Blockchain & internet glossary (A–Z): Key terms from Read Write Own

Chris DixonRobert Hackett

Editor’s note: This glossary of common blockchain and internet terms/ definitions is adapted from the new book Read Write Own: Building the Next Era of the Internet by Chris Dixon (Random House, 2024). Delve deeper into the book themes by reading the author’s manifesto, exploring the book’s table of contents, or listening to our podcast episode. You can buy the book at your local bookstore or order online:

A    B    C    D    E    F    H    I    K    L    M    N    O    P    R    S    T    V    W    Z

Airdrop: A mechanism for turning the users of a network into owners by granting them economic, governance, and other rights through tokens.

API: Short for “application programming interface”, a software connection that enables applications to interoperate. Corporate networks often change their API policies to extract rents, thwart competition, and consolidate power. 

“Attention-monetization dilemma”: The trade-off content creators face between maximizing attention and maximizing money, especially as it concerns the choice between giving away content for free or charging for it.

Attestations: Claims backed up by cryptographic digital signatures that can vouch for the authenticity, validity, and provenance of information. For attestations to gain trust, attesters often must put something at stake, such as funds or reputation.

Attract-extract cycle: How the business logic of a corporate network typically unfolds. When starting out, corporate networks use perks and subsidies to attract network participants such as creators, developers, and users. Later, as the network gets larger and growth slows, the corporation locks in participants and focuses on extracting maximal value from them.

Authentication: Using digital signatures to prove the authenticity, validity, or identity of information and its sources. One of the main value propositions of cryptography.

Bitcoin: The world’s first blockchain network and cryptocurrency, invented by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto (identity unknown). Originally conceived in a 2008 white paper as “an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party”.

Blockchains: A new class of virtual computer that can, for the first time ever, establish inviolable rules in software. Unlike traditional computers, blockchains can make strong commitments to users about their future behavior — that any code they run will continue to operate as designed.

Blockchain networks: Networks built on the technology of blockchains, characteristic of the internet’s read write own era. They combine the societal benefits of early internet protocol networks (open access, democratic governance, low take rates, user ownership rights) with the competitive advantages of corporate networks (sustainable sources of funding, advanced features). (See: “Read write own era”.)

“Can’t be evil”: Inspired by Google’s former motto “Don’t be evil”, the phrase is intended to illustrate the value proposition of blockchain networks: Unlike corporate networks, blockchain networks can make strong commitments about their future behavior, including restraining anyone’s ability to change the system’s rules.

Casino vs. computer: A cultural divide that exists around blockchains. Whereas casino culture is interested primarily in trading, speculation, and gambling, computer culture is focused on the long-term vision of building a better internet.

Clients: Software applications that enable people to access and participate in underlying protocols and networks, as Gmail or Outlook do for email.

“Come for the tool, stay for the network”: A tactic for attracting users, first by offering a useful tool that piggybacks on an existing network and then by enticing those same users to join a new network. For example, video creators originally used YouTube to host and embed videos on their own websites (the tool) until eventually people just relied on YouTube’s own site and app (the network).

Commoditization: When products or services lose their pricing leverage. In the tech industry, commoditization can happen when a product or service is given away for free (like the calculator app on the iPhone), made open source (like the Linux operating system), or controlled by a community (like the email protocol SMTP).

“Commoditize your complement”: A business strategy designed to maximize profits by commoditizing the products or services of a rival. For example, the main reason Google maintains the open source mobile operating system Android is to reduce the leverage Apple and its competing iOS platform have over Google’s search advertising business. Coined by Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Stack Overflow and Trello, in a 2002 blog post.

Complements vs. substitutes: Complements are products or services that are often bundled or used together, like spaghetti and meatballs or an iPhone and mobile apps. Substitutes are products that are essentially interchangeable, like Coke or Pepsi and iOS or Android phones. Counterintuitively, some of the most heated rivalries in technology occur between complements. (See “Commoditize your complement”.)

Composability: A property describing software in which components can be reassembled into larger, more complex compositions. Because components can be remixed and reused, a component only ever has to be developed once. Composability can yield exponential growth, similar to compound interest in finance and Moore’s law for semiconductors.

