How to Wrap Your Head Around Web 3
You may have heard the term Web 3 and wondered if you missed something – what exactly are Web 1 and Web 2? How did we get here? In this article, Ana Wang provides a succinct history – the 411, if you like – of these different internet phases and points to some links for extra reading in case you're left wanting more. Read on!
When we think about the web now, it's a flurry of things we take for granted. But somehow, in the turn of a couple of decades we've gone from headlines like this: ‘The Strange New World of the Internet’ (Time, 1994) to headlines like this: ‘The Internet Is Rotting’ (The Atlantic, 2021).
How did we get here? And if things are this ‘bad’, where are we headed next?
If you hang around any developer/crypto/tech circles, you may have already heard the term Web 3 and wondered if you missed the memo because what the heck is Web 1 and Web 2? And don't worry if you've never come across the term either; it's the kind of technical jargon you'd hardly ever hear in real life, unless you're in one of those said bubbles. So we're about to break it down.
Anyone making (and breaking) the internet – whether you're a developer, a designer, a marketer, a content creator, or a curious cat, this is for you. And it's a game-changer, not because third time's the charm (just watch: soon enough, we'll be at 4, 5, Web 99) – but because right now, Web 3 is what so many of us need.
Web 3 represents a shift and a move back to many of the ideals of the early web (maybe not the early internet, which was invented for military use).
But to get to three, we need to start right at the beginning, back to the excitement and heydey of the internet that didn't leave us feeling emptier but kicked off a new era of belonging, activism, connection, learning – whatever you're looking for on the information superhighway, and the sound of dial-up was then the surest sign of magic as science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke described it: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
But not to hype things up too hard, let's go back into web history and see for ourselves, shall we?
Not very long ago Just before your time Right before the towers fell, circa '99 This was catalogs Travel blogs A chat room or two We set our sights and spent our nights Waiting For you, you, insatiable you –Bo Burham, Welcome to the Internet
ABCs and (Web) 1, 2, and 3: An Overview
The web (short for world wide web) was invented in the year that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, Barack and Michelle's first date, the release of the first Game Boy, and the birth of Taylor Swift later immortalized by her fifth album filling up nearly all of Google's first page results for 1989.
Decades earlier, the precursor that made it all possible, the internet, came pouf! into existence as an experiment for the US Defence Department. (As seems to be the precedent throughout history, great things can happen by way of war and its 21st century equivalent, billionaires. See: the space race(s).)
While often used interchangeably to mean the same thing, technically the web is just one part of the internet. It's the part that can be accessed via webpages, and it was invented by Tim Berners-Lee (that's Sir Tim now) to make the information on the wider hidden systems of the internet more accessible. Sir Tim also invented the first web browser and server, and laid out the foundations for the three technologies that kicked off the dawn of the world wide web (all of which are still in use today):
HTML: Hypertext Markup Language, aka the structure of webpages
URL: Uniform Resource Locators, aka the address of a webpage on the web
HTTP: Hypertext transfer protocol, aka the method in which data gets transmitted
Image: Tim Berners-Lee's proposal for the world wide web "Vague but exciting..." http://info.cern.ch/Proposal.html
Beyond that, the web of today looks very different to the web of 10, 20, and 30 years ago. If you've lived long enough to be there to witness it all, you may have noticed like I did, when marquees (aka scrolling text) were popular the first time around.
The web didn't start out as Web 1. Web 2.0 was coined in 1999 by web and UX designer Darcy DiNucci in this article. When you have two, everything before that becomes one. And then naturally, people started to think about what was coming next: Web 3.
A very important note here: there's room for interpretation.
Some people focus on web design and development standards and terminology, whereas others focus on the macro context of what those things mean to people. Both things matter and are accurate, but just keep that in mind when you hear people referencing Web 1, 2, or 3; reference points may vary.
Case in point: a few years ago, people were speculating that Web 3 would be the Semantic Web (which some still consider to be part of Web 3) or the Internet of Things, which technically isn't the web anyway. It's actually turning out to be so much more.
With that, let's dive in.
Web 1: The Read-only/Static Web (1990s to mid 2000s)
In retrospect, it has the most boring name but anyone who was here for it remembers how wonderful it was to experience the web when it was all shiny, flashy (in more ways than one, if you know what I mean), and new, when there was not much to do but to click hyperlinks, read pages accessed by directories like this, and sign guestbooks – and a page counter was the coolest interactive element a website could have.
Websites were built mostly with static HTML (it's not like anyone's dial-up connections could handle any more than that anyway), and because it was the wild, wild, web, there weren't really any design standards.
Hi, Comic Sans. UX, what's that?
Web 1 is characterized by:
simple, static webpages
frames and tables
peer-to-peer sharing: KaZaa, Napster, Limewire
lack of design and UX standards (but it sure was fun, wasn't it?)
Web 2: The Social/Interactive/Mobile Web (early 2000s to late 2010s)
This is when the web really started to pick up in pace, in reach, and in scale. Blogging and then social networks are invented and they change everything: how we connect, how we advertise, whose voice matters. They break traditional publishing, media, and the concept of fame. Reality television didn't create our new celebrities; the new social web did.
