There is a lot of talk about the decentralized web now. I’m very interested to see where IPFS takes us, and I’m even working on my own little IPFS backed project in my spare time.
So what is decentralization? It’s a fancy way of talking about peer-to-peer networks. P2P (a common shortening of “peer-to-peer”) represents the potential future of a distributed, decentralized internet.
But to understand the difference between that and the “normal” internet, you have to understand a bit about networking. When I load up Facebook’s homepage, I am essentially plugging into Facebook’s servers via my browser software. These are thousands upon thousands of computer wired together in a data center somewhere. When you enter your profile information, or post a snarky quip, it gets stored on Facebook’s servers. And Facebook owns that information. They can harvest your data however they want, with some limits in Europe thanks to GDPR and the soon-to-come CCPA in California. Unless you’re in one of those jurisdiction, your data is owned by Facebook. And Facebook can profit from it however they choose.
If you were to upload the same data to IPFS, the situation would be different. IPFS stores data across multiple computers around the world called peers. Unfortunately, to access something like a whole webpage in such a system can be slow, because we have to stick together data from across the network. It’s not all within a single data center controlled by one company. IPFS also uses something called a block chain to keep tabs on that data, making it tricky to “search” for your data unless you know its precise location in this vast network.
If you are at all politically minded, you can see why the decentralized model is getting so much traction in certain circles. It offers an alternative to the world that emerged in the last 2000s where a handful of private entities control vast swaths of the world’s data.
Eventually, so the theory goes, people would come up with a decentralized version of sites like Facebook. It would be powered by something like IPFS. In fact, Diaspora (which predates IPFS by quite a lot) and Mastodon have achieved exactly this.
That said, technology like IPFS has a few glaring practical challenges. For one thing, storing all of that data will take up a ton of space and processing power. Ordinary citizens would have to decide to host an IPFS instance (called a node), pay the electric bill, keep a high speed internet connection running to it, and so on. Some probably would do so out of passion for the project. But it’s almost inevitable that eventually IPFS nodes will be largely running on Amazon or Google hosted cloud servers. Perhaps even one of these big companies would offer “free” IPFS hosting in exchange for an opportunity to packet-sniff everything coming in and out. So the big companies might end up effectively re-centralizing this system in practice if not in principle. Sure, the block chain* aspect prevents tampering with the actual data, but it does kind of beg the question of why we are running this complex peer-to-peer system if it tends to become centralized anyway.
So what is a boy to do? I am a fan of simple solutions. And IPFS, though intriguing, is far from simple. A simple solution for owning your own information online?
Host a blog.
At this blog, I have an opportunity to present myself to the world exactly as I choose. I run WordPress and manage it myself. WordPress isn’t trying to monetize my content or manipulate my audience with algorithms to increase conversion rate on ads. I can post my own profile online here with as much or as little information about me as I want to share with the world.
If you want to see the internet do better than Facebook and Twitter, give blogging a try! All you need is an AWS account, a little bit of technical know-how, and something you want to say.
*I hope to write a more thorough article about blockchain at a later date. It’s a complicated enough idea to warrant its own article.