You can safely ignore Web3

The tech visionaries are bickering over Web3.

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted last week that the Web3 idea is not a force for democratizing the web, but instead a tool of the venture capitalists. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen blocked him on Twitter. Elon Musk said that Web3 is just marketing hype and he doesn’t understand it.

Web3 is everywhere. And yet few understand what it’s all about.

That makes sense. The concept is vague and confusing, and even proponents disagree about what Web3 is.

Web1 (formerly known as Web 1.0) was the internet from the beginning to around 2004, and Web2 (a.ka. Web 2.0) was from around 2004 to the present. Web2 has enabled massive person-to-person interaction — social, commercial, political — mostly mediated by big companies with ultimate control over those interactions aiming to profit from users through surveillance capitalism — the monetization of personal data.

Web3 (coined by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood in 2014) is easily confused with Web 3.0, the “semantic web.”

Others lump in the equally nebulous “metaverse” idea into the Web3 mix.

Yes, it’s confusing. But a clear definition is possible: In general, Web3 is a possible future internet where all data and content is registered on blockchains, tokenized, or managed and accessed on peer-to-peer distributed networks in order to democratize the internet, put power into the hands of content creators, and take away control from governments and corporations.

(If that mission sounds familiar, it should. That was the idea behind the original internet, with its internet protocol and domain name system. The decentralized nature of the internet was supposed to erase borders and put power in the hands of users. Remember? If not, here’s what John Perry Barlow wrote in 1996.)

Web3 sounds like a great idea, especially to cryptocurrency enthusiasts, techno libertarians, and venture capitalists looking to place the next big bet.

Why Web3 is irrelevant

You’re reading this, which means you’re a technology professional. As part of your work, you need to know what’s happening in technology now, and in the future. But with each passing year, the biggest buzzwords point to increasingly vacuous ideas. So, reader beware.

The two biggest buzzwords in tech right now — the “metaverse” and “Web3” — describe platforms that don’t exist, aren’t expected to exist even by boosters for a decade at least, and probably will never exist.

Of the 100 top concerns for tech pros, Web3 is 101.

Don’t get me wrong. Blockchains, NFTs, distributed networks, cryptocurrencies and related concepts matter. But Web3 does not.

People aren’t talking about Web3 because it’s happening or going to happen. They’re doing so because they’re part of that minority with an ideological commitment to blockchains and the ideals of Web3 — or they hope to make boatloads of money.

Because tech companies that make the right early bets can achieve multi-trillion dollar valuations (Apple could hit $3 trillion within weeks) and individual tech visionaries can be worth hundreds of billions of dollars (Elon Musk’s net worth is $253.8 billion), an intense competition has emerged to get in front of the Next Big Thing pushing the boundaries of credulity.

Web3 proponents will tell you that existing digital assets based on the Ethereum blockchain are the beginnings of Web3. But that’s the Silicon Valley marketing impulse at work — always tie your little investment to some impossibly grand scheme. (That’s why Musk doesn’t just say he’ll one day send a rocket to Mars — he’ll send a million people to Mars within 28 years.) Silicon Valley investors can’t help themselves.

The truth is that it will prove basically impossible to get universal buy-in by users, companies, and others into a blockchain-based internet. Set wishful thinking aside and look at the revealed preference of web users.

We already have decentralized social networks like Mastodon that offer users an alternative to the social networks owned by big companies. But the public largely ignores them and chooses instead to spend all their time on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and, in China, WeChat.

And it’s unlikely that blockchain will attract a majority of users, either, or solve the problems plaguing today’s internet. Blockchain has been proposed as a foundational technology for tracking news back to its source, for example, thereby authenticating it and enabling readers to avoid news from shady sources.

Unfortunately, the problem with fake news is that many news consumers don’t care where the news comes from, or actually prefer news from what you and I would consider disreputable sources. Many, for example, would use blockchain authentication technology to block news from the New York Times and The Atlantic, and instead get all their information from 4chan.

The problem with fake news today, and in the future, is that huge swaths of the population has been tricked into believing that real news is fake news and fake news is real news. Blockchain authentication can’t help.

The big tech gatekeeper companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and others aren’t going to sign up to be replaced by Web3 applications and services. So that’s a hurdle.

Dorsey has a point, too. The VCs investing in what they call Web3 startups want those small companies to become big companies, all based on the idea that Web3 won’t be controlled by big companies.

Web3 advocates have all kinds of optimistic ideas that involve everyone’s participation. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) are formed by users, each of whom own a stake in the company. DAO enthusiasts brag that they’re getting tons of investment. But investors will want their pound of flesh. They’re investing to make tons of money. They’ll make tons of money by using the power of their investment ownership to steer those companies toward profits, not by handing control to users.

Web3 advocates want to model the entire web after the Bitcoin world. But Bitcoin itself is far from egalitarian. A new study from Baystreet found that roughly 0.01% of Bitcoin holders control 27% of all Bitcoin in circulation. In other words, as Baystreet points out, the Bitcoin economy is far less egalitarian than the dollar economy.

Why Web3 probably won’t happen

It’s one thing to have blockchain-based and tokenized services running on the web. It’s an entirely different thing to replace the existing infrastructure. The former is inevitable. The latter, improbable.

I’m not attacking or defending the goals of Web3, or the proposed underlying technologies. I’m just saying that the goals are borderline impossible to achieve, and the underlying technologies will exist without the web evolving into Web3. I’m saying I haven’t learned anything about Web3 that makes it even remotely appealing to everyday users, who actually do want the internet controlled by gatekeepers and governments. Its unclear how, on a Web3 decentralized web, users would be protected from crime and harassment, for example.

As with all faulty predictions, human nature is not being accounted for here. It turns out people don’t want to take their food in pill form.

The bottom line is that, despite the chatter, Web3 isn’t happening. And you can safely ignore it.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.