The internet is broken. In many ways, it has lost its humanity. We interact with platforms and content, rather than people. We control little of our data, massive companies control it for us. Even our identity isn’t ours. A glitch, ban, or shutdown can erase what defines our being online. The platforms we spend our time on don’t provide us with three key needs:
- Autonomy: do what we want online freely
- Empowerment: use computers and data to make our lives better
- Connection: build relationships with other people
Despite this, people aren’t leaving. For Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube, average user time on site has gone up from ~25 in 2017 to ~30 minutes in 2021 (Facebook went down from 39 to 33). Many apps and startups break the hold these big platforms have on people, but haven’t fully succeeded.
Why? The new, attempted solutions build on broken structures and incentives. The existing structure and incentives lead to centralization, attention-seeking, and optimization for “the algorithm.” Big platforms figured this out and capitalized on it. Finding a solution that encourages autonomy, empowerment, and connection requires a radical rebuild.
One project attempting a radical rebuild is Urbit. They incorporated many of the best parts of attempts to make the internet a better place from web2, web3, and open source. Urbit built identity ownership and decentralized networking into its core. By doing this, it provides a unique and solid foundation to (re)build on.
To understand why you should care about Urbit, first, we have to understand the attempts to fix the internet from web2, web3, and open source.
The Many Attempts To Fix the Internet
The goal of the internet is to connect people and ideas in ways that help them live better lives. Better lives are innovative, creative, productive, and enjoyable. To make this happen, we need empowerment, autonomy, and connection. In many ways, the internet is failing to live up to its potential to do this.
The big platforms of the internet incentivize creating for and consuming “the algorithm.” “The algorithm” has proven to be a great way of getting attention and selling ads. Users produce and consume attention-grabbing content and businesses make money. “The algorithm” is far away from providing us with autonomy, empowerment, and connection, however.
Some alternatives focus less on getting attention and selling ads. Snapchat, BeReal, Discord, and messaging apps all fit into this. Many niche “web2” apps have also tried to focus on bringing connection back to the internet. At best, these apps connect us but fail to provide us with empowerment or autonomy. We’re stuck with what we can do within their confines.
The problem is that the available incentives are often misaligned with their missions and user well-being. If they can’t sell subscriptions (rarely possible in consumer), the path goes like this:
- The platform launches and gets some initial success
- Has costs (infrastructure, development), so they need investment
- Investors expect a return on their money
- Ads are the default solution, build ads in
- The platform optimizes for attention-grabbing content that gets us to look at ads
If ads (and subscriptions) are the only incentives available to new platforms, they inevitably end up in the same place. An internet designed to empower, connect and let you be autonomous is not one full of attention-seeking content and ads. Changing this requires different structures and incentives.
Web3 to the Rescue
By enabling digital payments and ownership, crypto provides new incentives and structures to build on. Seeing the problems web2, web3 enthusiasts set out to use crypto’s new structures to create new solutions.
These new structures and incentives led to empowerment. NFT projects popped up for creators of all kinds. DAOs funded and distributed ownership to unique projects online and IRL. Payments and wallets improved the finances of millions of people across the world. Yet, if you weren’t a hardcore crypto maximalist, it didn’t impact you as much as the “experts” said. I would love a world where crypto is good enough to use every day, but it isn’t there yet.
In many ways, crypto has lacked mass adoption, and by extension, mass empowerment. This is because crypto is expensive, complicated to use, and lacks trust. For example, it is possible to build a social network where the Ethereum blockchain processes and stores every message. It costs a lot though and is more complicated than traditional alternatives. Crypto alternatives exist; they are often functionally unusable and lack any long-term vision. Remember when Bitclout was the future of social for like 2 weeks?
There was a mad scramble into crypto, but it was all marginally differentiated. There were seemingly infinite new protocols, projects, wallets, layer 2s, and DAOs all built on the same fundamentals with minor tweaks. Many of these projects turned out to be short-term cash grabs. The structure of crypto encouraged this by minting or investing upfront and being liable to massive hype cycles.
Projects rushed to cash in, and eventually, this rush wore normal people out. In the end, they bought some Bitcoin on Coinbase, maybe a couple of NFTs on OpenSea, and called it a day.
