zuckerberg acknowledges the issues and points to decentralization as important is a good sign. Time will tell how Facebook implements changes but ultimately it will continue to be a centralized repository of silo’d personal data.

The People

Dries Buytaert is another person I follow and respect who has been a strong advocate for the decentralized web. This article details his thoughts on its importance and his 2018 resolution re-iterated it as well. In it he discusses how he wants to reduce his use of social media and increase his blogging. In it he states:

The web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come and it needs to remain decentralized. It’s true that a decentralized web is harder to build and more difficult to use. Frankly, it will be difficult for the open web to win without better data portability, more regulatory oversight, better integrations, and more innovation and collaboration.

Dries mentioned data portability which is another initiative related to decentralization and personal data ownership which I began following in 2008 but has been dormant. However, this Tweet from Chris Saad (One of its founders) suggests interest in reviving it. Dries also recently blogged about beginning to use POSSE as well.

Earlier I mentioned how the Blockchain could be used as part of the framework for a decentralized web. Just yesterday a video was published with insights from many prominent people in the space including engineer Preethi Kasireddy, and VC’s Mark Suster and Fred Wilson among many others. Preethi discusses the benefits of decentralization over centralization. Fred talks about how Facebook and Google own our data and how decentralization’s greatest potential is returning control of our identity and data back to us. Mark sent out this tweet specifically citing how Blockchain’s potential for fueling a decentralized internet.

Here’s the video

Lastly, on the heels of Zuckerberg’s challenge was the announcement of the Center for Humane Technology created by a group of former Facebook and Google employees (among others) that understand how these companies leverage all of our personal data and in turn manipulate us. Their initial goal is to focus on educating people on the harm that social media sites are playing in shaping children’s behavior. They also will work on a “Ledger of Harms” which will be a resource for engineers who build sites and tools on the health effects. While this group hasn’t mentioned decentralization, I feel we can expect that it may be an initiative in their future.

What Now?

As you can see there seems to be some momentum taking us to a good place. This is all very exciting but it also brings me back to identifying what may be the compelling reason for people to buy into the need to embrace a decentralized web and stop entrusting all of their personal data to the private silos of Facebook, Google and other services. I think the answer will be by providing the value in owning our personal data and planning our digital legacy. It will also be extremely important to do this as seamlessly as possible. I feel that much like how previous generations may have clung to photos, letters, and other heirlooms to pass on to future generations we’ll realize that we need to take the same care with our personal digital data. People need to be educated and hopefully come to realize that outsourcing the ownership of their data will make it cumbersome, if even possible, for their ability to pass that data on to their families in the future.

I’d love to hear more thoughts, resources, and projects related to web / internet decentralization. Please share them in the comments.


Return of the Decentralized Web

January 27 2018

Incredibly Entertaining Analysis of Unknown 80s Bands on the Deviate Podcast

The Shadow History of 1980s Rock podcast by Rolf Potts provides us with a unique and amazing way to reflect back on music from the 80’s. The premise is that Rolf stumbles upon a stack of records from unknown bands of the 80’s that he bought 5 years ago from a thrift store in Kansas. […]

January 08 2018

The Best Way to Build a Single Page Website

I’ve been a user of CMS (content management systems) building many websites for over 10 years. In that time I’ve primarily used Drupal and WordPress for most of my projects and tested many other systems along the way. For my most recent work project we’re using a new methodology for building our site called “headless” […]

November 16 2017

Bill Simmons Rapid Fire Conversation with Jeff Bridges

I’m a recent subscriber of the Bill Simmons podcast and I enjoy listening to his micro-detail oriented dissection of the sports world. However his recent podcast conversation with Jeff Bridges was a pleasant surprise. Jeff Bridges just seems like such a genuine person and here he tells so many well detailed, behind the scenes stories […]

October 10 2017

My Headless / Decoupled CMS Comparison Matrix

I recently wrote about the journey of moving from a traditional content management system to a headless / decoupled one and learning all the issues that need to be considered. For the process of selecting a headless cms software or service we needed a way to help compare them more easily as we tested each […]

September 28 2017

My Online Project Management Services Comparison Matrix

A few months ago I embarked on researching hosted project management services to use for our marketing team. The system we were currently using wasn’t effective for us anymore. This provided a good opportunity to look at the current landscape to determine which service would be the best fit for us. For this process we […]

September 08 2017

Considering Moving to a Headless or Decoupled CMS Approach? Tread Carefully…

[Updated on 9/11 with Headless CMS Buyer’s Guide link and my commentary] I’m about to embark on a new website re-design / rebuild. We’ve decided to move to a headless CMS (content management system) for this project. If you’re not too familiar with the headless CMS approach you can learn more here and here. Also, headless and decoupled […]

August 24 2017

Foursquare Focuses on Lifelogging in Swarm 5.0

Foursquare Focuses on Lifelogging in Swarm 5.0

Foursquare recently released a complete revamp to their Swarm app focusing entirely on Lifelogging with regards to location and travelling and I couldn’t be happier. Location tracking is personally one of my most important Lifelogging data points and the new Swarm app provides immediate access to historical data and aggregated insights as well. The new interface is clean, intuitive and extremely functional.

