A few days ago, I recommended that Tim O’Reilly invite someone to our next FOO Camp. I thought she had been to a prior FOO event, though I didn’t meet her there; I’d had a prior conversation with her about data governance (I think), and gotten on her mailing list, which reminded me that she was doing very interesting work. I don’t remember who introduced us, except that it was someone who had met her at the earlier FOO event.
That may sound convoluted. That’s the point. This is a very human web. It’s a very small window onto a web of introductions. At the start of almost every FOO camp, Tim says that FOO is about “creating synapses in the global brain.” He’s said many times that he sees his function as introducing people who should know each other. That web of connections—what we used to call the “social graph”—is very broad. It eventually includes all 7+ billion of us. And again, it is intensely human. It’s Web0.
It’s necessary to remind ourselves of that when we talk about Web3. Web3 will succeed, or fail, to the extent that it solves human problems, to the extent that it makes navigating Web0 more tractable—not to the extent that it monetizes everything conceivable, or enables a small number of people to make a financial killing. Making it possible for artists to earn a living is solving a human problem (though we won’t know whether NFTs actually do that until we’re past the initial bubble). Using links that incorporate history to build communities of people who care about the same things, as Chris Anderson suggests, is solving a human problem.
Once we realize that, Web3 isn’t all that different from the earlier generations of the web. Facebook succeeded because it solved a human problem: People want to associate, to congregate. Facebook may have been a poor solution (it certainly became a poor solution after it decided to prioritize “engagement”), but it was a solution. Google succeeded because it solved a different human problem: finding information. The world’s information was radically decentralized, stored in millions of books and websites. At O’Reilly, we made one of the first attempts to manage that rapidly growing mess, but our solution, publishing The Whole Internet and creating a web portal (the industry’s first) based on it, couldn’t scale the way Google did five years later. As Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered, organizing the world’s information was about computing the tree of relationships dynamically. Like Facebook, Google has become less useful over time, as it seems to have compromised its results to “maximize shareholder value.” I would certainly prefer burying monopolies to praising them. But it’s important to think carefully about what they do well. Google and Facebook, like AT&T before them, succeeded because they solved problems that people cared about solving. Their solutions had real lasting value.
Cryptocurrency provides a cautionary tale. Blockchains may be a brilliant solution to the problem of double-spending. But double spending is a problem very few people have, while theft and other financial crimes on the blockchain are growing every day. (Given the rate at which cryptocurrency crime is growing, perhaps we should be glad that double-spend isn’t just another problem on the very long list.) The catalog of failed startups is full of businesses with ideas that were very cool, but didn’t actually solve problems that people care about, or didn’t think through the new problems that they would create. As technologists, we’re unfortunately addicted to the cool and the clever.
Can Web3 make Web0, the web of human interconnections and interests, more manageable? Can it solve human problems, not just abstract computational problems, and do so without creating more problems of its own? Can it help us build new synapses in the human brain, or will it just connect us to people who infuriate us? That’s the challenge Web3 faces. I think it can meet that challenge; but doing so will require developers to understand that blockchains, NFTs, Dapps, and so on are the means, not the ends. They’re the components, not the finished product.