What would a real Web3 look like?
Seemingly overnight, there’s been a whole new version of the Web invented, dubbed “web3.” I’ve seen a lot of people talk about it online lately, so I started looking into it to see if it’s worth paying attention to.
What I’ve found is summed up in my (slightly cheeky) web3 analysis. Basically, it’s that “web3” is a set of blockchain-based technologies with some very specific use cases. Many proponents are happy to make wild claims as to how this is truly “the future,” and more thoughtful community members seem to be drowned out by hype men who look at the tech uncritically.
From my conversations and research, it seems to me “web3” is at best poorly branded, having less to do with the Web itself than new ways to do commerce on the web. Overall, the hype seems disproportionate to the real-world usability or application, even when the idea is eventually fully realized.
Seeing that, I started wondering: if not this, what would a true iteration of the Web look like?
I’ll use the term “Web 3.0” instead of “web3” to distinguish between the Web I’m talking about and the blockchain-based one.
What I’ll offer here is just one view on what Web 3.0 might be. I’ll call it a people’s definition, as I’m not involved in any standards-making body, not an academic, and have no credentials other than I’ve used the Web for 20-some years. I’ve built Web-sites and Web apps, and Web apps that help other people build Web-sites. I’ve gotten involved with Web projects and Web standards that interested me along the way. I’m concerned with the Web philosophically and practically — both its core “spirit” and what it does for people in real life, today.
My experience points to some key components needed in a next-version Web:
- Web 3.0 is comprised of people
- Web 3.0 lets anyone build for it, and lets you help others join in
- Web 3.0 is openly accessible
These aren’t new ideas as much as core principles to carry throughout any iteration of the Web. They’re also where web3 starts to falter — “smart contracts,” finance, and code-based organizations replace people and their (yes, messy) decision-making; participation isn’t open, but available only with a “wallet,” etc. (more on this below).
We’ve also learned a lot about what we need on the Web from our “2.0” era — many ideas which the web3 crowd has rightly latched onto, and then reframed to fit the capabilities and limitations of blockchain. Those largely revolve around data: who owns it, who controls it, and how it moves around. So, I’d say:
- Web 3.0 gives users as much control over their data as possible, letting them choose when to share it or not, or revoke their permission
- Web 3.0 lets users choose who controls their data (whenever they share it)
- Web 3.0 supports interoperability, or the ability for one application to communicate and exchange with another
- Web 3.0 defaults to minimal data collection (though this is more of an attitude than a clear-cut attribute)
I’ll elaborate below.
People, businesses, and organizations
From its earliest days, the Web has been about people. This has been obvious from Web 1.0-era personal sites to Web 2.0 blogs and social media. At its core, for anything to call itself “Web whatever,” it needs to revolve around people (and by extension, the businesses, organizations, and associations they form).
We already have parts of the Web that show how bad it can get when things are made for robots. It’s every recipe site that has someone’s rambling life story before you reach the actual recipe. It’s keyword-laden sales pages that are incomprehensible to humans. There’s a reason for these websites — they were written for computers, specifically the ones deployed by search engines like Google. While no person wants to read monotonous SEO articles, computers gobble it up happily, and in turn make or break entire businesses and markets. The real Web, the Web made of people, suffers as content designed for robots proliferates.
The “web3” as imagined today also prioritizes computers over people. Instead of relying on our natural ability to socially organize ourselves, web3 wants to enforce organization through unchangeable code. Instead of relying on existing institutions to enforce agreements and rights, web3 wants to entrust those to static logic. This “web3” is technology as social solution — and I’m not sure why that will suddenly work this time.
What it ultimately leads to, I believe, is a strange and fragile frontier where our older social institutions can no longer help us. “Ownership” means something different — or absolutely nothing — now. Fraud, hacks, bad contracts, and misguided “laws” (bugs in the contract) no longer have any recourse. It wasn’t in the programming; your money is gone, or the intended agreement simply wasn’t met. It is distrust as a feature, not a bug.
The original dream of the Web, I believe, has always been about open access to information. With Web 2.0, it also became open access to communication. That innate feature of open access is the reason I could learn about the world from my bedroom at age 8. It’s the reason I didn’t need a dollar to learn how to actually build for the Web itself, and I could eventually follow my interests into adulthood, creating my entire career working with computers.
