Rethinking the road to decentralisation

Rethinking the road to decentralisation

Over a decade into the blockchain experiment, with trillion dollar market caps, billion dollar treasuries, precious few users and vanishingly little real world impact, this question is still worth asking.

Decentralisation as discovery

Currently Polkadot UX and UI is fragmented across a number of different tools, sites and forums, each focusing on a narrow speciality and each battling to become the standard, whilst struggling to sustain or increase user interest and adoption as well as struggling to create sustainable business models.

This paradigm of development approaches principles of decentralisation through horizontal spread of UIs and applications, that each read and sometimes write to the chain state independently.

This is a natural process of unbundling, as Parity/W3F release centralised control of all aspects of the ecosystem to the community who for the most part are either inexperienced token holders or parachain teams who have raised external capital to deliver their own independent economy, which naturally leaves them less attentive to the common good.

In practice, this initial phase of disaggregation is useful as a discovery phase as it leads to independent entities discovering and capitalising (in the case of treasury spend) on pain points across the varying elements of the stack.

They each create solutions to each specific domain previously managed by the network creators and in time discover new issues that evolve naturally as an entirely new organisational paradigm emerges - a design space that does not fit comfortably within the bounds of startup convention.

For contributors, holders and newcomers, enduring this discovery phase the experience is chaotic, confusing and stressful as the ecosystem faces ever increasing fragmentation, poor user experience and the siloing of knowledge in disparate and often competing websites, interfaces, channels and apps.

Teams are forced to paper over the issues of this fragmentation - for example in discussion forums such as Polkassembly and Subsquare, teams have resorted to syncing data across the two UIs.

This fixes one aspect of the problem, making content readable in each, but not writable, diminishing the user experience and further complicating an already complex process.

A symptom of poor user experience is addressed, but the root causes are not.

From the inside and outside it can feel and look very much like the network is entering a death spiral, however if we understand these networks more as organisms, we can see this transition as a metamorphosis - as a caterpillar cocoons itself before emerging as a butterfly.

Decentralisation has more than one dimension

If we approach the principles of decentralisation through both horizontal and vertical axes that each have a political element (see Fellowship manifesto) we can begin to see a path to unifying previously separate functions into a user-experience that gradually develops into something more like a Super-App that can more easily generate end-user fees for its consolidated workforce.

Very few ecosystems have attempted this, perhaps only Decred, an on-chain governed network predating Polkadot are delivering via their Decrediton App, which enables a complete, sovereign user experience, across settlement, chat, trade, governance, proposals, education and media.

Other ecosystems are gradually coming to the same conclusion as can be seen by the approach of reconsolidating network functions under an Operating System framework, UX and narrative.

NearOS, UrbitOS and EthOS are all examples of a move towards a more tightly integrated stack as teams realise that Apple’s approach to innovation is based on sound strategic principles and its products are great to use for a good reason.

With the re-emergence of consumer hardware products such as Solana Mobile, gimmicks like Pillz and Urbit’s Native Planet bringing more aesthetically pleasing home servers closer to reality, we can see that the whole industry is re-converging on a familiar go-to-market that attempts to square the circle of credible decentralisation and good user experience.

To be clear, none of these are example are original ideas on their own - what is different about these newcomers is the stack is not owned by business units within one large corporation who sets policy through top down hierarchies, with power and governance seated in a founder, CEO, executive suite or board.

With these new (blockchain?) operating systems, governance and politics can theoretically be dissolved through the full stack, whilst maintaining a foothold in existing legal systems, allowing on-chain elements to empower off-chain impact through real world (network) public services, rather than the Silicon Valley dreams of an escape to a digital only metaverse.

In this model independent individuals and teams contribute their talents through permissionless and open source processes, with payment in the network’s native token allowing for an open, public and cooperative model of development oriented around full-stack creative collectives.

Each creative collective emerges organically, with shared values and direction binding resolutely multi-disciplinary on-chain organisations together, rather than splintering off into the more intuitive domain based groups where expertise is focused around expertise such as ‘tech’, ‘media’ or ‘events’.

Each collective leverages a recurring stack but differentiates based on their vision and narrative, attracting different types of contributors to the creative initiatives they develop.

Diversity of interests is what drives horizontal decentralisation - for example a creative project might be maker communities around the world creating iconic sculptures together on the same day every year, it could be musicians collaborating on a artistic experiment, or a new supra-national but hyper-local political party attempting to challenge incumbents.

Decentralisation is therefore achieved through both horizontal and vertical axes, whilst also maintaining a close link between each layer of the stack, ensuring governance is determined at each layer, but is held together by a unifying vision and focus that ensures a cohesive user experience.

In practical terms, this Super-App may come in its initial phase to feel a little like an iteration of today’s media streaming apps, but it will not just be a ‘decentralised’ Netflix, but rather a new kind of operating system and media experience that obviates the need for YouTube, Discord or the current dependencies on which the crypto industry schizophrenically depends.

