Imagine boarding an airplane to go on a weekend trip. You arrive, but you have no bags. Not because they were lost, but because you aren’t allowed to bring anything. Fine. Upon arriving, you buy a change of clothes and a toothbrush. Over the weekend, you buy a few souvenirs. When you get to the airport, change back into your original clothes, and leave your new belongings behind. You also aren’t allowed to bring your things back home in this world. How come? Because you can only use the things you buy where you buy them. What sort of dystopian place is this? It is the current internet.
As we move around the internet: logging in to social media, buying something online, chatting with family, checking your email, we do so with separate accounts, separate passwords, and possibly separate identities. If you have a community or reputation in one place, it doesn’t appear in another. From gamers making in-game purchases to influencers with massive followings to casual browsers just trying to remember that site’s password, any internet user has experienced the disconnection of our worldwide web.
How did it get to be this way? Let’s look at a brief history of the internet. The early days of the modern internet in the 1990s are now considered Web 1.0. The early web democratized access to information. Information flowed freely, but there weren’t easy ways of navigating it. The web was disorganized and overwhelming.
Web 2.0 started in the mid-2000s. Then, platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter emerged to bring order to the internet by making it easy to connect and transact online.
Web 3.0 (Web3) is starting now and is an umbrella term for new ways of interacting with the internet with new incentives. It means that we might move away from navigating the web by logging onto the likes of Facebook, Google, or Twitter, and instead logging on with a single identity.
But it’s more than the simplicity of a single login. If Web 1.0 is summarized as most people passively consuming content, and Web 2.0 is the social web where people create content, then Web3 is about creating and owning their content.
Imagine each time you upload a photo to a website getting paid, having the opportunity to sell the image, or becoming a partial owner of that site. Imagine starting a podcast, writing a song, or making a video, and having a direct monetization from that, rather than relying on ad revenue. Imagine finding a group of like-minded individuals, creating something with them, and collectively owning the outputs. Of course, these possible futures don’t align with Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, or any Web2 business models. Instead, the idea of digital ownership — owning your images, words, ideas — enables small groups of people to work together because of incentives.
Web3 is the blockchain technology that allows individuals to own digital goods at its core. How did this start? First, you need digital internet-native money. Enter cryptocurrency, bitcoin, and the others that have followed. Instead of banks ensuring that your credits and debits match, internet money is on a decentralized ledger that anyone can see. So now we have web-native money, which means you have a new currency to buy and sell things. When that happens, those records are also on the same ledger. What things can you buy? Today, it’s mainly digital web-native things. Virtual equipment, skins, and property in games. Digital art. And when you want to sell your digital assets? You get digital money, which you can trade for real-life money on an exchange. As you use real-life money (fiat) to buy internet money, the cycle continues.
What's possible today represents classic skeuomorphic thinking. We’re at the stage where we’re simply replacing the real-life experience with a digital experience. When computers were invented, or when Web2 started, no one could imagine the possibilities. The idea of carrying around a device in your pocket that has access to all the world’s knowledge was unimaginable in the early 1990s. That’s where we’re at with Web3 — new technology is enabling a creative Cambrian explosion where we cannot yet imagine the use cases for these new capabilities.
Web3 is not financial speculation, crypto, or decentralized finance (DeFi). Web3 started with and gets the most press on these topics because native internet money changes digital ownership. But, the key idea with Web3 is not ownership, per se. Instead, Web3 is about incentivizing. When individual incentives align within a group, amazing things are possible.
In a way, Web3 offers a set of tools that can align incentives in ways that allow groups to tap into their collective genius. Web3 is a toolkit for conjuring scenius. Indeed, scenius emerges when a group is motivated, either through a culture of cooperation, through competition, or when incentives align. Web3 empowers individuals, by sharing value with the creators, instead of company owners and investors alone.
New technology doesn’t mean doomsday for Web2, just like you can still find refreshingly un-social websites. Indeed, a place for Web2 and Web3 will likely co-exist.
But the Web3 excitement is around building an entirely new platform. The iPhone enabled new gestures, new ways of interacting with a device, and a new OS for developers to create upon. Most uses cases for Web3 can not even be imagined yet. But entirely new infrastructure will facilitate experiments and innovations. Something is happening on the internet. Pack your bags and your toothbrush.