Computer vs. casino: (See “Casino vs. computer”.)

Computing cycles: The succession of paradigms that dictate how people interact with the digital world, typically lasting every 10-to-15 years. For example, mainframes dominated in the 1950s and 1960s, minicomputers in the 1970s, PCs in the 1980s, the consumer internet in the 1990s, and most recently, mobile phones since the mid-to-late 2000s.

Consensus mechanism: The rules and procedures that enable blockchain network validators to reach agreement on a common, valid version of history as well as the next state of the virtual computer. (See “Proof of stake”, “Proof of work”, and “State transition”.)

Corporate networks: Networks that companies own and control, characteristic of the read write era. Corporate networks tend to have advanced features and more sustainable funding compared to early internet-era protocol networks, but they are effectively centralized, controlled from the top down, and their management can change the rules of the network at any time, for any reason.

Credible neutrality: When a tech platform is non-discriminatory and can assure network participants that it will stay that way. (Cf. “Platform risk”.)

Cryptocurrency: One use of blockchain networks, the most well-known of which is Bitcoin. Many industry practitioners prefer the term “tokens” because it more aptly communicates the abstract, generalizable nature of the technology. (See “Tokens”.)

Cryptography: The science of secure communication. Blockchain networks are called “crypto” because they use cryptographic key pairs to enable authentication and attestations through digital signatures. (See “Attestations”, “Authentication”, and “Key pairs”.)

DAO: Short for “decentralized autonomous organization”, a self-governing, blockchain-based community that uses self-executing code, token voting, or some other programmatic mechanism for coordination. Many DAOs control treasuries — the financial core of a blockchain network — which can be used to fund development and network growth.

Decentralization: When a network is community-owned and -operated as opposed to being controlled by central gatekeepers and intermediaries.

DeFi: Short for “decentralized finance”, a category of blockchain-based financial applications and infrastructure that is designed to replace financial intermediaries with software. (See “Trustlessness”.)

Deplatforming: The ejection of users or suspension of accounts by a network owner, usually without transparent due process. The practice of “shadowbanning”, whereby a platform silences users without their knowledge, is one manifestation. (See “Platform risk”.)

Disruptive vs. sustaining technology: A theory that distinguishes between technology that creates entirely new markets — or significantly reshapes existing ones — so much so that it eventually displaces incumbents (disruptive) and technology that improves the performance of existing products along dimensions people already value (sustaining). Introduced by the late business academic Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. (See “The next big thing starts out looking like a toy”.)

DNS: Short for “domain name system”, the internet directory that maps human-friendly names ( to physical-computer internet protocol or IP addresses ( Created by Paul Mockapetris, an American computer scientist, in 1983, and now overseen by the global non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Encapsulation: A computer programming technique that creates well-defined interfaces for units of code and other systems, thereby reducing complexity. Think of an ATM: A user doesn’t have to understand the internal operations of the machine and its software to interact with a bank account. Encapsulation also makes it easier to use software components as building blocks. (See the related concept “Composability”.)

Ethereum: The first blockchain network with a built-in general purpose programming language, a feature that enables any developer in the world to write and run apps on top of it, ranging from marketplaces to metaverses. Conceived by the programmer Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum made its debut in 2015.

Faucets: Faucets are sources of token supply and a tool for keeping prices balanced in a virtual economy. When faucets are too strong, they can lead to oversupply, diminished demand, and downward price pressure. When they are too weak, they can have the opposite effects. Airdrops and DAO treasury distributions are two common types of faucets. (See “Airdrops” and “Tokenomics”; cf. “Sinks”.)

Federated network: A variety of protocol network that doesn’t use centralized corporate data centers to host people’s data but rather relies on peer nodes to run their own software instances, called “servers”, to host network data. Collectively, these networks are sometimes called “the Fediverse”. (See “Protocol coups”.)

Fungible tokens: Tokens that are interchangeable, meaning one can be swapped for any other in the same set. Analogous to how one $10 bill can be exchanged for any other $10 bill. Some applications include cryptocurrency (such as bitcoin), representations of national currencies (as in many dollar-pegged stablecoins), and as a means of payment within blockchain networks (such as Ethereum’s native token ether). (See “Tokens”; cf. “NFT”.)

