I was there when the market crashed in March 2000. At the time, I was a Prologue grunt developer, hacking away at building my tiny part of the natural language processing (NLP) infrastructure that was but only a glint in someone’s eye at the time. The hacking was at the time already more than 40 years and going. Since then (20 years later) it has grown to power massive AI systems like the Amazon Echo, Google Assistant and the billions of daily transactions that we take for granted when we ask, speaking naturally, for the weather, a song, the score of our favorite team, or what have you.
So yes, I was there when that crash happened and the silliness and insanity that that crash washed off (although we didn’t understand it at the time), clearing the way for the next phase of the internet and the Web.
Reminders of the 1990s Innovation
But it was the pipes and the infrastructures and the learnings and the experiments and the failures from that amazing, zany, crazy, wacky decade of the '90s that made possible all that we now take for granted — from smartphones to videos to smart speakers to AirPods to the Podcasts that we can’t sleep without.
So, folks of my generation, those who actively participated in that wonderful madness, are experiencing a visceral sense of deja vu. Wild claims and naysayers, thrilling prospects and dark counter-visions, but instead of the brick-and-mortar baseline of the mid-'90s, our current baseline is our mature Web2-infused lifeworld. Being “off the grid” is an odd state that needs to be announced to others days if not weeks in advance, a state that cannot be sustained for more than a weekend, a long one at best, if one wishes to push the envelope.
Related Article: Stop Looking at Web3 With Web2 Eyes
What's Next for Web3?
Hence the challenge: While the delta between going from no-Web to Web1 or from Web1 to Web2 is significant, even obvious and relatively easy to grasp, going from Web2 to Web3 is apparently not.
But a brief pause to quickly define what the three iterations of the Web mean in general terms.
Web1 can be described as the state of the Web when the vast majority of those who surfed it were passive readers, while a very tiny number were creators of that content. The mission of Web1 was to enable those who had the means (usually universities) to create content, and those who had the means to look for such content (Yahoo, Altavista) and find it using an interface that did not require any knowledge other than clicking on links and perhaps (in rare occasions) filling out forms (Mosaic, Netscape).
With Web2, we went from a few passive readers looking for and reading documents, and fewer creators of such content, to a much larger number not only of readers but creators. Publishing blogs and websites by the intrepids (Blogger) were the first Web2 actions, along with curating content, podcasting and social media. It is during this phase that Application Programming Interfaces and the protocols that support them were born (REST, RPC, SOAP, XML, JSON, etc.).
The jumps from no-Web to Web1 to Web2 are therefore easy enough to grasp — at least in hindsight. We went from a very tiny minority creating and sharing information to a full on democratization and mainstreaming of creation and distribution. The purported non-linear jump from Web2 to Web3, however, is apparently harder to characterize.
Related Article: 4 Lessons for Marketers from the Web3 Craze
Can We Foresee Web3?
Or is it? Because, we all know that it’s very easy to see phases and milestones when one looks back. At the time, when we were in the middle of “evolving,” the Web was a new-fangled-thing, and the vast majority of people did not take it seriously, let alone see it for the seismic shift that it has turned out to be. This included Bill Gates, who published his 1995 book, The Road Ahead, without mentioning the Web at all, only to quickly fix the blunderous miss by tacking on a chapter on the Web in a hurried second edition.
Did we predict that we would order almost all of our stuff using the Web, that we would bank using the Web, that we would communicate with each other using the Web, that we would self-medicate using the Web, that we would learn using the Web, that we would find the solution to any of our problems? This includes how to extract a broken key by watching a YouTube video that someone posted — who knows why? In essence, live online?
No we didn’t. Not at all.
But the fact is that the future was already there, like the future is always here, except that, as William Gibson's famous saying goes, “it's just not evenly distributed" — yet.
I suspect that the same is taking place today.
What Web3's Really About
To begin understanding what Web3 is all about, digging into the technologies that purport to implement it — Blockchains, NFTs, DAOs, Defi, etc. — I discovered, is the wrong way to go about reaching such understanding. Doing so would be akin to diving into TCP/IP, HTTP, FTP, SMTP, or XML, to understand what Web1 or Web2 were all about. Instead, a more fruitful way perhaps is to enumerate the values, the principles and the goals of this coming phase, as well as the problems that we wish this new iteration to solve for us.
In a nutshell, here is what I have come to understand what Web3 to be about after engaging via phone and Zoom conversations, and email exchanges with more than two dozen Web3 experts and practitioners. Among other things, Web3 is about decentralization, frictionless transaction, collective and community base creation, ownership, access to meaning rather than simply to information, creation of meaning rather than just information, and security and privacy.
In the second and final article of this series, I will share some of my findings after speaking with more than two dozen Web3 experts and practitioners and share some concrete examples of already existing Web3 and what we can look forward to.