Commercialization of Peer-to-Peer

one part observation and questions on the coming commercialization of the peer-to-peer space, one part screed on the importance of community-run infrastructure

Part I

The things I do involve peer-to-peer in various ways, have done so for an increasingly significant amount of years. Whether that’s speaking at or helping host conferences and meetups for peers, contributing to Secure Scuttlebutt by writing go code or the newsletter—or doing all kinds of development on Cabal, the peer-to-peer group chat I started with friends.

What I want to focus on for these few minutes are thoughts I have on what I’m calling the coming commercialization of peer-to-peer. This phase of commercialization is reminscent of recent SaaS offerings, or software as a service—a very common business model which more often than not has investment capital backing.

Recently, I’ve noticed that the peer-to-peer space is mature enough—once again, 20 years later—to attract businesses to build on top of it. In particular, I have seen platforms emerge whose core value proposition stems from building up a local-first peer-to-peer architecture in some way and then offering a simplified experience for other businesses to build upon.

I have three examples of these platforms springing up, but I’m sure you can find more with some digging or if you decide to go outside the narrow p2p platform definition I’m outlining.

Three examples:

What these three have in common, they are:

  1. Companies, first and primarily; it’s not 100% about open source contributors anymore
  2. Companies that are focusing on peer-to-peer as their core value proposition, with p2p as a fundamental infrastructural & architectural decision
  3. Have taken on venture capital funding, or its equivalent [1] [2] [3]
  4. Formed recently; within the last four years, of which 2 were started during the pandemic

One is a coincidence, two is curious, but three is a trend. Something’s happening in the space. People with a lot of experience developing the most recent wave of peer-to-peer applications and protocols are suddenly starting or joining companies that are taking the paradigm and putting it into a software as a service context.

The following thoughts and questions spring to mind:

These are important questions to ask and to answer from a harm mitigation standpoint, especially early on. As participants and onlookers, we have nothing to gain from charging a hype cycle. It’s more fruitful instead to ask ourselves and our communities what we think will happen, in a broader sense, if these types of platforms succeed in popularity. To think of ways in which we can prepare for the harms, or exapt the goods.

Part II

p2p may be leveraged to take the next twist down the [financial / atom / individual]-ization spiral of the digital realm. Namely: now we’re not even providing people the basic service of hosting and managing software in return for their trust and money. Instead we’re charging them for the opportunity to do the hosting and managing themselves. Or, more, fiendish: taking a fee to let others do so. The gig economy beckons across the chasm to application developers and software users alike.

However: employed thoughtfully, p2p can also be the next step in a redemption arc for the digital. Decoupling people, their communities and livelihoods from the constant boom & bust cycle of tech. Where, one year sees you relying on an app for your basic communication needs, and in the next it has been disappeared (bought up, closed down, deprecated in favor of a new product, made incompatible with your device) or changed beyond recognition, its usefulness shriveled.

Peer-to-peer design and its infrastructure choices fundamentally enable different ways of relating to each other. The important part, the caveat, is that the underlying infrastructure which enables this panoply of relating has to be community organized and community run. It cannot be owned and run by investment capital, because that is the same as electing to build a tree house in a pine plantation. One day the woodcutters will come and clear-cut what you thought was your backyard, and you’ll have to pick up your things as best you can and move somewhere else. Again.

Of course, peer-to-peer never left. Just look at bittorrent. 20+ years since it rose into prominence and it’s still chugging along; still possible to find Ubuntu ISOs with plentiful peers; still able to connect with those peers through community run facilitation and introducer mechanisms like the distributed hash tables that enable it all; still providing inspiration to new projects and communities.

Peer-to-peer is seeing a new wave of commercialization, even if it is not entirely obvious yet. Commerialization ultimately tells us one thing: there is interest again. Since this is not the first time for the p2p domain to start its rise into prominence we’re also told a second thing: it’s not only on the backs of hype, but due to the underlying promises of existing technical capabilities. But, like every time a hype cycle rears on its back wheel, it’s up to communities, community interested developers, advocates and users to not swallow the fish wholesale. To question temporary shelters and to get in touch with experts on how to spin up their own infrastructure, to collaborate with likeminded collectives to distribute the burden of maintenance. Together we can make it but if divided, then together we fall.

thanks to glyph for reading a draft and offering light edits. if this struck a chord for you, feel free to reach out. find my contact info at the bottom of the frontpage