What was surprising to me about the Web3 experts and practitioners that I spoke with is how allergic they all were to speaking in inflated terms. My surprise is clearly a reflection of the overall skeptical Zeitgeist over the whole Web3 project, absorbed even by someone like me who comes to Web3 with a sympathetic disposition.
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series looking into the future of Web3. Part 1, What Will Web3 Really Be About: Part 1, published earlier this month.
Experts Weigh in on Web3 Skepticism
"Folks are turned off by the hype and the noise,” Shannon Wu, co-founder at Identity Review, told me in a Zoom interview. “But when I share a lot of the stories of what it was like years ago when the very earliest Web3 companies were starting,” she added, “I think they see a lot of parallels with when the Internet first started around individual rights, scalability, privacy, thinking about user rights."
Olivia Baker, Tech Editor and Director of Web3 Innovation Fellowship, also at Identity Review, noted on her part that, "if you peel away the muck and you really give [people] facts... it's actually quite easy to use that specific evidence to convince them... that there is actually validity in this particular way to look at systems." This, she noted, works “even within a university environment where a lot of people... are inherently skeptical of things like blockchain, Web3, all these concepts that sound very nebulous at first…”
Related Article: What Will Web3 Really Be About: Part 1
Web3: Separation of Money and State?
Asked what they thought about William Gibson's famous saying about the future already being here with us now in the context of Web3, several experts that I spoke with agreed and provided some insightful and interesting examples and observations.
Drew Riester, Blockchain engineer at ARRIVANT, made the wonderfully surprising observation that we are witnessing the emergence of “a separation of Money and State,” and added that, if successful, such a separation might “be as important as the separation of Church and State that Martin Luther began in 1512.”
Manuel Urrego, head of product at Viker, pointed to The NFL’s Green Bay Packers, the only sports team that is owned by their fans. David Shuttleworth, DeFi economist at ConsenSys, agreed and noted that the Packers example “represents the potential of fractionalized ownership, which could be achieved through an NFT system.”
Wikipedia: The Ultimate Web3 Example?
But it was Zenobia Godschalk, founder of ZAG Communications and SVP at Swirlds Labs, whose mission is to drive adoption of the Hedera distributed public ledger for decentralized applications, who brought things home to me by pointing to what I have always believed to be nothing short of a miracle in the shining hills of the Web landscape: Wikipedia.
Here we have a website whose content is created by everyone but owned by no one, where no central overseer runs the show, and where value is delivered for free and for everybody. How such a marvel could have been imagined in the first place, let alone built, sustained, and nurtured for so long to a thriving ecosystem for over two decades (we now have not just Wikipedia but Wikimedia) has always struck me as something almost inexplicable in our deeply capitalistic society and economy, where, if you can’t monetize it, it will die.
And yet, I must confess that I have not donated once to this marvel that I have admired since the very first time I started using it in early 2001, even when I am asked to donate. Shame on me. Can Web3 help me be more true to my values?
"Every time you go to Wikipedia there's the banner across the top where they are begging you for money,” Godschalk said to my vigorous nods of agreement, and added: “If you apply the Web3 elements and you can say, ‘Great, now I can pay a micropayment every time I read an article,’ and that helps support the distributed infrastructure that runs Wikipedia….’”
Related Article: Stop Looking at Web3 With Web2 Eyes
Open Source Model: Getting More Open in Web3?
Brady Gentile, also at Swirlds Labs as director of marketing and Web3 ecosystems strategy, pointed to another miracle of the Web: Open Source. “Open source has always existed,” he noted when we spoke, “and a lot of the open source software is incorporated in the operating systems and the applications that [we] use today.”
But, he added, “historically, it has been incredibly difficult to create a business around open source models. Most of the successful ones have to [use a] services model, and Red Hat was probably one of the very few open source companies. Today, you have open source and it is ubiquitous in Web3 — it's a layer 1 network, Defi protocol, an exchange, a marketplace…. The difference is now we have the ability to have assets that are associated with those open source projects, so a contributor has the incentive because they are passionate about building and contributing to those open source projects, but additionally, there is an incentive model for them where typically they are token holders of the token associated with that project and as they build and as they create value for it.”
