Web3 – but Who’s Counting?

by | Jan 24, 2022 | 2022, data architecture, data ethics, data value

In any long-term technology trend, there comes a point, or points, if the trend goes on long enough, where there seems to be a sort of ‘sea change’ in how the world views the technology; a change in expectations in the general population. Sometimes we even give those moments a name. (By “we,” I mean pundits, publishers, analysts, thought leaders, people who write about technology.)

Sometimes these inflection points really catch on, and sometimes they are just “marketing hype.” You can really only know in retrospect. 

Such was the case with “Web 2.0” 

Web 2.0 and the Rise of Social Networking

Back around 2005, it was pretty clear that something different was happening with the Web; at the very least, it was no longer possible to wonder seriously whether the Web was here to stay. It was much more common to compare the significance of the web to that of the Gutenberg press. 

But exactly what had changed in Web technology, adoption patterns, approach and business models wasn’t clear. Looking back, the days when “Web 2.0” was trending was the beginning of what we now think of as Social Networking; the rise of platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, the expectation among millions of people that their entire social lives could be lived online. It was no longer a question of whether you had an online presence, but where; different platforms became associated with different generations, styles, and even approaches to life. 

Now we are hearing about “Web3” — or “Web 3.0,” as some call it — and just as was the case for Web 2.0, there’s a good chance that any technological definition of “Web3” will miss the mark. (No 2005 definition of Web 2.0 included “Facebook”, even as an example.)

Today’s definitions of Web3 often include notions like Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies and NFTs; these things probably won’t turn out to be the hallmarks of the Web3 change, any more than RSS or Flickr seem appropriate markers for Web 2.0.

A much more durable way to think about these turning points is the change of attitudes of the users of the technology; for Web 2.0, it was a change in the web from being a publishing platform, with a few content creators and millions of content consumers, to a participatory platform, where everyone is both producer and consumer. The technologies of the day that enabled that change have largely been supplanted by newer ones, but that change also changed the way we think about the web. 

The Hallmarks of Web3

So what, if anything, is the change that is going on today? First off, users of the web are becoming more mature in their consideration of privacy and the importance of user data. Just about everyone has a creepy story of how Facebook or Google or some online service seems to know an uncanny amount about their habits and preferences — all garnered from data gathered according to inscrutable license agreements. 

The realization that participation in free platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and Amazon is actually paid for with data about your own life, has become commonplace. The ways in which that data can be used to impact important parts of our lives became apparent during the Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal.

More and more users find themselves of two minds in terms of data management; they want to share their data on an organized platform, but, at the same time, they want to retain ownership of their data. This is (apparently) a contradiction, since that data has to be hosted somewhere, and whoever pays for that hosting will have control over it. 

But the contradiction is only apparent, and hence we usher in a new way of viewing the web, a Web3 — a truly distributed web, where data interacts with other data, regardless of who hosts it or where. A web in which a data owner — that is, any private citizen, corporation, or any agent — can host their data anywhere, and can even change their mind, and stop sharing it altogether, would return control over data to where it belongs; with the data originator. 

There are technologies today that can support some part of this vision; probably none of them will succeed in the form they are in today, but they show some of the ways that these contradictory requirements can be simultaneously met. 

Technologies supporting the vision of Web3

Blockchain is one such technology; it is often touted as the technological harbinger of Web3 (“The Technical Basis of Web3 is blockchain,” but it really only satisfies part of the requirements that are driving Web3. And maybe not even that.) Blockchain doesn’t belong to any one company on the web, and in that sense, removes the centralized control over user data that we see today. But part of the value of blockchain in managing things like cryptocurrencies and NFTs is the immutable nature of it; you can’t make changes in an immutable ledger. Blockchain can’t be the whole story. 

No treatment of Web3 can be complete  — though many of them leave it out — without mention of SOLID, the approach pioneered by Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. SOLID was developed specifically in response to the commercial centralization of so much of the web. The fact that Facebook had ownership of the data required for the Cambridge Analytica fiasco was already a failing; the web was originally a distributed platform, but something happened to de-distribute it, putting all the data into a few places. 

The idea behind SOLID is that data would live in distributed pods, and each data creator would be able to provision or decommission a pod of their own data, having ultimate control over it. But the pods themselves are distributed in a smooth and transparent manner; no matter where or how my pod is hosted, the web of data behaves the same. It only changes if I remove my pod, in which case, it behaves the same, only without the benefit of my data. 

The key is distributed data

Regardless of the technology that eventually supports Web3, the key will be distribution; data can’t be trapped in a single place. Let me give you an example: data.world may seem like a Web 2.0 application. It’s collaborative, users generate content in the form of data and analysis, which can be loaded into our servers. That can feel like handing over control. However, unlike the case for today’s data brokers — Facebook, Amazon, etc. — you didn’t give up rights to your data; it is still yours to modify, restrict, or even delete at your discretion. 

More technically, data.world is built on the Semantic Web standards. This means that if you don’t want your data hosted by data.world, that’s just fine. Host it under some other SPARQL endpoint, give data.world a pointer to your data, and it will behave just the same as if it were hosted with us. Deny access to that endpoint — or just remove it — and it’s gone. 

This is not to say that data.world is the solution to Web3, here today; far from it. We still don’t really know what Web3 will turn out to be. But one thing is for certain — any Web3 platform will have to play in a world of distributed data. 

We can no longer just pretend that our data isn’t distributed and worry about that later; distribution of data is key to Web3. And data.world is ready to play in a distributed data world.

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