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In the beginning — which is to say, the 1990s — there was Web1: the first iteration of the internet as we knew it, a vast virtual expanse sparsely populated with static websites that, for the most part, were good only for reading. Then came Web2: a far more interactive internet, networked by tech giants like Facebook and Google and Twitter and YouTube, that made content creators out of nearly everyone with a smartphone.
Now, supposedly, we stand on the precipice of Web3: a decentralized internet powered by blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrency and NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, the techno-innovation sweeping the art world.
It’s a still-nascent, fuzzy idea, but if you squint, you can see it intruding more and more upon mainstream culture. Matt Damon is filming ads for Crypto.com. Gwyneth Paltrow is giving out $500,000 worth of Bitcoin to her social media followers. And Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon can be seen talking awkwardly on “The Tonight Show” about limited-edition digital cartoon apes they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for.
Where, exactly, is this all going? Could Web3 really democratize the internet by eliminating its middlemen — the Big Tech companies and the banks and the regulators — as its boosters say, or is it a speculative bubble that’s about to burst? Here’s what people are saying.
Wait, what is blockchain again?
Blockchain is a cryptographic technology that allows for distributed record keeping, like a digital spreadsheet, that is virtually impossible to corrupt. Unlike conventional records kept by centralized institutions, the blockchain ledger uses networks of powerful computers racing to verify transactions that remain visible to, and trusted by, everyone.
Blockchain was introduced initially as the technology behind cryptocurrency, starting with Bitcoin in 2009. “With decentralized financial exchange based on the blockchain design, like what Bitcoin uses, you don’t have to trust an authority with your money,” The Times’s Nathaniel Popper explains. “Two people are automatically matched up through software, and they make the exchange directly with one another.”
NFTs are a newer use of blockchain that enables the buying and selling of digital assets, like images, GIFs, songs and videos. Because these files are typically too large to store in a blockchain token, most NFT purchases buy not the actual asset, but rather a receipt proving ownership. In effect, this creates a new kind of scarcity among digital goods where there was none.
“Many NFTs can be downloaded, duplicated, ‘screenshotted’ or simply found elsewhere on the internet,” Sophie Haigney explained in The Times last year. “Buying an NFT, then, is not so much about buying something as it is buying the concept of owning a thing — which feels like the logical endpoint of a society obsessed with property rights, and finding new ways to buy and sell almost anything.”
Why is Web3 taking off now?
Today, the value of all cryptocurrencies is some $2.3 trillion. Some of the biggest drivers of the crypto boom are venture capitalists, who invested more than $27 billion globally in crypto-related projects last year, more than in the previous 10 years combined.
“Every type of financial service is now being replicated in these decentralized environments,” Stephen McKeon, a cryptocurrency expert at the University of Oregon, told The Times. “This is what’s driving all the investment.”
As crypto values have soared, the rush of interest in NFTs among celebrities with extra cash to spend makes a certain kind of sense, the journalist Max Read argues. “More than anything else,” he writes, “the value of a given NFT is a function of its perceived exclusivity, coolness, and prominence, and so a halfway decent celebrity should be able to generate capital gains on their NFT holdings simply by going on a popular nightly talk show and discussing their NFT portfolio with the host.”
But what explains the interest in Web3 among the less wealthy? One theory, from Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Times Opinion writer and sociologist, is that blockchain offers the promise of unimpeachable ownership rights, an idea that might especially appeal to the historically dispossessed.
Economic anxiety inflected by FOMO — fear of missing out — fuels the fever too. “Cryptocurrency is, at the very least, now seen as a good place to park some cash,” The Times’s Erin Griffith writes. “Everyone has read the stories of teenage crypto millionaires — or the pizza bought with Bitcoin that would now be worth millions. To not get involved is, in crypto-speak, to ‘have fun staying poor.’”
The promise of Web3
Although blockchain technology has been around for over a decade now, it hasn’t lent itself to many real-world uses for people who aren’t crypto investors or criminals. Recently, though, The Times’s Kevin Roose found a crypto project that has what he terms “normie utility”: Helium, a decentralized, long-range wireless network that uses cryptocurrency to reward people for sharing bandwidth on their Wi-Fi-compatible devices, like air-quality sensors and smart kitchen appliances.
