Permissionless Communication

JP Ren / October 19, 2022

What does crypto-native messaging look like for end users?

For as far as I could remember, who we can message has been constrained by who we know. Building our personal network is expensive, and has a large physical component: being in the right city, attending the right school, going to the right parties.

The internet was supposed to change this. To some extent it has β€” within the confines of games, social networking platforms, and internet marketplaces β€” but finding people online and reaching them is not easy, because of spam.

The design of every communication platform to date has had to make a hard tradeoff: between social discovery and spam. Users want maximal user discovery and despise spam.

Imagine being able to find and reach anyone in the world, not because of where you live or who you know, but because of what you do online.

I think this is the future of internet communications. On-chain identities will give people the power to permissionlessly communicate and self-organize. Open social protocols will drastically improve user discovery. We will use on-chain and off-chain data to fight spam.

A brief history of internet communications

Email was the original protocol for P2P internet communications. It's an open protocol, not locked to a client or platform. Identifiers are private and globally unique. It's permissionless on two levels: you don't need permission from a higher authority to send or receive mail, and you can send a message to any address on the network.

Since then, almost every internet communications platform has become a walled garden (e.g. AIM, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snap). Each produced key innovations around user experience, but you had to join their network to take advantage of them. User identifiers and identities were locked within the platform. The network was the moat, and the platform played gatekeeper.

Most communications products, like email, were built around private identifiers. It prevented spam as long as your identifier didn't get leaked, but the tradeoff is poor user discovery. Social media products leaned into user and content discovery by making identifiers and identities more public, and solved spam with social graphs (e.g. friending, following).

There's a paradigm shift underway that will change how we connect online. The next generation of communication products will unlock permissionless communications over open social networks.

A paradigm shift

  1. closed platforms -> open networks
  2. private identifiers -> public identifiers
  3. authority controlled -> permissionless

Imagine being able to find and reach anyone in the world, not because of where you live or who you know, but because of what you do online.

As more of what we do starts online, how we connect and communicate with others is going to look a lot more like search. Facebook's Graph Search almost a decade ago was prescient, just wrong about the network.

New identifiers for new identities

Over the past 10 years, blockchains and cryptographic proofs paved the way for user controlled social identity. Each identity has a globally unique pointer on the blockchain, a network identifier for sending and receiving information.

Human readable on-chain identifiers are growing quickly: 437k new ENS registrations in September (2.6M total names, 572k unique eth accounts).

Unlike existing communication identifiers (e.g. email, phone, legal name, address) which were private, our on-chain identifiers are public. Anyone with an on-chain identifier can permissionlessly interact with any other identifier on the network.

A person's on-chain identity is an aggregate of all accessible on-chain and off-chain data associated with their on-chain identifier. On-chain data captures the full history of people and contracts we've interacted with, tokens and NFTs we own. Off-chain data includes activity on other protocols such as Farcaster.

On-chain identity and open social networks

On-chain identity is a powerful new idea. It’s public, user controlled, and composable. Any application can read and write to it.

The last generation of social networks will soon feel like closed, corporate intranets. The next generation will be open like the internet.

Imagine the WWW, but instead of a network of web pages, we now have a network of people, media, and applications connected by on-chain and verifiable relationships.

This is the open, decentralized vision of social networks.

On-chain identity and permissionless communication

The shift to on-chain identities cannot be understated β€” it's an important prerequisite for permissionless communication.

Permissionless in this context can mean two different things:

  1. Not needing permission from a platform or higher authority to communicate
  2. Not needing permission from other users to communicate with them

As it turns out, on-chain identity unlocks both levels of permissionless communication. It's user controlled, so anyone communicate can over any product or protocol that works with on-chain identifiers. It's also data rich, so we can use data instead of explicit social/permission graphs to deter spam.

Compare this new reality to today's platforms, where users don't actually control their identifiers. If a platform or organization bans you, or ceases to exist, you lose access.

More than user controlled, on-chain identity is composable. Its components can be mixed and matched to create new things. This gives people the tools to organize themselves, create and experiment with new identity primitives, and coordinate in radically new ways.

What about Spam? It's a problem, but a solvable one. We can start by using on-chain data to prioritize our relationships and the messages in our inbox.

As more and more of our social interaction becomes online-first, it's vital that we have communications tools designed for on-chain identities. Twitter, Discord, and Telegram built the last generation of online-first platforms. Now's the time to build permissionless solutions on top of open social networks.

At Frens, we're building an open communications system for the world, starting with the best messaging client for network identities. If you're excited about open, permissionless communications, let's connect!

About me

I'm JP, amateur jpeg collector, DAO contributor and co-founder of Frens. Our mission at Frens is to make open, permissionless communications universally accessible. Previously I designed popular western social media and messaging platforms, and founded a YC company.

I'm interested in web3 social networks, the pseudonymous economy, and making new connections.

Find me @jpren on Farcaster / @jpren1 on TG (Frens beta πŸ”œ)

Thanks @cameron, @giu, @ace, and @jayme for early feedback