Read Write Own
The internet is probably the most important invention of the twentieth century. It transformed the world much as earlier technological revolutions — the printing press, the steam engine, electricity — did before.
Unlike many other inventions, the internet wasn’t immediately monetized. Its early architects created the network not as a centralized organization but as an open platform that anyone — artists, users, developers, companies, and others — could access equally. At a relatively low cost and without needing approval, anyone anywhere could create and share code, art, writing, music, games, websites, startups, or whatever else people could dream up.
And whatever you created, you owned. As long as you obeyed the law, no one could change the rules on you, extract more money from you, or take away what you built. The internet was designed to be permissionless and democratically governed, as were its original networks: email and the web. No participants would be privileged over others. Anyone could build on top of these networks and control their creative and economic destinies.
This freedom and sense of ownership led to a golden period of creativity and innovation that drove the growth of the internet, leading to countless applications that have transformed our world and the way we live, work, and play.
Then, everything changed. Starting in the mid-2000s, a small group of companies wrenched control away. The internet got intermediated. The network went from permissionless to permissioned.
The good news: Billions of people got access to amazing technologies, many of which were free to use. The bad news: A centralized internet run by a handful of mostly ad-based services meant people had fewer software choices, weakened data privacy, and diminished control over their online lives. It also became much harder for startups, creators, and other groups to grow their internet presences without worrying about centralized platforms changing the rules on them and taking away their audiences, profits, and power.
Even though those platforms deliver significant value to people, they also control what we see and watch. The most visible example of this is deplatforming — where services eject people, usually without transparent due process. Alternatively, people may get silenced and not even know it — a practice called shadowbanning. Search and social ranking algorithms can change lives, make or break businesses, and even influence elections.
A subtler and equally troubling point is how these centralized networks restrict and constrain startups, impose high rents on creators, and disenfranchise users. The negative effects of their design choices stifle innovation, tax creativity, and concentrate power and money in the hands of a few.
This is especially dangerous when you consider that the killer app of the internet is networks.
Most of what people do online involves networks: The web and email are networks. Social apps are networks. Payment apps are networks. Marketplaces are networks. Almost every useful online service is a network. Networks — computing networks, of course; but also developer platforms, marketplaces, financial networks, social networks, and all variety of communities coming together online — have always been a powerful part of the promise of the internet. Developers, entrepreneurs, and everyday internet users have nurtured and nourished tens of thousands of networks, unleashing an unprecedented wave of creation and coordination. Yet the networks that have lasted are mostly owned and controlled by private companies.
The problem stems from permission. Today creators and startups need to ask for permission from centralized gatekeepers and incumbents to launch and grow new products. But dominant tech businesses leverage the power of permission to thwart competition, desolate markets, and extract rents. And those rents are exorbitant: App stores charge up to 30 percent for payments. That’s more than ten times the payment industry norm. Such steep take rates are unheard of in other markets, and they reflect how powerful these companies have become. That’s what we mean when we say corporate networks tax creativity. The taxation is literal.
These big, centralized networks are ruthless, anticompetitive, and abuse their power. They squelch competitors, reducing options for consumers. By cutting off third parties that were building apps for users on top of their platforms, they punished many developers — and therefore punished users by offering fewer products, fewer choices, and less freedom. Today almost no new startup activity takes place on top of social networks. Developers know better than to lay foundations on quicksand.
Many people don’t see a problem with the way things are, are happy with the status quo, or don’t think much about it. They are satisfied with the comforts afforded by these centralized platforms and networks. We live in an age of abundance, after all. You can connect to anyone you want (assuming the corporate owners are okay with it). You can read, watch, and share as much as you like. There are plenty of “free” services to satiate us — the price of entry being just our data. (As they say, “If it’s free, then you’re the product.”)
Maybe you think the tradeoff is worth it — or perhaps you see no other viable alternative for life online. Either way, whatever your stance, one trend is undeniable: centralizing forces are drawing the internet inward, collecting power into the center of what was supposed to be a decentralized network.
The inward turn of the internet is stifling innovation, making it less interesting, less dynamic, and less fair.
To the extent that anyone recognizes a problem, they usually assume the only way to rein in existing giants is through government regulation. That may be part of the solution. But regulation often has the unintended side effect of cementing existing giants’ power. Larger companies can deal with compliance costs and regulatory complexity that overwhelm smaller upstarts, while red tape restrains newcomers.
