In recent months, you may have come across a phrase growing in popularity: Web3. You might be wondering what it is, what it will mean for the future, and how exactly the third-generation internet differs from the first two. Let’s cut to the chase: For Web3 evangelists, it’s a revolution; for sceptics, it’s an overhyped house of cards that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.
Part of the reason that there’s such a heated debate going on about Web3 — and cryptocurrencies, and NFTs (or non-fungible tokens) — is that it’s very early days. A lot of the promise of Web3 has yet to be properly implemented or even mapped out, so we’re really dealing with what’s potentially possible rather than what’s actually here.
As you might remember if you’re of a certain age, Web 1.0 was the era of static webpages. Sites displayed news and information, and maybe you had your own little corner of the World Wide Web to show off your personal interests and hobbies. Images were discouraged — they took up too much bandwidth — and video was out of the question.
With the dawn of the 21st Century, Web 1.0 gave way to Web 2.0 — a more dynamic, editable, user-driven internet. Static was out and webpages became more interactive and app-like (see Gmail, for example). Many of us signed up for social media accounts and blogs that we used to put our own content on the web in vast amounts. Images and video no longer reduced sites to a crawl, and we started sharing them in huge numbers.
And now the dawn of Web3 is upon us. People define it in a few different ways, but at its core is the idea of decentralisation, which we’ve seen with cryptocurrencies (key drivers of Web3). Rather than Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook (sorry, Meta) hoarding everything, the internet will supposedly become more democratised.
Key to this decentralisation is blockchain technology, which creates publicly visible and verifiable ledgers of record that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. The blockchain already underpins bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, as well as a number of fledging technologies, and it’s tightly interwoven into the future vision of everything that Web3 promises. The idea is that everything you do, from shopping to social media, is handled through the same secure processes, with both more privacy and more transparency baked in.
In some ways, Web3 is a mix of the two eras that came before it: the advanced, dynamic, app-like tech of the modern web, combined with the decentralised, user-driven philosophy that was around at the start of the internet, before billion- and trillion-dollar corporations owned everything. Web3 shifts the power dynamic from the giant tech entities back to the users — or at least that’s the theory.
In its current form, Web3 rewards users with tokens, which will eventually be used in a variety of ways, including currency or as votes to influence the future of technology. In this brave new world, the value generated by the web will be shared out between many more users and more companies and more services, with much improved interoperability.
NFTs are closely linked to the Web3 vision. You’ve no doubt already come across NFTs, a way of assigning permanent ownership (that’s the non-fungible part) to a digital item. Digital works of art, from music to sketches, are currently riding on an NFT boom. For our purposes here, the link between cryptocurrencies, NFTs and Web3 is the foundation: the blockchain.
Throw in some artificial intelligence and some machine learning to do everything from filter out unnecessary data to spot security threats, and you’ve got just about every emerging digital technology covered with Web3. Right now Ethereum is the blockchain attracting the most Web3 interest (it supports both a cryptocurrency and an NFT system, and you can do everything from make a payment through it to build an app on it.
While the concepts and mechanisms of Web3 can seem somewhat baffling to newcomers and outsiders, that’s not necessarily unexpected — getting online in the 1990s wasn’t a particularly intuitive or understandable process for a lot of people. What is clear is that interest in and hype around Web3 is growing fast, and as with any gold rush, people don’t want to be left behind or left out — even if they’re not entirely sure what it is that they’re rushing into.
You don’t have to look too far to realise that not everyone is sold on the potential of Web3. Although there’s broad agreement that technologies such as NFTs and the blockchain are useful in certain scenarios — and likely to play a role in whatever the future of the web looks like — at the moment there’s a lot of vapourware and unwarranted hype to sift through. And that’s without getting into the associated impact on the climate from all the energy-intensive processing that powers some cryptocurrencies.
Those sceptical about Web3 and its associated technologies might say that there’s still a very real risk of a lot of the generated wealth and value remaining out of reach for the vast majority when it comes to cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and the rest of Web 3.0 — so the rich get richer again. What’s more, many of the perceived villains of Web 2.0 are already making moves in Web3, it’s worth noting.
On the flip side, there are also many notable experts enthused about the power and potential of Web3. Predicting how this is going to play out in the years ahead is no easy task. There’s no doubt that there are issues with how some Web3 technologies are being implemented right now, but at the same time, there’s also a lot of hope that some of the problems of Web 2.0 can be fixed in the next generation. That makes it technology worth paying attention to — even if it creates its own problems in the process.
This article has been updated since it was first published.