Hash: A unique, fixed-length cryptographic code, or identifier, representing a piece of data. Hashes are essential to modern cryptography and blockchain networks, which use them to ensure digital security and data integrity.

Howey test: A three-pronged legal assessment for deciding what constitutes an “investment contract”, otherwise known as a security. Based on a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court case, the Howey test looks at whether an offer or sale of assets involves (1) an investment of money, (2) in a common enterprise, (3) with a reasonable expectation of profit to be derived from the efforts of others. All three prongs must be met for the offer to be considered a security.

Hype cycle: A framework for understanding the stages of public perception many new technologies undergo on their way to mainstream adoption. A popular model was created by the consulting firm Gartner in 1995.

HTTP: Short for “hypertext transfer protocol”, the open protocol behind the web. Invented by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, HTTP enables the transmission of web content between web servers and clients. It is one of the internet’s original protocol networks along with SMTP, commonly known as email. (See “Protocol network”.)

Inside-out technologies: Technologies that start inside established institutions, like tech companies. Their development tends to need significant capital and formal training, which raises their barrier to entry. Examples include mobile and cloud computing, which started inside big corporations such as Apple, Google, and Amazon. (Cf. “Outside-in technologies”.)

Internet protocol: An open protocol that defines how to format, address, and route packets of information between machines on the internet. Internet protocol, or IP, comprises the networking layer of the internet tech stack, which sits above the physical device layer. (See “Tech stack”.)

Key pairs: Two strings of data — a public key and a private key — that are central to modern cryptographic applications. A mathematical relationship ties together each key pair such that it is easy to derive the public key from the private key but takes vast amounts of computing power to derive the private key from the public key. Key pairs are the basis for digital signatures and authentication, and they are foundational to blockchain networks. (See “Authentication” and “Cryptography”.)

Killer app: A software application that is so compelling it drives the adoption of a new technology or platform. Email was a killer app of the early internet. Social networks were a killer app for mobile phones. Often, killer apps exploit a new technology or platform’s unique capabilities. (See “Native vs. Skeuomorphic” and “Platform-app feedback loop”.)

“Law of conservation of attractive profits”: A framework for understanding how value flows through a tech stack, conceived by the late business academic Clayton Christensen. The theory states that commoditizing a layer in a tech stack is like squeezing a balloon: The volume of air stays constant, but it shifts to other areas. Similarly, the profits that flow through a tech stack can stay constant while shifting from layer to layer. (See “Commoditize your complement”.) 

Layer two or L2: A second-layer network designed to improve the performance of an underlying blockchain network. One popular variety, called “rollups”, shifts heavier computations off-chain to traditional computers, and then sends the results back to the underlying blockchain network so that it can verify their correctness. Important for scaling.

Limited liability corporation: A legal structure formalized in the mid-19th century that paved the way for today’s public capital markets, greatly expanded shareholder ownership, and allowed businesses to raise the funds needed to invest in new technologies and infrastructure during the industrial revolution and beyond. Limited liability corporations show how technological innovation can drive pragmatic changes to regulation.

Linux: The most widely used operating system in the world. Started in 1991 as a personal project of the computer programmer Linus Torvalds while at the University of Helsinki and now the centerpiece of the open source software movement.

Memecoin: A token with no intrinsic value that is used primarily for financial speculation, the most famous of which is Dogecoin.

Mining: Performing energy-intensive computational work in exchange for token rewards to secure a blockchain network like Bitcoin. Mining no longer applies to newer blockchain networks like Ethereum that have adopted more modern systems such as proof of stake. (See “Proof of work”; cf. “Proof of stake”.)

Moore’s law: An observation that the number of transistors that can fit on computer chips roughly doubles every two years. Named after Gordon Moore, a founder of the chip company Intel, who famously articulated the concept.

Multiplayer vs. single-player technology: A way to categorize technologies based on how much their utility depends on social context. Money and computer networks are useful only when other people are also using them (multiplayer), whereas hammers or cash registers are useful purely by themselves (single-player). Network effects are common among multiplayer technologies. (See “Network effects”.)

