Why Is This Web3 Idea Such A Mess?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Do a Google, DuckDuckGo or Bing search on just “Web3” and the page of results are all pretty much various tech media, blockchain and crypto companies trying to explain it. Some say they explain it in easy terms. All seem to point to various crypto, NFT and blockchain ideas. Oh, and decentralization. From DAO’s to decentralized finance (DeFi). Funny thing is, when the first ideas for Web3, then called Web 3.0, came about, none of it had to do with crypto or blockchain. Web3 is, as a concept, a complete and utter mess. It’s also debatable as to who even invented the term Web3. Why such confusion? Will anything come of it? Yes, but read on.

It has a lot to do with techtopian idealism. Which means we have to go back to the late 1970’s and the hippies for context. As is oft said, history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes. This is attributed to Mark Twain, but that too, is unsure. The hippies, as they came down from the outer areas of the Bay Area, got into computers and they saw this ability to interconnect as a new, ideal way, to bring humanity together. It was messy. The result, some twenty years later, was the mass consumerization of the internet. Now, again, nearly three decades later, the ideals of the hippies in the 70’s are playing out in the ideals of Web3. Except it’s even messier.

The original idea of Web3, or then Web 3.0, was known as the Semantic Web. There is no mention of crypto, blockchain or really decentralization, DeFi or other terms. The semantic web is all about truly connecting things, it’s about evolving ontologies of vocabularies, better query languages and bringing different verticals together to improve research and enabling a richer information management environment and the information architecture behind it. Also, it’s not nearly as exciting as Web3.

Somewhere along the way, Web3 got hijacked by the crypto and blockchain worlds. The first real ideation of Web3 was the DWeb (Decentralized Web) and that has some really cool ideas. Especially around management of personal information and the ability to build apps outside the Big Tech centralized platforms. But that idea got co-opted too.

While it’s difficult to pin down exactly when Web3 was co-opted by the crypto world, a sort-of start date could be pegged to 2014 when Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood, who also formed the Web3 Foundation. It is mostly at odds with the W3 Consortium. It was also founded in 1994 and was using Web 3.0 far ahead of Gavin Wood. Wood is often attributed with inventing the term Web3. He did not. It is also attributed to NY Times reporter John Markoff in 2006. So even the very naming of the nomenclature is debatable. But we do love the idea of foundational myths in our cultures.

Despite much talk about decentralization and empowering the people, quite the opposite has happened. The crypto and blockchain worlds are run by an elite cadre as much as Big Tech is. And they make good money speaking at conferences and attracting investors. Silicon Valley loves its mavens.

As I’ve also written before, much of the ideas surrounding Web3 are hailed by the pundits and promoters as new ways of doing business, hyped as egalitarian and empowering. The ideas, the notions are, but the execution has been decidedly messy, confusing and highly centralized.

Will any good come of this Web3 thing? Absolutely. Some really good applications will be developed. But they aren’t necessarily Web3 as an idea related. Use cases so far remain fairly flimsy and haven’t been backed up by much UX research, if any.

In my ethnographic and netnographic research around Web3, what I’ve found is raucous debate of what it is and isn’t and no agreement on a single defined view. It is a concept of pluralities and is, in some ways, a cultural artefact of a digital movement. A series of stories with fairy tale endings told around a digital campfire. While that may sound cruel and biting, it’s not entirely. Humans communicate through culture. It’s how our technologies have evolved. Something techtopians often miss or misunderstand.

As another saying goes; first humans shape technology, then it shapes us. Web3 is neither right now. It’s a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. But it is also an important and valuable discussion around what could be, about possibilities. We may never land on a realistic explanation of Web3 as a working system, but we will see some interesting things come out of the debates and discussions. We can’t be sure when. But we can also be sure that someone is dreaming up an idea of Web4 and when that hype cycle kicks in, the ideas of Web3 may start to bear some fruit.

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