Love or hate blockchain and cryptocurrencies, you can’t deny they’ve made a big impact on the Web’s evolution over the past several years. I don’t necessarily believe there are “versions” of the Web, but I’m going to appropriate the term Web 3.0 anyway. Mainly because it helps try and identify what’s changed on the Web; especially compared to the Web 2.0 era. Bear with me, and I welcome your feedback.
Web 3.0 is a term that has been bandied about for years now; most notably by Semantic Web proponents in the middle of Web 2.0. The moniker failed to gain traction back then, much like the Semantic Web itself. But lately some blockchain and cryptocurrency people have tried to define Web 3.0 in their context. Most notably, co-creator of Ethereum Gavin Wood, who deployed the term in 2014. His post is overly complicated, in the best traditions of the still young crypto community. But he hit on some key concepts, some of which are just now becoming reality.
As for my own sense of what blockchain and cryptocurrencies bring to the Web, I’ve come to realise they’re useful tools that are helping take the Web to the next level. In particular, to address some of the societal problems that Web 2.0 brought us. With that said, Web 3.0 does not equal The Blockchain Web. I’ve also learnt there are some things blockchain isn’t ideal for (more on that below).
Ultimately, if Web 3.0 has any meaning at all, then it’s in trying to define what the latest wave of Web developers and entrepreneurs are building – and why. So let’s firstly identify what’s important in the post-Web 2.0 era.
The tenets of Web 3.0
So far I’ve identified five central tenets of Web 3.0. A common theme is the ability to own, manage and protect your own data on the Internet.
- Openness; the Web started out as an open system, but once AOL, Microsoft’s MSN and others in Web 1.0 erected their Walled Gardens, that openness faded away. In early Web 2.0, a new hope arrived in the form of new, Web-based “platforms” by Twitter, Facebook and similar companies. The term “open” was loosely thrown around at this time (for example, Facebook called one of its projects “Open Graph”). But it soon became clear it was all a mirage. These companies eventually tightened up their APIs and walled off the content (which we gave them!). Eventually, due to “network effects” – a popular catchphrase in Web 2.0 – power on the Internet became consolidated amongst just four technology companies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. I call these companies “the digital oligarchy.” Web 3.0, then, is about trying to re-gain the sense of openness that Tim Berners-Lee wanted when he invented the Web in the 1990s; and while we’re at it, to reclaim our personal data from the oligarchy.
- Decentralization; this word is often used by crypto enthusiasts, but I think it’s less important than openness as a key concept of Web 3.0. Decentralization cuts out the middle man, which is a lovely ideal. The problem is, it isn’t always viable. Despite the legitimate concerns about Facebook as our social networking overlord, it’s doubtful that a social network on that scale can ever be run on a decentralized public blockchain. It’s currently not technically feasible, and even if it was do you really want every single piece of data about you to be preserved forever on a blockchain database? No, most of us want to have the option to delete our personal data. Public blockchains don’t allow that. With that said, there are a lot of viable market opportunities for decentralization; it’s feasible to disrupt Uber by connecting drivers and users directly, for example. But decentralization isn’t a panacea for everything; and also, it doesn’t necessarily need to be done using a blockchain (such as Beaker browser).
- Privacy; this is something we’ve never really had on the Web, in either Web 1.0 (the 90s through to the early oughts) or Web 2.0 (about 2004 till 2013). But recent events, notably involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, have made us realise we need better privacy features. The digital oligarchy “owns” far too much of our personal data, and we also now recognise the value of this data to retailers like Amazon. Web 3.0 is about finding ways to protect our privacy and our data, if we so choose.
(Note: I’d also include security in this tenet. If your data is truly private, that implies it’s truly secure too.)
- Incentivisation of both creators and consumers, via tokens. This is something that blockchain technology directly gifted to the Web, thanks firstly to Satoshi Nakamoto’s original Bitcoin invention, and then the work that Vitalik Buterin, Gavin Wood and other Ethereum founders did to define the token model. The basic idea is that tokens (and specifically “utility tokens”) can incentivize new users and enable creators to be rewarded for their work. In particular I have high hopes the token model can – finally – allow micropayments to gain traction on the Web. However, one problem currently is that the ICO market has warped the value of many cryptocurrencies. Until token speculation calms down, it will be difficult for tokens to reach their potential.
- Data portability; this is related to openness, but deserves its own mention. Data portability was something the Semantic Web tried to achieve: by marking up your data according to a set of Web standards (primarily a markup language called RDF), users would be able to move their data from one platform to another with ease. In reality that never happened, because companies kept much of the most valuable data locked up behind its walls. For example, you cannot export your friends list from Facebook and move it to another social network. While Facebook does have a content export function, which includes a list of your friends, they deliver it to you as a fairly useless HTML file – so you can’t import it into a competing service.
Those are five key concepts in Web 3.0 that I’ve identified. But I’d love your feedback on this, particularly if you think I’ve missed something critical.