In the course E-learning 3.0 our facilitator Stephen Downes had an interview with Ben Werdmuller who co-founded Elgg and Known, worked on Medium and Latakoo, and invested in innovative media startups to support a stronger democracy at Matter. These ventures are very related to all things decentralized web, the movement away from the big silos such as Facebook, enabling internet users to own and manage their own data. But what are all these projects about? A brief overview:

Elgg is an award-winning open source social networking engine that provides a framework on which to build all kinds of social environments, Known allows any number of users to post to a shared site with blog posts, status updates, photographs, and more, Medium is a blogging platform, Latakoo moves big files around (think video) and Matter Ventures is a media accelerator.

While Matter is regrouping right now and Werdmuller is no longer involved there, he is working with yet another open source start-up, Unlock. That project wants to enable people to earn money on the web without middlemen. Unlock is a protocol which enables creators to monetize their content with a few lines of code in a fully decentralized way, so it promises. It’s blockchain but beyond the virtual currency speculation.

Graphs

In our course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) Stephen Downes discussed the graph-concept: “This concept will be familiar to those who have studied connectivism, as the idea of connectivism is that knowledge consists of the relations between nodes in a network – in other words, that knowledge is a graph (and not, say, a sequence of facts and instructions).” The interview is part of the graph-module of the course.

The blockchain fits into this notion of “graph”, yet there qre some wicked concrete problems involved: privacy, payments for illegal goods and services. The decentralized web in itself (which is broader than “the blockchain”) can also provide a safe haven for communities spreading hate and fake information, Werdmuller himself published a post about the highly controversial Gab-platform. It’s not very clear to me how to solve these issues which are already very challenging for big centralized companies such as Facebook and Twitter and which seem to be even more difficult on a decentralized web with lots of completely independent operators with often hidden identities.

Metadata are very important and enable authorities and big corporates to learn a lot about web users, while the common user herself does not have the means for these analyses. The rich and powerful can protect information while the rest of us basically are condemned to use open platforms or to allow companies to use our personal data.

Access

The decentralized web in itself right now is also open, but projects such as Unlock are not only important for facilitating the monetization of web content, but can also enable users to regulate access to information. The web right now has no access control layer, in the same way that is does not have an identity or payments layer. Just as there are now projects to provide a control layer, there are possibilities for an identity layer as major browsers launch cryptocurrency-wallets but all this seems to be very early phase.

IndieWeb is the idea that one should be able to share, discuss and publish from your own website or even domain name, in a way that is not controlled by any single company. Why is it bad that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn control these activities? There is a good side, the fact that these companies get better in fighting hate speech. But because Facebook for instance depends on selling ads, they have a strict identity policy which requires users to publish using their official name. That name policy is bad for vulnerable communities and has a chilling effect on discussions and open speech, so Werdmuller explains.

Your own site

But how realistic is it to expect everyone to run a website? Many hosting companies are doing a lousy job in terms of security and of user friendly interfaces – the widely-used installation technology cPanel looks like ancient technology from the nineties. There is a new generation of technology such as the Helm Personal Email Server which could expand into general hosting. Werdmuller also hopes a hosting company will conquer the market with easy to use 21st century technology for normal people. Prices now are still too high. Internet Service Providers want the ordinary consumer to download stuff, but if people want to upload and have their own servers they’ll push to more expensive business solutions. So there is still a very real broadband issue, even in cities such as San Francisco.

Werdmuller explained the more technical basics of the IndieWeb such as webmentions and classes which add semantic meaning to html-tags enabling users to communicate on other websites without leaving their own site. I wrote about my experiences in the previous post Indiewebifying this site. The most important thing however is owning your own site – and allowing the web archive access.

The value of having your own website can be challenged. After all, “owning” stuff and “having control” seem like outdated values in an era when people want to share services rather than own goods (think cars and bikes in big cities). But yet a site can display your professional assets, without depending on the whims of companies such as Twitter, Facebook or Google. Using the IndieWeb-formats for your site helps the search engines (SEO) to find your content and give it a more prominent place. Werdmuller claims that every single career advance in his life comes from his blog.

Then again, nobody says you should limit yourself to just one blog or site. People have multiple interests, and while Facebook loves to capture the whole you, you can decide for yourself to publish several sites, linking or not linking between those sites and even use different names. That’s what I started doing by having this new site for decentralized web stuff rather than use my older MixedRealities site which deals more with virtual and augmented stuff. I publish about the #el30 course on both sites but because I use the same tag all the posts are being captured nicely by the gRSShopper-software the course uses.

Desirable and usable products

Talking about RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) and feeds, Werdmuller believes feedreaders have a major comeback. He has knowledge about various projects, but we’ll have to see whether those projects will really go mainstream – even the famous Google Reader never reached mass-audiences and Google cancelled the service to the dismay of academics, journalists and fans of the open web. It all has to do with having a product which is usable by people who barely understand URLs and which corresponds to a real need or desire in the market.

Werdmuller stresses the importance of usability. Web users in general are no experts in using URLs. Ethical software has to be usable by non-experts. Like journalism, research, webdesign has to be human centered. Work with a small group of the people you are trying to help, confront them with prototypes, get feedback and reiterate, so Werdmuller advises. OpenID and a lot of other technologies did not do that and so they failed, the identity is now something people deal with using their social media accounts.

So ethical software should be made in a human-centered way, it should also correspond to real desires and needs of the users, it should be feasible and sustainable in a financial way even when the development is not necessarily for profit. Which means that for creating our decentralized web, sponsorships and academic involvement might be crucial just as it was for the beginning of the internet and the web.

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