In the summer of 1993 I saw the World Wide Web for the first time and to this day it remains one of the most exciting moments of my life. The possibility and the potential was so obvious. This was a place where anything could happen, and everyone could see it. Over the next few years it stopped feeling like a destination and I no longer differentiated between “the real world” and “online” – it was all real and always happening, sometimes I was away away from my keyboard.
By the early 2000’s these amorphous blobs of content we were putting online started to find ways to work together. Small pieces loosely joined. We were on the verge of connecting everything and it was going to be incredible. Tech conferences felt like summer camps. All the people you’d met online coming together and hanging out in hotel lobbies. We put faces to names, and stayed up all night imagining the future. That feeling changed in 2004 when the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference was rebranded as The Web 2.0 Conference. e-Tech became Web 2.0, officially.
That year I ran into a friend outside of the conference. They looked upset, almost distraught. I asked what was wrong. They told me they’d just taken an elevator that was packed with people they didn’t recognize. They’d looked at name tags to try and find a connection and rather than seeing familiar startups or friend’s projects they saw SAP, Oracle and various banks. I said “so what?” They said, “When the money and enterprise guys show up, you know it’s over.” I laughed off the comment at the moment but thought about it a lot in the following years. That was the beginning of the end, at least of our dreams of anything being possible.
It wasn’t a night and day change and of course there was plenty of talk of “users” instead of “people” in what we now call the “dot-com era” or “Web 1.0” though we didn’t call it those things at the time. But Web 2.0 brought in the big guns. The focus became controlling what people could do, and owning their information. Our content, our data, anything they could get their hands on. This was the golden age of luring people in with free services and War and Peace length Terms of Service that no one read, so we didn’t realize how much we were giving up. Once we did, it was too late.
If you’ve been with me over these years you know I’ve been critical of Web 2.0. I have spent a considerable amount of time talking about the web and what we do with it, what we could have done, and where we went wrong. I had so much hope, and felt so much disappointment. Obviously I wasn’t the only one, which is how we found our way to Web3.
Web3 is not Web 3.0. It’s not a sequel or an update to Web 2.0, it’s a separate fork. You could maybe argue it’s a prequel but one informed by the errors of what was yet to come. While Web 2.0 was the fire started by sparks from the dot-com era, this a rewind and do-over with flameproof lining. Web3 looked at Web 2.0, saw the foundation was rotting and rather then renovating decided to build fresh on the plot next door. I could keep running with these analogies but I’m sure you get the point. When you see Web 2.0 talking heads steaming and stomping their feet that “NFTs and Crypto are not Web 3.0!!” they are right, but just not in the way they think. Web 3.0 was The Semantic Web – it already happened and chances are you never even heard about it. Web3 is something else.
Dialup ---> Dot-Com Era ---> Web 2.0 ---> Web 3.0 | |----------------------------------- Web3
Web3 upends the power structures we’ve grown accustomed to and puts artists and creators back into the drivers seat. Without exception, every person I’ve spoken to who I know from my mid 1990’s internet adventures agrees this feels just like that. Suddenly there are possibilities again. Suddenly all options are on the table. Suddenly Anything can happen. It’s exciting. And scary. A little bit dangerous. It’s like the run down part of town where all the artists have studios because thats where they can afford lots of space. Sure you have to be careful where you park so your car doesn’t get broken into, but the creativity and inspiration around every corner is worth the visit.
After 2020 lots of people have been asking if there is actually a reason to go back to the office, to go back to a job they hate. Web3 is giving many of those people the ability to say no, they aren’t going to suffer through a 9-5 they hate just to barely scrape up enough to pay rent. Web3 offers a future where people are in charge of their own identities, not beholden to the whims of data hoarding corporations. People control their own accounts, own their own futures. Detractors are outraged that currency and wallets play a central part in this, but currency and wallets have always played a central role – the only thing that has changed is who benefits. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise. In 1993 John Gilmore said “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” and in a way that is what has happened here, but we’re talking about an economy rather than censorship. The Net interpreted walled gardens and institutional lock-ins as damage. Web3 is a creator economy like we’ve never seen – by and for the people.
Now that may sound idealistic and is, admittedly. Proudly even. Because that’s what a reimagining should be. If you are going back and starting over you need to be idealistic, you need to believe anything is possible and that the best outcome is realistic. The unified, decentralized dream is sitting right in front of us. Of course it’s not assured, and there are no shortage of power hungry or greed driven actors trying to centralize things for their own benefit. We’re already seeing compromises billed as simplification. We’re seeing sour grapes from people who called this a trend or a scam and expected it to fade away years ago. There’s no shortage of self proclaimed early adopters who didn’t adopt this early enough and are mad that they made the wrong call. That’s OK, it’s to be expected. The good is the momentum is strong and things are moving in the right direction. The secret is it’s not too late. We are still so incredibly early. The surface has barely been scratched.
Another incredibly important thing here – the kids all get it. For every person over 40 arguing about the legitimacy of cryptocurrency or the value of JPGs there are 2 people under 20 who don’t even question it. Digital gold, a catalog of avatars and identities – this is the world they grew up with. It made sense in countless video games, why not everywhere else? And when you take into account that there’s been a financial crisis almost non-stop since 2001, with an ever growing list of shysters and conmen getting caught for decades of scams and frauds, or politicians getting pay offs, or secret back room deals where almost everyone gets screwed – the appeal of a public ledger for all transactions becomes crystal clear. The next generation is all to aware of the short end of the stick they’ve been left to hold, and they are simple deciding not to.
So if you are asking “Why Web3?” The answer is simple. Web3 is the future.