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DWeb Camp: building a web that we deserve

Flashbacks  •  
Aug 05, 2019

Looking to expand beyond the traditional confines of a tech conference, DWeb Camp was a chance to join other technologists, designers, writers, artists, and other creatives and dreamers for a four-day retreat to get re/connected and continue the conversation around creating the next generation of the Web — a decentralized Web 3.0, a web we deserve.

Set on the Mushroom Farm just above the Pacific Ocean, DWeb Camp featured over 10,000 square feet of space dedicated to hacking, a mesh network for participants to stay connected across the farm, countless creative projects, mindfulness and wellness workshops, dedicated time to explore the surrounding beaches, forests & streams, camping in comfort with glamping tents, and three outstanding farm-to-table meals provided each day.

As one of the early founders of the DWeb movement (then called GETDecentralized), we at Jolocom were proud to be able to support the organizers once again and join in on the conversations and good times had, this time as organizers, space stewards, designers, communicators, and most importantly, active and engaged campers and participants. Jolocom was represented at DWeb Camp by six from our team — Joachim, Ira, Ellie, Sean, Charles, and Eugeniu — and each of us had such a different experience that we thought the best way to summarize our time on the Farm was to, in the spirit of the camp , prepare a decentralized account of each of our individual experiences with you.

Joachim,

— What are the origins of DWeb Camp and how did you get involved?

Back in 2014 I organized the first GETDecentralized in Berlin as a summit & hackathon for discussing topics on decentralization and building toward decentralized solutions. Later that year I met Brewster and Wendy in San Francisco following my hunch that it would be a good idea to do another version of the hackathon in Silicon Valley. Back then we were about 60 people getting together in the main room of the Red Vic in the Haight.

That’s when things really started to kick off. Wendy contacted me a couple of months later that the Internet Archive wanted to make this bigger. DWeb Summit was born, and I was kindly asked if I would help co-organize. How could I have resisted? A dream came true. This helped bring the movement to a whole new level with their network and their capacity — and the million volts of energy that Wendy has!

Since then I’ve been co-organizing and helping curate the different iterations of DWeb Summit, and now DWeb Camp. And in general I’m excited to help grow the community even further — why not organize larger events more frequently to extend the opportunity to engage in very productive discussion on key topics and issues throughout the year?

All year round the DWeb San Francisco and DWeb Berlin communities organize and host regular, in-person meetups. It’s a great way to keep the conversation going in a decentralized way, staying in touch and really building the community. During DWeb Camp we communicated this vision for a decentralized network of physical hubs for people to connect and collaborate, and the seeds fell on fertile ground. There was an awesome resonance and already there are encouraging signs that soon Toronto, Mexico City, Austin, and Perm will see some new DWeb community hubs form. And the newest launch already: DWeb Boston!

— How did this version of DWeb global compare to past iterations?

The organization of this year’s camp-style gathering reminded me a lot of the 2016 GETDecentralized #4 Hackathon and Summit in Berlin. In one way or another, both events were run in a way that allowed participants to interact nearly 24/7 on their own terms. The 2016 GETD attendees might not have been getting together outdoors, roughing it in the wilderness and sleeping in tents, but we did basically end up camping out in each other’s apartments after each day of the summit. And that added a totally unplanned, kind of spontaneous dimension to all the conversations and freed up the potential for dialogue.

For this edition, coordinating the event to be more “open” led us outside physically, and conceptually widened the scope and understanding of the concept of decentralization. Those two came together in being able to see and learn from the ways decentralization takes shape in nature, often working to making things resilient without sacrificing connection — this was a really cool theme throughout the camp. Just the fact that the location was internet-free, yet we still figured out how to deal with such a thing and managed to connect…really everything was different in a positive way.

All in all, I enjoyed it and I felt that people were really liking the format. Even Charles said,

— What was the most challenging moment for you as a DWeb organizer?

