Rollups Aren’t All That Decentralized. Does Anybody Care?

A slick user experience tends to trump principles of decentralization

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Hong Vo/Shutterstock modified by Blockworks

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They say the average web user spends about six seconds reading written content on a webpage before moving on. Load times, optimal design and, of course, interesting stories are crucial for keeping eyes stuck to any given page.

We are an impatient lot, accustomed to instant access to information.

Before you leave, consider the average blockchain dapp. That’s an application operating on top of an ostensibly decentralized network, like Ethereum, for example. 

For users to consider a network truly decentralized, it a) should be composed of a collective of disparate participants and b) must have no central agents who could otherwise control or censor things in a way that is detrimental to users.

If you’ve ever dabbled in the average dapp experience, it might remind you of the old 56k modem days — whoops, I probably lost a few readers with that comparison — the transaction times and user experience can be painfully slow and unresponsive, especially now that we’ve been spoiled by near-instant internet performance.

Remember waiting for a JPEG to slowly fill the screen line by line back in the late 90s? You probably do since I already lost the ones who don’t. Now, you can capture that nostalgic feeling with a similarly plodding experience using NFT and DeFi dapps!

The key difference being, a dapp ideally operates on a decentralized network, free from censorship and centralized influence. But do you care? Does anybody care?

Users prefer a slick experience

A lot of users don’t seem to care all that much, says Josh Bowen, CEO of Astria, who spoke to Blockworks on the Empire podcast along with the CEO of Espresso, Ben Fisch. Sadly, it seems that a slick user experience tends to trump the principles of decentralization.

“It’s a user demand question,” Bowen says, “Fundamentally, users prefer faster block times.”

“Maybe it’s somewhat cynical,” Bowen says, “but users, I believe, will trend towards something that provides a higher quality user experience” regardless of principle.

Users will naturally prefer consuming two seconds rather than twenty to complete a transaction, unaware of the trade-offs that enable the speedier option. “It’s one of these general difficult things of cryptography and security,” he says, “you become aware of them when they fail catastrophically.” 

“Prior to that, everyone just assumes everything is going smoothly.”

By the time users realize they’ve accepted these trade-offs, it’s too late to do anything to fix it, Bowen says.

One trendy way to somewhat safely speed things up in a decentralized network is to use rollups. These are specialized blockchains that carry out tasks to alleviate the load on the main network. However, there is one aspect of rollup solutions that is centralized, and that is the sequencer responsible for organizing transactions. This is primarily done for the sake of performance.

Rollups like Optimism and Arbitrum operate their own sequencers, giving them a significant degree of direct influence over transaction ordering — a role that Bowen says should also be decentralized instead of operating under the sole control of any rollup provider. 

Does it really matter?

A word of warning: You’re going to see the terms ‘centralization’ and ‘decentralization’ an awful lot here but please, hang in there. You’ve made it this far.

It’s all a balancing act, Bowen says, “The job fundamentally is providing users with a good enough experience without requiring them to sacrifice the decentralization principles to get that better user experience,” he says. 

If the only option available for a high quality experience is centralized, a good percent of users will choose it, he says. “So I think it’s important to provide them an option that is still decentralized while providing that good user experience.”

“I take a pretty cynical perspective in that, generally I assume users just, quite frankly, don’t give a damn about decentralization.”

Bowen feels that as the industry has progressed, people have become less motivated by the founding principles of blockchain technology. More often, speculative aspirations, the desire for speedy transactions and clout-chasing behaviors have prioritized ease-of-use and performance over the preservation of any fundamental values. He says it is up to builders in the space to “reinforce those primitives and provide good user experiences.”

Fisch argues that users do care about the benefits of decentralization, just not necessarily the principle itself. “If one of the founders of Arbitrum or Optimism shows up on TV in handcuffs and goes to jail… then yeah, I think everyone’s going to decentralize their sequencers really, really quickly.”

Ideally, he hopes it doesn’t have to come to such an event, instead moving toward “the ideals of the industry” without being threatened by external governing agencies.

Fisch adds that one advantage of decentralization that users already care about, whether they know it or not, is the composability enabled through the technology. “Users like the fact that all apps on Ethereum are composable with all other apps — and that comes from the fact that Ethereum is a decentralized system.”

“They’re all sharing the same system. They’re all interoperable.”

Perhaps decentralization wouldn’t be necessary, Fisch suggests, “if blockchains were all perfectly competitive with each other.” 

Which brings things back to the core issue, he says: “Internet services are prone naturally to centralization due to network effects.”

“So you do have to decentralize the operation of the internet service if you want to have long-term resilience.”

Speaking of long-term resilience… you stuck around for this whole story? 

Consider yourself above average. You just might be patient enough for a truly decentralized network experience.


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