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Picture yourself using a blockchain explorer in 1987

Web3 Product: Once Upon. Category: Block Explorers. Analogy: HyperCards & Early Browsers

gm creators!

I hope all of you had a refreshing weekend and are off to a strong Monday 💪

After a few weeks of hiking & camping in Alaska, I'm finally back online and ready to write again.

It was nice to get a a break from my laptop after finishing up my 30 day writing challenge in June.

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Today's Takeaways💡

In today's post, I cover a web3 product that I've recently been obsessed with: Once Upon. I first came across this product when my friend Jayme posted a link to the website on Kiwi News.

Once Upon

Once Upon was founded by Jordan Mesina (also a TBP subscriber!) who was previously a co-founder of Density and was part of the YC S13 cohort. The team is currently three people (including Jordan) and they have been rapidly iterating over the last 6 months. It's clear the web3 community is excited about the product and is looking forward to upcoming features.


Breaking down Block Explorers

Okay, so before we get into any history, let's first discuss what block explorers are. If you've initiated transactions on any blockchain before, chances are you've probably interacted with an explorer such as Etherscan, Blockstream, Polyscan, etc. in order to verify your requests were completed.

The basic use cases of block explorers are to:

  • Help find transactions

  • Track wallet balances

  • See historical data on any blockchain

Once Upon is an Ethereum block explorer that presents blockchain data in an engaging, story-driven, and easy-to-understand manner.

Without block explorers, we would all have to independently parse the transaction data manually which is impractical and a waste of time for most people. This would require you to either download the entire blockchain locally and find what you're looking for or run a full node and use an API to query the data. These methods are clearly inconvenient and would lead to a huge cost in accessibility. Blockchains would only cater to a niche group of developers comfortable with running and interacting with nodes.

It's fair to say that without block explorers, the market cap for bitcoin, ethereum, or any other chain for that matter, wouldn't be anywhere near where it is today. People simply wouldn't use crypto if they had no idea what was actually being recorded onchain.

Ironically, a world without block explorers would be antithetical to one of the core offerings of crypto: transparency.

Currently, there are three main stakeholders that currently use block explorers:

  1. Developers - test and debug their smart contracts, monitor network health, and analyze transactions to understand user behavior and interaction with their applications.

  2. Traders - track transaction histories and balances of specific wallet addresses, verify transaction details, and analyze market trends through the raw transactional data.

  3. Crypto Enthusiasts - learn more about blockchain transactions, follow noteworthy wallets, track community treasuries, etc.

My prediction is that as web3 dapps increasingly gain mainstream acceptance over the next decade, the concept and aesthetics of block explorers will radically transform. The stakeholders above represent a tiny group who are currently shaping what will eventually become the 'obvious' method of interacting with blockchain data for billions of people around the world.

Let's use the analogy of browsers to elaborate on that point more.


The browser before browsers

It's clear we are currently in the HyperCard days of block explorers. Forget the "chrome of block explorers"....we have yet to see the "netscape of block explorers". Most of the world did not interact with HyperCards. Similarly, most will probably never end up using Etherscan but rather some mainstream block explorer you and I can't even imagine today.

Most of us on tech twitter have head about the legendary story of Marc Andreessen, UIUC, & the creation of Netscape. It was Netscape, in the mid-90s, that helped people first realize that even the "common man" could navigate and find utility from the internet.

However, many people have probably never heard of HyperCards. Yet, this lesser known invention served as the inspiration for the dozens of browsers developed in the '90s. Will Atkinson, the 51st employee of Apple, launched HyperCard in 1987 in order to make it simple for non-programmers to link together digital information and develop software apps for the Mac.

The idea of the HyperCard was inspired by "HyperText" which was developed by Ted Nelson and Doug Englebart in 1963. Essentially, both of these geniuses had the foresight that it was essential to link together all the resources on any given subject matter in order to make databases useful. So, after taking some acid, Atkinson decided to partner with Dan Winkler and both of them built the graphical interface to help "regular people" launch applications for whatever niche they desired. For example, if you were looking to buy a car, now it was possible to get information on car models, comparison of prices, and even links to reviews and financing options. This seems obvious today but was a wild concept in 1987.