I really felt there was not a challenging moment. At least not in the sense that I encountered any especially stressful moments while acting as an Organizer. The volunteers and the folks from the farm were so helpful and kind, especially during the camp set-up and take-down periods — thank you Mushroom Farm community for your tremendous support throughout the entire production!

In fact, thinking back, perhaps the most challenging moment was setting up the Medicine Wheel — I mean physically challenging here. Repeatedly throughout the build process we’d hit stones in the ground so tough that we couldn’t drive the screws in to secure the giant Medicine Wheel. The farm staff and community had to keep bringing over more and more — well, bigger and bigger machinery! We did finally get the structure standing in time for all the campers to arrive. So while strenuous at times, in the end it was just another opportunity for us to figure out how to cooperate effectively toward a common goal. But what an appropriate exercise, so fully in the spirit of DWeb!

Joachim trekked out to California early to help set up camp — and catch a few waves before everyone arrived.

Eugeniu,

— Has (or how has) this event helped shape your vision around a decentralized web?

A lot of the most productive discussions, I think, and Charles also pointed this out, were the non-technical ones. In this sense, I gained a deeper appreciation for input on topics related to decentralization shared by people coming from a non-technical background..

One non-technical insight was the appreciation for simplicity. Everyone was really hyped about very basic websites — keeping websites free of background garbage. Basically a palpable nostalgia for sites from the 90s or early 2000s era (there was even a lightning talk from one participant archiving all the old Geocities pages). No one really seemed to be praising the direction web design has been headed. I heard remarks essentially saying things are unnecessarily complicated and self-contained, rendered unable to interface with each other.

Another aspect I found really cool was the shared passion for preserving knowledge. A lot of this thinking of course came from the Internet Archive — one participant I met, Mark, had a personal program where he could make notes and relate notes to one another, kind of like an exocortex — one that he’s been operating since ’84. And he has more than 2 million entries so far (Sean talks a bit more about this in his section below). At any point, he can search for something, like “meeting”, “crypto”, “this person”, and it’ll bring up a bunch of notes related to those terms.

In general it was a very interesting dynamic between the place — I mean the setting — and the participants who were there. Even though it wasn’t an entirely crypto crowd, the ideas that emerged were surprisingly very well aligned, and I could easily recognize how the idea of sustainable, distributed societies could appeal equally to such a diverse audience.

Offline was also super important.

— Can you name one dev session AND one other session or activity that stood out to you?

I ended up attending most of the lightning talks. Different from the other sessions, there was no overall theme for the talks, each was on a different topic, and there was no general group discussion, but there was a lot of chatting inside the room following each presentation and during the Q&A portions.

A few talks stood out in particular. There was Sergei Ivliev from Perm State University who talked about his lab’s approach to a proof of identity (“How do you prove that someone is a real person?”). It was very interesting. The general idea here was that you had a time window of five minutes during which you would go to some page or you had an app, and you would have to solve some problems that would be difficult for a computer. You’re shown a bunch of images — a glass of water, a cat, a spill on the floor, a mop in action — and you’d have to arrange them in the right order. They called this a ‘flip’ — you could (only) either be right or wrong. You’d go through a few of those in the allotted time period and at the end they’d be able to determine whether you must be a real person.

During the discussion afterwards, a participant pointed out that some sequences are going to make sense in some cultures, but not in others. The reply from the session leaders was interesting: the solution works such that, as soon you solve a flip, you’re asked to build one yourself. So in effect there’s a constant set of challenges created by people for people.

Another very interesting idea was presented by Burak Nehbit, who built a decentralized social platform for self-moderated community discussions, called Aether. The really cool bit about it is the feature that lets you choose what messages to ignore or filter out. As in there is no traditional moderator whose filtering of content (governance) you just have to swallow and accept. Moreover, you could opt to see the moderation of another user or let others adopt the particular filters you configure to shape the content you see on the platform. He described it as something of a totally distributed moderation. You can choose for yourself what you see. No one decides absolutely, for everyone, what is censored or not. At the same time, you can have a kind of modular, replicable moderation. It’s a type of opt-in censorship according to whosever values you choose.