In the span of a very short time, a few companies start and become some of the most valuable companies in the entire world. They don't just connect people socially. They connect the entire web, become our login systems, how businesses reach customers, how news gets delivered.
The web becomes more interactive (posts, upvotes, likes, comments for all) and people, both developers and not, become a part of building it through websites, apps, and content. By the end of Web 2.0, anyone can be a creator, in practically any form you can think of (video and audio included) –and it's all made possible by a few companies who sell connection, convenience, and community for eyeballs and data.
The web also starts to extend beyond one kind of screen to be accessed anywhere, anytime –on our phones, our wrists, our televisions, and our cars.
Web 2 is characterized by:
social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
blogs and Content Management Systems (CMS)
a rise in the discipline and practice of user experience (UX)
AI and algorithms to personalize content
the mobile web
If you go online today, it’s unlikely you’ll be clicking through to your favourite niche website, or messageboard – rather, you’ll go on your Twitter feed, a Facebook group, or a WhatsApp chat. You’ll download music directly from Spotify, and upload your photos to Instagram, complete with a stock filter. – Hussein Kesvani, Journalist in A Brief History of the Internet
Web 3: The Decentralized Web (late 2010s to present)
The world is now connected, now what?
One of the trade-offs we got from a socially connected web ruled by a handful of really big companies that we've entrusted our data and our time to, is that, well, we've entrusted all our data and a lot of our time to them – about 145 minutes per day on average. That's over 50k minutes a year, rounding out to about 110 eight-hour workdays. Per year!
While it's easy to see individually just how much our lives are dictated by tech giants, there's a lot more going on beneath the surface within the very makeup of the web too. Even the independent businesses and apps you use and purchase from are powered by the infrastructures of these tech giants, in ways that are not plainly obvious.
For example, Amazon doesn't just make its money from retail; it has an extremely profitable cloud computing arm known as AWS, which powers a lot of the platforms we know, including Netflix, Twitch, and even Facebook. In exchange for offering businesses "free" marketing, social networks like Facebook and Instagram have become advertising engines; some early stage startups spend as much as 50 percent of venture capital funding on Facebook and Google advertising. That money goes straight into the pockets of these tech giants, which aren't even technically in the ad business. Everything feeds into a few giant machines, even if on the surface they're not.
But it's not just about the time, attention, and money we've given up. It's the control, the autonomy, the concerns we have about how our data is being used beyond mere surveillance and even into downright coercion.
Is there anything wrong with these companies wanting to be profitable? No. After all, if given the opportunity to make more money, most people would take it. But it's certainly brought up a lot of questions about what ‘making the world a better place’ really means.
So, what does this all have to do with how we design and build the web? Well, a lot.
Web 3 is an evolution of the infrastructure of the web to take power back and not necessarily to put it into new hands but to reject the systems that made all of this an inevitability in the first place.
Web 3 is characterized by:
user/customer/reader-supported apps, content, and companies
lack of censorship
open source tools and software
trust in transparent systems and code, not in a governing body or company
So that's where we are today.
Everything that's different, interesting, and important about Web3
Blockchain is a public ledger which is just a database to record information. It's stored on many computers owned by different people versus one or a few computers owned by one company, and it can record any kind of data, from monetary transactions to medical data, from IBM's Food Trust to trace the journey of food products to real estate ownership. As more transactions get verified, each gets added to the database as a block, which forms a longer and longer chain.
Why this matters: Blockchain is the foundation of many Web 3 technologies including cryptocurrency and NFTs because of the way it builds trust into data storage and management. Because it's verified and encrypted, it becomes a shared and public transaction log that can't be edited, can be viewed by anyone, has a chronological history, and has built-in security. It's fundamentally trustworthy by design, and it doesn't need a governing authority or body to do the job.
Short for decentralized finance, this is the broader umbrella term for the cryptocurrency movement and its blockchain-based philosophies and approach.
Why this matters: Similar to how big tech controls almost every part of our digital worlds, how money moves is also controlled by a handful of big companies that transact billions of dollars. DeFi removes that intermediary, allowing peer-to-peer, borderless transactions from purchases to things like loans, crowdfunding, and more. Because it's decentralized, you don't have to apply for an account, which is a big deal for people and companies who'd have to jump through hoops in the traditional financial system, for example, because of where they're located or what they sell. Just create a wallet and go.
While bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency to ever exist, Ethereum is the biggest crypto player in the world of Web 3. It's the world's first programmable blockchain, which means that aside from using the Ethereum cryptocurrency (ETH) for payments, you can also use Ethereum and other blockchains that now use similar technology to create dapps (decentralized apps).
Why this matters: Ethereum is a technology that has the ability to power all kinds of apps, services, games, and digital assets, taking the concepts of the decentralized blockchain way beyond data storage and into more complex code for many more uses.
