It’s become something of a buzzword in recent months, but was does Web3 actually mean? We explore the vision of Web3 proponents, as well as outlining some of the criticisms it has drawn.
In basic terms, Web3 imagines a future iteration of the world wide web that involves decentralized networks and relies on blockchain technology. It can be seen as a reaction to the current version of the internet, known as Web 2.0, which is centralized and dominated by a handful of big corporations. Those who believe in Web3 argue that it is the democratic future of the internet.
Web 1.0 was simply the first version of the world wide web that was publicly available, invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and released in 1991. It was very basic, but allowed users to publish and read content on individual static webpages and was open source for all to use.
Web 2.0 is the second generation of the world wide web, first referred to in 1999 and popularised in 2004. It refers to changes in the way web pages are made and used, allowing users to interact and collaborate with one another rather than simply viewing and digesting content.
Web 2.0 led to the popularity of social media networking, blogs and video sharing sites, as well as website hosting. Gradually, the web came to be run by a handful of large corporations, such as Amazon (many websites use Amazon Web Services, or AWS, for cloud services) Google and Meta (formerly Facebook). Web 2.0 also saw the switch from desktop to mobile device use. It is the version of the world wide web that we know today.
In its current form, Web3 consists of decentralized applications (dApps) that exist and run on blockchain technology. It means that no one person or organisation has control over the network.
The idea is that dApps are open-source and autonomous, make data and records publicly available, and use a cryptographic token to keep the network secure.
However, there are concerns about scalability, and currently, dApps have poor usability in many cases. It is generally accepted that further technological advancements are needed for Web3 to realise its full potential.
Decentralized finance is also a key component of Web3, which is where cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) come in. The web would involve token-based economics, and the goal is for users to exchange currency without the involvement of banks or governments.
Web3 could be described as a utopian view of what the World Wide Web could be like without the monopoly that ‘big tech’ currently has. This is particularly appealing at a time when trust in big tech companies is faltering due to reported abuses of data privacy.
Many imagine Web3 to be a return to the freedom and democracy of the original vision for the web, but with increased technological capability.
It would give users back control of their own data, rather than this being owned by a handful of corporations. Blockchain is a secure system of tracking and storing data that makes it very difficult to be hacked or changed. It also does not require permission to be given from one central administrator – instead, anyone on the network can use the services.
As explained here, “The idea is that data would be kept in decentralized storage, so spread out over the internet as a whole rather than in a set amount of server farms as is the case now. How this data is moved about would be registered in a digital ledger—the blockchain—making the flow of data very transparent, while also preventing misuse”.
It is hoped that advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) would help prevent abuses of the system.
On a more practical level, the goal is that Web3 servers would not be able to “go down” in the same way that Web2 servers often do. As there is only one point of failure with Web2, a whole network can suffer an outage as we saw with Facebook and Instagram in October 2021. However, with Web3 there is no single point of failure due to decentralization so it is hoped these types of situations would not happen.
Censorship would also be more difficult. There is a potential that so-called echo chambers would begin to disappear with Web3 as networks can interact with each other more freely rather than beg. However, a lack of censorship also brings its own concerns as we explore below.
To understand the contrast between the hopes for Web3 and the objections many raise, it’s worth reading the interview with Gavin Wood, the Ethereum co-founder who coined the term in 2014. In the interview, writer Edelman raises valid concerns about Web3, but these are often met with vague idealisations by Wood.
One of the main concerns is that Web3 relies on the individual to have the desire and means to participate. So, the vision of a web where everyone has equal opportunity becomes complicated. As such, many believe it would simply be a shift in the consolidation of power from current big tech companies to those linked involved in blockchain and cryptocurrency. The same market incentives will still exist.
As Edelman states, “From where I sit, it’s hard to imagine anyone outside of a small subset of people with high technical literacy actually exercising that right to participate in providing the service. And in that scenario, it sounds like you would have a different kind of centralization. Perhaps it would be more than just, you know, a handful of all-powerful CEOs, but it would still be a small subset of people for whom that’s a meaningful freedom.”
Other people have also commented on this issue with Web3: “If you build a distributed architecture on a centralised infrastructure, you are not suddenly decentralising the infrastructure,” says Ten Oever. “While web infrastructure is nominally decentralised, in practice much of the internet runs on servers hosted by a handful of companies, such as Amazon – and the same is happening with Web3, as people run dApps hosted by just a few providers.”
Moxie Marlinspike, founder of messaging app Signal, has also commented on the potential issues, stating that instead, “We should accept the premise that people will not run their own servers by designing systems that can distribute trust without having to distribute infrastructure”.
He also raises the issue that decentralization can slow things down a lot and that the usability of Web3 may be affected by this. When there is a single point of implementation, this makes any transactions or changes much simpler and quicker, compared to a decentralised internet where a whole network is involved.
Another potential issue is that the transparency that comes with Web3 (with the flow of data available to all through blockchain) may not be appealing for everyone.
A final concern that many have raised is that Web3 as currently imagined would be very difficult to regulate and standardise. People are already experiencing scams related to the world of cryptocurrency due to the lack of regulation which has caused concerns in the population.
Moreover, many have raised the point that having a decentralized web would make it far more difficult to prevent dangerous online content from being published, such as hate speech, harassment, and child abuse.
Many are excited about the potential that Web3 brings, but it seems unlikely that Web3 will completely displace Web 2.0 in the near future as there are still valid concerns about how it would operate and the technology is not yet evolved enough.
While blockchain is an exciting and innovative technology that offers many advantages, many agree that it is unlikely that the internet will entirely be built around it. Instead, it seems more likely that Web3 technologies will continue to exist alongside Web 2.0 and aspects of one may become integrated into the other without a complete replacement.