Being surrounded by the internet – living in it, wearing it on our wrists, holding it in our hand – we often forget that it’s still a work in progress. The internet is never ‘finished’. We might have trouble imagining what lives over the event horizon, but we’re not alone in that respect. Users in the early ‘90s would have struggled to picture an ‘app’, or streaming services, or content creation in its modern form.
In fact, a lot of experts believe we’re still living in a very primitive form of the internet. Forbes’ Council member Charles Silver puts it this way: “Although the industry has evolved considerably since its inception, its current stage is akin to the auto industry in 1920 — that is, it's world-changing technology that has been around for 20 years but is still relatively immature and in need of major improvements.”
Those ‘improvements’ are being grouped into a new term: Web 3.0. This is the next evolutionary stage of the internet. Like the Jurassic era sliding into the Cretaceous. But to understand the importance of Web 3.0, and what it actually is, you need to understand where the internet came from.
The beginnings of the Web
When Tim Berners-Lee opened the World Wide Web to the public in 1991, it ushered in Web 1.0. The first Web. Berners-Lee wanted the new platform to be "a collaborative medium, a place where we [could] all meet and read and write.” And, for a while, it was. Web 1.0 was a much simpler, more innocent place, but monopolies from the likes of AOL, Yahoo and other portals didn’t take long to emerge. Then came Netscape’s first net browser in 1994, which made the internet much more accessible to the general public.
Web 1.0 was mostly about consuming content, rather that creating it. The average user could read an article, or surf a website, but (without coding skills) couldn’t really contribute to the new digital ecosystem. Web 2.0 changed all that. It didn’t fundamentally alter the tech specs of the internet, but it did allow much greater interaction. This was the era of apps and social media and smart phones.
“Web 2.0 describes an approach, in which sites focus substantially upon allowing users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content,” writes author Ahmed Sayeed.
Unfortunately, Web 2.0 also saw the greatest consolidation of internet power. Users became more or less data points, there to be sold (often unscrupulously, or even illegally) to advertisers in order to generate revenue. It was an era of creativity and creation, but also exploitation, monopoly and control.
So, what is Web 3.0?
If Web 2.0 was characterized by a few big corporations – social media giants, data companies, cloud providers – owning huge swathes of the internet, Web 3.0 is the opposite. It’s a decentralised Web where, as Berners-Lee originally planned, “no permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the web, there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure.”
With technology like Blockchain, and Berners-Lee’s own pet project, Solid, Web 3.0 will look very different. Decentralised platforms will become more common, and you’ll have much more control, and ownership, over your own data.
Solid, for example, allows users to store all their information in a digital ‘pod’ – a lockbox to which only they hold the key. Users could then grant companies and platforms access to certain parts of their pod, depending their preferences.
It sounds simple, but this decentralised model could radically change the fundamental workings of the Web. Users could take back privacy and ownership, data is simultaneously more transparent and more secure, networks would lose their iron-fisted grip, governments could form a clearer picture of their citizens, public policy could be more targeted and better informed, your apps could all talk to one another. Instead of living in a world of digital silos, Web 3.0 would let you have a relationship with the Web on your terms. Not its.
For apps, this means building on blockchains, rather than clunky single servers, creating decentralised apps (also known as Dapps). It also means incorporating machine learning, AI, and 3D environments, like the Metaverse. When you hear people discussing NFTs, or blockchain, or crypto, or virtual worlds, they’re describing the hallmarks or features of Web 3.0.
This movement is already well underway, and in some jurisdictions, mandated. With the implementation of GDPR policies, the EU is clearly moving away from a laissez-faire, market-based approach, and forcing corporations to take data ownership seriously.
But for a real example of what Web 3.0 might look like, keep an eye on the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders, in Belgium, which has officially adopted Berners-Lee’s Solid platform as the building block of its digital infrastructure. It’s a work in progress, but soon every person in Flanders will get their own ‘pod’, and be able to interact with the Web in a very different way.
“You’ll get to the point where you can’t ignore the value,” says Berners-Lee. “If you’re going to start a company, you’ll see it’s better, easier, to do it in Flanders. The people using it will get addicted to that value, addicted to the control, addicted to the fact that all their apps link together. Bit by bit it will spread.”