Tech loves to talk about the future, and if you’ve been paying any attention to recent industry headlines, you’ve probably seen the phrase “Web3” bandied about. It’s not a new term, but as the hype around cryptocurrency, NFTs, and the “metaverse” spikes, Web3 is getting a lot more attention. And while Web3 is inextricably tied to those trendy buzzwords, there’s more to the proposed new web standard than just monkey JPGs and crypto mining — it could also make the internet more open, more anonymous, and more reliable.
At least, that’s the hope. There’s been a lot of hype around Web3 and the associated technologies that will ostensibly enable this better version of the world wide web to function. Some of that buzz is legitimate, no doubt. Some of it is also squarely in the “too good to be true” category.
What is Web3 and why do we need it?
Just as Web2.0 was a collection of technological and regulatory changes that overhauled the internet as it was in the early 2000s into what we know it as today, Web3 seeks to make important changes to the way we connect and communicate on the web.
The original version of the internet, which we now call “Web 1.0,” was pretty simple. Monolithic social media websites and search engines were nonexistent, and almost no one could hope to generate money or garner fame by simply posting online. Simply connecting to the internet was kind of hard, not to mention designing, hosting, and running a website. For the most part, the internet was a collection of a bunch of tiny websites and blogs, and users gathered on disparate message boards and in chat rooms based around specific interests.
Then Web 2.0 came along, making it easier to get online, connect with others, and create content able to reach large audiences. Much of this content was centralised on specific platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or Patreon, even as hosting your own website became cheaper thanks to companies like WordPress and GoDaddy. The downside to this openness is its reliance on big companies and their servers: If those platforms go down, you can’t access the content or connect with other users. It also means these companies can harvest user data to sell ads and “control” the content on their platforms as they see fit. This goes beyond issues of “censorship” or “deplatforming”; Meta (née Facebook) has been under fire from the US government for prioritising ad revenue above safety and truth — even after the platform has been shown to be an excellent incubator for widespread election conspiracies and COVID-19 misinformation, and host to human traffickers and domestic terrorists.
Web3 aims to fix the issues inherent in both Web 1.0 and 2.0 by creating a decentralized internet that is easily accessible to everyone, while respecting their privacy and anonymity. Decentralization and online anonymity are, in general, good things that most people want. It’s why some already do what they can to ditch Google, Facebook, and Apple and find open source alternatives to the products these giant companies own.
But how will Web3 get us to this more open, egalitarian internet?
How Web3 technology works
Like most computing trends these days, much of the Web3 vision is based on blockchain technology. The blockchain is basically a decentralized network built on peer-to-peer connections. Every device on the network handles a tiny portion of the computation and communication happening on the network, creating a server-less online network.
Peer-to-peer networking like the blockchain allows for server-less communication between users. We’ve already seen this in action via the so-called mesh apps used for peer-to-peer-based messaging that kept activists connected during the Hong Kong protests without jeopardizing their anonymity, since there is no centralised server facilitating their connection to one another.
You can also use peer-to-peer connections to decentralize online content. Instead of connecting to a server where websites are hosted, each user’s computer stores a bit of the data on their device. This is similar to how bittorrent downloads work, and some browsers are already experimenting with the technology. If implemented at a global scale, you could theoretically eliminate the need for centralised servers altogether.
While the possibilities of peer-to-peer communication are exciting, the blockchain is thus far best known for powering cryptocurrency and NFTs, both of which are important Web3 technologies in their own right. Many people (rightly) see NFTs and crypto as temporary “tech bro” distractions at best, or outright scams at worst. However, there are examples of NFTs and cryptocurrencies being used in ways that are beneficial to artists and general users.
For example, NFTs could allow you to sell or trade digital goods you’ve purchased, since you could prove it’s an authentic purchase — like selling a digital copy of a PC game you bought on Steam to your friend. It could also remove artists’ reliance on centralised platforms to sell their work: Musicians could use NFTs to sell access to their music, for example, rather than uploading it to Spotify. Other proposed uses of NFTs include safer, more anonymous login authentication and even making the hiring process near-instantaneous.
The most ambitious Web3 project is the “metaverse” concept. The metaverse is envisioned as a virtual space where users will ostensibly interact with online content and each other in real-time, often in VR and/or AR environments. The idea has been around in speculative sci-fi for decades and is now getting a major push by Mark Zuckerberg (hence that company name change), but there are numerous companies trying to make the metaverse a reality.
Is the hype real?
It’s easy to get excited by the on-paper potential of Web3 technology, but it’s important to remember these plans are thus far are aspirational, and hardly guaranteed. Many Web3 evangelists are financially invested in its success, rather than unbiased observers witnessing a revolutionary new standard.
The problem is, the hype around Web3 subsists on promissory notes — what blockchain computing “could” enable, how NFTs “might’’ be used. Much of the promised tech simply doesn’t exist yet — or if it does, it has yet to be properly implemented.
That doesn’t mean Web3 is snake oil, but the eventual reality may look a lot different than how it’s currently envisioned. We’ve already seen Web3 promises fall short and pivot to more attainable goals: Blockchain technology was originally envisioned as a way to create a decentralized “world computer” that would connect everyone to a massive, server-less network, but has now pivoted to mostly powering cryptocurrency and NFT transactions. These transactions are incredibly expensive and require massive amounts of energy to process, which has demonstrably destructive effects on the environment.
The NFT/crypto rush is also arguably playing a major role in the current chip shortage plaguing the consumer hardware industry. Proponents counter that once it’s properly to scale, the blockchain will no longer be a resource hog, but that’s yet another blue sky promise to add to the list.
For now, the general public remains sceptical or ignorant of NFTs and cryptocurrencies. Platform holders like Google and Apple have cracked down on cryptomining apps, and the industry has attracted the suspicions of government agencies in the US and around the world. The backlash is strong enough that many companies are pausing the use of NFTs and related technologies altogether.
Yet, despite these setbacks, Web3 still has momentum.
Chances are at some point, blockchain, NFT, crypto, and even metaverse-adjacent features will slowly make their way into the browsers, apps, and devices we use every day. When that happens, we’ll be firmly in the “Web3” era, and hopefully have more freedom, anonymity, and agency over our lives online than we do today — but exactly how much more remains to be seen.