In the same way YouTube did not initially cannibalise TV, but instead carved out a unique new niche that was at first glance no competition to the media incumbents, so we will encounter a new kind of media experience - unlocking an unmet need in people desperate to contribute their talents and find meaning in building real world communities from the ground up.

A new Apple will eventually emerge from this chaotic substrate, but it will look and feel very different to the technologies we have come to call ‘normal’.

Instead these new blockchain settled operating systems will establish new philosophical frontiers that look weird, frivolous and toy-like in the near future, but will in the longer term propel humanity forward through the inevitable generational evolution in values, culture and narrative.

This is real systems change.


I’d like to give a more pragmatic answer to the question.

When answering questions such as “why is there no good decentralized alternative Twitter or Reddit”, or “why is there no good decentralized alternative to Discourse”, and in general “why is there no <insert thing that I would like to use here>?” the answer almost always boils down to: because we haven’t found a good solution to the data storage/availability problem.

In other words, we (as in the blockchain ecosystem in general) haven’t found a good way to store data “somewhere” and being sure to be able to retrieve it later. IPFS for example doesn’t guarantee that you’ll retrieve it later, and Filecoin last time I’ve checked doesn’t really work and has oriented itself towards cold storage anyway.

That’s a very pragmatic problem to solve, and seems to me to be the blocker for most if not all actual real world blockchain-based software.


I think this is (as always) one dimension of a multifaceted problem oriented around three intersecting elements:

  1. Technology - per your point about storage/availability of data
  2. Graph - we can see this as an incentive challenge, namely how do we create an engine room for encouraging network effects.
  3. Medium - what is the content that gives data storage (a database) and a graph meaning and how does that reach people in the first place.

The interplay between these three is what matters

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How can you be confident that 2. and 3. are actual problems if everything is blocked on 1.?

Not that problems shouldn’t be anticipated, but “why is the product not reaching people?” can’t really be answered if there’s no product in the first place.

I’m personally quite confident that the ecosystem has more than enough talented communicators. To me what’s critically missing is people building actual stuff that works.


What I mean is: sure it’s nice to create for example a better UI website, or a better wallet, so that the technology becomes more accessible to the general public. And if the general public uses the technology, then there’s more money running in the ecosystem, which brings more developers, etc.

None of these are bad things.

But at the end of the day, someone has to solve the data availability problem. You can hire 1000 developers and create the best wallet and UI and the fastest tech imaginable, at the end of the day you still won’t have solved the data availability problem and you will still be at the same point than without these 1000 developers.


Before I respond fully to your first point, can you please expand as to how you see the data availability problem as it currently relates to substrate/Polkadot in both solo and parachain chain contexts, in terms of technical specifics and more generally as well as at varying scales… feel free to use metaphor.

Part of the challenge of translating between many different domains and therefore facilitating more productive debate is people naturally refer to problems or concepts that might be well understood to their peers but not beyond. Often an assumption is made that people understand you, when often they are afraid of looking stupid for asking what seem like obvious questions.

So please feel free to treat me like an idiot.


An application (decentralized or not) needs to store data, often a lot of it. For example a social media platform needs to store the list of users, everything they’ve written, the images they upload, etc.
People who don’t have all the data on their disk need a way to be able to access the data that they’re missing when needed.

When the application is a centralized service, the company behind it just pays and manages the servers that do store the data, and people can send requests to access said data. (I’m a bit abstract here, but basically you send an HTTP request and you get an answer with what you want). If the servers go down the application entirely stops working, and the company behind it obviously doesn’t want that to happen.

In the case of a decentralized service, the people who are missing some data need to download it from people who have it (and then verify that this data is accurate, which is done with hash functions and is an already solved problem).
But this creates a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. If many people store the data, then everything works fine. If nobody stores the data, then everyone loses. If only some people store the data, the people who store the data lose (as they have to pay for the disks that store the data, and serve the download requests) and the people who don’t win.
There’s no individual incentive to store the data. It’s done on a goodwill basis.

This goodwill works up to a certain point, for example Polkadot’s data is only a few dozen gigabytes, and many people are okay renting a server for a hundred bucks per month because they want to support the project. But huge websites like Facebook generate at least terabytes of data per day, and nobody is going to store hundreds of terabytes of data purely by goodwill.

There are some pragmatic solutions, such as having a treasury system pay for people for hosting data. But the people who are getting paid can always easily cheat. For example, they can simply store nothing at all and redirect all the access requests they receive to a different hoster.


For example, from a purely technical point of view Polkadot validators don’t actually have to store anything. Whenever they want to author a block they could simply download the previous block’s data from someone else on the fly.
Obviously, if everyone did that, there wouldn’t be any “someone else”, hence the prisoner’s dilemma.

Since we don’t want validators to do that, the client software of course doesn’t give you the option. But you could completely do it if you wanted by modifying the client.
In practice, you’d spend more money hiring a developer to modify the client than you would save by not having to store the database, so we’re reasonably confident that no validator actually does this right now.

