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Language is a Map
The debate around whether we shed the hyphen in "on-chain" is a side show to a deeper challenge: after years of endless conversation about web3, do we move on to a more tangible term?
This post will get into the value of onchain as a term but before that I’m going to begin with a reference point that made all of this click.
In the late 90s there was a social movement called the free software movement that seemed to have caught lightning in a bottle. Many software developers, hackers, and orgs were gaining traction and excited about the potential of free software but were also hitting a wall. The group had a difficult time explaining itself to those interested in adopting free software or the ethos.
“The argument was as follows: those new to the term "free software" assume it is referring to the price. Oldtimers must then launch into an explanation, usually given as follows: "We mean free as in freedom, not free as in beer." At this point, a discussion on software has turned into one about the price of an alcoholic beverage.”
The free software movement had many members who were compelled by it’s ethic. And others who shared the ethic but were focused on what it would take to grow out of its niche.
At a certain point, “open source software” was suggested as a term that could be a bridge to describe some of the more compelling behavior in the free software movement. It clicked with a few in the scene who saw its potential. They got together and workshopped a way to tell a better story about their work. They made a meme map for free software:
And a meme map for open source:
It’s notable that when “open source software” emerged as a term, there was plenty of pushback. Some close to the movement in marketing and public relations, “felt the term "open" had been overused and abused and believed we could do better.” Some of the biggest backers of free software (Richard Stallman), never accepted it.
But the more people thought about it, the more it stuck. “the issue (with free software) was its lack of clarity to those new to the concept.”
After the meme mapping, opensource.org was launched shortly after, and the rest is history.
So why does this matter for crypto world?
We’re in a very different time period in 2023 but another group of software developers, hackers, and orgs are hitting another kind of semantic wall. There’s no doubt that something special has emerged in some projects associated with web3 and crypto in the past few years but the associations with these words, for a great percentage of the internet, has gotten intensely negative.
Many have attempted to define web3 but it’s slippery in a way that’s similar to the free software movement. Someone talking about web3 could be talking about a technology, a value proposition for users, a personal conception of the ideal internet, or all of the above at once.
Without getting into a full on debate about whether web3 ought to be abandoned as a term, what I love about onchain is that it’s practical and tangible. Like open source software, it centers on its architecture. A piece of software is either open source or it’s not. An object is either onchain or it’s not.
It took a few days, but after reading Jacob.eth’s post about onchain, it eventually clicked and my mental map of the space felt like it had received an upgrade.
A pragmatic example for where onchain helps
Mark Zuckerberg just launched Threads and signaled that his app was taking steps, for the first time, toward decentralization. It’s not yet live but the app plans to take part in the “fediverse” and use Mastadon's ActivityPub standard.
This is intriguing but also very difficult to pin down. If Threads is using Mastadon's ActivityPub standard, does that mean anyone can make a client? Can anyone write their own algorithm for the feed? Can someone unban someone who has been banned by Zuck?
None of this is clear but if you asked Zuck whether his new app is decentralized, he can say yes. If you ask him whether Threads is embracing some of the ethos from web3, he could even make a case! But if you asked him whether Threads is onchain, the answer is no.
In this case onchain can help unlock a more substantive discussion about a platform’s offering and what power users really have on that platform.
There are some that work with blockchains, that never embraced the web3 label, who find this semantic debate tiresome. It’s also worth noting that no term is going to be a quick fix for salvaging the reputation of any this, this will only come from building more projects/apps that people love and trust.
But language is a map. The words we use to describe what we do mean everything when it comes to how we think of our own work, who joins, and what we then build.
In the late 1990s, Tim O'Reilly (of O’Reilly media), and many others, noticed something lacking in how the free software movement was describing its work. So he gathered a group of leaders in the “Freeware” space for an in person summit. At that event, they produced a map for the terms they used and fleshed out a new story that took off shortly after.
What if we tried something similar?
On the left are the maps created at the Freeware summit, and on the right, is a template for terms we can map.
My intuitive sense is that onchain is a useful term worth embracing. But some of this is still fuzzy and before we embark on a campaign to get onchain into the dictionary, it’s worth it to take a deeper dive into why this term is resonating with many in the space. While also hearing some alternative proposals (that go beyond whether the hyphen stays or goes).
I’m publishing this to air out some thoughts around all of this and to encourage anyone to take a stab at the above map. I’m also putting together a group for a live session where we take a swing at this map collectively. If you’d like to join this session, or contribute asynchronously, say hello! DMs are open.
Ty to @sdv_eth and @daranda for the feedback on the post. Special shout out to all behind the on-chain vs onchain partyvs.party project which helped accelerate these thoughts. Many insights came after launch through the positive/critical feedback in response to team onchain’s offering.