Native vs. skeuomorphic: A distinction between technologies that improve upon existing activities (skeuomorphic) and technologies that do what was not possible before their introduction (native). Websites on the early internet were essentially facsimiles of print brochures (skeuomorphic), only later developing more creative experiences like social networking (native). Apple popularized the term “skeuomorphic” during the Steve Jobs-era to describe computer graphics that resemble familiar objects, like a trash can icon representing deleted files. The term has evolved to mean any design thinking that is overly beholden to what came before.

Network: At its most basic level, a list of connections between people or things. The structure of a network — the way the nodes connect and interact — determines outcomes on the internet, including how power and money flow. There are three basic types of internet networks: protocol networks, corporate networks, and blockchain networks. (See “Protocol networks”, “Corporate networks”, and “Blockchain networks”.)

Network effects: An economic phenomenon whereby the value of a network grows with the addition of each new node. Whereas corporations accrued power through economies of scope and scale in the industrial era, power primarily accrues through network effects on the internet. Metcalfe’s law and Reed’s law are two popular mathematical formulations of the idea.

Network governance: How decisions get made in a network. Whereas corporate networks are tightly managed from the top down by a central planner, protocol and blockchain networks are designed to be democratic and controlled by users. 

NFTs: Short for “non-fungible tokens”, meaning each token is unique and not interchangeable with any other. Applications include representing ownership of physical goods, digital media, intellectual property, royalty rights, in-game items, or network identifiers akin to DNS names. NFTs can also be non-transferrable, or “soulbound”, such that they may represent personal achievements, credentials, and affiliations. (See “Tokens”; cf. “Fungible tokens”.)

Nodes: Points of connection in a network. Nodes can be telephones, transportation hubs like airports, connection-oriented technologies like computers, or even people as in a social network. Generally, the more nodes, the more valuable the network. (See “Network” and “Network effects”.)

“Off-chain” vs. “on-chain”: A distinction denoting whether a given activity takes place on a blockchain network or not. Blockchain network governance can, for instance, run either “off-chain”, meaning a coalition of community members steers it in a manner similar to protocol networks, or “on-chain”, meaning through mechanisms such as token voting, self-executing code, or a combination.

“On-chain” vs. “off-chain”: (See “off-chain” vs. “on-chain”.)

“One-boxing”: When a corporate network like Google extracts third parties’ content and uses it for its own ends, such as by placing a summary at the top of search results so users no longer need to click through to another website to get an answer. One-boxing undermines the implicit economic covenant of the internet: that creators supply content in exchange for distribution. Artificial intelligence or AI has the potential to exacerbate one-boxing.

Open source: Software that can be freely accessed, modified, distributed, and remixed by anyone. Started as a fringe political movement (“free software”) in the 1980s in response to the development of proprietary software, especially by companies like Microsoft. Most code running today is now open source. (See “Composability” and “Linux”.)

Outside-in technologies: Technologies hatched on the periphery of society, outside the mainstream. Their development usually involves less capital and formal training, which helps level the playing field with insiders. Picture the founders of Apple attending the Homebrew Computer Club, a den of microcomputer-obsessed geeks that hosted monthly meetups in California in the 1970s. Other examples include the development of social and blockchain networks, many of which started as side projects by hobbyists, open-source developers, and startup founders. (Cf. “Inside-out technologies”.)

Permissionless: An open system in which anyone can participate freely. Conversely, centralized gatekeepers use permission in business as a pretense to extract rents, thwart competition, and consolidate market power. 

Platform-app feedback loop: A virtuous cycle whereby a platform enables new applications and those new applications make the platform more valuable. This back-and-forth creates a positive feedback loop of compounding improvements. Examples include the PC (platform) developing along with word process processors and spreadsheet software (apps), or the internet (platform) developing along with search engines, e-commerce, and social networking (apps).

Platform risk: The hazard of building on a network that can easily take away your power, profits, and audience. A characteristic of corporate networks. Examples include when Facebook and Twitter curtailed their APIs to choke off third party software developers in the early 2010s, or when a creator builds a large audience on a social network and cannot exit the system without losing their network connections. (Cf. “Credible neutrality”.)

