web3: a primer
If you’re reading this, you’re an internet user (congrats!).
This internet is a magnificent technology. Streaming marathons of The Office, one-click purchases to your doorstep, social media, cloud storage — all on one interconnected network of computers.
Polarizing, empowering, unifying, overwhelming, breathtaking. Our internet is a modern wonder almost six decades in the making — and it’s nowhere near finished.
In this brief primer, I hope to welcome you to the emerging internet era known as Web 3.0 (web3) and arm you with the curiosity to go out and explore. I am not a programmer, nor a professional investment advisor; I am simply a kid in a candy store in this exciting chapter of the internet’s history, and I can’t wait to show you the web3 we’re working on.
How many Webs? Not one, not two…
We’re at the dawn of the web3 era, but how did we get here? Let’s sprint through a quick recap, in everyday language.
The internet was born in the 1960s, another product of U.S. and allied military research that would reach far beyond its original purpose — exchanging packets of information, or “data,” between physically separate computer nodes. In the 1990s, the invention of the World Wide Web (web1) fundamentally changed the way data could be stored and accessed by internet users via hyperlinks and browsing software, and we began to “surf the web” in droves by the end of the decade. Web1 sites largely involve users interacting with static web pages — think of old digital newspaper websites, or early iterations of ecommerce platforms that didn’t include user reviews.
Web 2.0 (web2) is “online” as most of us know it today. Since around 2004, dynamic websites have allowed users to interact and collaborate with one another to create user-generated content within a virtual community. I’m sure this description brings to mind the most obvious example of this paradigm: social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter. But the interactive web opens up so many doors — wikis (collaborative knowledge repositories and encyclopedias), keyword tags, video and image sharing, and iPhone apps all offer glimpses into how much of our everyday lives revolve around web2.
Now we’ve arrived at web3, but what exactly is it? Well, there are some technical answers — web3 is the Semantic Web, the machine-readable web that runs on blockchains and other cryptoeconomic technologies. But here is my answer: web3 is the user-owned internet.
In web2, users are allowed to use a platform such as Google, Twitter, TikTok, etc., in exchange for some form of user monetization (usually advertisement sales or personal data auctions). In web3, the decentralized blockchain-based internet, users own the platforms they use. Many platforms even encourage their user-stakeholders to actively participate in the platform’s governance.
Sounds great, right?
web3: decentralization is security
The technology that enables web3 is a series of countermeasures against two growing concerns with web2: centralization and personal data protection.
The current internet with all its data has to physically live somewhere, and that somewhere is mostly a network of data centers owned by a handful of Big Tech and government entities — the “backend” of the internet. If a user, business, etc. wants to store information on the internet, they pay a fee to one of the gatekeepers of the data center network in exchange for hosting anything from a webpage to the latest family photo album to an entire streaming catalogue. There are undoubtedly benefits to this setup — namely, large players in data storage such as Amazon Web Services are able to store user data rather cheaply due to economies of scale. Yet despite the evident efficiencies gained from centralizing a network, networks tend to grow more exposed with higher degrees of centralization. For example, AWS owns the backend to almost one-third of the cloud-based internet. Think of the risk this degree of centralization brings — in the event of even a partial outage of AWS, how much of the internet would be affected, and for how long?
The plot begins to thicken, too. On top of this highly centralized web2 backend, we have built an additional layer of centralization by allowing a small group of platforms to dominate the internet’s “frontend,” or the software layer of the internet that you are interacting with right now. As you interact with web2’s frontend, you share a lot of data points about yourself whether intentionally or otherwise. Credit card numbers, liked posts on Instagram, Fortnite log-ins, Google search words — all are relatively harmless pieces of gibberish information when taken alone; but when connected, these personal data points begin to paint a picture of who you are, what you spend money on, who your friends and family are, and so on. Uh-oh.
And how are those dots connected? By the truly remarkable software platforms that comprise our internet — household names like Facebook and Google, Netflix and Amazon all make a lot of money by compiling your data to either sell you targeted ads and product/streaming recommendations or to sell your profile and tendencies to a third party.
It’s not all doom and gloom; similar to a centralized backend, the centralized frontend is incredibly accessible and user friendly. Our digital lives are made more efficient when an ecommerce site has an idea of the types of products we want, or when a streaming platform knows that Sunday mornings require familiar sitcoms to help fight through the hangover (that’s a universal experience, right?). But the risks are readily apparent — I’m sure most of you will now have no trouble making a connection between a) the recurring news headlines of personal data “hacks” and “breaches” and b) the centralization of web2’s frontend and the resulting personal data marketplace.
So, we need to decentralize. But how? What does that even look like?
At its core, the decentralized web3 relies on two conceptually simple yet elegant technologies to secure the network and its data: blockchains and direct networks between individual computer nodes.
“What the hell is blockchain?”
“Blockchain” is one of the hottest buzzwords of the 2020s, but few seem to understand what it actually means. It’s neither some dense quantum computing concept nor BDSM kink. A blockchain is simply a specific type of database — bits of information are compiled together into “blocks” of set sizes that are then “chained” together in chronological order as they are completed. That’s it. I promised conceptually simple yet elegant, didn’t I?
“Ok, what about the other thing you said that I forgot about already?”
Decentralized networks? When a blockchain is stored on a network of decentralized computers (nodes), we can start to unlock the true potential of web3. Think of the opposite architecture of web2: rather than providers like AWS owning large centralized chunks of the internet’s database, blockchain data is typically stored on networks of thousands or even millions of separate nodes all owned and operated by different parties. This decentralized network architecture secures the database through a set of cryptographical principles, which the intrepid reader can learn more about here (a word of caution: this rabbit hole will toss you into the deep end). At its core though, behind the mathematical complexities of cryptography, decentralized networks are: conceptually simple and, dare I say, elegant.
In conclusion, let’s begin.
Our modern lives rely on the internet, and the internet as we know it is evolving to store and secure data in new ways. These new ways define what we call web3, the decentralized and user-owned internet of blockchains. And decentralized finance (DeFi), non-fungible tokens (NFTs), decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), decentralized applications (dApps), hot wallets, private keys, validator nodes, smart contracts, liquidity pools, and dozens of other buzzwords. Oof, we have our work cut out for us.
I am in a state of constant wonder when it comes to web3 development and adoption. There is always the next buzzword to research, the newest blockchain protocol offering the latest features, the latest rumors of government regulation to follow along with. I firmly believe that we are in the early stages of the next internet revolution. And it is my sincerest hope that our web3 lives up to the early promises we hold so dear.
If you’re reading this, you’re still early. Jump into web3 and get your hands dirty. Come build with us.