The emerging patchwork upgrade to the multiplayer web

16.45, Monday 27 Sep 2021

One of the tech things I’m tracking is how the web is slowly going multiplayer.

Though in a specific patchwork way… Yes there are full web apps that are multiplayer, like Google Docs where you have collaborative editing and everyone sees everyone else selecting and editing text, or Figma which is design software with co-presence, so each document has a flurry of mouse cursors chasing round the canvas. And I think I’ll include in this list of apps the wonderful Sprout: a persistent space for small group video chats which you can decorate and arrange as you like (previously named MakeSpace, discussed in July 2020 in the context of social, spatial interfaces).

All brilliant.

But I am more interested, at this point, in the elemental building blocks of the web, and how these Lego bricks might become multiplayer and be used to upgrade the web bit by bit.

FOR EXAMPLE (these are both developer-facing projects):

  • Mapus (GitHub project with animation): A map tool with real-time collaboration. You embed this on a webpage wherever you would see a regular Google Maps embed, like on a community wiki or a blog, but it’s immediately multiplayer. You see the cursors of anyone else who is on the same page as you at the same time, and annotations made by you (and them) persist and are shared.
  • TipTap (project site with demo): Embedded text editor with Google Docs-style collaboration. This goes anywhere you’d see a text entry box, such as when you’re writing a blog post or writing up a feature request. Again it’s natively multiplayer: you think you’re just writing into a box but then you see the colourful cursors of other edits also there, with real-time updates of their additions and changes.
  • I’ll add my own social attention prototype which shares text highlights for everyone simultaneously looking at a single webpage.

If you know of more projects like this, please let me know!

What’s interesting here is that these don’t demand re-platforming of entire websites. They are piecemeal, backwards-compatible upgrades that change out single blocks of existing websites and, in doing so, bring them to life.

They focus on creating a social user interface, which I like, but there’s a lot that remains unsolved. Like: how do we know who a user is and where do the avatars come from – is there a role for an identity provider? How can a user choose who to show and who to hide – is there a role for a trust provider? Where is the data stored, and is it shared across sites, and who owns it? All of that.

(And, intriguingly, these unsolved technical layers are addressed by the Web3 world, an emerging technology stack which is inherently distributed and includes personal ownership of identity, data, assets, payments and so on.)

What’s common, in what I’m seeing, is that there is a nuanced approach to the social experience.

There is presence (the sensation of togetherness, which creates a sense of “place”). There is fine-grained, real-time editing, which means that collaboration can occur. And there is persistence of data, so it’s possible to build or accrete over time. So there’s a kind of gradient of social interaction which is being filled out.

Are the organisations looking after the web as a platform looking at this? I’m thinking of W3C and also Google Chrome and Mozilla. There’s an opportunity to catalyse this movement by knitting together existing standards projects.

The hard tech that originally powered collaboration tools like Google Docs is now available to all developers as JavaScript libraries, and in addition to seeing it power parallel apps (like Figma), it might be interesting to think about bootstrapping the whole ecosystem to the next level: a newly social, distributed, real-time multiplayer web.

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