What I Learned on Vacation This Week: Web3
My employer has a company-wide break during the last week of December. I cannot recommend this enough. I’ve said this before and probably written it too, but taking time off is my passion. You know how people say that when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work? It gives you energy instead of sapping it? You look forward to doing it even after you’ve been at it for hours or days? Yep…that’s what NOT WORKING feels like to me. Revolutionary, right? Here’s to hoping the 4-day work week is next.
Needless to say, you won’t ever catch me praising the #grind or #hustleculture. Still, there’s always opportunity to learn and so, after 7 days off work, I’m back with a new blog post. Recently I was having a conversation with my wife and a friend about a candidate she was recruiting for her company (she is a tech recruiter). She said that they were likely to decline her offer because their other option was a Web3 company. I felt as though the group was looking at me knowingly. When that happens, you either know what they’re talking about or you know you have to look it up later. I had no idea what Web3 was. I did not know there was more than one Web.
Web3 is the decentralization of the internet through the use of blockchain
Before I dive any deeper, I should note that “what is Web3” is a pretty common question. I encourage anyone who’s curious to check out my sources, which have quotes from experts and are much less likely to misunderstand crucial details. Here’s an article from WIRED, and here’s one from NPR.
Since I’m not likely to break any new ground on this subject, I’ll instead use this post to try and decode and re-share what I read in these articles. If you can’t explain it, then have you really learned it?
Let’s try and break down the header here into digestible parts:
Decentralizing the Internet
Web3 evangelists see it as the solution to a problem we have with the current state of the internet, also known as Web 2.0. When the internet first started to gain traction with the general public (Web 1.0), it was disorganized, inconsistent, and difficult to navigate. There were a series of singular websites that were not really connected or related in any way. They were more often maintained by individuals than corporations and you would not expect any of them to be an authority on anything.
Then, giant corporations emerged and centralized our experience in Web 2.0 (we are here). If you want to search for something, you use Google (or if you want to search for a video you use YouTube…which is owned by Google). If you want to communicate with your friends, many if not most users will choose Facebook or Instagram (owned by Facebook) or WhatsApp for messaging (also owned by Facebook). If you want to advertise online or collect analytics about your site’s performance, there’s a good chance you’re relying on Facebook or Google. A large swath of websites require Amazon Web Services to function at even the most basic level. These corporations control our online experiences and, perhaps even more importantly, our data.
This is where supporters of Web3 come in. Their perspective is that this is dangerous, undemocratic, and unfair. They argue that, though governments may attempt to regulate these mega-corporations, they are not nimble enough to react to the advancement of technology. And while historically that may have meant that these companies should be broken up under anti-trust law, their solution is instead to change the environment: Web3.
Web3 uses Blockchain
There are two levels of understanding blockchain: knowing what it is and knowing how it works. I don’t think it’s useful to dive into the latter in this post, so let’s focus on the former. Here’s a key descriptor from IBM:
…it provides immediate, shared and completely transparent information stored on an immutable ledger that can be accessed only by permissioned network members.
Blockchain has become popular with the rise of cryptocurrency and NFTs because of the security it offers in making transactions. These aspects appeal to the Web3 crowd who feel that things like transparency and access are lacking in the world of Web 2.0. They argue that blockchain will allow data to be shared directly between users, rather than first being sent through an intermediary like Facebook, which can theoretically analyze and/or sell that information. Blockchain transactions cannot be altered because they are each blocks on a chain where anything that happens to one will affect the whole system.
Part of the argument for Web3 is that blockchain services are more accessible for the individuals involved in the transactions in question. Ideally, they are truly peer-to-peer so long as the individuals have a baseline knowledge of how to use the technology. Critics argue that this baseline isn’t so easy to reach and loyal readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’m also skeptical. As evidenced by this blog, I wouldn’t say that learning new technologies is ever straightforward, especially when we’re trying to catch up with a group that has a significant head start.
Still, the perspective here is that Web3, through the use of blockchain, would allow me to share an encrypted message directly with someone else without having to worry that Salesforce or Facebook or Twitter are going to read it as well.
Democracy through empowerment
As we can see, the issue here is that a small group (tech CEOs/boards members) operate, distribute, and monitor a lot of what we do on the web. Using the internet means living in their world and playing by their rules, which often state that they can sell our data or serve us dishonest content. They are driven primarily by profit, which rarely benefits the common user. Theoretically, Web3 will increase transparency and security through blockchain and allow masses of users to build and maintain their own web services for things like messaging or commerce. There are some references to users having shares in larger services where they can vote to implement certain functions, giving them more control vs what we currently see with Google or Amazon. No one is sure exactly what Web3 would look like, but it’s an idea that is gaining popularity and gaining investors who have seen the rise of cryptocurrency and NFTs and want to be involved in the next big tech boom.
I now find myself in a familiar place during a blog post. Often I’ll drill down to a certain point where the concept becomes too abstract or too technical and I simply have to throw up my hands and say “I don’t get it.” When it comes to Web3 presenting a revolutionary new egalitarian system for the internet, I can once again say “I don’t get it.” I strongly agree that big tech companies have proven themselves to be unethical and dangerous to the fabric of our society and I am in favor of any action that will wrest some of their power over our lives. I am skeptical, however, that the forces behind cryptocurrency should be painted as saviors here. Here’s a quote from the NPR article:
Instead, [websites] are decentralized, built upon a system known as the blockchain, which already undergirds Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies…It’s operated by users collectively, rather than a corporation. People are given “tokens” for participating. The tokens can be used to vote on decisions, and even accrue real value.
This is not unlike how public corporations, like all the tech giants, work today. Investors have shares that they can use to vote on decisions for the company, but for the most part they are meaningless because their shares are much smaller than those of founders and executives. Those who started with more keep more, and right now that likely means cryptocurrency investors. In my view, that group has historically been much more interested in profit than democracy (not unlike big tech CEOs).
Gavin Wood, who runs the Web3 Foundation, told WIRED that “the point is that the more people that can do this, the lower the barrier, the better.” If power is spread across a wider group, that’s an improvement on our current situation. If, however, that group has the same motivations as our current internet overlords, most of us may not see much notable change. Maybe it’s impossible to sell data if we all use blockchain, but until I see Web3 deal a really serious blow to that industry, I’ll remain skeptical.
- The Father of Web3 Wants You to Trust Less, Gilad Edelman, WIRED
- People are talking about Web3. Is it the Internet of the future or just a buzzword?, Bobby Allyn, NPR
- What is blockchain technology?, IBM