Web3 can be confusing.
It’s confusing for the people who work in Web3, it’s confusing for the people that write about Web3, and it’s confusing for the people who read about Web3.
It should also be noted that everyone else doesn’t really seem to care about Web3. And why should they? Most people are going about their daily lives trying to earn a living, raise a family, make ends meet, or some related combination of activities.
Worrying about Web3 — that is the reorganization of the internet in a form/version that is more focused on individual freedom and control and less focused on centralized corporate control and over-monetizing via tracking and advertising — naturally takes a backseat to most real world concerns.
But there are a select few, myself included, who spend maybe too much time geeking out about Web3. The leadership team at HackerNoon, a tech-focused internet publication, is also known to geek out about Web3. In fact, the HackerNoon team recently released a short film dedicated to the topic.
“We’ve published 15k+ Web3 text stories, part of this was just filming our internal debate on whether or not the internet is going through a revolution. And what that revolution is, or could be,” said HackerNoon and CEO David Smooke in an email interview about the film. “The investors call it Web3, and the average person on the internet doesn't really care what it's called just that their site/app/media works better. Reminds me of the Bon Jovi song, halfway there, living on a prayer. It's ok that we're in the middle of it and not there yet.”
The film itself is quirky in both style of storytelling and narrative structure. In some regards, the style of the film matches its topic — trying to make sense of something as massive and somewhat abstract as the future of the internet.
Style and method of the film aside, it’s important to note that just because people don’t really seem to care, there is a lot at stake. If 2023 taught us anything, it’s actually that the stakes are higher than we might have previously thought.
The information age, or the digital transformation, or whatever you want to call it, was supposed to bring with it great jobs, security (both in terms of personal physical safety and at the macro level of fewer wars over natural resources), and sense of unified prosperity.
But what we are dealing with internet-wise is way more complex and fraught with risk. What if all of the great jobs are taken by AI? And what happens if we trust our security to companies built to sell us ads? And what if our digital future starts to consumes resources that we need to feed people?
OK, the short HackerNoon film doesn’t address all of that stuff, but it’s at least a starting point for some of these conversations. As the world moves toward some kind of techno/digital new world order, we do want to make sure that individual people have control and freedom, and a voice.
Here are five takeaways from the film:
The year of the transformers: Likely 2023 will go down as a big pivot point on the internet in general, and also for the crypto/DeFi/Web3 space.
The year began like a crushing hangover from the tail end of 2022, when ChatGPT and other consumer AI products started to have what felt like viral mainstream moments. Also notable was the severe backlash to the fraud-induced crypto crashes, resulting in big trials that captivated attention, and will likely result with several big crypto leaders behind bars.
Also as a backdrop to the wild year of the internet, platform risk became a big deal. I wrote about some of this win a post about Web3 and dying social media, but it became even more pronounced as creators and people with large followings had to make serious decisions about moving to new platforms such as Twitter or Substack and starting over elsewhere. Timing-wise, all of this has culminated in renewed interested in a more decentralized version of the internet. More on this in point five and in this post, Welcome to the fediverse, wait, WTF is the fediverse?
For context, the film doesn’t really address any of this, which is a big shortcoming. And there is a reason why all of this stuff was left out: “Well technically, we filmed it in Dec '22, so the climate has changed a bit since then,” Smooke says. The omission just goes to show how much the internet really changed in the past year.
Begin with the end in mind: One of the issues with talking about Web3 is it requires telling a big backstory. To explain what the next evolution of the internet will look like requires explaining a lot of details about the internet that people are not aware of — and frankly don’t really care that much about. This same kind of storytelling/narrative issue is also true when explaining things like crypto more specifically. Most people don’t care about monetary systems or who controls what. Or how the backend of a credit card processor works. They just want to know that they can pay for stuff and that they have enough money in their bank account.
In the film, the idea of where to start the story never really gets addressed through a passing acknowledgement.
My personal take is that what’s missing from the story of “Why Web3 and why now?” Or “Why crypto and why now?” are the people. Instead of making this about the money or the tech, the story really needs to be about how this new stack will help people in their everyday lives. Why will Web3 ultimately be a better and safer user experience?
What is this even backed by? Does Web3 need to be blockchain-based? Or can Web3 decouple from the crypto circus and be its own thing? This is an interesting question and likely one with a lot of answers.
Here is Smooke’s take: ”Digital cash, free from government regulation, has a massive demand, and the technology's been there. IMHO public ledgers will be essential to the next version of the internet. Could there be a peer-to-peer public ledger that is more stable, safer, and uses less energy than all the current blockchains? Possibly.“
My take is that one of the main value propositions of Web3 and blockchain is that it allows the connection of value between content creation and consumption more directly and without the need to monetize via advertising.
Big box store version of the internet: Why do we need a post-corporate internet? Using the internet today is a lot like shopping at Wal-Mart. Through decentralization, the internet could become way more interesting and textured and customizable to individual user experiences. A big first step will be giving control and data ownership rights to the people producing the content that makes the internet hum on a daily basis. And maybe reducing platform risk and having better ways of monetizing internet content that feels more distributed and less exploitative will be a key component to slowing down the challenges of AI dominance.
Publish and perish: Publishing and creating content for the internet still hasn’t found a great model. It’s interesting that the main backbone of the internet, which is user-generated content, is still really unsustainable from the perspective of ownership and portability.
”When it comes to user generated content, there will always be tradeoffs between distribution of the content and control of the consumption experience. On the way up, I highly recommend content creators meet community wherever they already are. Once established, it's easy to become more picky about how you host and distribute. The web is so still so centralized right now. We'll be paying attention to whatever data ownership and content ownership laws our government's come up with next,” Smooke says.
For sure, people and publications have found ways to monetize their reach and influence through advertising. And in the past few years there’s been some interesting developments with the indie creator subscription model.
But the post, publish, pay model of the way internet content gets created is still very much an old school mass media model that was mapped to web back in the 1990s or early 2000s and has been lingering since.
The internet is dynamic and in some senses a societal reflecting pool
A couple of things underscored by HackerNoon’s Web 2.5:
First, the internet is changing all the time. It makes sense that the internet would be constantly evolving and going through different phases of growth or evolution.
So the discussion about which era we are in now is helpful in the sense that it helps clarify which part of the tech stack is going through changes (in the case of Web3, it’s generally about user control, ownership, non-custodial wallets, and accessible and interoperable decentralized servers).
Since the internet is a bit of a moving target anyway, maybe the whole “What is Web3?” business isn’t even helpful.
Second, the internet is not its own thing, it wouldn’t really exist by itself and/or without the constant feeding of people all around the planet. In some regards, that’s pretty fascinating. At other times, it’s a good reminder that the internet — with all its quirks and features, cohesiveness and rough edges — is really just a reflection of who we are right now.
Maybe there is something to the idea that we are stuck in limbo between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. Maybe we are still waiting for some sure shift to a new era and to finally move into the next phase of user-centric global coordination and organization.
The only thing that really seems like a sure thing is that we will keep hurdling rapidly into the future. Maybe we are able to finally tie up some loose ends in 2024, or maybe we still find ourselves in pursuit of the illusive.