Late last week, an NFT (non-fungible token) marketplace called Hic et Nunc suddenly went down without explanation. All URLs tied to hicetnunc.xyz were broken, and all NFTs on the site were inaccessible. The site’s Twitter bio displayed an impassive epitaph: “discontinued.”
The community panicked. “Pathetic,” wrote one user in the Hic et Nunc Discord server. “NFTs are dead,” wrote another. The fear was that without a working website, the NFTs themselves were effectively inaccessible.
“What was clear from what happened on Thursday into Friday is that most people did not understand how NFTs work,” said Bernadine Bröcker Wieder, founder of an art-oriented tech company called Vastari. “By having the front-end go down, they thought that meant that they had lost everything.”
Read more: 15 NFT Use Cases That Could Go Mainstream
The reality wasn’t quite so clear-cut. The website for Hic et Nunc was gone, but because most of the data was already sitting on the blockchain (a network called Tezos, in this case), and the code was available on GitHub (an open source repository), the raw data was still accessible – albeit in a somewhat scrambled form.
The incident inadvertently served as a stress test for decentralized infrastructure. NFTs on Hic et Nunc could be salvaged – but the effort would have to come from the community.
“Decentralization” is the buzzword most commonly associated with Web 3.0, but it’s easy to forget what it means, exactly. In theory, so-called “decentralized” infrastructure nods to the structure of the blockchain itself – each miner stores a complete, independent copy of the ledger, so the data isn’t “centralized” in the hands of a single owner. It’s the opposite of how we’re used to understanding data on the internet. If Amazon decided to pull the plug on its cloud computing network right now, a third of the internet would be irretrievable. A truly decentralized website would only ever pull data from the blockchain; if it went down, the raw data would still be salvageable.
In practice, though, “decentralized” has mostly become a shorthand for “crypto-related” – a way to court investors with the veneer of a sturdier system, without fully committing to the idea. This is especially apparent when it comes to NFTs, which are essentially just pieces of data that point to media files. If the image file for your NFT is hosted on a company’s server, and the company goes down, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see it again. You’ll still “own” the NFT (i.e. the string of letters and numbers that says it belongs to you), but the image itself could disappear.
Hic et Nunc was the brainchild of a single developer, Rafael Lima, who built it from scratch on the Tezos blockchain. He was, in effect, a central authority. But in the days following his decision to abandon the project (it appears to be the result of internal arguments with other members of the Discord server), a VC-backed crypto company called DNS decided to create a mirror site with a new top-level domain. Instead of “.xyz,” it went with “.art.”
The new site looks nearly identical to the old one, and uses the same underlying smart contracts, so creators can still mint and trade new Hic et Nunc NFTs. The images attached to existing NFTs are still available, too, since media files were housed in a storage system called IPFS (InterPlanetary File System), which transposes data directly onto the blockchain.
“Because [Lima] uses IPFS with the original files, there’s no strange URLs that go in between it. So by Hic et Nunc being down, it doesn’t affect anything with the NFTs,” explained Bröcker Wieder.
This is why crypto purists, ever distrustful of central authorities, like keeping everything “on-chain.” Many of today’s most popular NFT marketplaces don’t operate like this, preferring to run files through centralized intermediaries (either to save money or to keep things simpler from an engineering standpoint). Nifty Gateway, the Winklevoss-owned marketplace that served as a launchpad for the NFT artist Beeple, is a “centralized” platform in that the files themselves don’t live on the blockchain. If the Winklevoss twins decided to take down their servers, NFT holders would have a hard time digging up their images.
This is not to say that this new version of Hic et Nunc is perfect, and that decentralization is always the answer – it’s not. The Discord server remains chaotic; no one is quite sure who should take charge of the new site (though some are suggesting it be operated collectively by a DAO). NFTs remain far from a bulletproof claim to ownership, in that they confer no legal rights, and can go missing. But these haven’t, at least so far: They’re just under the care of a new steward.
Violeta López, an artist and developer who worked on the original Hic et Nunc platform, has expressed frustration with the way hicetnunc.art has developed.
“What started off as an open source project has ended up in closed sourced copies,” she said in a statement. “Why couldn’t … third-party developers fork/clone the repository and make its own version of the site instead of hosting third-party tools on their own websites?”
This is sort of true: DNS has made the code for the Hic et Nunc mirror site open source, but any new features and improvements to the site are essentially in the hands of a new central actor with a distinct vision. At this point, it’s unclear whether the new Hic et Nunc will share the scrappy ethos of the original.
In my opinion https://t.co/pPDBZIGLM1 is blatantly stealing H=N intellectual property. The only claim they have to it is being the first to clone open source code and promote it.
It’s was suggested they change the name, they’ve refused. Their attitude leaves a lot to be desired
— __orderandchaos (@__orderandchaos) November 13, 2021
It’s a fact of the internet that websites come and go. Things get deprecated, and “link rot” sets in. But it’s worth considering what decentralized data structures could do for some of the sites that have been lost to time.
Earlier this week, the website for a beloved blog called The Awl, which has been defunct for several years, disappeared from the internet. As with Hic et Nunc, all links suddenly ceased to work. “Every recurring payment someday stops recurring,” tweeted Choire Sicha, one of the site’s co-founders.
The Awl may return, if all it takes is another monthly payment to a cloud storage company. But if the site’s posts had been decentralized, users wouldn’t have to wait – they could just replicate the site with their own front-end. The crypto-backed blogging platform Mirror already does something like this, storing users’ data on an IPFS alternative called Arweave.
if you start a blog you’re responsible for keeping it alive forever and if you die your descendents have to do it until the sun burns out- you knew the rules when you signed up, buddy
— jake dobkin (@jakedobkin) November 17, 2021
Of course, anyone could clone the site. But would the new Awl be the “real” Awl, or just a sort of “Awl Prime” under new auspices? What if G/O Media, or some other enterprise whose values aren’t necessarily aligned with those of the core readership, decided to swoop in and build a new front-end?
Decentralized infrastructure may allow for cloned websites – data on a blockchain, as opposed to a privately-owned server – but it doesn’t answer the question of control.