Professor Ruben Verborgh (Semantic Web, Ghent University, Belgium, research affiliate at the Decentralized Information Group at MIT, US) is convinced web apps are deeply broken: 

they compete mainly on who harvests the most data, not on who provides the best experience or innovation. This has consequences for developers, who are unwillingly dragged into this rat race, and end users, whose privacy and potential is limited.

 

Verborgh promotes the Solid ecosystem, the latest project by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, advocating for a different way of building apps that is better for everyone. He will present Solid at the FOSDEM-conference in Brussels, Belgium (2&3 February) and the organization already had an interview with Verborgh

On his own blog he recently published a long post Re-decentralizing the web, for good this time.

In that post he “explains the history of decentralization in a Web context, and details Tim Berners-Lee’s role in the continued battle for a free and open Web. The challenges and solutions are not purely technical in nature, but rather fit into a larger socio-economic puzzle, to which all of us are invited to contribute.”

So how be one community? That’s this week’s task for the course E-learning 3.0. Do we even want to be one community? Do we want to celebrate our similarities or our differences? Do we need to celebrate anything at all?
I think the best way to “solve” this task is to find a viable minimal consensus. We self-organize, establishing for that occasion something like a community, but not by doing something which involves a tremendous investment of trust and long-term commitment.
Let’s follow the example of Wikipedia. Pete Forsyth explained how there is no need for Wikipedia community members to trust each other on some deep, all-encompassing personal level. It’s enough to trust a member to do a good job by providing information backed up by references to good sources.
So what could we do to affirm ourselves to be members of a loose #el30 community – which could eventually develop as a community of practice?

Concrete proposal

I suggest we all post about our experiences in this course. It would be a short or long piece about the content, the way it’s being organized, the way the learners did or did not interact with each other or how we reacted in blog posts and on social media.
Such a post seems like a natural thing to do, there are no good or bad posts, yet it would affirm our being together in this thing – #el30.

In our course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) Stephen Downes had an interview with Pete Forsyth, Wikipedia-editor and Editor in Chief of the Signpost, a community newspaper covering Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement. He also runs a blog about all things Wikipedia and wiki-based knowledge production. This was particularly interesting to me, since I use Wikipedia a lot and I like quoting it. The broader question here was how does Wikipedia avoid the fake news controverses and how do they arrive at consensus.

Since I’m used to quote Wikipedia, I was a bit shocked when Pete told us that people should not cite Wikipedia as such but rather the sources Wikipedia mentions to back up claims. There is no such thing as “Wikipedia”, there are people contributing articles or parts of articles, hopefully following the Wikipedia policies. It seems there are guidelines about what counts as a good source, which are similar to what journalists do when judging sources and their claims.

Still I do think it sometimes does make sense to quote Wikipedia, since it’s not just a totally decentralized platform where anything goes. There are policies, there is a Wikipedia-culture and standard practices. Especially for definitions, typically at the start of articles, it can make sense to refer simply to “Wikipedia” as often no references are available.

Of course it’s important to check the history of a Wikipedia entry and to have a look at the discussion page. The entry is an element to be judged on itself, and history, discussion and the quality and number of sources are all important elements.

I try to create a test site using the Interplanetary File System (IPFS). Since this involves using the command line, I use this command line cheat sheet.

Stephen Downes published instructional videos for the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30), however the instructions are Windows-only. Fortunately course participant Davey Moloney translated Stephen’s instructions into Mac-language.

After some ridiculous struggling with my file structure, I published my mini-site:

There are various ways to keep a IPFS-site online. Octavian Contis explains on his blog : “IPFS will host your website as long as it is accessed by other peers as it propagates to other nodes when it is accessed.” A simple way to keep your site up, suggested by Octavian,is accessing the hash generated for your content through the gateway of infura.io as follows:
https://gateway.ipfs.io/ipfs/<your hash> and change gateway.ipfs.io to ipfs.infura.io in the link.
This will access the content requested through the infura node and by doing so will permanently create a copy of the files. My mini-site:
https://ipfs.infura.io/ipfs/QmeBmdocCokJ1fMEYpK26uRb6b9vZYGUPUFXjHZgg217Uq/

There are ways to use IPFS and yet have your own domain name, I’ll check that out later.

