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December 1, 2022

The IPFS Interview

Molly Mackinlay of Protocol Labs tells Chris King how collectors can achieve agency over their NFTs
Credit: Thomas Noya, FHX-1 #243 (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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The IPFS Interview

Chris King: How did you come to be involved with IPFS (InterPlanetary File System)? What is your role in the community?

Molly Mackinlay: I got involved back when I was working on education technology. I was building a mobile app for teachers and students called Google Classroom, which also had a desktop component to do in-class communication, assignments, and note-taking — a lot of schools use it these days. Its biggest problem was that it was built on top of a super centralized tech stack. So if the Wi-Fi ever went out in a school, it would suddenly stop working and students would no longer be able to do their assignments or turn in school work to the teacher right in front of them. 

Somehow, by trying to automate and improve things, we’d suddenly regressed from what had been completely feasible beforehand. 
Fingacode, blocccle #13, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

We’d created this failure point and lack of resiliency through an overreliance on Google data centers and strong bandwidth connections to those data centers. I’d heard of IPFS at the time, so I started taking part in the IPFS ecosystem as an open source contributor, trying to figure out how to improve offline local communication in a school environment. Unfortunately for Google Classroom, it was directly tied to the Google Drive stack. 

It became clear to me that we needed a different fabric for the Internet, and that developers ought to be building on this new fabric by default.

I joined Protocol Labs in 2018 as a product manager where I worked on the core Go IPFS implementation while putting together the Local Offline Collaboration Working Group. I then spent a year and a half as project lead for the Go and JavaScript implementations, working with the wider IPFS community and ecosystem, running the first IPFS camp, and doing all sorts of community building in order to understand who was building on IPFS and what they needed. Now when new people start working on IPFS-related projects, I try to make sure that we are supporting them and building them up.

Xer0x, (Still from) Barbara Kruger 0wns Supreme, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: I don’t know if you remember, but that’s actually how we met. ClubNFT and Protocol Labs go back a bit.

MM: Yeah, I remember very well. It was during the dark days of Hic et Nunc (HEN) going down. HEN had been running its entire marketplace on top of IPFS, which is awesome. But suddenly, creators were left wondering what was going to happen to the persistence of their NFTs on that platform. As soon as we heard the news, we got involved — reaching out to various parties in order to figure out the migration plan for long-term persistence of these NFTs. 

There were two awesome groups that stepped in to help. One of them was ClubNFT — making sure that everyone had the tools to persist and download their own NFTs, doing a huge backup, and paying the storage costs on Infura, which had been doing all that hosting for HEN. There was also a big community group that worked to preserve the marketplace, as well as its contracts and tokens.

Fast forward to today and I think the Hic et Nunc data is one of the most well-replicated and preserved NFT collections that has ever existed. 
Ms Bourland, Abstract Litany, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

We had a crisis moment, thinking, “oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?” But the whole community came together to preserve these NFTs across different hosting platforms and services. So what could have been a huge problem for the community actually became a huge success.

CK: And that was only possible because those NFTs were built using IPFS! Had they been pointing to traditional web servers, there’s nothing anyone could have done about it. But IPFS is also more than a means of protecting NFTs. It’s a protocol and a foundational technology — like the Internet Protocol — that you can use to build all kinds of stuff. Indeed, when most people talk about IPFS, they’re actually talking about the massive ecosystem that’s built up around it. Beyond NFTs, what else is being built on IPFS today?

MM: There are so many cool things! There are, of course, many people who are currently building DeFi platforms, NFT websites, and websites in general. If you want to host a website in a decentralized way with no single party responsible for the AWS hosting bill, it is a really cool solution that has been used a lot by decentralized exchanges and other platforms with a decentralized front end. 

IPFS Wikipedia is currently enabling access to a treasure trove of human knowledge, especially in areas of the world where regimes have shut down centralized access to Wikipedia servers. It was, for a while, helping the Turkish community — though Wikipedia is now unblocked in Turkey — but it has also helped other communities, including in Myanmar. In Taiwan it’s used as a censorship-resistant mechanism for putting out news articles.

At its core, IPFS is a way to bring content addressing to multimedia files in a way which is usable and robust so that you can build serious applications on top of it. Content addressing, combined with peer-to-peer data sharing, is what powers the IPFS ecosystem. We have well over 50 million monthly users. It’s crazy. 
Marius Watz, UHarmonics 018B, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: The discoverability and verifiability of IPFS enables so much for both creators and builders, allowing one to find a piece of content on the IPFS network and prove that the content is correct. How do these two features make IPFS an ideal solution for NFTs?

MM: The great thing is that you have an immutable identifier, which means that any change to an NFT’s content — for instance, if someone tries to rug pull it out from under you — also alters its immutable identifier. This means that you’re always going to point to the content that was initially minted within the NFT, thereby providing the verifiability that NFTs require. But it also gives you resiliency and the ability to achieve permanence. Because you don’t want AWS or OpenSea going down, or any single party to take your collection of cultural works offline or hold it hostage. You don’t want your own Library of Alexandria to burn.

So the IPFS solution is: don’t store the collection in just one library. You should have many copies stored in lots of different places. You also want a local copy, which is where you guys [ClubNFT] come in. 