— Were there any sessions/topics/workshops you hope DWeb Camp will include more of next year?

First things first, the food and everything prepared for the really nice happy hours — that was really good… really, the Mushroom Farm had the dopest food.

If I think back to the DWeb Summit last year, it was very much preaching to the choir — in the sense that it was a lot of people who already knew each other and, instead of talking online as we were accustomed to doing, it was talking face-to-face.

I’d like to see an even broader community start to form — there’s a lot to learn.

Another point I’d like to mention — it’s not a session or workshop, but more a methodology for interacting and discussing the kinds of topics that come up at these kind of events. It has to do with the willingness to not talk jargon, or constantly use complicated words to explain why what we’re building is awesome, but rather discuss the actual problems we are all trying to solve, while learning how other people approach common challenges.

A lot of the sessions tended toward an answer to ‘how do we use this tech to make for a better society?’. One session, for example, focused on using linked data to embed context into images, in an attempt to prevent them from being used in deceptive ways. It was an example where people didn’t really pitch from their own perspective. It was more “look at this very bad thing that happened” and “how can we use the stuff that we’re already building to create a more pleasant world in general?” I thought it was a quite productive format.

Eugeniu & Ellie checking out the upcoming sessions on the camp’s local mesh net!

Ellie

— What was your favorite session at DWeb Camp?

Despite the hacker spaces and sessions focused on new and emerging technologies, I was so elated to have been able to attend some of the sessions that weren’t tech-focused at all.

At DWeb Camp I learned how to inoculate mushrooms, about the positive properties of mycelia (mushroom fungi), how to make a fire with nothing more than a stick (well, five pieces of wood, technically) and a cord, how mushroom flowers from different plants are used to create hybrids, and how you can have a more sustainable method of farming through dry farming, which is practiced at the Mushroom Farm.

A lot of these sessions were led by the passionate people working and living at the Mushroom Farm and it was really, really interesting to see folks working in areas of regeneration, farming and even art, teaching and wellness coming together with folks working on deep tech projects.

Lastly, I also have to mention how open and friendly and willing to connect everyone on the farm was. And this was something facilitated in large part by the organizers — from a talent show, to making music and s’mores around the firepit, to making nametag buttons, to an “assassination” game using plastic ducks, there was a huge concerted effort to make sure people really got out of their bubbles, got to use their hands, and got to meet new people working on all kinds of cool projects.

— What was it like being a space steward for DWeb Camp?

Being a space steward was both challenging and rewarding.

DWeb Camp featured eight spaces to host sessions — the Dome of Decentralization, the Wayback Wheel, the Hyper Lounge, the Mesh Hall, the Lightning Salon, the Grow Rooms, the Tea Room, the Sacred Fire, and the Tree of Life. I was one of four space stewards, along with Joachim, for the Dome of Decentralization, the Sacred Fire and the Tree of Life. Together, we curated sessions online and offline, with open space sessions being slotted around pre-planned sessions that were submitted in the weeks leading up to the camp.

Being a session steward was a great way to get to know participants because you got to connect ahead of camp with organizers, other space stewards and with participants whose sessions happened in your space. It was also a great way to really stay abreast of what sessions were taking place throughout the camp. The challenge? Keeping everyone else as aware as we were! It was tough making sure to connect people to the right sessions online and offline, and to keep a nice flow for the session hosts themselves so that they knew where they should be and when, particularly if their sessions needed to be rescheduled.

— Is there anything you would do differently next year?

As an event coordinator myself, there’s always ways I can see to improve for the DWeb Camps to come. I would definitely get started earlier as a steward, and be sure to make the process for signing up for open space sessions more clear at the Camp. This might be a *controversial opinion* but I’d also love to see a centralized physical space where participants could see all sessions happening at the same time rather than having to rely on the online platform — and even perhaps do away with the online scheduler altogether.