For other versions of the decentalized web, have a look at my post about The Beaker Browser.

In our course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) we discussed assessment. Course facilitator Stephen Downes:

The traditional educational model is based on tests and assignments, grades, degrees and professional certifications. But with activity data we can begin tracking things like which resources a person read, who they spoke to, and what questions they asked.

We can also gather data outside the school or program, looking at actual results and feedback from the workplace. In the world of centralized platforms, such data collection would be risky and intrusive, but in a distributed data network where people manage their own data, greater opportunities are afforded.

So this explains why a course about e-learning contains modules about the decentralized web en data protection.

The task for this week however has to do with badges (which in a world of automated data capture would become less relevant, unless maybe as part of a gamification approach):

Create a free account on a Badge service (several are listed in the resources for this module). Then:

create a badge
award it to yourself.
use a blog post on your blog as the ‘evidence’ for awarding yourself the badge
place the badge on the blog post.

Stephen wrote a blog post about his own work with badges and about why he gets involved with badges.

I used Badgr, like Stephen did, avoided using Facebook or Google-logins and created and verified a badge which I show here:

Course task for E-learning 3.0 (#el30): use The Beaker Browser – an experimental browser for exploring and building the peer-to-peer Web – or the Interplanetary File System (IPFS) to put up some document. IPFS is a protocol and network designed to create a content-addressable, peer-to-peer method for storing and sharing hypermedia in a distributed file system.

In other words, both technologies enable you to publish documents online without using Google or hosting companies – but there are some serious limitations. Your document or site remains online as long as you or one of the readers/users don’t shut their computers. Which means that for most people, their stuff will go offline pretty soon. There are companies offering hosting for these “distributed” systems, and I used one of them for The Beaker browser project. Of course, one might ask, why going through all the hassle in order to end up again with a third party hosting your stuff?

I lacked time the last few days but fortunately I experimented with these technologies well before the assignment. I even started a blog via The Beaker Browser in order to tell about my first experiences. It’s hosted at hashbase, they “keep your files online, even when your computer is turned off.”

One of the great aspects of the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) is the interaction between the participants. A network of blogs is discussing various elements of e-learning and the decentralized web. In my previous post I expressed a concern about using the blockchain in the context of managing your identity in a decentralized way. The blockchain is

an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way”. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for inter-node communication and validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires consensus of the network majority. (Wikipedia)

There are at least serious tensions between the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the idea of storing personal data on the blockchain. Just one issue is the right to be forgotten, which implies that people can demand to erase data, which is very problematic in a blockchain-context. There are workarounds, but these have their own disadvantages, as Andries Van Humbeeck explains on Medium.

Thanks to the #el30-network, an interesting discussion about the tension between blockchain and the right to be forgotten started in the comments on my previous post. One participant, Dorian, had this to say:

Roland’s concern is indeed a theme that The Circle discusses at length.

[For those who haven’t read it: in the novel, “The Circle” is a massive software corporation which builds its power and political influence on its totalitarian ownership over people’s personal data — but also enforces absolute “transparency” as people’s “source of trust”, by making privacy criminal, and publicity (or publicness) compulsory.]

Most existing blockchain solutions are certainly not appropriate to carry people’s private data, since they are basically gigantic public ledgers shared and copied integrally among the computers of all users…

However, some new solutions are popping up that attempt to preserve the main benefits of decentralised information (and thus, power) sharing, while giving individuals much more control over *what* they share with the rest of the world, and being less wasteful in terms of energy and information redundancy.