Sure, it’s nice to have lots of other people protecting my NFT, but this is my NFT! I want to be able to protect it myself to actually have ownership of that digital content.
DigitalColeman, GeoPortrait 048, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: Today, ClubNFT is launching a free pinning solution that magically pins all the IPFS artwork and metadata associated with the NFTs in your collection. All you need to do is type in your wallet address. Given the importance of IPFS redundancy for preservation, and the performance benefit of having multiple nodes pinning your content, what would be the overall impact if many more collectors were pinning their NFTs for free using something like ClubNFT

MM: I think it’s fantastic because it means that you can add this additional level of resiliency to everything that’s happening today. It is a bad state of affairs if the vast majority of NFTs are only pinned by a single node or entity. That is not resilient, nor does it harness all the benefits that IPFS provides. 

We shouldn’t rely on marketplaces to do everything perfectly. Nor should we rely on the NFTs’ original creators to preserve them over the long term. Individuals need an additional level of agency and resiliency.

The great thing about ClubNFT is that not only does it pin a copy of your NFT for you — which adds resiliency and also makes it load faster on websites — you also get a local backup that you can keep offline. In order to avoid anyone losing their own personal Library of Congress, we need to move the narrative towards participating in the NFT ecosystem and following best practices. In my view, the more layers of protection the better, especially if it makes things more accessible to people in a way that doesn’t cost them an arm and a leg.

Studio Yorktown, Sabler #252, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: For almost all NFTs, there’s only one service that is actually pinning the artwork. Generally, that’s the marketplace — you mint an NFT, upload the art, and they pin it. But if it’s only the marketplace pinning your file, what happens if they stop?

MM: It depends a bit on the pinning solution used by the marketplace. If they’re hosting their own servers and they ever take down those servers, the content is gone. If they are paying another pinning service, maybe it sticks around for a little while, but if they then stop paying their bills for Infura or Pinata, the content gets deleted from the cache after a short time. A longer-term storage network like Filecoin offers a set term and verification of storage. But ultimately, if no one renews that storage deal, the data will expire off the network.

One constant and challenging misconception is that there’s a magic storage box in the sky that holds everyone’s data in perpetuity. That takes resources to achieve. 

IPFS is great because you can use all of these strategies at the same time if you want to, but you still have to expend some time or resources.

Ryan Bell, Project #17010 — iteration #66, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: We see a lot of groups working on “forever storage” models for Web3. The idea is to use a tokenomics model with some blockchain incentives to ensure that files are stored forever. One example that comes to mind is NFT.Storage, which is actually built on top of Filecoin (which is an incentivization layer for IPFS). Another example that gets a lot of attention is Arweave, which is not built on IPFS. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m leery about anything that relies on tokenomics to keep my property safe. 

IPFS at the base layer is not built on a blockchain, it’s a peer-to-peer discovery and provability mechanism. Storage is a separate concern. So there are two major advantages of a “forever storage” solution built on top of IPFS: The size and health of the IPFS ecosystem, and the ability to fall back on regular IPFS in case of emergency. Can you put those advantages in context?

MM: Yeah, I mean, it’s a freaking awesome ecosystem that’s been growing a ton. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of attendees at IPFS Camp tripled. There are a huge number of applications building in this space. Filecoin itself has 330 petabytes of data being stored and over 16 exabytes worth of capacity. That’s a lot of real-world usage and a huge community that has come together around data preservation and data accessibility. It definitely feels like it’s on an awesome growth trajectory.

Anna Lucia, 6457, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

But I agree with you — if you’re building on an unstable foundation, then everything you do on top is put at risk. By contrast, IPFS combines content addressing — now being used by Bluesky for its new Twitter protocol — with the ability for many different parties to build compatibly on top of it. It is also based on the same battle-tested peer-to-peer protocols that power networks like Ethereum, Filecoin, and Polkadot. Significant resources have gone into hardening these fundamental components.

Like you, I don’t want to trust anyone’s promise that their tokenomics are perfect and perfectly scalable. I want visibility built into the system. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, I want to store my data myself. I want to put it on pinning services, and on Filecoin, and I want to work with groups that are doing preservation. 

If this data matters to me, I want to make sure that it’s secure, and that no single solution going down is going to take my data offline.
Thomas Noya, FHX-1 #243, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: To me, IPFS parallels the early days of the Internet. But where do you see IPFS in 10 years time? Is there anything coming down the track that you think is a big deal?

MM: I feel like IPFS has become a great standard for NFTs, and a very common standard for any Web3 off-chain data. The next phase is to begin reaching larger enterprise applications in order to change how classical Web2 cloud solutions store their data and make it verifiable and resilient. There’s already Elastic IPFS, which is an implementation optimized for the hosting of IPFS data in the cloud. I also see a number of groups working on IPFS implementations that are going to be great on mobile, so hopefully we’ll soon see many more mobile applications on IPFS. We are even heading to space — offering local data storage and peer-to-peer data sharing on moon bases of the future!

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Molly Mackinlay is Project Lead for the IPFS project at Protocol Labs. Before stepping into project leadership in early 2019, she started the Local Offline Collaboration Working Group — designing the first IPFS Project Roadmap and project managing the Go IPFS working group. She has also contributed to numerous company enablement tools and protocols for teams across Protocol Labs.

Chris King is CTO and co-founder of ClubNFT, which is launching NFT pinning for collectors alongside its existing NFT backup service. Right Click Save is funded by ClubNFT but maintains editorial independence from it. Both ClubNFT and Right Click Save share a common mission to inform and protect NFT artists and collectors.