We need a level playing field. And in service of that, we need thoughtful regulation that respects this fundamental truth: startups and technologies offer a more effective way to check incumbents’ power. Moreover, knee-jerk regulatory responses ignore what sets the internet apart from other technologies. Many of the usual calls for regulation assume that the internet is similar to past communications networks, like telephone and cable TV networks. But these older, hardware-based networks are different from the internet, a software-based network. The internet depends, of course, on physical infrastructure owned by telecom providers. But it is the code running at the network edges — on PCs, phones, and servers — that drives the behavior of internet services. This code can be upgraded. With the right set of features and incentives, new software can propagate across the internet.
Thanks to its malleable nature, the internet can be reshaped through innovation and market forces. Software is special because it has a nearly unbounded range of expressiveness. Almost anything you can imagine can be encoded in software; software is the encoding of human thought, just like writing or painting or cave drawings. Computers take those encoded thoughts and run them at lightning speeds.
This is why Steve Jobs once described the computer as “a bicycle for the mind.” It accelerates our abilities.
Software is so expressive that it is better thought of not as engineering, but as an art form. The plasticity and flexibility of code offer an immensely rich design space, far closer in the breadth of possibilities to creative activities like sculpting and fiction writing than engineering activities like bridge building. As with other art forms, practitioners regularly develop new genres and movements that fundamentally shift what’s possible.
That’s what’s happening today. Just as the internet seemed to be consolidating beyond repair, a new software movement emerged that can reimagine the internet. The movement has the potential to bring back the spirit of the early internet; secure property rights for creators; reclaim user ownership and control; and break the stranglehold big, centralized companies have on our lives.
There’s a better way, and these are still the early days. The internet can still fulfill the promise of its original vision. Entrepreneurs, technologists, creators, and users can make it happen. The dream of an open network that fosters creativity and entrepreneurship doesn’t have to die.
This is the beginning, not the end, of internet innovation. There’s an urgency to that conviction, though: the United States is already losing its lead in this new movement.
Read Write Own: A new movement
To understand how we got here, it helps to be familiar with the broad strokes of internet history: The first thing to know is that power on the internet derives from how networks are designed. Network design — the way nodes connect, interact, and form an overarching structure — might seem like an arcane technical topic, but it is the single most relevant factor in determining how rights and money are distributed across the internet. Even small initial design decisions can have profound downstream consequences on the control and economics of internet services.
Simply put, network design determines outcomes.
Until recently, networks came in two competing types:
- “Protocol networks”, like email and the web, are open systems controlled by communities of software developers and other network stakeholders. These networks are egalitarian, democratic, and permissionless: open to anyone and free to access. In these systems, money and power tend to flow to the network edges, incentivizing systems to grow around them.
- “Corporate networks” are networks that companies, instead of communities, own and control. These are like walled gardens with one groundskeeper; they’re theme parks controlled by a single megacorp. Corporate networks run centralized, permissioned services that allow them to quickly develop advanced features, attract investment, and accrue profits to reinvest in growth. In these systems, money and power flow to the network center, to companies that own the networks, and away from users and developers at the network edges.
I see the history of the internet as unfolding in three acts, each marked by a predominating network architecture:
- In the first act, the “read era” (circa 1990-2005), early internet protocol networks democratized information. Anyone could type a few words into a web browser and read about almost any topic through websites.
- In the second act, the “read-write era” (roughly 2006-2020), corporate networks democratized publishing. Anyone could write and publish to mass audiences through posts on social networks and other services.
- Now a new type of architecture is enabling the internet’s third act. This architecture represents a natural synthesis of the two prior types, and it is democratizing ownership. In the dawning “read-write-own era,” anyone can become a network stakeholder — gaining power and economic upside previously enjoyed by only a small number of corporate affiliates, like stockholders and employees.
This new era promises to counteract big company consolidation and return the internet to its dynamic roots.
People can read and write on the internet, but they can also now own.
“Blockchains” and “blockchain networks” are the technologies driving the movement. This new movement goes by a few names. Some people call it “crypto,” since the foundation of its technology is cryptography. Others call it “web3,” implying that it is leading to a third era of the internet. Whichever name you prefer, the core technology of blockchains presents unique advantages. Blockchain networks are the most credible and civic-minded force to counterbalance internet consolidation.
You may still be wondering, but so what? What problems do blockchains solve?
