In the more than 30 years since the digital revolution swept through marketing, most of us have adapted to the ever-present change inherent in what has become a technology-driven profession. But there remains a sense that we’ve lost something crucial – that creativity and true connection with our customers has been replaced by an ever more inscrutable system of tech-mediated platforms. We pour billions each year into media-tech giants like Google and Meta, and yet we yearn for a world where technology enables our business, rather than dictating it.
Wasn’t that the promise of the Internet, after all – a one-to-one relationship with our customers, at scale?
Where did that promise go?
Marketers aren’t the only ones asking this question. Every so often a new set of ideas emerges from the world of tech that feels like a sea change. The World Wide Web – sometimes referred to as “the Open Internet” – was the first of these shifts. The second was the mobile phone, and with it the rise of social media and its data-rich platforms, yielding to us the framework under which we now labor.
It’s that framework – which many now call “Web2” – that has birthed many of our most existential concerns: The public’s fear of surveillance capitalism, lawmakers’ perception of oligarchy amongst the platform giants, and most importantly, our own loss of agency given our dependence upon them*. In short, the technology industry feels ripe for a shift away from its current state of play.
If you’ve read this far, you already know that this shift now has a name: Web3. So, what is Web3, and why does it matter to marketing professionals? And most importantly: What problem is Web3 trying to solve?
A Matter of Philosophy
At its core, Web3 is a philosophy. That might sound like a non sequitur – isn’t Web3 supposed to be about technological marvels like the blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and “the metaverse” – whatever that is? Well, yes, and we’ll get to that in later columns, but to understand Web3, we must also understand its core beliefs – and to not too fine a point on it, those beliefs align with an arguably radical return to the original philosophy of the Internet, best summarized by one word: Decentralization.
I’m simplifying here, and Web3 is a complicated topic (one that’s currently undergoing its own version of the dot com crash, but that’s another post). In short, the technologists, pundits, and proponents of Web3 believe our current technological landscape is broken, largely due to the consolidation of economic value driven by the rise of large platform players like Google, Amazon, Apple and Meta/Facebook. While they’ve driven unprecedented value for shareholders and consumers alike, today’s Internet giants have done so by employing an approach diametrically opposed to the original values of the Internet.
And what are those original values? First among them is decentralization. Internet originalists believe the power to innovate and to create value should lie with end users, not with centralized platforms or corporations. A second value is openness, also known as portability – that users, entrepreneurs, brands, and anyone else can move fluidly around the Internet, bringing with them their data, their preferences, and their resources without fear of being locked into any one platform or organization. Another key value is interoperability – that companies and platforms adhere to a transparent set of protocols and standards that allow for robust exchange of value across the Internet. A related value is composability – that various services and programs can be combined, again through technological standards, to create ever more innovative and valuable systems.
A Better Future
In the end, the central philosophical pillar of Web3 is decentralization. As Web3 proponent (and prolific investor) Chris Dixon puts it: “Centralized platforms have been dominant for so long that many people have forgotten there is a better way to build Internet services.” The building blocks of Web3 – blockchains, token-based currency projects like Bitcoin and Ethereum, distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs), non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – are all part of a growing movement to remake the Internet free of centralized control. Will it work? Again, those are topics for future posts.
But should marketers pay attention? Absolutely.
From privacy concerns to measurement, brand safety to increasingly impossible creative constraints (who can tell a brand story in .7 seconds?!) – I’ve lost count of how many senior marketers have privately complained to me about the stranglehold Internet giants hold over their budgets, their go to market strategies, and their connections to customers. Publicly, CMOs are more cautious – we’re all afraid of the market power the platforms hold. But who amongst us wouldn’t like to see the status quo upended by a new wave of innovation that puts power back in the hands of consumers?
*This ultimate definition of “Web2” differs massively from the original vision of Web2 that Tim O’Reilly and I pursued through our Web2 Summit series of events and white papers back in 2004-11.