But the threat is there, and we can’t grow the data in size without this threat being put into action.


Polkadot ecosystem will be unparalleled in 2025, 100 Parachains and PAYGO Parathreads focusing on what they are good at, together delivering a toolbox that no other network of blockchains can match.

So far the focus has been on developing the core infra, community, governance and partnerships. Focus on common good and synergies will be next.

There are already great common good initiatives such as Polkadot Builders and Apillon. The former encourages working together and creating quick experiments for common good solutions (those could be later scaled up with Treasury funding). The latter aims to abstract away the complexity of starting a parachain/dapp and providing a simple UI to walk through the early steps.

There are others. This was just a couple of examples.

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How about Arweave with storage proof? It doesn’t look that hard to have an availability proof on such permanent storage chain.

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From the brief overview I got of Arweave, it suffers from exactly the same thing as I’ve explained above.

Arweave say “in order to generate a block, you need to know a randomly-chosen old previous block”. But knowing a previous block doesn’t actually mean that you have to store it yourself. You could just download the block you need on the fly from someone else.

Of course, you could solve that problem by making downloading old blocks from other people slow or impossible. But doing so would go directly against the objective of the chain, because in the end the entire point of storing something is not to store it but to be able to later download it as easily as possible.

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I completely agree with you that the current ‘crypto industry’ has failed to solve this problem, however this ‘issue’ begins with an important assumption data availability in the context of ‘decentralised social networks’ is a problem that blockchains are suitable to solve.

I would counter, that they are fundamentally not. And that this really roots us deeper into the reasons for practically adoption in crypto to date - and that is the product is the token, not the service.

Not everything needs a token, but speculative investment schemes wrapped up in the promise of new technologies do.

The answer to the data availability problem has been solved, not by blockchains but through federated models such as the Fediverse and Decred’s Bison Relay which begin by thinking through the issues of ‘decentralised social networking’ without trying to force a blockchain and a token into the mix.

There’s no center of the Fediverse. Each participant and each server has their own agenda, operating principles, and local data store. - Is Your Future Distributed? Welcome to the Fediverse.

a decentralized, federated social network is flourishing which is built within a protocol that does not require blockchain, and does not convert every human interaction into a financial transaction. It focuses on communities and building useful, thoughtful, safe tools, instead of fetishizing buzzwords and pitching free speech absolutism in order to sell snake oil.

The Fediverse is built around a standardized protocol (ActivityPub) with a number of independent but compatible implementations, client apps, and thousands of instances run by individuals and communities. In other words, it fully realizes the “protocols, not platforms” idea.

There are no tokens to invest in. There is no cryptocurrency to “hodl.” No blocks to mine or validate and no blockchain to grow.

image from Is Your Future Distributed? Welcome to the Fediverse.

The starting assumption this post begins with (though I should have been more explicit) is that you cannot solve social networking incentives with a token based protocol - but you can use blockchain based ‘funding models’ to sustain and advance a fully open source software and hardware stack, with the data availability problem addressed by the fact that each collective stores its own data and each member of the collective can own hardware that enables them to be a peer / mirror in their local network.

I would contend that 99% of the projects in the Polkadot/Kusama ecosystem are right in their identification of core issues, but wrong in their approach to addressing them - they do not need a blockchain, they do not need a token, but the financial incentives encourage this.

See the Kabocha roadmap:

For us, the foundation is simple and perhaps more in keeping with the original ambitions of Bitcoin, Decred and other projects that that attempted to become sovereign non-state money. Unlike Bitcoin, but like Decred, we have the ability to fund contributions from a borderless work force, via on-chain governance and community proposals.

Our general thesis is that most current parachains on Kusama and Polkadot will fail owing to a lack of core focus and value capture, or be hamstrung by regulation within a few years owing to their centralised distributions and inability to function without a lead team.

So in reality, we are aiming to build a full stack open source OS, hardware and media, with a very limited use of blockchain and tokens, utilising them for some specific part of the process related to funding and value accrual to a network reserve.

For anyone interested in why pursuing an ActivityPub focused strategy for onboarding new users to Substrate based networks makes sense sense rather than trying to create blockchain/token based social media. From Meta’s ‘Threads’ announcement:

Soon, we are planning to make Threads compatible with ActivityPub, the open social networking protocol established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body responsible for the open standards that power the modern web. This would make Threads interoperable with other apps that also support the ActivityPub protocol, such as Mastodon and WordPress – allowing new types of connections that are simply not possible on most social apps today. Other platforms including Tumblr have shared plans to support the ActivityPub protocol in the future.

In recent months, a number of tech companies have thrown their resources into ActivityPub and what’s now known as “the Fediverse.” Tumblr is working with ActivityPub, as are Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, and even Meta. There’s now an official WordPress plug-in for ActivityPub, which will enable the protocol for something like half the internet all at once.