Proof of stake (PoS): A system that underlies the consensus mechanisms for many blockchain networks. Proof of stake requires blockchain network validators to “stake” collateral, or put money at risk in escrow. This cost is designed to prevent any single entity from being able to control a dominant share of the network. Contrast this with proof of work systems, which require validators to spend money on electricity. Many modern blockchain networks, like Ethereum, have adopted proof of stake over proof of work for its lower cost, higher speed, and energy efficiency. (See “Staking”; cf. “Mining” and “Proof of work”.)

Proof of work (PoW): The original system underlying the consensus mechanisms for many blockchain networks. Proof of work requires validators — often called miners — to perform computational work, which costs energy. This cost is designed to prevent any single entity from being able to control a dominant share of the network. Bitcoin still uses proof of work, but many projects, like Ethereum, have since switched to proof of stake, which is more efficient and less environmentally impactful. (See “Mining”; cf. “Proof of stake” and “Staking”.)

Protocol: Technical standards for software that enable computers to communicate with one another. Think of protocols as analogous to natural languages, like English or Swahili, which enable people to communicate. (See “Internet protocol”, “HTTP”, and “SMTP”.)

Protocol coup: When the strongest nodes in a protocol network overtake it and effectively transform it into a corporate network. The threat of protocol coups is a major structural weakness of federated networks. (See “Federated networks”.)

Protocol networks: The original internet network type, exemplified by email and the web, known more technically as the protocols SMTP and HTTP. Protocol networks are open, permissionless systems that are controlled by communities of software developers and other network stakeholders. As the internet has evolved, attempts to build new protocol networks have mostly stalled out as they lack the features and funding to compete with corporate networks. (See: “HTTP”, “RSS”, and “SMTP”.)

Read era: The first phase of the commercial internet, circa 1990–2005. During this period early protocol networks democratized information through tools such as the web browser, enabling anyone to read about almost any topic through websites. While people could send email, most information flowed one way: from website to user. (See “HTTP” and “SMTP”.)

Read write era: The second phase of the commercial internet, circa 2006–2020. During this period corporate networks democratized publishing through tools such as posts on social networks, enabling anyone to write and publish to mass audiences. Corporate networks like Facebook and Twitter famously outcompeted newer attempts at protocol networks, like RSS, during this era.

Read write own era: The third phase of the commercial internet, circa present day. During this period blockchain networks are democratizing ownership through tools such as tokens, which grant economic, governance and other rights to holders and enable internet services to be community-owned and -operated. Unlike protocol networks, blockchain networks have features and funding that can compete with read write era corporate networks.

RSS: Short for “really simple syndication”, an open source publishing protocol that failed to compete with corporate social networks like Facebook and Twitter during the internet’s read write era. RSS’s decline directly correlated with the consolidation of network power among a few internet giants.

S-curve: A growth-over-time chart that many new technologies follow as they go from minimal to mainstream adoption. Resembles the letter “S”.

SMTP: Short for “simple mail transfer protocol”, the open protocol that enables transmission of email. Created by Jon Postel, a researcher at the University of Southern California, in 1981, SMTP is one of the internet’s original protocol networks along with HTTP, commonly known as the web. (See “HTTP” and “Protocol network”.)

Single-player vs. multiplayer technology: (See “Multiplayer vs. single-player technology”.)

Sinks: Conduits for token outflow and tools for keeping prices balanced in a virtual economy. When sinks are too strong, they can lead to undersupply, intensified demand, and upward price pressure. When they are too weak, they can have the opposite effects. One of the best sink designs is the “access” or “fee” sink, which charges fees for network access or usage, thus aligning token prices with network demand and utility. (See “Tokenomics”; cf. “Faucets”.)

Slashing: A punishment that confiscates a validator’s staked collateral in some proof of stake blockchain networks, like Ethereum. Slashing can occur if a validator gets caught lying, such as by voting for contradictory state transitions or proposing multiple conflicting state transitions simultaneously. Slashing is a kind of “security” sink in tokenomics.

Skeuomorphic vs. native: (See “Native vs. skeuomorphic”.)