Look No Further Than Google Docs
Ian Brent, Web3 growth manager at UppticWeb3, shared with me a really good example to explain in terms that everyone can understand the otherwise mystifying concept of the “immutable blockchain” and what it means for someone to follow every transaction that, say, an NFT may have undergone: Google Docs! “You collaborate with all of your teammates and can review any and all revisions for a complete historical record of ins and outs of the sheet.”
Other examples cited by the Web3 experts and practitioners that I engaged include the following:
- Online Payments: Certainly not decentralized, but we are now able to move at the speed of the digital: I can pay using PayPal or enter my credit card safely, and have my account activated immediately.
- The Google Answer Box and Conversational Voicebots (Apple Siri/Amazon Echo/Google Assistant): These would stand for the beginning of the Semantic Web. I can now ask a question such as "Why were Corn Flakes invented?" Or "Is it safe to eat wild onions," and get back pithy answers rather than documents to wade through.
- Signal, Telegram: These enable me to communicate securely.
- Paywalls: Paying for the value that I want to consume (The Washington Post, the New York Times, Spotify, Netflix) rather than selling my information via Ads.
Related Article: Power Dynamics Shift: How Web3 Will Reshape the Attention Economy
Taking Control of Digital Assets and Attributes
Of course, none of the above, as currently served, fully realizes all, or even most, of the aspirations of Web3 in its full glory. They are all still resting on the Web2 stack whose underlying architecture (servers, private centers of power, egregious power consumption) are clearly not adequate to deliver what we want more of, and do so on a scalable and sustainable basis.
Nevertheless, the promise itself of Web3 is something thrilling and exhilarating and clearly delineates the outlines of a horizon that we wish to move towards. But, as Raunak Singh, Blockchain engineer at Mimo, noted: “I agree with the William Gibson quote, but I think the reason why the future is not evenly distributed is that the newly developed tech solves some problems much better than others.”
Cryptocurrency, which is the one Web3 technology that has penetrated the mainstream’s consciousness the most deeply, is undoubtedly here to stay. Even up-to-now-stalwart detractors of the technology are starting to soften, while tech giants, whom one might imagine may be demurring over the emergence of a far more decentralized tech ecosystem than we have been used to for the last two decades, are embracing Web3.
As Bertrand Portier, principal at Google Cloud Web3 and Digital Assets, wrote me in answer to the question I had sent him about what, in his own words, is the promise of Web3: "The promise of Web3 is a decentralized and transparent world that allows individuals and organizations to prosper by taking control of their digital assets and attributes."
But beyond mainstreaming Crypto, another technology that is surely here to stay with us are smart contracts.
“While inherently complex,” observed David Shuttleworth of ConsenSys, “even at a very fundamental level the prospect of direct, peer-to-peer interactions that are publicly auditable, fully transparent, and which remove the need for a third-party, is a tremendously attractive proposition. And this is exactly what smart contracts achieve.”
Web3: Work is Underway Already
As things stand, the Blockchains and the Cryptocurrencies on top of them, the CeFi and the DeFi stacks, the Dapp and DAO platforms, along with their Smart Contracts and their NFTs, are all in a state rickety imperfection, full of gaping holes and at times nearly absurd irrationality (how can one really talk about breaking free from a centralized paradigm when one hosts their NFTs under the banner of an OpenSea or a Rarible, both no less central and controlled than any marketplace that braces the current Web landscape?). But something clearly is happening — something that I have no doubt is both wonderful and at the same time dangerous.
Understanding what that something is exactly will be key. We need to build the tools we need. We need to iterate our thinking and re-think to bring into increasingly clearer focus where we want to go and why we want to get there. We need to understand the nature of the challenges we face as we fail and fail again in our attempts before something tracks for real.
That is what we should be working hard on right now, not unthinkingly hyping, and certainly not thoughtlessly pillorying. The good news is that such work is well underway.