Still, much of Web3’s promise remains theoretical. When it comes to NFTs, some proponents argue that it will transform not only the way art is bought and sold, but also what art and artists we value and how artists are paid. “NFTs create opportunities for new business models that didn’t exist before,” James Bowden and Edward Thomas Jones write in The Conversation. “Artists can attach stipulations to an NFT that ensures they get some of the proceeds every time it gets resold, meaning they benefit if their work increases in value.”
At the loftiest heights of Web3 discourse, the prospect of a decentralized internet is cast as a bulwark against authoritarianism. “Conceptually, Web3 is innately more beneficial to Western liberal democracies, which value democracy and personal privacy,” Anthony Vinci and Nadia Schadlow argue in The Washington Post. “China and Russia have already set up mechanisms to spy on and control the existing Web2 infrastructure through firewalls, censorship and coercion of technology platforms. Web3 would make such authoritarian controls much more difficult.”
How much of Web3 is hype — or a scam?
If there’s anything the social-media iteration of the internet made clear, Recode’s Peter Kafka believes it’s that even the most exciting technology can bring unintended consequences. “At first blush, Twitter seemed like a fun way to tell people what you had for lunch, and then for a moment like a tool that could help liberate oppressed populations,” he writes, adding, “This time around, we ought to be much more thoughtful about possible downsides.”
One downside is that cryptocurrency is a useless, even dangerous speculative investment, The Times’s Binyamin Appelbaum argues. Unstable, cumbersome and expensive to use, cryptocurrency doesn’t work as a replacement for government-backed currencies. What it does do, however, is incentivize market frenzies and use huge amounts of electricity — more than the nation of Finland.
Some commentators, like Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal, have also pointed out that Web3, for all its heady promises of democratization, isn’t actually very decentralized: It still depends on centralized organizations to maintain servers, cryptocurrency wallets and websites where NFTs are stored.
For Anil Dash, who helped invent NFTs in 2014, this reliance on Web2 infrastructure frustrates much of their revolutionary potential to put power back in the hands of artists. When people buy an NFT, “they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years,” he writes. “Our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype.”
And the commercially exploitable hype that celebrities are creating around NFTs is “gross,” The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull believes. “Watching two millionaires promote a mechanism of passive wealth accumulation while they unconvincingly pretend to be interested in ‘art’ or ‘community’ is viscerally revolting,” she writes. “If Hilton and Fallon and their celebrity friends are going to go out there and pump-and-dump their way to additional wealth, they could at least do the rest of us the courtesy of being a little more discreet about it. Instead, they sound like they think this is stupid, and like they think the rest of us might be stupid enough to buy in.”
In the years to come, both Web3’s boosters and its skeptics may be proven a little bit right, Charlie Warzel argues in The Atlantic. “The Web3 crowd’s ambitions must be taken seriously: It has the money and the influence and sheer marketing power to make the dream a reality,” he writes. But, he adds: “To accept the FOMO bullies’ narrative — and ignore the doubters — is to cede control of the future to a small subset of loud and powerful people. That’s just what Web3 is supposed to prevent.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Who’s Behind Web3?” [The New York Times]
“A Guide to the World of Blockchain” [The New York Times]
“It’s Hard to Tell When the Crypto Bubble Will Burst, or If There Is One” [The New York Times]
“Buy This Column on the Blockchain!” [The New York Times]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last edition: Complicity in the “Genocide Olympics”
Robert from Northern Ireland: “My wife & I normally enjoy the Olympics but, due to the Chinese government’s position on human rights, both the Uighur repression and of the Chinese population more generally, we have decided to give these Winter Olympics a miss. This spills over to a general loss of enthusiasm for the Olympics generally due to the I.O.C.’s complicity with repressive regimes and it being driven more & more by commercial interests rather than ideals.”
Glenn DeSouza, an American living in China: “The Olympics was held in Los Angeles at a time when America practiced apartheid and a Black man could be lynched with impunity and for entertainment. It was held in London when the British ruled India with brute force. … Meanwhile we have been responsible for the deaths and displacement of millions of Iraqis and Afghans. Muslim nations are attending the games. The joke in Shanghai is America hates Muslims and Chinese but loves Chinese Muslims.”