Pronouncements about the death of the internet are as old as the technology itself. We cackle at headlines from the 1990s about email being a passing fad, older, wiser, and perpetually online. Except now that we do seem to be living through the end times of the internet as we know it, no one seems to be able to find the exit. The first generation of social media platforms is crumbling as creator concerns around platform risk mount, bots proliferate, and the information firehose of the “For You” page reaches max velocity. This steady decay is obvious, inescapable even, but still, we persist.
One reason for this is that our present social media hellscape is built around a logic of enclosure. For users looking for an alternative, leaving an existing platform means abandoning the content and communities they’ve spent years cultivating. For developers looking to build one, rallying a user base and distinct culture from scratch presents an equally perilous challenge. To opt-out is to risk isolation, so we stick around and shitpost about our grievances to ease the pain.
If we can’t build an alternative within the existing infrastructure of the internet, perhaps we should instead look to carving out a new infrastructure entirely. This is the approach that Farcaster, a protocol for building sufficiently decentralized social networks, is taking. Rather than seeking to fight the inertia of platform lock-in directly, Farcaster is assembling an ecosystem in which it just isn’t possible. Anyone can build an app on top of the protocol, users own their data, and content and relationships can travel freely between apps. In contrast to the PvP MMORPG that is Twitter, Vitalik Buterin jokingly called it a “too polite” social network. Co-founder Dan Romero calls it a 10,000-person dinner party.
Emblematic of Farcaster’s open ecosystem principles is that one of the primary entities working on the protocol is wholly independent of the founding team. Purple DAO is a Nounish DAO devoted to proliferating and building out all things Farcaster. Looking to unpack the relationship between Purple and Farcaster as a working model for a post-platform internet, ZINE’s Guy Mackinnon-Little spoke with Romero and Purple founding members Chris Carella and Osama Khan about the history of protocols, the intrinsic motivation of hacking, and sending ASCII art on the moon.
Guy Mackinnon-Little (ZINE): Before we get into the specifics of either Farcaster or Purple, it might be useful to sketch out the broader prehistory of internet protocols and social media platforms that sets the stage for these endeavors. How did social media as we know it today take shape and where did things go wrong?
Dan Romero: So an easy framework to think about this is that you have Web1, Web2, and now Web3. Prior to these ideas, there were walled garden online services, America Online was a prominent example in the US. When you originally got America Online, you did not get access to the internet. You were in a completely walled garden with AOL. And they obviously were massively successful in terms of getting Americans online, but it still wasn’t on the internet. The internet was this weird, academic thing.
Netscape was the thing that crossed the chasm of making it a consumer product and kicked off the Web1 era. It was so popular that AOL then started offering internet service bundled in with America Online. So it was like an add-on, which obviously silly now to think of the way you get online doesn’t give you access to the internet.
You have this massive boom built on these permissionless base-level protocols like HTML and HTTP. Anyone can go register a domain name, which uses DNS, another protocol, and you can go start whatever website you want—Amazon, eBay, Google. All this innovation gets built on top of a decentralized, permissionless protocol.
Then there’s the Dot-com crash. Now we’re in the Web2 era where people started building a lot of this stuff in an open way. That changed in the early 2010s, mostly as a result of Apple and Google releasing iOS and Android and bringing back this concept of a walled garden.
Anyone can go build an app on these mobile operating systems, but now you have to ask for permission. They might not like that you’re including a link to OpenSea in your app.
Under the auspices of improving user experience—and I think is hard to argue that mobile apps haven’t improved user experience—you started to get a lot of restrictions. Similarly, the apps were built with open APIs that in the early part of Web2—including Facebook and Twitter— that all went away. We moved inward into these siloed social networks that, driven by the growth of mobile, started to reach massive scale.
And then we get to Web3, which I think we’re in the early innings of. I think the simplest frame is that there is an opportunity now, primarily enabled by permissionless public cryptocurrency blockchains like Ethereum, to move the world from these centralized Web2 networks back to a paradigm that is closer to Web1.
I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the idealistic days of the early internet, but I do think it’s an enabling technology for a new generation of protocols, companies, projects, people to build new types of systems.
The first people who started building on Farcaster were Farcaster users.
GML: How do you see the value of an open protocol being realized in this context though? If you are an average user and you think about a client-agnostic protocol, the thing that might come to mind is just a sort of reskinning: I access email via the app on my phone or Gmail or this other client, but the core experience feels basically equivalent.
DR: To reason with analogies again, Linux is a really good example of something like this. So Linux exists in the 1990 or mid-1990s. It’s just a bunch of nerds on the internet who are scratching an itch. They want to build something completely new that they can own and configure from the Unix philosophy.
There was this meme for a while that this the year that average users are going to use Linux. Never happened, absolutely never happened. But people continued to irrationally keep working on this out of passion, out of ideological reasons, out of just scratching an itch, whatever.
