Blockchain. Cryptocurrency. Ethereum. NFTs. DAOs. Smart Contracts. web3. It’s impossible to avoid the blockchain hype machine these days, but it’s often just as difficult to decipher what it all means.
On top of that, discourse around web3 is extremely polarising: everyone involved is very keen to a) pick a team, and b) get you to join their team. If you haven’t picked a team, you must be secretly with the other team.
Max Read made a compelling argument that the web3 debate is in fact two different debates:
But, OK, what is the root disagreement, exactly? The way I read it there are two broad “is web3 bullshit?” debates, not just one, centered around the following questions:
Can the blockchain do anything that other currently existing technology cannot do and/or do anything better or more efficiently than other currently existing technology?
Will the blockchain form the architecture of the internet of the future (i.e. “web3”), and/or will blockchain-native companies and organizations become important and powerful?Max Read — Is web3 bullshit?
I’m inclined to agree with Max’s analysis here: there’s a technical question, and there’s a business/cultural question. It’s hard to separate the two when every day sees new headlines about millions of dollars being stolen or scammed; or thousands of people putting millions of dollars into highly optimistic ventures. There are extreme positives and extreme negatives happening all the time in the web3 world.
With that in mind, I want to take a step back from the day-to-day excitement of cryptocurrency and web3, and look at some of the driving philosophies espoused by the movement.
Philosophies of web3
There are a lot of differing viewpoints on web3, every individual has a slightly different take on it. There are three broad themes that stand out, however.
Blockchain-based technology is inherently distributed (with some esoteric caveats, but we can safely ignore them for now). In a world where the web centres around a handful of major services, where we’ve seen the harm that the likes of Facebook and YouTube can inflict on society, it’s not surprising that decentralisation would be a powerful theme drawing in anyone looking for an alternative.
Decentralisation isn’t new to the Internet, of course: it’s right there in the name. This giant set of “interconnected networks” has been decentralised from the very beginning. It’s not perfect, of course: oppressive governments can take control of the borders of their portion of the Internet, and we’ve come to rely on a handful of web services to handle the trickier parts of using the web. But fundamentally, that decentralised architecture is still there. I can still set up a web site hosted on my home computer, which anyone in the world could access.
I don’t do that, however, for the same reason that web3 isn’t immune from centralised services: Centralisation is convenient. Just as we have Facebook, or Google, or Amazon as giant centralised services on the current web, we can already see similar services appearing for web3. For payments, Coinbase has established itself as a hugely popular place exchange cryptocurrencies and traditional currencies. For NFTs, OpenSea is the service where you’ll find nearly every NFT collection. MetaMask keeps all of your crypto-based keys, tokens, and logins in a single “crypto wallet”.
While web3 proponents give a lot of credence to the decentralised nature of cryptocurrency being a driver of popularity, I’m not so sure. At best, I’m inclined to think that decentralisation is table stakes these days: you can’t even get started as a global movement without a strong commitment to decentralisation.
But if decentralisation isn’t the key, what is?
When we talk about ownership in web3, NFTs are clearly the flavour of the month, but recent research indicates that the entire NFT market is massively artificially inflated.
Rather than taking pot-shots at the NFT straw man, I think it’s more interesting to look at the idea of ownership in terms of attribution. The more powerful element of this philosophy isn’t about who owns something, it’s who created it. NFTs do something rather novel with attribution, allowing royalty payments to the original artist every time an NFT is resold. I love this aspect: royalties shouldn’t just be for movie stars, they should be for everyone.
Comparing that to the current web, take the 3 paragraphs written by Max Read that I quoted above. I was certainly under no technical obligation to show that it was a quote, to attribute it to him, or to link to the source. In fact, it would have been easier for me to just paste his words into this post, and pretend they were my own. I didn’t, of course, because I feel an ethical obligation to properly attribute the quote.
In a world where unethical actors will automatically copy/paste your content for SEO juice (indeed, I expect this blog post to show up on a bunch of these kinds of sites); where massive corporations will consume everything they can find about you, in order to advertise more effectively to you, it’s not at all surprising that people are looking for a technical solution for taking back control of their data, and for being properly attributed for their creations.
