web3 promises to make the internet better. it will do the exact opposite.
According to way too many posts across just about every social media platform, a revolution is coming to the web, a way to own your data and wrest back the power from Big Tech, which is why you have to invest now to get in on the ground floor of Web3 and all its utopian solutions to life’s nastiest problems. Of course, just like in medicine cure-alls cure nothing, a tool which claims to revolutionize everything is probably a scam. And what a successful scam it is. Last year, NFTs became a $41 billion business despite their opaqueness, massive transaction fees, and enough scams to fill an entire blog devoted to cataloguing them. That’s not to mention a blockchain Twitter clone where it costs money to post and interact with content.
In other words, people are currently paying real cash for mathematically obscured URLs to JPEG files and to do what they were doing free on social media to the tune of billions, resulting in truly facepalm inducing stories like an NFT consortium massively overpaying for an infamous book of avant-garde Dune concept art only to find out that the book is freely available online and that owning a hashed URL doesn’t give them the rights to make their own animated Dune TV show because they don’t actually own the copyright. So, why are supposedly tech-savvy, and ostensibly clever people doing something this inane and what do they hope to get from it? In a word, money. In more words, they’re part of a digital land grab.
From a certain standpoint, you can argue that having a distributed web makes sense, and if users are going to flock to centralized platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the least we can do it make sure those users own the data they generate in the process, a concept voiced by tech pioneers like the inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee, and VR visionary Jaron Lanier. If you’re going to advocate for Web3 or something like it, you could very reasonably argue that you’re simply acting on ideas from very smart people, and that owning your own data is a key step in ensuring you don’t become just a commodity for websites to sell to advertisers. But the overall idea isn’t the problem. It’s how this vision is being implemented.
the decentralized web isn’t really decentralized
Perhaps one of the strangest things about the arguments behind Web3 is that decentralization will lead to utopian liberation. But the thing is that we’ve already had a decentralized web some 20 years ago, when it was typical to setup and run your own servers, and websites were coded from scratch more often than not. All the basic trappings of today’s web were there. We had a variety of virtual bulletin boards, blogs, chat rooms, and IM clients since the late 1990s, and ads paid per thousand impressions, like on TV, instead of insisting on detailed per click metrics and automated campaigns based on customized psychographic data. Yet we stopped doing all that over the years for reasons entirely relevant to Web3.
You see, running your own servers really, really sucks. It’s complex, thankless work, and you’re always under attack by hackers. So, when shared hosting, then cloud hosting, became widely available and reliable, jumping to AWS, or Google Cloud, or Azure became a no-brainer. Pay a team of people to manage all your day-to-day hosting chores and mitigate intrusion attempts, and upload your code to “serverless” provisions, or spend all your free time doing it all yourself and hoping StackOverflow helps you after three hours of searches when you run into problems you don’t how to solve? For countless “webmasters” the answer was obvious, which is why we run most things on the cloud these days.
And wouldn’t you know it, a handful of Web3 companies are currently happy to help you with getting into the world of decentralized apps and assets like NFTs in much the same was as any cloud provider, and have been very successful in dominating the market. Basically, they got a group of users to believe that hosting their databases, sites, and files on AWS was bad, while uploading all those assets to the blockchain through them, for a hefty fee, will save the web. This is the aforementioned land grab in action. It’s the digital equivalent of convincing drivers that driving on your toll roads will save puppies, while for every mile you drive on toll roads operated by your competitors, their heartless execs abandon one in the middle of nowhere.
the trouble with blockchains
Of course, this is particularly problematic when we consider that blockchains are massively contributing to global pollution for what is basically no good reason, and that being unable to erase data from it means horrific privacy violations and content like child and revenge porn could never be erased from Web3 sites. The most that can be done is ask not the display the offending blocks but there’s nothing to prevent them from being propagated and eventually viewed and downloaded. Just as bad, if you link the wrong crypto wallet to a Web3 app, or just link enough of them, the public nature of the technology will allow interested third parties to build an ever more detailed profile of you than any social media site could today.
In short, Web3 is promising us ownership of our data and defanging social media platforms to which we’re nothing more than marks for data mining. In reality, it’s asking us to pay endless microtransactions to a small group of middlemen to access bits and bytes we added to a vast, public ledger which never forgets and makes everything we do on Web3 public by default, with the threat of exposing us to the kind of horrors that give social media moderators PTSD, then never being able to scrub those images and videos off the platforms, no matter how necessary, wise, or legally necessary that would be. Oh, but you get to own a URL to a JPEG of an ape, or a robot, or a funky 8bit style image which… doesn’t actually mean anything.
Clearly, over the long term, we absolutely do need to figure out how to own our own data and prevent it from being mined and abused by major companies, and it is dangerous to have just a few giant mega-corporations own and control vast swaths of the internet. But Web3 will never be a viable solution to these problems. It’s honestly hard to think of any aspect of the digital experience that Web3 wouldn’t make worse. Say what you will about our propensity to spend our days glued to our data-mining social media and doomscrolling for hours. But at least we get our dose of doom for free, and it doesn’t add nearly as much to global warming as blockchains, thus prolonging the duration of the doom.