Sean

— Why did you want to participate in DWeb Camp?

Well, one of my motivations was to get better acquainted with the general community of folks with a curiosity for or mind trained on the merits of decentralization. My interactions with others in the space have largely been conducted virtually (i.e. platform-based) or locally, which is to say that my familiarity with the community traces a somewhat Berlin-centric constellation.

For this reason the camp’s express aim — to bring together those individuals and communities from around the globe interested in building a better Web — resonated with me in particular. And the sessions, activities, and casual conversations did not disappoint in the least: I put faces to names, got acquainted with colleagues overseas, made some new friends, and really broadened my overall impression of the hard work and hardy ethos driving the decentralization movement.

— As a storyteller, what’s the one story you’d like to tell from your time on the Mushroom Farm?

I had the pleasure of getting to know a fellow camper by the name of Mark, whom I met the first morning after waking up on the farm, one day before the official start of camp. When meeting someone for the first time, Mark would make a point of taking out a pen and paper, jotting down the person’s name and some bits of info that could help jar his memory later on if needed.

This is precisely what Mark did when a few of my colleagues and I first introduced ourselves that morning. ‘Not a bad idea,’ I thought, especially given the surge of familiar and unfamiliar faces (hundreds) that would soon converge on the farm.

Mark and I would continue to run into each other here and there on the farm (between sessions, at breakfast or dinner, during the dedicated downtimes, etc.) and naturally happened upon a handful of conversations about technical and nontechnical topics with whoever happened to be sitting around. Occasionally Mark’s pen and paper would make an unassuming appearance during conversations to note a few words or phrases.

It wasn’t until his lightning talk, though, that I was able to fully grasp the significance of his particular note-taking habits. Mark has effectively amassed an absolutely astounding list of real associations between (simple) semiotic elements he’s encountered and jotted down over the last 30+ years.

Over a million (I think he said it’s now over 2 million in total) “pairwise” entries based on his analog notes are stored in his database, and over seven million connections exist between those entries. In essence he has generated an queryable corpus of signs (signifiers) significant to his personal experiences.

Actually witnessing a portion of this corpus and application in action over the course of his talk left an indelible mark on my slice of self that maintains a penchant for science fiction. For better or worse I tend toward a position of critique when it comes to absorbing a technical talk, especially at themed events and conferences. But Mark’s brief introduction to his elegantly simple system for mapping relations between signs was fuel enough to occupy my imaginary with a wholly positive, open horizon of possibilities.

And that feeling of excitement has been hard to shake, actually. It’s not every day that you learn a story of such diligence and dedication to an abstract, out-there idea — let alone an idea that itself overlaps immensely with your own interests and curiosities. Such experiences themselves urge inspiration and engender an inventive, if not playful mindset crucial for building responsibly alongside technologies.

— If you had to summarize DWeb Camp in one catchphrase, what would it be?

Charles

— How did DWeb Camp compare to other developer events you’ve been to?

It was great! It was much more entertaining — in a good way. It was much more involving, with a good amount of both very technical and non-technical sessions. There was a great distribution on the spectrum of technical to non-technical. And the non-technical parts were still good.

There were good presentations and discussions on decentralized network topology, for example, in contrast to how decisions on immutable versus mutable public information should be made, which had a non-technical solution.

— Were there any projects that you discovered for the first time at DWeb Camp?

Yeah, I discovered Scuttlebutt, which was pretty cool. It’s super interesting protocol communication between social digital agents that I would venture to say is as decentralized really as it gets. It’s a very effective model of real world social interaction which is not limited to social applications.

There was also GunDB, which I was introduced to when I met Mark Nadal. It’s a kind of an interesting idea that’s a real-time distributed Javascript database which allows immutable referencing of mutable data.

— What, if anything, will you take back with you to Berlin?

