“Three, three. Count to three. Three birds sitting in a puffy pink tree.” – Dr. Seuss, 123.
Web1, or just the “Web”, was a multitude of computer sites connected via the Internet whose connections look like a web. Difficult to use at first, it allowed us to track our latest sports teams and exchange basic messages with others in real time. The Internet replaced individual stand-alone destinations like AOL and Compuserve as information resources. The open library of information available grew and grew during the 90s and into the new millennium. We went from zero to one on a journey that is still changing the way people connect and interact every day.
Web2 expanded interaction with users writing and publishing their own stories. Users became digital creating identities and value in the Internet. We published our life to the Internet. Internet commerce began with users providing their physical and digital identity including financial information to purchase products and services online. With no internet standards for creating or contributing this information, businesses and individual websites created their own ways to handle the interaction and the information presented. These individual websites also took ownership of managing this data for a price. A price many users did not, and still may not, understand.
Web3 is the next phase and is focused on standardizing data exchange and putting ownership, management, and control of the data with the users of the Internet. While the concept is easy to state, it is not as easy for all to understand. Let’s expand the explanation and dig into some details.
Web3 is a concept where information and assets are controlled by the users, securely distributed across the Internet, accessible by any application, and with transparent computer logic governing data and interactions. Assets are freely and securely created, stored, and transferred between sites and technologies without an intermediary. Web3 enables identities to be created and digitally verified anywhere on the Internet, controlled by the user and not by a business entity or government, though business and government will use and contribute to the identity and verification.
The driving force that enables Web3 is Blockchain technology. While most people associate Blockchains with Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the technology provides a structure for much more. Blockchains are the foundation for a distributed, open database with transparency across the Internet where data transactions happen with decentralized trust, authentication, and validation. Blockchain technology solved multiple issues with distributing and controlling data that were previously not possible without human intervention. This enabled the creation of Cryptocurrencies, NFTsNFT Non-Fungible Token or "NFT" is digital certificates showing ownership of an asset. It is embedded in a blockchain as a token. The asset can be digital or the NFT can point to a real-world, tangible item., and even Metaverses with even more on the horizon.
Why do we need this, and what is all the hype?
Web3 promoters say the Internet has become centralized in the hands of a few tech giants whose sites are walled off from interacting or sharing data with other sites. These tech giants control massive amounts of user data and control the user experience on their sites using that data. There is no transparency of how data is used to display news and advertisements in users’ feeds. The Internet contains multiple articles referencing the manipulation of the user experience to keep users on their site for as long as possible, leading some to a very unhealthy experience. A profit motive is the primary driver of the data centralization with most tech companies restricting access to their own application or through a very limited interface. Web3 promoters say they want to put the control of data and the user experience back into the user’s hands and provide multiple options on how users consume their data.
Web3’s goal is to expand the value of the Internet to all users and expand the sharing of information. The Internet is called the great equalizer democratizing equal access to information and peer-to-peer relationships sharing ideas. The foundation of the Internet, and the technologies developed for it, facilitate the exchange of information and ideas and should not be limited except by the user’s preference. There are limitations society needs to deal with where the information may harm the user or others. As we have experienced in recent years, dealing with this judicially is not without issues, though it too is part of the Internet’s evolution.
The Internet Evolves
The Internet was created to allow decentralized information to be shared and communicated. Technology languages, called protocols, were developed to facilitate sharing information with specific ones to locate information, display information, transmit messages and files, and play music and videos. You may have heard of these as acronyms like DNS, HTML, RSS, and RTP. These protocols provide standards to access and freely exchange information across the Internet. They are available to anyone, and any application, to use for both commercial and personal purposes and provide common cohesive methods for universal sharing of information.
The Internet made information sharing free and open; a free-flowing, information superhighway. Several companies have created massive digital cities and ecosystems on this superhighway making it easy for all users and creators to collaborate and share information. They use and curate information for the users making money from every word and have secured their digital cities in a symbolic Hotel California: the data can checkout anytime it wants, but it can never leave. California’s CCPA, CPRA, and The European Union’s GDPR laws attempt to address this, though the goal of Web3 is to address the problem with users owning and controlling their own data and assets. Users would be able to grant access and revoke access to entities to use and share the users data.
Let’s look at some examples. As a result of the open protocols developed for the Internet, you can move your email between email providers, host it yourself, and have a choice of multiple applications to experience and manage your email. Your music, encoded in an MP3, can be downloaded, uploaded, purchased, or played from multiple free or purchased applications. Even your accounting data can be moved between accounting software providers retaining the same accounting experience. Social media data, messaging data, and several other types of user data do not have the same options. This data, in the form of friends, connections, groups, likes, dislikes, and other information, is trapped on those sites if it is to remain useable.
Multiple Internet vendors provide value in hosting the users’ content and interactions for free in an advertising-supported model. In exchange for providing this free service, the vendors control the users’ data, with more control than the users themselves. The vendors make money from users’ data and determine what is seen when a user accesses their site. They also moderate the content as judge and jury over what we share and what we see on their sites. Should the vendors deem content inappropriate, they take it down and remove the users’ access to their site. It is becoming, or already has become, a dystopian system.
Web3 proponents want to change this system. Web3 vendors will have profit motives. The difference is users will control their own data and the competition with alternatives will ensure the best service will grow and retain users. If the vendors profit motives no longer serve the user’s interest, then the user should be open to leave and still retain their data. Data, and data exchange, will remain open like email with the vendors who create the best services around that data being the winners and deserving of profits.
Business will continue to evolve
Most of the world lives in a capitalistic society. Businesses create value and are rewarded with profits. In such an environment, businesses will act in their own interest. Blockchains and these new technologies provide the ability to move control back to the shared Internet. More protocols that allow content mobility and even the exchanging of money remove the dependency on these commercial businesses or any intermediary. The major Internet companies of today may embrace these in their open format and continue to be valuable players in Internet communications. And they will continue to make profits from the value they create.
Let’s look at an example. Websites in the early 2000s used Adobe Flash to provide a better user experience and required the Flash plugin to be installed in Internet browsers to view it. Without the Flash plugin, you could not experience the content. Adobe was innovative and made lots of money from Flash products before HTML improved and exceeded Flash’s capability such that Flash was no longer needed. Flash is now obsolete, though Adobe is still a leading company in HTML and other open Internet technologies.
Seed planted, let’s watch it grow
There is a large community that believes in open standards for the Internet. An open Internet serves everyone’s interest, except possibly some large commercial organizations and a few governments. These new technologies and protocols, collectively called Web3, enable new applications allowing the Internet to grow and continue to be an open ecosystem. As the proponents continue to develop Web3 open standards, more and more value will be produced in the Internet.
It is early in Web3 development with enough work ahead that it will take several years for most to experience. For now, it’s worth reading about and trying the early products created around it. Thomas Edison, working for years on a new invention, is attributed as saying “I’ve not failed. I’ve discovered many ways that it doesn’t work.” With Web3, there certainly are failures to come, though like the early days of the Internet, these failures will enable discovery, and the Internet will evolve and continue to be one of society’s greatest achievements.