There’s a buzzword that tech, crypto and venture-capital types have become infatuated with lately. Conversations are now peppered with it, and you’re not serious about the future until you add it to your Twitter bio: Web3.
It’s an umbrella term for disparate ideas all pointing in the direction of eliminating the big middlemen on the internet. In this new era, navigating the net no longer means logging onto the likes of Facebook, Google or Twitter.
Think of it this way: The nascent days of the web in the 1990s were Web 1.0. The net was seen as a way to democratize access to information, but there weren’t great ways of navigating it beyond going to your friend’s GeoCities page. It was pretty disorganized and overwhelming.
Then came Web 2.0 starting in the mid-2000s. Platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter emerged to bring order to the web by which makes it easy to hofine up and transact online. Critics say eventually those companies amassed too much power.
Web3 is about grabbing a few of the strength back.
“There’s a tiny group of companies that own all this stuff, and then there’s us who utilize it, and while we contribute to the success of the platforms, we don’t have anything to show for it,” said Mat Dryhurst, a Berlin-based artist and researcher who teaches classes at NY University on the future of the internet.
And so, the answer, according to Dryhurst and other Web3 fans, can be an iteration of the internet where new internet sites, search engines and marketplaces crop up that contain no company overlords.
Instead, they are decentralized, built upon something known as the blockchain, which already undergirds Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Imagine it as a kind of bookkeeping where many computers simultaneously host data that’s searchable by anyone. It’s operated by users collectively, rather than corporation. Folks are given “tokens” for participating. The tokens can be used to vote on decisions, and even accrue real value.
Planet Money Summer School 6: Crypto & Commencement
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In a Web3 world, people control their own data and bounce around from social media to email to shopping using a single customized account, setting up a public record on the blockchain of most of this activity.
“To the average person, it does sounds like voodoo,” said Olga Mack, entrepreneur and blockchain lecturer at University of California, Berkeley. “But when you press a button to switch on lights, do you understand the way the electricity is made? You don’t have to know how electricity works to understand the huge benefits. Same is true of the blockchain.”
Right now, the idea of the entire Internet reinventing may sound like some far-away digital utopia. But Web3 is driving new conversations – and generating lots of new money, particularly from crypto investors.
‘At first baffling,’ but Web3 keeps growing more mainstream and tech companies are taking note
The Web3 movement has been helped along by the rise of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, that are digital collectibles and other online files that can be bought and sold with cryptocurrency. Then there will be the publicity stunts. Recently, a group of crypto enthusiasts banded together to attempt to get a copy of the U.S. Constitution with digital currency. They organized under the name ConstitutionDAO. (A DAO stands for a decentralized autonomous organization, the name for an internet collective of crypto supporters who assemble together collectively in a group governed by blockchains and tokens. It is rather Web3.)
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Dryhurst admits that wanting to make clear Web3 can be exasperating, since it’s a loosely-defined term that assumes a slightly different shape depending on who is defining it but, he said, that is the case with all new frontiers of technology.
“Every new advent of the web is at first baffling,” he said.
To technologists and cryptographers, Web3 has remained a theoretical grand vision for a long time. In recent months, the push for a blockchain-powered future has come to dominate tech conferences and social media chatter in certain circles. It’s even forced major tech companies to put together teams dedicated to Web3.
And that’s brought a certain irony to the evolution of Web3: Enthusiasts hope Web3 means that sharing photos, communicating with friends and buying things online will no longer by synonymous with Big Tech companies but be done through a large number of small competing services on the blockchain – where, for instance, each time you post a message, you earn a token for your contribution, providing you both ownership stake in the platform and 1 day ways to profit.
In theory, this also means avoiding fees, rules and the strictures of tech companies. Nonetheless, major tech platforms are also jumping on the theory.
“It means that all the value that’s created can be shared among more folks, rather than the owners, investors and employees,” said Esther Crawford, a senior project manager at Twitter.
Crawford said Twitter is studying ways to include Web3 concepts in the social network, like one day being able to log into the social network and tweet from an account associated with a cryptocurrency, not only a Twitter account. She sees the near future differently: not a crypto version of Twitter replacing Twitter. But instead Twitter introducing Web3 features together with standard Twitter.
“For a long time, Web3 has been very theoretical,” she said. “However now you will find a surge of momentum to build.”
Will Web3 be the new norm?
Experts say, in the best case scenario for Web3 enthusiasts, the technology will operate alongside Blogging platforms 2.0, not fully supplant it.
In other words, blockchain-based social networks, transactions and businesses can and can grow and thrive in the coming years. Yet knocking out Facebook, Twitter or Google completely is not likely on the horizon, according to technology scholars.
“I’m not in a position to say who will win,” Dryhurst said. “But Web2 companies will be folding Web3 ideas into their services to remain relevant.”
He thinks many people would want to be able to take their data and history of interactions online wherever each goes on the Internet, rather than remain on singular web platforms–what some call the “walled gardens” of big tech companies.
“This is a fundamentally difference experience than what we’re used to today,” Dryhurst said.
But he admits that boundless freedom can lead to troubling outcomes for a few.
“The Faustian bargain is that the same reasons that it is exciting that there’s nothing impeding people to build whatever community they need, I can’t stop someone from building something that’s hellacious,” he said.
Decentralized social networks have proved attractive to white supremacists and other far-right groups, but Sam Williams, founder of Arweave, a blockchain-based project for storing data online, said he trusts most small communities to know what speech is permitted online.
On balance, he said, collective voting on the guidelines of engagement will be better than what users experience on major social media platforms today.
“If we stay in the current paradigm, we will move further and further into a realm where a little couple of companies run by a tiny number of folks run our experiences in cyberspace,” he said. “And in that world, the problems of Big Tech are exacerbated.”
Another issue, of course, is government oversight. Blockchain-based tokens are actually in a regulatory netherworld, but that could soon change as the Biden administration begins the procedure of setting new rules for the industry.
How does Web3 fit with that other vision of the Internet’s future – the metaverse?
Facebook recently rebranded itself Meta, and said its priority is always to build the “metaverse,” an electronic digital future where everyone is living and interacting and working together in virtual reality.
Among the company’s stated principles is “robust interoperability,” and therefore users could take their accounts or avatars from site to site or service to service seamlessly, rather than have to get on accounts controlled by separate companies each time they visit new sites.
That’s also one of the ideals of Web3.