That’s not to say that existing services discourage attribution: a core function of Twitter is retweets, a core function of Tumblr is reblogging. WordPress still supports trackbacks, even if many folks turn them off these days.
These are all blunt instruments, though, aimed at attributing an entire piece, rather than a more targeted approach. What I’d really like is a way to easily quote and attribute a small chunk of a post: 3 paragraphs (or blocks, if you want to see where I’m heading 😉), inserted into my post, linking back to where I got them from. If someone chooses to quote some of this post, I’d love to receive a pingback just for that quote, so it can be seen in the right context.
The functionality provide by Twitter and Tumblr is less of a technologically-based enforcement of attribution, and more of an example of paving the cow path: by and large, people want to properly attribute others, providing the tools to do so can easily become a fundamental part of how any software is used.
These tools only work so long as there’s an incentive to use them, however. web3 certainly provides the tools to attribute others, but much like SEO scammers copy/pasting blog posts, the economics of the NFT bubble is clearly a huge incentive to ignore those tools and ethical obligations, to the point that existing services have had to build additional features just to detect this abuse.
With every major blockchain also being a cryptocurrency, monetisation is at the heart of the entire web3 movement. Every level of the web3 tech stack involves a cryptocurrency-based protocol. This naturally permeates through the entire web3 ecosystem, where money becomes a major driving factor for every web3-based project.
And so, it’s impossible to look at web3 applications without also considering the financial aspect. When you have to pay just to participate, you have to ask whether every piece of content you create is “worth it”.
Again, let’s go back to the 3 paragraphs I quote above. In a theoretical web3 world, I’d publish this post on a blockchain in some form or another, and that act would also likely include noting that I’d quoted 3 blocks of text attributed to Max Read. I’d potentially pay some amount of money to Max, along with the fees that every blockchain charges in order to perform a transaction. While this process is potentially helpful to the original author at a first glance, I suspect the second and third order effects will be problematic. Having only just clicked the Publish button a few seconds earlier, I’m already some indeterminate amount of money out of pocket. Which brings me back to the question, is this post “worth it”? Will enough people tip/quote/remix/whatever me, to cover the cost of publishing? When every creative work must be viewed through a lens of financial impact, it fundamentally alters that creative process.
Ultimately, we live in a capitalist society, and everyone deserves the opportunity to profit off their work. But by baking monetisation into the underlying infrastructure of web3, it becomes impossible to opt-out. You either have the money to participate without being concerned about the cost, or you’re going to need to weigh up every interaction by whether or not you can afford it.
Web3 Philosophies in WordPress
After breaking it all down, we can see that it’s not all black-and-white. There are some positive parts of web3, and some negative parts. Not that different to the web of today, in fact. 🙂 That’s not to say that either approach is the correct one: instead, we should be looking to learn from both, and produce something better.
I’ve long been a proponent of leveraging the massive install base of WordPress to provide distributed services to anyone. Years ago, I spoke about an idea called “Connected WordPress” that would do exactly that. While the idea didn’t gain a huge amount of traction at the time, the DNA of the Connected WordPress concept shares a lot of similar traits to the decentralised nature of web3.
I’m a big fan of decentralised technologies as a way for individuals to claw back power over their own data from the governments and massive corporations that would prefer to keep it all centralised, and I absolutely think we should be exploring ways to make the existing web more resistant to censorship.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that there are certainly benefits to centralisation. As long as people have the freedom to choose how and where they participate, and centralised services are required to play nicely with self hosted sites, is there a practical difference?
I quite like how Solid allows you have it both ways, whilst maintaining control over your own data.
Here’s the thing about attribution: you can’t enforce it with technology alone. Snapchat have indirectly demonstrated exactly this problem: in order to not lose a message, people would screenshot or record the message on their phone. In response, Snapchat implemented a feature to notify the other party when you screenshot a message from them. To avoid this, people will now use a second phone to take a photo or video of the message. While this example isn’t specifically about attribution, it demonstrates the problem that there’s no way to technologically restrict how someone interacts with content that you’ve published, once they’ve been granted access.