Image: example of a smart contract on Ethereum https://www.ethereum.org/token
These are not legal contracts, more like self-enforced contracts written out in code, which makes them ‘smart’, thus smart contracts. Similar to how blockchain delivers trustworthy by design data storage, smart contracts deliver trustworthy by design calculations, or code that's self-executing.
Think of it like a vending machine. Put some currency in, and the vending machine comes with a set of instructions that automate and complete the transaction, in plain sight.
Why this matters: Having code stored on the blockchain means that terms of an agreement between a buyer and seller is directly written into lines of code and then executed when the transaction happens. This means that a transaction and the subsequent actions involved in the transaction can be carried out between two strangers with complete anonymity and transparency, again, no governing body needed.
Inspired by the decentralization of currency, Decentralized Autonomous Organizations are communities or groups enforced using, you guessed it, a blockchain. Not to be confused with The DAO which launched in 2016 as a decentralized version of a venture capital fund. (This DAO was hacked and eventually delisted.)
Taking the concept of decentralization and applying it to how we build companies and communities, a DAO's financial and transaction history exists on a public blockchain and can be seen by anyone, anytime. Anyone can invest from anywhere around the world, in exchange for voting rights. No managers or directors are needed, since rules are built into code via a smart contract.
Why this matters: A DAO is by design transparent and trustworthy, governed by a democracy in the truest sense of the word, and it's enforced by code and not by law. DAOs completely reinvent how we build, fund, and maintain organizations and projects, even allowing groups of people to purchase assets, like Jenny DAO did when it jointly decided to purchase a joint NFT by DJs Steve Aoki and 3LAU for $1 million.
You may be picturing pixel art and memes when you think of NFTs, but NFTs can be so much more. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the internet? He recently auctioned off the original source code for the WWW as an NFT, for $5.4 million. An NFT (non-fungible token) is like the deed to a home that proves you own it.
Why this matters: Content is king in today's world, but its value has been progressively and swiftly dwindling as most content can be consumed for free, powered by advertising revenue or used as marketing to sell something else.
NFTs represent a fundamental shift in how we value art and content, by finally allowing the concept of ownership of goods both digital and physical to be realized, and art and content to have standalone worth.
Creators can also retain ownership of their work and set their own rules for things like royalties, which can't be edited or removed.
TL;DR: This is Web 3
All these new technologies built on the blockchain allow for transactions, organizations, apps, content, and art to be decentralized, which means:
Independence: there's no one governing authority or intermediary
Trust: there's built-in security and transparency (though it's not entirely hack-proof, to be clear)
Ease: in many cases, you can build websites and projects with less code
Privacy: you can do things on the web without giving all your data away
Is Web 3 a sure thing?
Unlike the volatile nature of the cryptocurrency space, which is filled with a lot of people probably in it for the potential windfall, Web 3 is already well on its way powered by people who believe in its core principles. Many in the developer community believe it's the path forward to a truly more democratized web, and a lot are already building for it, some so feverishly dedicated that it's not uncommon to come across ‘I quit my job to get into crypto/web 3!!’, which you may hear more of if you haven't already. Web 3 sure has its superfans.
That's not to say there aren't challenges to its adoption: it's a complex topic filled with a lot of new terminology and jargon, and with the hold tech giants currently have, will they really back down and give up without a fight? So while there are many positive signs, it's still considered by many to be volatile and speculative.
That said, if any of this sounds interesting and exciting, then you're in good company. There are a lot of ways to get started with Web 3 now.
Resources for learning more about Web 3
SuperHi's Crypto and Web 3 for Creatives course
Okay, so what?
We've gone from a web that offers new, exciting ways to learn, create, and build, to a web run by a small group of tech giants having their hand and their dollars in how we do practically everything.
We've gone from charging forward into new frontiers to being pawns in an ongoing battle for attention, data, and control, now set to invade our lives IRL too as claims of a metaverse and a pandemic blurred the lines between virtual and real. We've gone from building the internet to battling it out to see who can break it even faster than Kim K.
And when one company goes down (ahem, Facebook), it feels like an entire slice of the internet is gone because even though there are more websites than ever, more ways to spend our time, the big keep getting bigger, better, stronger, faster.
The funny thing is, concepts like decentralization, independence, and freedom were part of the original vision of the web. And for a while, it was amazing and wonderful, this new world at our fingertips and at our beck and call.
But here we are, looking back at sentiments like this (from the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, written not for Web 3 but way back in 1996) – only today, the same sentiments apply not towards governments but towards big tech:
‘I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us […] We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.’
Web 3 is exciting to the people building all the tools, technologies, platforms, websites, and apps that are actively and indirectly shaping our worlds. But you don't have to be a developer to get excited about Web 3. You could be a designer feeling burned out from maxing out your UX muscle to help the big get bigger, and maybe you can appreciate the designed (and not accidental) principles of this new system. Or you could be an artist, a writer, a musician, looking for a way to make a living simply by selling something that you hope other people will value and pay for directly (with a smart contract royalty built-in because you deserve it).
As is probably clear by now, when we're talking about the web, we're talking about so much more: how we learn, build, create, connect, and live.
Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.