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The future of the internet is top of mind for many technologists these days — from rabid discussions about the possibilities of a blockchain-based “Web3” to speculation of how it may come to life via interconnected virtual worlds forming the “metaverse.” Of the two topics, discussions around Web3 have been particularly challenging as of late. Given the overtly financialized nature of Web3 and its foundation in blockchain technologies, the Web3 ecosystem has been awash with bad press from a bearish cryptocurrency market, various high-profile scams or crashes, and slumping broader interest in applications like NFTs. Due in part to these disruptions, Web3 proponents are increasingly looking to the metaverse as a credible path for bringing blockchain to the mainstream. However, the current state of the metaverse is shaping up to look a lot more like Web2 than Web3.
Such an outcome would chill the blood of Web3 enthusiasts, but without a change in direction, this is an inevitability. To contextualize this assertion, there are two important points to make clear.
First, Web3 and the metaverse are not the same concept, nor are they dependent on each other — they are ideas concerned with a way to build the architecture of the web and a means to access it, respectively.
Second, though much of Web3 can be viewed as a direct rebuke of Web2 and the extent to which powerful platforms like Google, Meta or otherwise capitalized on vast amounts of personal data (and revenue through the extraction of value from that data, largely in the form of advertising), we tend to ignore what these platforms did right and therefore why usage became centralized. The superpower of Web2 wasn’t centralization in the abstract. Centralization around platforms was a byproduct of the more fundamental value Web2 provided: convenient services for users.
The rise of social media and other forms of user-generated content defined Web2 because the successful tech companies of this era made making things on the internet very easy. More simply, Web2 became worth a lot because it served basic human needs (contact, expression, creation, etc.) with an understanding that most humans aren’t terribly technical, or at a minimum tend to privilege convenience and ease. The riches of Web2 came as an outcome of this solution, in Web3 the riches are the product still looking for a solution.
It is easy enough to lose sight of this if you are a technical person because accessing and creating things on the internet isn’t necessarily inconvenient — where non-technical folks see enablement from a platform like Facebook, the technical person sees limits. Lapses in humanistic thinking are some of the greatest follies in technology more generally, and a phenomenon that may be getting worse. Web3 is particularly prone to ignoring human-oriented thinking because much of the technology is designed to remove as much of the human element as possible — it’s the basic premise of beliefs like “code is law.” The current Web3 landscape is defined by overconfidence in technology and underthinking about the human element involved with the technology.
The most obvious example of where this trend is coming to fruition is the fact that the best and largest examples of what the metaverse may be are largely in the domain of gaming (a sector very good at fulfilling human needs like socialization, intrinsic rewards, etc.) and on platforms that provide making things in virtual worlds very easy: the current exemplars being Roblox and Epic’s Fortnite (though, notably, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney is famously critical of Web2-esque platforms). Both creators and marketers can find massive audiences (thanks in part to the runaway success of the originating games that structure these worlds) and a toolkit for creating things in a 3D virtual environment that would otherwise be completely out of reach for all but the most technical people. Centralized gaming platforms have become popular amongst marketers, creators, and users because meaningful experiences are abundant and easy to find or create.
The same marketers or creators who can relatively easily set up an activation on these platforms often find comparatively more hurdles in popular applications of Web3, such as NFTs. Not only is the onboarding process for consumers to decentralized technology considerable, but because NFTs are treated implicitly as financial instruments (at this time) conversations with brands have revealed even non-financial applications can make an NFT “mint” a dubious prospect from a legal or policy POV, and therefore often a non-starter.
This is the basis of problems beyond interest from marketers or creators, in the form of a larger loop of negative reinforcement in Web3: Leading with financial rewards only increases the prevalence of bad actors, misalignment of incentives and limiting thinking towards formulating value and solutions in a virtual world on the same terms as we do in the real one — why do we need exclusivity in a world where the infinite is possible, if not for the sole purpose of financializing scarcity? Comparatively, limits have explicit purpose in a game environment — a good game imposes limits for the purposes of making an experience engaging for the player (what is golf if not for a very limit-defined way to move a ball towards a goal?). This is part of the reason that gaming environments have become exemplars of what the metaverse may be rather than decentralized virtual worlds, as the limits of the decentralized ones are defined only by the potential to extract revenue, leaving users with very little to do even assuming they have bought into the world (literally and figuratively).
A bias toward greed and financialization is shaping the future of Web3 in a way that not only doesn’t attend to basic human needs but is becoming an impediment to societal trust around the technology more generally. The problems being solved are entirely focused on extrinsic needs such as financial rewards and not at all on intrinsic needs like human connection, satisfaction, the pleasures of fun, or otherwise. Gaming solves these needs for humans, and the most successful platforms in Web2 did the same. The fact that we are seeing a convergence should not be entirely surprising from this point of view.
Web3 projects have carried a more commercial tone from the beginning due to a feeling of “missing out” on the gold rush in Web2, allowing centralized players to claim a disproportionate amount of the revenue. This may have been an overcorrection, at least as it pertains to the development of the metaverse. While the possibilities of decentralization may be attractive, few of these potential advantages have come to fruition, and what is left is inconvenient tech structured and restricted for maximum financial gain.
None of this should be read as an endorsement for platforms or the Web2 model, or a complete dismissal of the Web3 model, so much as a product of human tendencies towards technology adoption. If left as is, there will be natural gravitation toward the Web2 model for the same reasons that Web2 platforms came to prominence and various middle agents have always existed — they make complicated things easy. Humans often don’t care about the technology per se, they care about the value it provides them — and if the value is assessed only in dollars and cents (or Bitcoin, or Eth, etc., etc.) then much of the value is left on the (increasingly virtual) table.
Jonathan Stringfield, PhD is the VP of Global Business Research & Marketing at Activision Blizzard.