A Search Bar sits atop most screens. From here you can begin typing anything and the search results will begin appearing in realtime organized into groups by categories, locations, and places. Then let’s say you tap a location from the results you are then presented with a screen that will show all the check ins at that location within a date range that you can modify to search more granular if you want as well. This makes it very easy to pinpoint anything you are searching for.

(Search bar and tapping on a search bar result)

The Main screen will show all of your check-ins in reverse chronological order. You can click on a check-in to get more details on the location and get insights such as how many times you’ve checked in to this location category or city. You will also see any friends and the total times they’ve checked in to the location.

(Home and Places Screens)

The Places screen will display a world map along with bubbles displaying the number of check-ins in aggregate based on a location range. You can pinch and zoom the map which will in turn display new bubbles. Below the map a list is dynamically generated starting with countries, and then in the case of the U.S. it will then update to display states and then locations as you pinch and zoom the map above. Any of the bubble or locations in the list below can be tapped to display more details. This is just another way that you can search your history in the context of a map instead of keywords which is a great option as well.

On the Categories screen you can get a pie chart showing your top categories and below the chart is a list of every location category along with a total count of check-ins. You can tap any of these categories to then get a reverse chronological list of your check-ins and filter further with the previously mentioned date range filters.

(Categories Chart and List)

The User Profile screen provides a nice overview of total Check-ins, Places, and Categories. Friends can view this page and then tap and navigate each of these screens the same way you can for yourself as mentioned above. This lets you explore friends profiles in a very detailed way which I think is great. Below that section they display your photos, friends, and stickers. The stickers are also accompanied by streaks and Mayorships which are part of the gaming aspect of the app.

(User Profile)

After using the app for about a week one feature that I’m not sure remained is the passive location tracking allowing check-ins at a later date. This provides a list of places you visited that but didn’t check-in allowing you to add them add a later date. I’m a big fan of that feature and while I was able to click on a previous notification that leads to the old screen I have yet to see any locations appear there or get a notification on the new version. I find this feature to be very important as I tend to not check-in everywhere I go and having that ability is nice.

The passive tracking feature is something that I’ve used in the Moves app as a way to supplement my Gyroscope data but that app has been very flaky for me on Android. My favorite passive location tracking is through Google Location History because of its ability to passively track data accurately and provide such a detailed history and ability to export the data.

You can read more about the history of Foursquare’s location tracking and reasoning to take Swarm in this direction by reading Dennis Crowley’s post. You can also get a behind the scenes look at how the product design came to be in Swarm 5.0 by reading Greg Dougherty’s post as well.

If keeping an accurate history of the places you’ve been is something you’d like to do I highly recommend adding the Swarm app to your suite of Lifelogging apps on your phone.

May 15 2017

A Fictional Story about Continuing to Live after Death through AI as Imagined by LifeAfter

In a recent post I wrote about how we will live forever through bots and AI in the near future. I discuss how several technologies are advancing that will allow this to happen. There have been many fictional stories that have explored this premise and recently I discovered an eight episode podcast series called LifeAfter and was produced by Slate’s Panopoly for the...

A Fictional Story about Continuing to Live after Death through AI as Imagined by LifeAfter

May 05 2017

Testing the Fitbit Alta HR vs. Samsung Gear Fit2

Testing the Fitbit Alta HR vs. Samsung Gear Fit2

I recently had my second Fitbit Charge HR slowly die on me. Fitbit support is great at replacing devices that are in warranty but my second one was not covered. I was a bit frustrated by this and decided I’d look into getting another activity tracker. So I headed over to Wirecutter, as I always do when buying new gear, to...

April 19 2017

SXSW Panel Discussion on Death and Digital Legacy
SXSW Panel Discussion on Death and Digital Legacy

March 19 2017

A Retrospective on the 10th Anniversary of Lifestream Blog
A Retrospective on the 10th Anniversary of Lifestream Blog

March 15 2017

CNN Special on Digital Legacy
CNN Special on Digital Legacy
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