Stablecoins: Tokens designed to maintain a stable price. These can be pegged to currencies, like the U.S. dollar, or regulated algorithmically by automated market-making processes.

Staking: The process by which validators lock tokens in code-enforced escrow accounts to help secure a proof of stake blockchain network. Staking is a kind of “security” sink in that it takes tokens out of circulation. In most systems, validators also earn token rewards for behaving honestly, meaning that staking often also entails a “security” faucet. (See “Proof of stake”; cf. “Mining”.)

State machine: Computer scientist lingo for “computer”. The concept traces back to a 1936 paper by the British computer scientist Alan Turing who defined such machines as consisting of two parts: a place to store information (memory) and a means to modify that information (a processor). 

State transition: The essence of computation. A state transition is what happens when a machine modifies its internal state, or memory, according to the logic of a processor. Blockchains are virtual computers that undergo state transitions according to their consensus mechanisms.

Substitutes vs. complements: (See “Complements vs. substitutes”.)

Take rate: The percentage of revenue passing through a network that is claimed by the network owner rather than by network participants. Protocol and blockchain networks feature persistently low or no take rates while corporate networks tend to have high ones. For example, the web has zero take rate whereas the most popular social networks — Facebook, TikTok, Twitter (since rebranded X) — have take rates of 99% or higher. In comparison, most blockchain networks have low take rates in the single-digit or sub-one percent range.

Tech stack: A set of technologies that build atop one another and work together as layers, like a computer, operating system, and software applications. A popular model of the internet, called the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, identifies a seven-layer internet tech stack, including a device layer at bottom, a networking layer above that, and an application layer at the very top.

“The next big thing starts out looking like a toy”: A distillation of the theory of disruptive innovation laid out by Clayton Christensen. Incumbents tend to overlook the low end of a market in favor of incrementally improving existing products at the high end. When cheaper, simpler, or more accessible products at the low end improve at surprisingly fast rates, challengers can disrupt and displace incumbents. (See “Disruptive vs. sustaining technology”.)

Thick vs. thin networks: Thick networks claim more profits for the center of a network, such as a corporate intermediary, and less for complementary layers, like creators, developers, and other network participants. Conversely, thin networks generate less profit for the network core and more for complements. (See “Law of conservation of attractive profits”.)

Thin vs. thick networks: (See “Thick vs. thin networks”.)

“Tokenomics”: Short for “token economics”,  a field concerning the design of incentive systems for virtual economies, as in blockchain networks. Healthy systems should balance sources of market supply and demand — such as faucets and sinks — to maintain equilibrium. (See “Faucets” and “Sinks”.)

Tokens: Units of ownership in blockchain networks. Often thought of as digital assets or currencies, but more accurately defined as data structures that can track quantities, permissions, and other metadata for users. Tokens can be fungible, like bitcoin, or non-fungible, like NFTs. (See “Encapsulation”, “Fungible tokens”, and “NFTs”.)

Trustlessness: The state of a system in which there’s no need for a higher authority, such as an intermediary or central entity, to oversee transactions. Instead, trustless systems, like blockchain networks, can securely verify the validity of transactions all by themselves using cryptography and consensus mechanisms. In a trustless system, no one computer or network node has the power to alter the rules.

Validators: Computers that maintain the security of a blockchain network by verifying the validity of proposed transactions. Validators reach agreement on state transitions according to the rules prescribed by their consensus mechanisms. Well-designed blockchains use tokenomic incentives to ensure validators behave honestly. (See “Tokenomics”.)

Wallets: Software based on cryptographic key pairs that enables blockchain network interactions, such as holding and controlling tokens. In blockchain networks, wallets play a role akin to the role web browsers play for web users.

Web 2.0: Another name for the second phase of the commercial internet, circa 2006–2020. Also known as the read write era. (See “Read write era”.)

Web3: Another name for the third phase of the commercial internet, circa present day. Powered by blockchain networks and also known as the read write own era. (See “Read write own era”.)

Zero knowledge proofs: Cryptographic techniques that can prove a claim is true while revealing no other information other than that the claim is true. Zero knowledge proofs can compress and control access to information, which has useful applications for blockchain network scalability, privacy, and regulatory compliance.



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