Urbit, a Network Older and Weirder Than Bitcoin, Finally Turns Toward Growth

The peer-to-peer network started in 2002 says it's taking on "MEGACORP," much in the same vein as many blockchain networks. A bit more fun are the "secret code names" that users are assigned.

AccessTimeIconMay 10, 2023 at 3:54 p.m. UTC
Updated May 29, 2023 at 8:55 p.m. UTC
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Urbit isn’t a blockchain, but it was started seven years before bitcoin, with a similar idea of attempting to create a peer-to-peer network that is free from the influence of big companies or the government.

That’s a key reason Urbit often gets discussed in the context of crypto and invited to blockchain-industry conferences. One doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on the Urbit Foundation’s website to come across some of the themes popular among blockchain advocates - the idea of trying to short-circuit middlemen and centralized applications that dominate online activity. “We think the internet can’t be saved. The way things are going, MEGACORP will always control our apps and services because we can no longer run them ourselves,” the site reads.

Users are identified on the network by their Urbit IDs – four-syllable pronounceable names generated by an algorithm from a number, then registered as an NFT on the Ethereum blockchain. (For example, according to the website, the Urbit ID ~dalwel-fadrun ties back to the number 3,509,632,436.)

“Your Urbit ID is meant to feel a bit like a secret code name,” the website reads. “We want Urbit to be a single, simple interface for your whole digital life.”

The number of “ships” on the Urbit network has roughly doubled this year. (Urbit)
The number of “ships” on the Urbit network has roughly doubled this year. (Urbit)

This sort of clubbiness, of course, is a major part of the exercise with any blockchain ecosystem, where building a community of staunch followers is one of the hardest parts. And lately, Urbit appears to be getting some traction.

The chart above indicates the user base is growing briskly, with the caveat than an individual can own multiple "ships," or identities. Such growth is partly due to the introduction of personal-server hosting services and better user interfaces that made it easier for normies (non-technical types) to join. The number of developers has doubled over the past year; there’s now about 90 monthly active developers working on the project – on par with some of the 20 largest blockchain projects.

“For a long time Urbit wasn’t really growing at all,” acknowledges Josh Lehman aka ~wolref-podlex, executive director of the Urbit Foundation. “It was just enthusiasts.”

Urbit recently got some exposure to a general audience, after getting a mention in a Vanity Fair article, while another writer spent an entire weekend following attendees around Urbit’s own “Assembly” conference in Miami last September and then chronicling every detail gonzo-style. (Excerpt: “I meet two girls from Minnesota who learned about Urbit on a podcast and wanted to see if they could learn any tricks for building their fashion brand by coming here.”)

The conference also had some prominent speakers, including Balaji Srinivasan, garnering further conversation about the network. Srinivasan, the entrepreneur and “Network State” author who more recently grabbed headlines for his unsuccessful $1 million bitcoin bet, was a keynote speaker at the Miami conference. "Urbit wants to actually be a cathedral," Srinivasan said, in a video recording of the talk. "It's a bit of a bazaar, but it's currently a bit of a bizarre cathedral."

Origin story

Urbit describes itself as an operating system and a network where users keep data on personal servers; that way, users control any data they need to function on the network, unlike many blockchains where data is preserved on-chain – a feature that’s often championed for the transparency benefits. Then, using the Urbit peer-to-peer network, users simply interact with each other and keep local records of those interactions.

Curtis Yarvin, a computer scientist, started the project in 2002 - long before Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin white paper was published in October 2008. His fringe political views, associated with what’s known as the “Dark Enlightenment" or “neo-reactionary movement” were so pronounced that they were hard to ignore in any conversation about Urbit.

In 2019 Yarvin (aka ~sorreg-namtyv) stepped down as CTO, board member and voting shareholder of Tlon, the company that previously sponsored Urbit’s development, writing at the time, “From the very start, I knew Urbit could not succeed until it ceased to be mine and became the world’s.”

“Urbit is not uniformly excellent quite yet,” Yarvin wrote. “There are a few medium-sized cleanups in the near-term pipeline. But this is a matter of months, not years. I don't see any unknown unknowns,” he said.

According to the Urbit Foundation's website, the non-profit was established in 2021 when it split off from Tlon, a private company formed in 2013 to work on the network.

Advocates for Urbit are quick to claim that the underlying programming language is simple and elegant because it only needed to solve the problem of how to best create a peer-to-peer network. The entire Urbit operating system supposedly compiles down to 33 lines of code, known as “Nock.”

There are plenty of Urbit talking points that sound like core arguments for Web3 – the imagined next iteration of the internet, which would promote decentralized protocols while reducing dependency on large tech companies like Youtube, Netflix and Amazon.

One example from Urbit’s website: “For the most part, we use our laptops simply as access points to MEGACORP services. Our phones are the same. These services are amazing and convenient. But for that convenience we’ve traded away control, ownership and privacy.”

One of the Urbit faithful, Hocwyn Tipwex (he no longer uses his real name in a professional context), is co-founder of the Uqbar Network, which is building a zero-knowledge rollup to Ethereum.

He says Urbit’s inherent peer-to-peer design makes it easy to design peer-to-peer applications and decentralized apps known as dapps. So far there are apps for chatting and social media as well as poker on the Urbit network.

“Peer-to-peer infrastructure is harder than it looks,” Tipwex said last month at CoinDesk’s Consensus 2023 conference in Austin, Texas.

What’s also hard is building a community to rally around any project, crypto or otherwise. Urbit’s weird, little band of devout followers with secret code names might serve as a decent start as the project tries to build a bigger and more user-friendly ecosystem. Projects like Tipwex’s show how the network might ultimately bleed into crypto.


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Bradley Keoun

Bradley Keoun is the managing editor of CoinDesk's Tech & Protocols team. He owns less than $1,000 each of several cryptocurrencies.

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