One of the most inspiring projects I know of is called Holochain (https://holochain.org/). Contrary to Bitcoin or Ethereum for example, it doesn’t rely on one huge ledger, but on a fractal concatenation of micro-ledgers connected into one common network. It looks extremely promising, not just for financial or IT purposes, but as a tool for fairer economic and socio-political systems… and, yes, as a better way to inscribe one’s identity into the world wide web!
(not to mention that it’s being built by good people, who are not interested in becoming billionnaires)
To learn more, I’d recommend the following articles, and their links:
https://open.coop/2018/06/14/holochain-perfect-framework-decentralised-cooperation-scale/
https://medium.com/h-o-l-o/we-caught-your-eye-articles-written-about-us-169d00998551

The articles and sites mentioned by Dorian are very interesting. The Holochain-story is slowly getting into the mainstream media.Some words of caution though: Holochain is a big idea and a very deep project. It’s also complicated to understand and only known about by a niche audience. There are other projects aiming at the decentralizing the web, like Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid. Looking for a definition avoiding terms such as ‘hash tables’ and ‘git’ I came back empty-handed.

Marketing

Some basic notions make people shiver, like the idea of sharing the spare capacity of your computers. Sharing a room for Airbnb became a success, but sharing your computer in times of fear for hackings seems a serious marketing challenge (I don’t think the “sandbox”-notion is something the average computer-user fully understands). Some ideas are great but never gain traction, as I experienced in virtual worlds and virtual reality. The actual development of Holochain seems to have started in 2016, yet, two years later the Holochain-site seems unable to explain what it is so that non-geeks would understand it. The homepage of holochain.org starts with a video where a developer starts mentioning Ruby on Rails. A journalist like me working for an interested but general audience finds not a single usable text snippet explaining what it’s all about.

Holo-host saves marketing

However, the holochain-community is being saved as far as marketing is concerned by a related project, the holo host. It’s literally a box (in various versions) which is pre-configured to act as part of a hosting-network in order to make it possible to host holochain-apps in a decentralized way. The video is less technical and actually does a good job explaining what it’s about:

A graphic explainer (click to enlarge):

Graphical scheme of the holo host box.

Finally some textual explanation:

Holochain is a new technology for distributed computing. Holo makes it possible for this technology to be used by mainstream internet users and spread faster.

Holochain is a platform infrastructure technology for distributed peer-to-peer applications, and Holo is the first application to be built on top of it. The purpose of Holo is to act as a bridge between the budding community of distributed Holochain apps, and the current centralized web. By creating an ecosystem and currency that enable distributed hosting services provided by peers, Holo brings access to distributed applications to the familiar web browser. The long-term goal is for Holo to run itself out of business by expanding the community built on and around Holochain apps until the majority of people switch over to using Holochain directly. But adoption of a new technology as fundamental as Holochain won’t happen overnight, so Holo is here ease that transition.

Actually you don’t need to buy the box to participate: “While the HoloPort is optimized for hosting the network and is the easiest way to be a part of the community and earn Holo fuel, you will be able to run the Holo software on a variety of devices. We’re selling HoloPorts in order to jump-start the Holo ecosystem with many stable, dedicated hosting devices, but we encourage users to join our community through any means at their disposal. Initially the Holo software will only be available for download and installation on computers running Linux; later macOS and Windows will be supported.”

I think I’ll buy a holo box, even though I fear convincing “the internet” to embrace such a revolutionary project, against the interests of established giant cloud providers, will be very challenging indeed.

If you want to see even more identity graphs, have a look at this funky video by the facilitator of our E-learning 3.0 course (#el30), Stephen Downes:

He also offered a reasonably clear presentation about identity, keys and authentication. If identity, online and offline, is ultimately also about possibility, aspirations, hopes and dreams as much as about facts and connections, identity data seem valuable enough to be stored away in secure way, out of reach for big internet companies wanting to collect our data and for the authorities.

Immutable. Really?

Inevitably, in these discussions the blockchain is an important reference. Just as I have doubts about big corporates and the authorities, I don’t feel at ease with blockchain technology. As for now, the technology seems cumbersome and difficult to understand for non-geeks. It is often presented as a magical-technological solution for issues of trust and societal unease, which can only really be understood by the high priests of technology. But more importantly, even if it works and there are no hidden power grabs by opaque groups and experts, are we sure we want our identities being defined in an immutable way?