There is still a lot of potential in the structure and incentives crypto provides, but it isn’t as life-changing as the initial hype promised. Maybe something like Farcaster or DeSo is what I’m looking for, but that feels disappointing. The promise of crypto was an entire ecosystem of innovation to provide us with autonomy, empowerment, and connection, and it isn’t there yet.
Open Source Has Always Been Here
Another area that continues to innovate and improve is open source. For nearly every application you use, from operating systems to calculators to word processors to AI image generators, there is an open-sourced version of it.
Open source provides autonomy to people. It empowers us to do what we want, to control our data and applications, to modify software, and use our computers outside of the “mainstream” internet. Status and sponsorships act as incentives, and the scene of open source developers continues to thrive and innovate.
There are reasons why open source hasn’t solved everything, however. Open source focuses on “computing” rather than the “internet.” Although it provides autonomy and empowerment, it lacks connection. There are many applications, but linking them together is difficult. This is why open source focuses on tools for developers rather than consumers.
Like crypto, open source apps are also often difficult for average internet users to use. They are intimidating because they are built by and for programmers. Because of this, they don’t provide as simple and polished a user experience as traditional platforms and startups do, which makes adoption difficult.
Urbit Goes Far Enough
Although attempted web2, web3, and open source solutions have pieces of what improves our online lives, they didn’t fully provide us with the autonomy, empowerment, and connection we need. By building vital structures into the core of the project, Urbit has the potential to provide all three of these.
Urbit provides autonomy, empowerment, and connection by building into the core structure:
- networking and connection
- identity and ownership
- autonomy, control of your data, and an open ecosystem
In reality, this looks like users owning their identity and using it to connect to other users in a peer-to-peer network of community-built apps. Users must host their own “node” in the network (or use a cloud host service like Tlon), then use the Urbit OS to interact with the underlying protocol and everything built on it.
Urbit provides solutions to many of the problems I’ve outlined:
- There is no big platform in control of your data and identity: you host and control all your data with identity management decentralized on Ethereum.
- No algorithm showing you content trying to get you to watch the most ads: you choose the apps you share data and interact with.
- No high cost of entry or usage: a planet (user ID) costs ~33 USD (or 0.0025 ETH) and there are about 4.3 billion of them to go around. Layer 2 IDs are significantly cheaper and comets are free and infinite. Peer-to-peer communication doesn’t cost any more than your compute and connection.
- Not a short-term cash-in: the project started 10 years ago, and doesn’t have a “coin” or “NFT drop” to sell. The markets for planets and stars are relatively stable.
- Relative ease of use: for users, all you need is an ID to boot the OS and you get access to a familiar model for installing apps. These apps use your Urbit identity and connect through peer-to-peer, so there is no need to create accounts or configure each of them.
The combination of all of these has the potential to give people autonomy by being in control of their data, identity, and computer. It can empower them by leveraging that data and computer to interact with community-built apps and other users. It also connects people both literally, through peer-to-peer networks, and in apps like Groups.
Urbit’s Promising Future Internet
Urbit has a promising future because they’ve done the work to rebuild the fundamentals. Urbit isn’t a fork of another project. It’s a complete rebuild from the machine code that has been in progress for 10+ years.
Because of this work, they’ve created a unique culture around the project. It’s attracted a collection of people interested in cyberpunk aesthetics, decentralized governance, operating systems, network design, the future of work, and more.
The primitives Urbit provides, like identity and peer-to-peer connection, enable developers to build unique apps. Nearly every app starts with identity (e.g. “Sign in with Google”) and the internet is increasingly “multiplayer” (e.g. Figma). Having these built into the structure, instead of wrangling services and libraries, is a big advantage that developers can leverage to create applications not possible elsewhere. The base technologies the current web is built on don’t have identity or “multiplayer” built in.
Of course, Urbit has its criticisms. Hoon, its programming language, is ugly, the data isn’t encrypted at rest, hosting and IDs cost money (if something is free, you’re the product), crypto is a massive competitor with traction, and more. At the very least, it is a rebuild of the internet that provides people autonomy, empowerment, and connection. It is having some success doing so, and I think that is worth caring about.
Thanks to the Fosterati for the feedback.
Let me know what you think on Twitter.