The Decentralised Web

Mateus Domingos

FTP is an ongoing meetup and series of events at Phoenix, Leicester.

For our September session we looked at current discussions and innovations around the decentralised web.

The discussion felt like an effective way of questioning how we communicate and function as a community of artists. This session is about exploring alternative ways of being online. Below I will summarise some of the discussion and provide links to the source material we used.


Photo by Demi Kwant on Unsplash

This session is about exploring alternative ways of being online. The idea that we need to find these different ways is gaining momentum. Tim Berners-Lee (founder of the WWW) is building Solid, which “aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.” ¹

Net.art

Art has occupied the internet since its inception. The net.art movement included, Vuk Ćosić, Jodi.org, Alexei Shulgin and Olia Lialina. Building art within browsers is Net-Art. Accessing early examples of net art can be done through emulators and different archives, such as the Wayback machine and Rhizome’s oldweb.today.

These practices were engaged with the idea of social responsibility and finding new “ways of sharing public spaces.” ² Many of the processes used by artists in the past have become hidden or made smooth. When we access the internet today we are less likely to encounter difference as browsing is often limited to certain ecosystems, such as Twitter or Facebook.

We watched this video interview with Olia Lialina, which discussed early websites and the creative ways of being online:

However, several platforms have made the act of remixing and open-source forking a more central part of digital practices such as Glitch and GitHub. There is a collective return to divergent web practices. These are creating frameworks for ethical, thoughtful coding as well as inviting inexperienced coders/practitioners to explore, learn and comment.

Also, for artists/creatives without coding experience, there is an expectation around a certain presence and professionalism online. One way that this is played out is through template based tools like Squarespace. This obscures the places where the internet can be a space for experimentation — despite original tools such as mailing lists, still being active sites for experimentation.

This is partly because the data we create is no longer our own. It is hosted remotely and for the most part, out of our control. Visiting the data, either accessing it as the artist or the audience, creates new data that is of value to these companies. The cost is almost unnoticeable. The notifications about cookies, are a gentle reminder.

Occupy.here was developed by Dan Phiffer as a tool for the Occupy movement, around 2011. The project created ‘a tiny self-contained darknet’. It’s particularly interesting in the context here, as it was funded by an arts grant from Rhizome.

“Anyone within range of an Occupy.here wifi router, with a web-capable smartphone or laptop, can join the network “OCCUPY.HERE,” load the locally-hosted website http://occupy.here, and use the message board to connect with other users nearby. The open source forum software offers a simple, mobile-friendly interface where users can share messages and files.”
-occupyhere.org

This tool empowers users to form their own spaces for online communication. Whilst the Occupy movement was ultimately disrupted, the methods employed continue to be a part of developments in new protest movements today, such as Extinction Rebellion. Similarly the model of Occupy.here routers can be seen in the prevalence of alternative social networking platforms such as Mastodon (2016-) which will look familiar to anyone used to using Twitter.

There is a much greater awareness now of the alternatives to the giant platforms we have quickly adopted. Signal and ProtonMail for example.

Artists continue to occupy these spaces as well as build them. It is important that this continues.

These systems work on peer-to-peer concepts, that will be familiar to anyone who was using the internet at the height of Napster and ipods that carried entire libraries of music — a model of collecting things, instead of todays streaming, and temporary access.

Within music scenes, which is possibly more attuned to remix culture, there are examples of artists using the structure of .dat and the forking process to create new ways of working and sharing that work with an audience.³

This feeds into ideas such as collective ownership, and the way organisations are structured. If you are part of an artist community it is important to find ways of working together. Examining this can present different opportunities.

Beaker browser

“The Web enabled communication, collaboration, and creativity at a scale once unimaginable, but it’s devolved into a landscape of isolated platforms that discourage customization and interoperability. The Web’s value flows from the people who use it, yet our online experiences are dictated by corporations whose incentives rarely align with our own.

We believe the Web can (and must) be a people-first platform, where everybody is invited to create, personalize, and share.

That’s why we’re using peer-to-peer technology to improve how we create, share, and connect on the Web.”
Beakerbrowser.com

The creators of Beaker have published lots of great videos talking about different aspects of the project. For our session, we utilised this brief but excellent video published by D.R.E.A.M interviewing Beaker browser co-founder Tara Vancil.

As a group we took a tour of Beaker and explored the process of forking an existing site, editing it, and seeding it.

The Beaker browser explore page also gives some good examples of Dat sites and experiments worth visiting. Peer-to.peer-to-peer-web.com is a decentralised exhibition that can be visited using the Beaker browser.

As we began editing our own pages, the process felt creative and personal. We discussed how this approach to the internet could foster new communities and work towards more effective and thoughtful local collaboration.

Next steps

It would be interesting to see how the group could work to communicate using peer-to-peer approaches.

Scuttlebutt was discussed and installed. Through Patchwork, this is a fantastic place to follow discussions on DWeb.

I’ve posted a very basic page for the group to hashbase, which it would be good to develop.

We have also started a mailing list as a place for organisation and discussion between meetups. If you’d like to sign up, visit here.

The work of Taeyoon Choi has been hugely inspirational and informative in researching this meetup and shaping the discussions during the session. The Distributed web of care page is worth a long read.


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