In an ephemeral sense, a better appreciation for the fact that the problems that come up in technical discussions are often not technical problems but social problems that have many technical solutions — so you first actually have to reach consensus on what version of society you want in order to define the problems for which you then build technical solutions.

In a physical sense I brought back a mug. It’s a nice mug.

Ira

— What can you tell us about the new DWeb brand and how you developed it?

DWeb is defined by the community and its leaders and most importantly will be in the constant process of evolving. Essentially, I see myself as a translator between those people looking to share their message to those looking to join DWeb Community.

The founders of DWeb had a vision that originated years ago. My role in this process was to help this pioneering team define the DWeb visual language, or brand identity. You can currently see the dotted logo that we developed. It was the idea of the founders that evolved through my translation to the concept we have now. You can translate one’s vision in many different ways, but in the end we had to pick one, stick to it, iterate, expand and, finally, make consistent and recognisable.

For now we only have the logo and a draft visual language. The complete picture will take time — let’s say after the design of the first ten nodes and the global website. We wanted to create a design pattern to make the community brand visually recognisable, but also leave enough space for local groups to show their culture and local vibes within the pattern.

For more of the details, take a look at our interview with Wendy Hanamura of the Internet Archive right after we launched the new logo. But the visual language is still in progress. The best is yet to come.

— Which session did you lead during DWeb Camp and what was one key takeaway from it?

Together with Joachim, I led a workshop called “A website built by many: launching DWeb global together.” It was planned far in advance because we knew that the whole community wants to have one DWeb global landing page that will have two goals: the first, to tell what the DWeb community is about in general; and second, to allow people to open different nodes in their cities and bring decentralization to their communities.

The purpose of the workshop was to collect insights from three different audiences — contributors, being those who are already involved in the decentralisation movement and would like to contribute their skills and passions to its mission); visitors who haven’t made up their minds whether they want to join in, but are still present at DWeb Camp; and companies, who were represented by individuals at our workshop.

The workshop we ran had two parts. During the first part, we created personas of ourselves. As a website creator, information architect and brand designer, I need to know who are returning visitors as opposed to those who visit just once. And I was thrilled with the results! No video interviews or surveys would have given us such a broad picture.

The second part of the workshop was meant to collect visitors’ needs. We had attendees answer the question “As a visitor/contributor/company [of the site], I want to…” The responses we collected seriously make up enough material for three website iterations! And the first is soon to come.

The main takeaways were the results of the workshop, of course. But for me there were also two other important takeaways:

  1. we need to think about accessibility
  2. people want a lot, and we need to filter those wishes wisely

Our job will be to take the results of the workshops and future feedback sessions, and split the entire scope into MVPs.

— What’s one piece of design advice you’d give companies working on the DWeb?

There were a lot of conversations about design and mostly those conversations were led by developers. This is natural, because this is a community founded by developers and dominated by developers. The main message I heard from them is that in the era of liberated information, all websites and interfaces should look all the same to make information easily accessible. However, I see danger here.

I don’t agree that the better future is one where everything looks the same. Of course, it may be easier to access for users but there is another layer that’s just as important: keeping true to personality and company’s/team’s authenticity. The people that were at DWeb Camp came together with an idea of being yourself — being yourself, and trying to make the world better. My worry is that having everything unified in this international language for liberated data we will bump into states of blindness and sameness. This might be a bit — only a BIT — helpful when you want to access information, but if we create sameness in the world, there will always be that one company who is confident enough to break out, and becomes a giant on the market. Companies and people shouldn’t be embarrassed to show something different that may not be understood by everyone. Your audience will accept it.

You can keep your branding and your personality in your design and communications, in your tone of voice so that you can talk to your audience peer-to-peer. You don’t want to please everybody with unified language.

In general, I’m always up for this approach:
“Make it stand out!”

Cover image credits: DWebCamp floor plan of the farm territory, a part of DWebCamp event identity in 2019.

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