And you get to the mobile era and the two underlying operating systems that power all mobile devices today at their heart benefit from this dynamic composable group of people who built a bunch of open-source tools on top of this operating system.
So if you actually look at the total number of users today who use a computing device, Linux—or Unix on Apple, but it’s the same ecosystem—is the actual operating system powering everything underneath. That never happened on desktop, but it didn’t matter.
That’s the way I think about building a composable social networking protocol. We didn’t go get a bunch of people using Farcaster in the early days and then go try to attract other developers. The first people who started building on Farcaster were Farcaster users. They were scratching an itch. They were like, oh, these guys haven’t added search yet. I’m going to go build Searchcaster. Or I like RSS, I’m going to take any Farcaster feed and convert it to an RSS feed. If you just let people’s creativity be completely permissionless, they’re just going to surprise you with things. That’s our strategy.
Osama Khan: To add a bit more spice to Dan’s comment about Linux desktop, it actually did happen with the cloud.
DR: Sure. No, exactly. Every part of it. Everything we use today is all run on Linux. But to you as a user, it’s invisible. You just have the apps and experiences.
OK: When people sign into Farcaster for the first time, they’re like, “Oh, it’s just a Twitter clone.” But you can use Farcaster to build a Twitter clone or you can use it to build a tool to send ASCII art on the moon. You cannot have cloud connectivity suborbital or even in many rural communitites, let alone on the moon, but a decentralized protocol like this allows for that. Whatever new paradigm emerges after Twitter will have a social component and need a social graph beyond Web2 social graphs.
Chris Carella: First of all, I’m all for ASCII art on the moon. Let’s make that happen. But the analogy that you had started off with, that email is email and you may have Outlook or you may have Gmail, the Farcaster protocol is just not that. It won’t be all Twitter-looking feeds, right? It’s a forkable protocol.
Someone’s already built something that looks like Vine on it, someone’s built something that looks like Instagram Stories where you’re just checking out people’s NFTs. Having a decentralized social network attached to Ethereum makes it highly composable. Every user has a wallet. I can check their wallet, I see what NFTs they have. You can build a whole social experience around what’s in someone’s wallet.
I use a tool called Fardrop to get all of the wallet addresses of my followers and then I can make allowlists on Zora. I’ll release NFTs and make them free for the people who follow me on Farcaster.
And so one, it’s more “own your own audience,” which is lacking in Web2, but two, the composability of this stuff is endless when you then insert Ethereum into the equation.
GML: How did Purple get started and what role does it play in enacting that vision?
OK: From what I remember, Katsuya actually came up with, “Hey, we should get a Purple DAO, which should be an investment DAO and work on Prop House.” Chris was thinking about something similar.
CC: I also had a cast, not having seen that first cast saying something similar like, “Hey, we should start a Nounish DAO.” It was just sort of a thing you say you send a tweet and you never really plan to act on it. So I sent that cast and Osama was in my Telegram DMs instantly. Then we had this Telegram group and more and more people joined. That’s how the DAO started.
OK: I was on BitClout and all these other Web3 socials before and felt that whenever you put a coin on people’s profiles, it just becomes a different kind of bubble that can potentially kill the whole idea of an open social protocol. The founding teams of these social networks started being biased toward their friends who were building client apps. With Purple, it just felt like if you had an independent DAO that was sponsoring apps, you could solve for that problem. The idea was to start organically, not enforce too many ideas from day one, and get people on board and then see where it goes.
CC: Even the notion that we’re essentially a public goods DAO was not our day-one plan. I don’t think we really had a day-one plan. It was just hackers being hackers with no expectation of any return. That’s the true origin story. By the time we launched, we had 120 plus people in the Telegram, all Farcaster users, all giving feedback.
DR: And I just want to add that you did this all permissionlessly. Varun [Srinivasan, co-founder of Farcaster] and I came to the agreement that if we got involved right away, there would be no chance that it’s going to feel at all independent, and I think an independent Purple is really, really healthy for Farcaster.
One of the things that we’re really focused on in the long term is credible neutrality, and we have a way to go there. Purple is an important part of that journey because now we have another entity that is building credibility and getting engagement from builders and users who are part of Farcaster. People wanting to build serious clients can see that there are people in this community who are separated but are still collectively working in the same direction. If you look at a lot of what happened with early Ethereum, you see something similar. There’s a variety of entities and individuals—Ethereum Foundation, ETH Global, Consensus—that are all contributing to the success of Ethereum.
So we think the world of Purple, but it’s actually been a deliberate choice for us to give them some space.
CC: Success to me looks like there being a thousand Purples. I look forward to someone forking Purple. It’s the same philosophy of neutrality and decentralization.