In the European Union quite some people embrace the right to be forgotten. What if at some point in the future, when my identity evolves, I really want to erase parts of my former identities? Maybe erasing and destroying parts of your identity is something constitutive of forming a new identity. While it seems relatively straightforward to erase social media profiles and blogs posts, and while it’s even possible to get Google to erase personal information about me, this would not be possible using the blockchain which promotes an immutable data storage which can not be tampered with. Or maybe I overlook certain possibilities of the blockchain which would allow for such ‘right to be forgotten’ – please let me know if this is the case!

The task for this week in the course E-learning 3.0:

Create a model graph of some aspect of the E-Learning 3.0 course (it doesn’t have to be an actual graph, only a representation of what an actual graph might look like. We’ve already seen, eg., graphs on the relations between people in the course. Could there be other types of graphs?
In your model, consider how the states of the entities in that graph might vary. Consider not only how nodes might vary (eg., a person might have a different height over time) but also how the edges might vary (eg., a person might have a different strength of relation (calculated how?) with another person over time).
In your model, consider how knowledge about the changes in states in the graph might be used.

I just wonder whether the nodes of vertices should be people and the relations or edges should be between people (or their blogs). I’m more inclined to have ideas or topics as nodes and draw the relations between ideas. Such a graph would be very similar to a concept map.

How would the states of the entities in the graph or concept mqp vary? One could use a tool such as Mindmeister to have a timeline of versions. The first map, corresponding to the start of the course, probably would probably depict a limited number of rather general ideas, but as the course grows and the map gets more complex, the ideas would become more differentiated and the strength of the connections could also very.

Other tools such as TheBrain allow you to build giant databases in the form of mind maps or even one big all-encompassing map (I won’t elaborate here on the differences between mind maps and concept maps). It’s possible to have the system show the different entities in a random way, offering you the different perspectives on the map in quick succession.

Not sure whether the concept maps count as “graphs” but I think they do and I’d love to try this out.

Course participant Matthias does something similar on this blog, using Cmap. (He made his own tool http://condensr.de/ as Jenny says in the comments on this post).

So I installed the IndieWeb plugin and it authenticates me on Indielogin – I only had to enter my domain name learningwithmoocs.com. Also other members of the IndieWeb-universe were able to comment on this site just by commenting on their own site.

So far so good, but it’s still useful to consult the Getting Started on WordPress on indieweb.org. They suggest a handy testing tool, indiewebify.me.

Several things were not functioning as they should. The explanation is not always easy to follow for a beginner, for instance: “A h-card was found on your site, but it’s not marked up as the representative h-card! Add a u-url property which matches a rel=me link on the same page so this h-card can be identified as the h-card which represents the page.” Rather than complaining, I studied the tutorial.

  • I learned about microformats, which are semantic classes added to HTML tags. There are currently not many WordPress themes which properly implement microformats, the tutorial recommends starting out using either Sempress or Independent Publisher – I use Sempress for now.
  • rel-me links to my other profiles on the web seem to be important. This will enable web-sign-in and IndieAuth using my domain as my identity. The Indieweb plugin adds several common social media site fields to my “Edit User” page in the admin panel. I also have to log into those services and include the URL of my site in the appropriate website fields of my profile so that they point back to my website in return.
  • Now the dreaded h-card, which is like a business card. The tutorial explains in simple terms what I have to do.
  • “Post on your own site, syndicate elsewhere” is a cornerstone of the IndieWeb community, so it is being explained. The quickest and easiest of them is to enable WordPress’s JetPack plugin. However, I prefer to do this manually. I don’t have a huge production and I like to post mindfully on the silos.
  • Webmentions are very cool: “In IndieWeb, we use an open protocol called webmention, which is a W3C recommendation, to allow independently operated sites to interact with each other just the way @mentions do on Twitter and other services.” It’s part of the plugin-bundle.
  • Backfeed. In addition to sending one’s content to silos, ideally one would also like to accept comments, replies, likes, and other replies to these copies back on one’s own site. This is known in the IndieWeb community as backfeed and it is handled by the plugin Bridgy (part of the bundle). There is a separate tutorial for this. Also Bridgy allows for publishing on social media, I decide to allow it for my Mixed_Realities account on Twitter.