Why I don’t believe in the Web3 narrative
Because I work on and around the Metaverse, people regularly ask me about Web3 and are quite surprised when I dismiss it as a fundamentally flawed and possibly dangerous ideology.
Wikipedia describes it as:
Web3 is an idea for a new iteration of the World Wide Web that incorporates decentralization based on Blockchains. It is often contrasted with Web 2.0, wherein data and content are centralized in a small group of companies sometimes referred to as "Big Tech".
It revolves around 2 core beliefs:
Why would this be bad?
How we got here
The web is fundamentally decentralized: Everybody can add their server to the web and distribute their content.
In the 90s we had lots of small websites with individual content as well as lots of forums where people got together to discuss and share. phpBB and Wordpress were a significant portion of web traffic. Forums, backlinks and link lists acted as manual content curation, eventually spawning platforms like Delicious (text) or Last.fm (audio). Finally, platforms emerged that brought together content hosting, discovery and monetarization. And now we call these companies “Big Tech” as they represent hugely influential quasi-monopolies.
This is how big tech became big: By solving issues with the decentralized nature of the web.
- Google = Finding content
- Facebook = Finding people
- Amazon = Finding things
Where Web3 wants to go
- A content creator adds their content file to a P2P file sharing network
- They also add a reference for their content to a Blockchain, which acts as a public registry of all the content in existence
- The registry can be infused with rules around ownership, usage, and monetarization via a Smart Contract
However, this is just a fancy (meaning: much more complicated) way of re-creating what we already have: It’s “A system to store and distribute content”, “A registry that holds information where your content is” and “Server-side application logic”, which is how the web works already. Blockchain in this scenario is fancy talk for Database, Smart Contract is the hipster term for Stored Procedure or Database Trigger. And P2P is… Well, remember Napster and BitTorrent?
As a content creator, it is expensive to put things on a blockchain and if they chose L2 or cheaper alternative chains then we’re back to square one with a fragmented ecosystem where the cheapest, most convenient network will emerge as the New Big Tech.
The ideas around how the Creator Economy might work are good with relatively well intentions, but articles correctly mention the problem with discovery and maintaining an audience. As an audience member I won’t query a Blockchain myself, I will use a frontend. It doesn’t matter if you call it “Website”, “Portal”, “App” or now: “Dapp” — same thing. If you own the biggest user base aka audience, you will emerge as the New Big Tech. This is what we see with central exchanges in crypto right now.
But mostly: Open data access doesn’t matter. As a European I can download all my data from any platform as part of the GDPR already. It’s a neat Zip file that doesn’t provide any benefit, because it doesn’t do anything by itself. Even interoperability doesn’t matter as much. It’s the features and dynamics of a platform that matter and that make Big Tech platforms so sticky. And those won’t be on chain, but neatly tucked away in controlled solutions because it’s going to be cheaper, faster and more convenient. And also controlled by the new players.
The only way this new proposed system can be used at scale is to imitate the system it’s replacing.
But in the minds of Web3 proponents, there are some fundamental differences, depending on their perspectives.
Who is pushing the Web3 narrative?
Anarchists and right-wing libertarians see Web3 as a way to create a system where no organization (private or public) owns or governs the registries or file systems, allowing them to do whatever they want without governance or oversight. They see big tech companies as an oppressive regime with “The People” at their mercy — whenever a user steps out of line (behaves against the TOS of the platform), they will get canceled. And so “The People” must get rid of such a system to be able to be free again! They read about Blockchains and interpret the censorship resistance as: “Nobody can take away my stuff!” and public ledgers as: “No central authority can tell me what to do!”
However reality dictates that you need rules and governance for a society or system to function. Especially systems that are inclusive by design and want to span countries, regions and cultures. Even crypto people are getting the idea.
Criminals love a system with little oversight and regulation, too. For example to be able to upload and monetize illegal content. Or sell illegal services and goods. We see this with Bitcoin enabling ransom payments, the Crypto scene enabling large scale financial fraud or P2P networks facilitating CSAM. Of course this group would love the next version of the web running on a platform that enables all that at massive scale. Preferably anonymized or at least pseudonymized.
But why would it be desirable to create a system that allows and incentivizes ransom, fraud and abuse at scale?
Investors are ecstatic about Web3 because it offers huge potential returns for relatively low investments. Assuming that new registries and content distribution networks come along, a new set of Big Tech companies will emerge (assuming that the current ones don’t get there first). After all they would need to solve the same problems around cost, convenience and discovery. The investors hope to create an environment where a new Google, Facebook or Amazon can exist.
Remember: The current Big Tech companies became big by solving issues with the decentralized nature of the web.
Criminals and opportunistic investors are backing the ideology for personal gain. They use their platform and money to drive and own the narrative around “The decentralized utopia that is Web3".
Technologists love inventing and solving technical challenges - and Blockchains, Smart Contracts and P2P networks are interesting problems to some. Especially since there is so much money being thrown around.
As I talk to people in the technology field, this group seems to be divided into two camps. Some want to look in the mirror and see themselves as the next Mark Zuckerberg or Ross Ulbricht. Others are excited about and want to innocently play with a fun, new technology. But they should be aware that right now the ideology, narrative and the money is defined by the other 3 groups above.
The evil within
There is no deeper meaning behind Web3. It really boils down to:
- I don’t like Big Tech for various reasons
- I like Blockchains for various reasons
My issue with this narrative is that both are linked together.
"I don’t want to be delisted from a monopolistic platform with systemic importance" or "I think Big Tech has too much influence, hinders innovation and objectifies people" are important and valid criticisms. But these are not technical concerns. They have nothing to do with Blockchains, Smart Contracts, P2P networks or abstract concepts like the Metaverse. They are social problems that require education, discussion, consensus, regulation and governance.
In other words, just because Facebook turned out to be a predatory business entity, doesn’t mean the Web itself is broken.
Technology can sometimes be used to offer a true alternative that can then be discussed, implemented and evaluated, but "Blockchain!" isn’t that. There is nothing fundamentally new here that would change the discussion, nothing new to evaluate.
We should absolutely rein in Big Tech with social rules & regulations and maybe break them up where agreeable. And if you like Blockchains, go ahead and work on finding use cases and solve its problems.
Both of those by themselves are fine. But I will not support a narrative that only Blockchains can solve Big Tech, and that this tokenized future will enable an utopia where everybody can do what they want at scale and somehow everything will be great again.
I don’t like the investor narrative and I certainly do not like the ideological narrative. We know what this is: My keys, my money, my property! Freedom of speech! No censorship! No central authority! No laws! New lands! I am in control! There is strong evidence how this will end and I don’t want any part in this performance.