Some people will tell you that blockchains are a new type of database, one that multiple parties can edit, share, and trust. A better description is that blockchains are a new class of computer, but one you can’t put in your pocket or on your desk, as you might with a smartphone or laptop. They do store information, and run rules encoded in software that can manipulate that information.
But the significance of blockchains lies in the unique way that they — and the networks built on top of them — are controlled.
With traditional computers, the hardware controls the software. Hardware exists in the physical world, where an individual or organization owns and controls it. That means that, ultimately, a person or group of people is in charge of both the hardware and the software. People can change their minds, and therefore the software they control, at any time. Blockchains invert the hardware-software power relationship, like the internet before them. With blockchains, the software governs a network of hardware devices. The software — in all its expressive glory — is in charge.
Why does this all matter? Because blockchains are computers that can, for the first time ever, establish inviolable rules in software. This allows blockchains to make strong, software-enforced commitments to users. A pivotal commitment involves digital ownership, which places economic and governance power in the hands of users. The ability for blockchains to make strong commitments about how they will behave in the future allows new networks to be created.
Blockchain networks therefore solve problems that earlier network architectures can’t solve:
- They can connect people in social networks while empowering users over corporate interests.
- They can underpin marketplaces and payment networks that facilitate commerce, but with persistently lower take rates.
- They can enable new forms of monetizable media, and interoperable and immersive digital worlds.
- They allow artificial intelligence products to compensate — rather than cannibalize — creators.
So yes, blockchains create networks, but unlike other network architectures — and here’s the key point — they have more desirable outcomes: Blockchain networks combine the societal benefits of protocol networks with the competitive advantages of corporate networks. Software developers get open access, creators get direct relationships with their audiences, fees are guaranteed to stay low, and users get valuable economic and governance rights. At the same time, blockchain networks have the technical and financial capabilities to compete with corporate networks. Blockchains therefore can:
- incentivize innovation
- reduce taxes on creators
- let network contributors share in decision making and upside
Asking “What problems do blockchains solve?” is like asking “What problems does steel solve over, say, wood?” Blockchain networks are a new construction material for building a better internet.
The ‘casino vs. the computer’
New technologies are often controversial, and blockchains are no exception. Many people associate blockchains with scams and get-rich-quick schemes. There is some truth to these claims, as there was truth to similar claims about tech-driven financial manias of the past — from the railroad boom of the 1830s to the dot-com bubble of the 1990s. The public discussion mostly focused on IPOs and stock prices, but there were also entrepreneurs and technologists who looked beyond the ups and downs, rolled up their sleeves, and built products and services that eventually delivered on the hype.
There were speculators, but there were also builders.
Today, the same cultural divide exists around blockchains:
- One group — “the casino” — is often the much louder of the two, and it is primarily interested in trading and speculation. At its worst, this culture of gambling has led to catastrophes like the bankruptcy of the crypto exchange FTX. This group gets most of the media attention, which influences the public image for the entire category.
- The other group — “the computer” — is the far more serious of the two, and it is motivated by a long-term vision. This group’s practitioners understand that the financial aspects of blockchains are only a means to an end, a way to align incentives toward a larger goal. They realize the real potential in using blockchains is to build better networks, and therefore a better internet. These people are quieter and don’t get as much attention, but they are the ones who will have lasting effects.
This isn’t to say the computer culture isn’t interested in making money. We’re a venture capital firm. Most of the tech industry is profit-driven. The difference is that real innovation takes time to generate financial returns. That’s why most venture capital funds (ours included) are structured with purposefully long hold periods. Producing valuable new technologies can take up to a decade and sometimes longer.
Computer culture is long term. Casino culture is not.
So, it’s the computer versus the casino battling it out to define the narrative for this software movement.
Of course, optimism and cynicism can both be taken too far. The dot-com bubble, followed by bust, reminded many people of that. The way to see the truth is to separate the essence of a technology from specific uses and misuses of it. A hammer can build a home, or it can demolish one. All technologies have the capacity to help or harm; blockchains are no different. The question is, how can we maximize the good while minimizing the bad?
The decisions we make now will determine the internet’s future: who builds, owns, and uses it; where innovation happens; and what the experience will be for everyone. Blockchains, and the networks they enable, unlock the extraordinary power of software as an art form — with the internet as its canvas.
The movement has an opportunity to change the course of history, to remake humanity’s relationship to the digital, to reimagine what’s possible. Anyone can participate — whether you’re a developer, creator, entrepreneur, or user. This is a chance to create the internet we want, not the internet we inherited.