Po.et picks up where Xanadu left off

Rik the people's poet

Jarrod Dicker just left his executive job at The Washington Post to become CEO of a blockchain company. Dicker described his new employer, Po.et, as “a shared, open-source universal ledger designed to track ownership, attribution and the marketplace flow” of content.

When I checked out the Po.et homepage, I was immediately reminded of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project. Xanadu was a precursor to the Web that aimed to provide a trail of ownership for all pieces of content. It was invented in the 1960s, but a working version was never released over the following few decades. When the much simpler World Wide Web was invented in the early 1990s, it put paid to Ted Nelson’s grandiose dream once and for all. But in the blockchain era, perhaps it’s time to revisit Nelson’s idea of trackable content.

Why do I think Po.et is like Xanadu? A little context to explain… Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext” in 1963, but he was dismayed by how it was implemented by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s. Berners-Lee’s version of hypertext was relatively simple, by design. He wanted HTML, the Web’s markup language, to be easy to learn and use. It was the correct decision, because the Web gained enormous traction thanks to its simple user interface. Ted Nelson however wasn’t pleased. He later said that “HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.”

Which brings us to Po.et. A blockchain can provide what Nelson could only dream of: permanent, two-way links; version management for a piece of content; rights management. If you’re a freelance journalist, for example, and you get an amazing scoop, Po.et will enable you to prove that you got to the story first through a timestamped ledger entry on the Bitcoin blockchain. [although given that it takes about ten minutes on average for something to be confirmed on blockchain, you better hope the right miner validates it first!]

Essentially what Po.et does is let you create a timestamped metadata entry onto the Bitcoin blockchain. This is a neat idea; and I think it’s an excellent decentralized use case for the blockchain (see my post yesterday: Do you need a blockchain?).

How exactly does it do this? As explained by EnterpriseTimes, Po.et uses the SHA-256 hash of a file as a digital identifier for that asset. It then embeds this hash in the Bitcoin blockchain “by generating a special Bitcoin transaction that includes the hash using the OP_RETURN opcode, which allows for the storage of up to 40 bytes of arbitrary data in a provably unspendable transaction output.”

Note that what gets stored on the Bitcoin blockchain is just some metadata. The content itself gets archived on the BitTorrent network. That’s because it would be far too expensive to store, for example, an HTML file and all its associated images on the blockchain. Each transaction on Bitcoin attracts a fee, so that miners have an incentive to validate transactions. So Po.et had to find another way to provide a backup of the actual content. BitTorrent seems like a viable solution, although it certainly isn’t as immutable as Bitcoin.

Speaking of immutability, this was also the reason given for why Po.et uses the Bitcoin blockchain – and not the more obvious Ethereum. According to a July 2017 post on The Merkle, one of the early publishers on Po.et’s platform, that decision was made because “the Ethereum blockchain lost its immutable factor once the DAO hard fork was introduced a year ago.” A bit harsh, but point taken.

Po.et technology stack
Po.et technology stack

The idea for Po.et dates back to October 2016, when some people at Bitcoin Magazine (where Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin got his start) came up with “a platform to timestamp and tokenize published articles.” The product was then built and unveiled in May 2017, and an initial $1 million was raised in June from angel investors and “strategic partners.” Po.et’s eventual token sale was in August, when it raised $10 million.

Po.et’s latest release is called Frost, a “publisher API that enables developers to easily build on top of the Po.et platform.” A WordPress plugin is currently in development. A raft of other features – content licenses, revenue sharing, payment channels – are slated for the rest of 2018.

As for its team and community, both seem pretty solid. Po.et has over 28,000 Twitter followers, over 9,000 on Reddit, and over 7,000 on Telegram. Its token, POE, sells for $0.0665 at time of writing – giving it a market cap of $147m. Okay, that’s excessive! But then almost everything in crypto is excessively priced right now.

Will Po.et get traction amongst publishers other than crypto blogs? Its recent announcement of a partnership with a public media company called Maven was its first move beyond the crypto news circle. I hadn’t heard of Maven before and its stock price is only $1.94 at time of writing. A Seeking Alpha post from last August was skeptical, noting that “the company is rapidly burning cash.” So it sounds like a swing for the fences on both sides.

But who knows, all these blockchain startups are taking big swings. And I like what Po.et is attempting to do. New Po.et CEO Jarrod Dicker promises “ a new environment where creators are paid for what they can do instead of what is required of them by an old and broken paradigm.”

As a content creator myself, and one who is looking for new paradigms (given the advertising industry has fallen off a cliff), I will keenly follow Po.et’s progress. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree…