Bitcoin — the first decentralized currency — has been around for over eight years now. In the past, I was dismissive of it and other cryptocurrencies.
The fact that cryptocurrency like Bitcoin has the potential to radically reform banking is not lost on me but is way outside of the scope of this article. Yes, that’s exciting to me. No, I don’t think crypto is a magical cure for what is wrong with global capitalism, but that’s really not the point here.
When I started looking into things further, and I’m super excited about the technology behind Bitcoin, blockchain.
What Is A Blockchain?
My conceptual misunderstanding of Bitcoin when I first became aware of it, was I thought of coins as being awarded for doing computation. Yes, that is is how Bitcoin works, coins are distributed amongst those providing processing power to verify transactions. It’s a smart way to incentivize adding the computational resources the system needs.
While the coins are created through “mining” they can be exchanged for Dollars, Euros or other traditional currencies. This gives them value and an incentive to convert old currency into Bitcoin.
The mechanism for running the Bitcoin network and the goal of the Bitcoin project are very well aligned.
But, this “proof of work” is only one way you can award coins in a blockchain-based network and Bitcoin is not the only blockchain. Any application of blockchain has to link the value of the coin to the goal of the network. If the goal is provide distributed computing power than the coin has to be created by providing computing power. The beauty of this design pattern is, that goal can be anything.
Think Of Blockchain As A Design Pattern
This change of perspective is what got me interested in Bitcoin and blockchain technology. But, it is not what got me excited about Blockchain. It’s other blockchains that are showing that a fundamentally different design pattern is emerging and that is worth getting excited about.
Think of blockchain as the way that you develop a program that incentivizes those who share its goals to run it and profit from it. That is, of course, the theory behind open-source. We contribute to WordPress — the code, the community, the documentation, the translations, etc — because we think, with good reason, that this will benefit us as WordPress users and WordPress professionals.
That’s what attracted me to WordPress and open-source — creating community, goods, and services around mutual benefit. Blockchain is an algorithmic approach to optimizing the mutual benefit of technology. Structuring your application infrastructure around your is a poetic way to write code, in my opinion.
These go hand in hand, so how can we start using it in WordPress?
When Not If
This article is about some cool ways that blockchain technology will change WordPress. The speculation is on how and when not if. While nothing is for sure, blockchain is the culmination of so many ideals of the web — decentralization through peer to peer exchange, censorship resistance, and more. Beyond this, it’s also super profitable.
When a technology aligns utility, profitability, and idealism in this way, it’s hard to stop, much like with WordPress. And yes, as a whole the blockchain ecosystem is behind of utility and usability. But that has improved from a developer and end user standpoint dramatically over the last year or so.
A lot of that change is because of Ethereum. Bitcoin proves — while attaining a multi-billion dollar market capitalization — that blockchain technology could assemble an encrypted, peer 2 peer computer network that is powerful and useful. Running applications in the distributed network created by Bitcoin is not easy.
Ethereum is a blockchain designed to run distribution web apps (dAps) that can be executed on the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). Think of EVM as a cloud computing platform that emerges from the blockchain.
There are even projects such as Lisk, to execute Node apps using a blockchain. The ability to create apps in a blockchain is getting easier and as barriers to developer lower the more cool, blockchain-powered apps and services we will see.
Cool Applications Of Blockchain Technology
One way we’ve already seen blockchain technology used in WordPress is as a payment gateway for eCommerce plugins. Torque has a roundup post of ways to accept Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies in WordPress. I hope to see this space expand, but “accept crypto” is the easiest answer to the question this article looks to address. Let’s look at three other ways blockchain technology could apply to WordPress.
Identity Management & Verification
Verifying identity online is a huge challenge. The weakness of the username and password model is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for the web. Stolen or cracked passwords are one of the most common ways WordPress sites get hacked.
There are several new blockchains being developed to encrypt personal information in the blockchain and then let users selectively share that data. This can be used to login to apps, verify identity or securely share personal information with employers or service providers as needed. I hope that the recent data breach at Equifax and how poorly it has been handled will spur more innovation in this space.
An example of this kind of this blockchain application is ShoCard. They are creating a lot more than just single sign on for apps. But, if these types of programs demonstrate more secure multi-factor authentication then the current solutions — for example, sending codes via SMS — they will have a lot of benefit to us as WordPress to improve the security of the login process.
IBM is currently partnering with Canadian banks and SureKey Technologies on a pilot program for developing a blockchain to improve the security and user experience of identity management for bank customers. Surely once this technology is proven for banks, we can use it to reduce hacked passwords and fraudulent payments, two huge problems for WordPress site owners.
Recently, Medium announced that they were adding a “Clap” button to articles. A clap is similar to a “like” but also is a part of the algorithm for paying content creators. Finding a better way than displaying ads to compensate content creators is a major challenge for the web. What’s interesting about Medium is that this is the problem they are trying to solve. But they have not yet.
Splitting a pool of money amongst content creators based on an algorithm that takes into account page views, likes and other engagement factors is a neat idea. But applying that beyond a single site, and into a distributed network is a lot more challenging, and no one has figured out yet what that algorithm should be and where the pool of money comes from.
In the old internet, a content monetization service — WordAds, AdSense, etc — required one central trusted entity to define the algorithm, operate the servers and handle payments. Blockchains are by design distributed and trustless.
A blockchain-based content monetization service would not require a single trusted entity at the center. More importantly, the system governance would need to be designed so the algorithm was optimized for all stakeholders.
The potential to remove selling ads, totally or partially, form content monetization is exciting. But it would require a new input of money or other valuable data. Potentially speculation in the tokens that back this service provides that.
Secure File Storage
Currently, in WordPress, we store files — the media library — on the same server that WordPress is running on or offload that to a service like Dropbox or Amazon s3. This is a smart strategy for scaling WordPress because s3 and similar services are essentially infinitely large and distributing application processing across multiple services generally leads to a performance gain.
Decentralized cloud-storage is a rapidly emerging technology. Services like Storj and FileCoin allow users to sell unused space in their network for tokens that can be exchanged for storage or other currencies — bitcoins, eros, etc. In addition, you can buy their tokens in exchange for use of the file network.
Data stored in decentralized networks is encrypted so that only the owner can ever read it. It is redundantly stored for increased reliability. Also, it is already cheaper than s3.
The other ideas I’m suggesting in this article could be possible soon. This is one that is possible, right now. Offloading the media library to Storj instead of s3 would provide for cheaper storage that was encrypted and censorship-resistant by default and all of the technology to do so exists right now.
Democratize All The Things
I love the internet and what we can do with it. But it’s created new oligarchies. In addition to the traditional income inequality, the current implementation of the web creates data oligarchies. Facebook, Google, Cambridge Analytica, etc have acquired a monopoly on the data needed to sell ads, create engaging social networks, win elections, etc.
This inequity is a serious bug in the internet as we know it. Blockchain is a major tool to fix this bug and is now becoming way more useful in the ways we currently use the internet — file storage, eCommerce, rewarding creativity, etc.
This should be exciting to those of us who believe in the open-source ideology. But we as WordPress developers should be especially interested because we have the experience during a cool open-source technology — PHP blogging software — into a huge part of the web.