WTF is Web3?

This was my response when I heard one of my product managers mention the phrase “Web3” to me towards the end of 2021. Admittedly, after living through dot-com or Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, I have become a skeptical of Internet versioning, but he assured me the label was legit. When I attended South By Southwest (SXSW) in Feb 2022, the non-stop attention dedicated to Web3 confirmed that, like it or not, the "Web3" label is here. But what exactly is it?

There are so many ways to start unpacking Web3 that I decided to take a very Web1 approach to getting my head around it — surfing around the Internet and bumping into a bunch of things. I’m writing this today, not as any sort of definition, but rather as a record of my personal journey to understand the technology leap we’re experiencing today in our digital spaces.

Web 2.0

I started web-slinging (designing and building websites and apps) in the late 1990s working on some of the Internet’s first digital photo libraries and e-commerce sites. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of trust in buying things online so we had one of our project managers sitting by a physical phone (landline) all day just in case he had to manually process credit cards for users who did not want to enter their credit card into a web form.

In the mid-2000s, I started hearing the expression “Web 2.0” being tossed around. Folks didn’t seem to have a good definition of it, but they sure loved saying it. Like it was an opportunity to fix all the problems we had with our current “dot-com” or “dot-bomb” version of the web after the bubble burst. We could wipe it all clean with a new fresh install and rebranding.

The clean break from 1.0 to 2.0 didn’t happen, but eventually, with the advent of AJAX-enabled web apps, social networks, music streaming, and ubiquitous access across our devices, we became to have a collective understanding of what Web 2.0 meant. Similar to how defining generational boundaries in humans is also hard to do when you’re in the middle of it.

Reflecting on the path of Web2, or 2.0 — back then we felt we needed to be clear that minor versions were possible — I found a little comfort in not really knowing what Web3 is today. So, here I am, a Web3 noob, going on a journey of what it is.

Web3

I started out seeking wisdom from one of my early web heroes Jeffery Zeldman. Zeldman, among others, was one of the early proponents of Web Standards. Ironically, if we had listened to Zeldman, we wouldn’t have so much of the consolidated web that Web3 could be a solution for. So, I decided to see what Zeldman had to say about Web3 and found this gem: Web 3.0, published back in 2006.

It soon appeared that “Web 2.0” was not only bigger than the Apocalypse but also more profitable. Profitable, that is, for investors like the speaker. Yet the new gold rush must not be confused with the dot-com bubble of the 1990s: “Web 1.0 was not disruptive. You understand? Web 2.0 is totally disruptive. You know what XML is? You’ve heard about well-formedness? Okay. So anyway—” And on it ran, like a dentist’s drill in the Gulag. Web 3.0, Zeldman

I confess, when I heard “Web3” mentioned last year, I had a pretty similar to Zeldman’s 2.0 reaction. And just to add a bit more dry-heave to the mix, after reading his article again, I remember a colleague of mine back in 2008 use the expression — after the luster of Web 2.0 went away for him — “Web 3.0.” Nope.

Decentralization

A few months into my Web3 net surfing journey, I found the general theme of decentralization emerging. Whether we’re talking about: taking your blockchain-enabled NFT avatar from one game to the next, having full ownership of your digital identity, decentralized economics including cryptocurrency, or decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs); decentralization has emerged, from my perspective, as key to defining this next version of the Internet. (Side note, I’m sticking with “Internet” over things like Metaverse and Dataverse, etc.)

In Thomas Stackpole’s Harvard Business Review article, What Is Web3, Stackpole focuses the definition of Web3 more on blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. But just as I feel that Web2 is better defined by being the read/write web rather than the technology that enabled this (AJAX and XML), I prefer sticking to decentralization rather than blockchain and especially not cryptocurrency.

So what is decentralization and how do we get there? Before I dive into that, a quick word about The Metaverse…

The Metaverse

I’m putting in a few words around the Metaverse here and specifically calling out Meta’s VR experience. On the one hand, if the dream of decentralization is to become the defining factor of Web3, then decentralized identity is foundational. I’m sure Meta wants to be right there for your NFT avatars and be your premier Web3 experience, but I highly doubt, Meta is going to hand over control of your personal data.

… the pull of centralization and the proliferation of new intermediaries is already undermining the utopian pitch for a decentralized web. What Is Web3, Stackpole

The risk I see is that the technology of true decentralization is still pretty far off, which makes it possible for organizations like Meta, Google, Apple, and Amazon to steer narratives of Web3 over the next few years as long as it works with their technology and they can continue to own your data.

Decentralization Lite

This is murky for me, but today’s decentralization seems to be gaining the most traction with cryptocurrency, gaming (through NFT-based avatars), and new decentralized social media platforms such as Discord and Mastodon.

While these are promising and, in my opinion, the current best hook we hang our Web3 hat on, they fail to be inclusive for most humans. If these technologies emerge as our salvation for real-world problems we’re facing today, I feel we’re falling short of the vision of a truly democratized Internet. Because right now, the more money you have to gamble with, wins.

Decentralization For Real

True decentralization, and what feels like to me to be the vision of this massive interconnected digital network called Web3 means the decentralization of identity in our digital spaces. This is a complex problem that, Danny Zuckerman does a great job explaining in Kevin Owocki’s Green Pill Podcast #37 on reputation-based economies. Sadly, Zuckerman explains that the complexity of the problem means that it is unlikely to be solved soon. This probably means not before we all decide that the Web3 buzz is over and we’re ready to talk about the next version of our digital world.

Identity is inherently multiplayer. In the physical world, identity began as a construct enabling peer-to-peer interactions in society. In the digital world, it roughly functions the same way. Identity is a tool for providing context, trust, and efficiency to transactions. Tweet, Zuckerman

I love the idea of showing up in a digital space and having control over my identity in that space. If I’m playing a game I want my avatar, not my social security information to be on my digital sleeve. If I’m opening a bank account, I want to bring relevant financial information, not my Spotify playlists. To my doctor, my exercise metrics, not my Netflix viewing history.

What happens if we solve our Decentralization Lite problems without solving these? We risk the further branching of our digital spaces into an even less equitable, digital class system than we have today.

As we continue down our Web3 journey, I hope we keep the vision of decentralization at its foundation. I’m skeptical of that for Web3. The optimist in me, however, has faith that Web3 will be the bridge to a truly decentralized version of the Internet in the not-too-distant future.