The term “web3” has become the industry standard for the next generation of the internet, and it is, above all, a conceptual framework on which many developers have agreed. It is predicated on the idea that there is an alternative to exploiting users for data in order to make money – and that building in open, expandable ways creates more value for everyone, including the platform. Web3 advocates for a peer-to-peer network that allows users to interact without the use of intermediaries. This next iteration of the web could be powered by blockchain technology and give users greater control over their data. Importantly, there are multiple paths that could get us there and there are more than blockchain-based approaches here, including a number of non-blockchain based frameworks such as Spritely, ACDC, and Backchannel. They rely on data stores tied to local machines rather than global ledgers. Aside from the get-rich-quick schemes that have polluted the space, the organizing principles advocated by “web3,” such as decoupling user data from platforms and tying it back to the individual, could help us rewire the web to make it more cooperative. I’ll explain in a bit what I mean by “cooperative.”
But first, I’d like to point to the Language of New Media, where Lev Manovich thinks of the Internet “as one huge distributed media database,” what Abigail De Kosnik refers to as a “meta archive.” As we swipe and scroll, we are immersed in a rich repository of narratives, characters, worlds, images, graphics, and sounds to which we can ascribe affect and meaning, a “meta archive” from which we can extract raw material for our own creations.
In many ways, what was produced–websites, blog posts, etc. –was merely a record of cultural production, particularly on the read-only web, or “web1” for short. With the rise of the read-write web (“web2”), however, media became the basis of much cultural production. This shift has created new opportunities for artists, musicians, and writers to share their work with a wider audience. It has also allowed for more collaboration between creators and fans. Think, for example, of the many fan fiction writers who have found new homes on web2 platforms. When everything becomes a starting point for new work, the creative possibilities are limitless.
TikTok has mastered this, and ” has recently replaced “User-Generated Content.” It refers to how a creator currently creates content in order to provide a creative foundation for their community to build on. “Just as fans have increasingly become creators by recomposing creators’ work on TikTok, users of DAOs and protocols are increasingly becoming workers as well, helping build out their communities and code as the ability to compose dissolves the lines between consumption and creation,” explains
TikTok has mastered this with the introduction of the term “Community Generated Entertainment,” which took the place of “User Generated Content.” It refers to how a creator currently generates content in order to provide a creative foundation upon which their community can grow. “Just as fans have increasingly become creators by recomposing creators’ work on TikTok, users of DAOs and protocols are increasingly becoming workers as well, helping build out their communities and code as the ability to compose dissolves the lines between consumption and creation,” explains David Phelps.
Notably, a “bottom-up” creation model does not imply that contributors receive economic value throughout the creation and distribution processes. Without a change in the internet’s organizing principles and a shift in how incentives are designed, this could be an even more exploitative model that furthers the hegemonic consolidation of winner-take-all platforms. The true power of web3 technologies, at least in theory, is their ability to reshape how ownership and value are created, shared, and distributed on the Internet.
At the root of this power of “web3” is the trend toward data sovereignty and away from giving platforms control over our data. The internet’s organizing principle, particularly on mobile, has been that the app, rather than the individual, is the foundational element of our digital experience. This organizing principle has made creating systems centered on user ownership extremely difficult. Web3 poses the question, “What would cyberspace be like if we focused on the individual or collective instead?” One in which you, your identity, your assets, your digital goods, and your connections serve as the organizing principle and you can switch between different experiences and devices with ease. In essence, the platform could be repositioned as an individual or a group of individuals.
Acknowledging that the “cryptocurrency” space has been rife with money-driven hype and very inaccessible use cases thus far, “web3” in part represents a shift in consumer demand towards more transparency and consumer control over data. “Code is law” represents a genuine shift in trust away from corporations and legal systems and toward verifiable code. Since the introduction of digital technologies such as blockchain and machine learning, code has become the dominant method for regulating Internet user behavior. Although computer code can more effectively enforce rules than legal code, it has limitations because it is difficult to translate the gray areas and versatility of legal rules into code. Focusing on their online experience, “Code as law” also implies a separation of the individual from the apps they use.
According to Weyl, Ohlhaver, and Buterin’s recent paper, this moves us toward “a network of individuals and communities that come together, as emergent properties of each other, co-determining our future … opening this possibility space is a marked improvement over web2’s authoritarianism and DeFi’s anarcho-capitalism.” DeFi is a term used to describe the decentralized financial system that has emerged, mostly on the Ethereum blockchain. This system is based on the use of smart contracts to enable financial transactions and the creation of new financial instruments. The key features of DeFi are its decentralized nature, openness, and transparency. These features, as well as the excitement of the investor community, have led to the rapid growth of the DeFi ecosystem. In my view, most DeFi projects were built on the premise of trustlessness, but were inherently limited to the realm of wholly transferable private property (usually in the form of transferable tokens) that mostly bundles rights of use, rights to consume or destroy, and rights of profit. This makes a lot of DeFi a “decreasing returns private property paradigm retrofitted onto increasing returns networks,” according to Weyl, Ohlhaver and Buterin. The term “anarcho-capitalism” refers to the fact that DeFi is not controlled by any central authority but instead relies on the community of users to govern itself.
There are many open questions and too much capital flowing into the web3 space, but if we’re able to fend off short-termism, then the fundamentals behind web3 could be our opportunity to regain shared control over our “distributed media database,”… our “meta archive.”
We would do well to remember the cooperative principlesas we continue to build the web3 stack. They provide a sturdy foundation that has supported co-ops for generations, and they could just as easily support our efforts in creating a more equitable internet. Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles and see how we can apply them in our work! Web3 has brought with it new opportunities for cooperatives to thrive and grow, but in order to do so, we need to deepen our understanding of these principles and investigate how we can genuinely build on them. Are there any specific ways you think the cooperative principles could be applied to web3 projects? What are your research interests in these areas? Please share them!
I am grateful to be a part of the PCC/ICDE research community and look forward to learning more with all of you.
I’d like to thank past collaborators who’ve helped shape much of my thinking here, including David Phelps, Harry Sanabria, John Deighton, Leora Kornfeld, Reid Williams, Scott Kominers, Sari Azout, and Trebor Scholz.
Image credit: Pushy Push by Ropp Schouten