Instead of worrying about technical restrictions, then, we should be looking at how attribution can be made easier.
IndieWeb is a great example of how this can be done in a totally decentralised fashion.
I’m firmly of the opinion that monetisation of the things you create should be opt-in, rather than opt-out.
Modern society is currently obsessed with monetising everything, however. It comes in many different forms: hustle culture, side gigs, transforming hobbies into businesses, meme stocks, and cryptocurrencies: they’re all symptoms of this obsession.
I would argue that, rather than accepting as fait accompli that the next iteration of the web will be monetised to the core, we should be pushing back against this approach. Fundamentally, we should be looking to build for a post scarcity society, rather than trying to introduce scarcity where there previously was none.
While we work towards that future, we should certainly be easier for folks to monetise their work, but the current raft of cryptocurrencies just aren’t up to the task of operating as… currencies.
What Should You Do?
Well, that depends on what your priorities are. The conversations around web3 are taking up a lot of air right now, so it’s possible to get the impression web3 will be imminently replacing everything. It’s important to keep perspective on this, though. While there’s a lot of money in the web3 ecosystem right now, it’s dwarfed by the sheer size of the existing web.
If you’re excited about the hot new tech, and feeling inspired by the ideas espoused in web3 circles? Jump right in! I’m certain you’ll find something interesting to work on.
Always wanted to get into currency speculation, but didn’t want to deal with all those pesky “regulations” and “safeguards”? Boy howdy, are cryptocurrencies or NFTs the place for you. (Please don’t pretend that this paragraph is investment advice, it is nothing of the sort.)
Want to continue building stuff on the web, and you’re willing to learn new things when you need them, but are otherwise happy with your trajectory? Just keep on doing what you’re doing. Even if web3 does manage to live up to the hype, it’ll take a long time for it to be adopted by the mainstream. You’ll have years to adapt.
There are some big promises associated with web3, many of which sound very similar to the promises that were made around web 2.0, particularly around open APIs, and global interoperability. We saw what happened when those kinds of tools go wrong, and web3 doesn’t really solve those problems. It may exacerbate them in some ways, since it’s impossible to delete your data from a blockchain.
That said, (and I say this as a WordPress Core developer), just because a particular piece of software is not the optimal technical solution doesn’t mean it won’t become the most popular. Market forces can be a far stronger factor that technical superiority. There are many legitimate complaints about blockchain (including performance, bloat, fit for purpose, and security) that have been levelled against WordPress in the past, but WordPress certainly isn’t slowing down. I’m not even close to convinced that blockchain is the right technology to base the web on, but I’ve been doing this for too long to bet everything against it.
As for me, well… 😄
I remain sceptical of web3 as it’s currently defined, but I think there’s room to change it, and to adopt the best bits into the existing web. Web 1.0 didn’t magically disappear when Web 2.0 rolled in, it adapted. Maybe we’ll look back in 10 years and say this was a time when the web fundamentally changed. Or, maybe we’ll refer to blockchain in the same breath as pets.com, and other examples from the dotcom boom of the 1990’s.
This quote was originally referring to Usenet, but it’s stayed highly relevant in the decades since. I think it applies here, too: if the artificial scarcity built into web3 behaves too much like censorship, preventing people from sharing what they want to share, the internet (or, more accurately, the billions of people who interact with the internet) will just… go around it. It won’t all be smooth sailing, but we’ll continue to experiment, evolve, and adapt as it changes.
Personally, I think now is a great time for us to be embracing the values and ideals of projects like Solid, and IndieWeb. Before web3 referred to blockchains, it was more commonly used in reference to the Semantic Web, which is far more in line with WordPress’ ideals, whilst also matching many of the values prioritised by the new web3. As a major driver of the Open Web, WordPress can help people own their content in a sustainable way, engage with others on their own terms, and build communities that don’t depend on massive corporations or hand-wavy magical tech solutions.
Don’t get too caught up in the drama of whatever is the flavour of the month. I’m optimistic about the long term resilience of the internet, and I think you should be, too. 🥳