How many untold stories are there of the Web enabling people to build the knowledge, careers, businesses, and lives that they want? Has there been a single force this powerful in our history? Has it been so cheap and widely available?
It’s an enormous achievement for humanity to have reached this point. Not only have we evolved and organized to form complex societies, we can now communicate across the globe at near-zero cost, thanks to the internet and the Web.
To now make finance the basis of everything (with “web3”) would be antithetical to the very foundation of the Web. It would erode a key aspect of the medium, actively making it worse, as early adopters and the wealthy prosper, while everyone else is left out of this alleged “future.”
There is nothing wrong with commerce and finance on the Web. But a real Web 3.0 — and all the tech that underpins it — must be inherently open. It would continue prioritizing open access and participation over monetization.
Ownership and interoperability
The problems of data ownership and interoperability are probably the largest social-technical problems of today’s Web.
The proposed “web3” rightfully leverages this terminology to garner support, and a true Web 3.0 will address these problems with a variety of solutions. The problems are multifarious: Who controls my data? What do they do with it and who do they sell it to? Do I have a choice? How do I keep the work I created on the Web? Can I remove it at any time? How do I move to another provider when this one stops serving me? Is there a chance I’ll unintentionally lose access to my data? What’s my recourse? And so on.
There are already interesting solutions being worked on right now, certainly outside the walled gardens of Big Tech, but also without the limitations of blockchain.
They might address the problem directly and individually — Tim Berners‑Lee’s Solid project aims for this, with a specification for storing data in a decentralized way. P2P projects like Scuttlebutt and IPFS also take this approach. In these cases, users are more “sovereign individuals” who can move freely about the digital world, taking their data with them. It has its use cases today, and also its limitations in certain scenarios.
Alternatively, a “Web 3.0” app might address the issue more socially and collectively, as the “fediverse” does. It’s comprised of interoperable software on top of a standard protocol, and a culture of shared knowledge and free software development. I find this approach the most honest and good when it comes to the questions of data ownership. It supports both “sovereign” data ownership (I can host my data), and social / trusted ownership (my friend or a business I trust can host my data). It’s also pretty transparent about where your data goes and how it’s used.
If anything feels the most “Web 3.0” to me today, it’s the fediverse. It’s certainly the most human — it allows any kind of organization to form around both platform development (often an open source community) and data stewardship (could be an individual, non-profit, co-op, small business, etc.). There’s no overhead from unnecessary organizations or programmed contracts — people know how to coordinate naturally. It allows but doesn’t require commerce to keep the ecosystem alive. And if there is commerce, it naturally supports healthy competition, i.e. multiple service providers. Finally, it’s both useful and user-friendly enough for anyone in the world to utilize today — something sorely lacking in “web3.”
Minimal data collection
This is less of a clear-cut aspect of Web 3.0 — more of an attitude towards data, and a side effect that might come out of an ecosystem of interoperable software.
If users own and control their data, and can take it to any platform they choose, I imagine platforms will have to compete on a slightly more level playing field. There would still be many differentiating factors, but if it ever came down to policy differences, I think privacy-focused providers would tend to win out.
We often talk about how Big Tech profits well off the business of indiscriminate data collection — and they sure do. The “web3” proponents mention this, but then point to a complicated, pure tech solution that doesn’t even solve the problem.
Today’s “web3” can certainly tout minimal data collection if they want. But you can’t call anything “private” that doesn’t let you freely delete your data when you want to. As long as blockchain is the basis of the “web3,” it will never be “private” in the way people need it to be.
What it comes down to
Ultimately, a true Web 3.0 will use whatever social and technological solutions are available to to improve Web 2.0 shortcomings around data privacy, ownership, portability, and control.
It won’t limit itself to one tech stack, or one social structure. It won’t reset everything to start from scratch. Instead, it’ll leverage natural intuition and existing social institutions to move us forward. It will mix protocols, software, network topology, the existing Web, business / ownership models, and incentive structures. It will be made from the bottom-up, not over-hyped from the top-down. It will prioritize open access over exclusivity, and revolve primarily around people, not just tech.
The “web3” proposed today is simply too limited to deserve the name. Any Web 3.0 will be entirely about the Web itself, and all the humans on it.
What do you think?
What am I missing in the future I’ve outlined? Am I off-base? Is blockchain really all the Web needs? Or do you agree? Should we band together to build this “3.0” Web? Do you have some ideas on this? I’d love to hear what you think — please get in touch.