If you have a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching this fun episode of The Computer Chronicles where Atkinson explains how hyper cards work.

The Computer Chronicles

Bill Atkinson and Dan Winkler's work with HyperCard showed us the potential of easily navigating and connecting digital information. But as transformative as HyperCard was, it was essentially a local, standalone system. What would it look like if we extended this concept to a global network of information? *Web browser enters the chat*

Two years later, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee launched the the World Wide Web (WWW) browser and published the code so that the developer community could create their own versions. One developer in Berkeley decided to launch ViolaWWW, the first popular graphical web browser. Guess where he got his inspiration from?

"HyperCard was very compelling back then, you know graphically, this hyperlink thing," Wei later recalled. "I got a HyperCard manual and looked at it and just basically took the concepts and implemented them in X-windows," which is a visual component of UNIX. The resulting browser, Viola, included HyperCard-like components: bookmarks, a history feature, tables, graphics. And, like HyperCard, it could run programs.

Soon after, Marc Andreessen and his friends at UIUC launched Mosaic in 1993 which then eventually became Netscape after he moved to the bay and teamed up with James Clark.

My guess is most of you are reading this post on Google Chrome. Maybe Firefox if you're a hardcore gamer. Or Arc if you're active on tech and product twitter. Anyways, the point is that none of the browsers mentioned in the history lesson above are still in use today. Rather, the predecessors served as inspiration for the obvious browsers we use today. No one in the early 90s could have imagined the functionality we have today to interact with all sorts of digital content (photos, text, videos, audio, etc).

Okay, so what!?

It's clear we are currently in the HyperCard days of block explorers. Forget the "chrome of block explorers"....we have yet to see the "netscape of block explorers". Most of the world did not interact with HyperCards. Similarly, most will probably never end up using Etherscan but rather some mainstream block explorer you and I can't even imagine today.

We don't even know the features and functionality block explorers will have as the industry grows. Heck, they probably won't even be called block explorers. Just as being able to make sense of the vast information from hyperlinks was critical for web1, it's going to be essential for the crypto community to figure out the UX that makes sense for the average Joe to care about and make use of blockchain data.

Up until now, the Ethereum community has primarily relied on Etherscan which was first launched in 2015. It is a brilliant tool and totally changed the game for how web3 enthusiasts interact with dapps and wallets. However, it is just step 1 of the many steps yet to come in this vertical.

Once Upon is taking a stab at step 2 and I think the team is doing an incredible job. After being in the space for ~3 years, this is the first time I've personally removed Etherscan from my bookmarks and added Once Upon. It's opened my eyes to some of the possibilities on how we think of and engage with onchain data.

I'll discuss some of my favorite features in the next section.


Onchain Storytelling

Okay, so the first thing I want to mention about Once Upon is that from the get go, it feels way more inviting and friendlier than Etherscan. Just the fact that there are brighter colors, a more organized page layout, transaction tags, and images makes a huge difference.

After chatting with Jordan (founder of Once Upon), my key takeaway is that Once Upon is going to be a tool that helps everyone discover and share onchain stories. As the number of dapps and onchain data increases, storytelling and accountability are taken to the next level where you can literally verify what actions people are taking.

And it's clear that the product is being designed that way. Perhaps the number one feature to call out is the vertical panels that get added as you click on different components. For example, I started with 6529.eth and then got to artblocks then brownape.eth and so on. This layout helps a user discover things they didn't even know they wanted.

Here are some other features implemented that I loved:

Neighbors: when you click on the neighbors tab, you can see which wallets are most interacted with.

Transaction History & Activity (Github style!)

Past Token Holdings

Wallet Groups: You can categorize wallets into different groups in order to keep your sleuthing organized. For example, I have a group for my wallets, NFT traders I like to follow, and defi tradoors.

Last note - I wanted to give the team a shoutout for their proactiveness in trying to iterate and improve the product with the help of the web3 community. They have a "got feedback?" section that highlights their "improvement stats" and provides a Calendly to set up a call to give more feedback.


I'm excited to see how Once Upon grows in the next few months. If you haven't used it yet, I highly recommend trying it out! You can be part of the early adopters who help determine what the "obvious block explorer" will be in the future.

That's all for today's post - if you enjoyed, I'd love for you to share with your friends :)

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