Does Web3 Matter To Marketers?

Over at LinkedIn I’ve published a short piece on Web3 – a primer of sorts for the many marketing pals who’ve asked me “does this shit matter!?”. As I do with everything I pen, I’ve posted it here as well. (image credit)


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there remains a sense that we’ve lost something crucial – that creativity and true connection with our customers has been replaced by an ever more inscrutable system of tech-mediated platforms.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. 

 

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On Building A Better Web: The Marlinspike Threads

If you want to follow the debate about crypto’s impact on society, which I believe is one of the most important topics in tech today, you better sharpen your Twitter skills – most of the interesting thinking is happening across Twitter’s decidedly chaotic platform. I’ve been using the service for nearly 15 years, and I still find it difficult to bring to heel. When following a complex topic, I find myself back where I started – in a draft blog post, trying to pull it all together.

That’s where I’ve been this past weekend as I watched the response to a thoughtful post from Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike.  (And yes, the fact that the Twitter conversation was driven by a blog post is not lost on me…)

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A Draft Syllabus For The Rabbit Hole

(image) The most common complaint I hear from friends and colleagues who are interested in the crypto/web3 world is how hard it is to “get smart” on the topic – for a neophyte, there’s just so much noise and precious little signal. Sure, you might dive headfirst into crypto Twitter – but the experience is both jarring and unproductive (ditto that for crypto-related Discord servers).

I’ve been exploring crypto for enough time to have developed a point of view on a handful of people and resources I trust to help me make sense of what is an increasingly fractious and confusing space. Below is a first draft of what I hope will evolve into a more polished “syllabus” of sorts for smart folks interested in getting smarter. This is purposefully not complete – the list could have been much, much longer. Please comment, email, or hit me up on Twitter with additional suggestions, and I’ll incorporate them as I can. And one caveat: I’m reading in this space with an eye toward crypto’s impact on tech, society, and governance. This list is *not* created with an eye toward investing in either currencies or NFTs. There’d be an entirely different set of resources for that task!

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Let’s Argue About Web3!

Popcorn in  hand, I’ve been watching the recent religious war between tech leaders, and I find it all quite…wonderful. It’s been a while since we’ve had this level of disagreement about the future of what we used to call “our industry,” and as long as the debate remains relatively civil, I’m here for it. Then again, we’ve already seen trolling (Elon Musk), blocking (Marc Andreessen), and shitposting (Jack Dorsey) from some of the biggest names in tech. But hey, at least the arguments are getting aired out.

So what are we arguing about? In short, the future. Nothing is more sacred in the world of tech – the industry has defined and owned the future’s brand for as long as I can remember. Arguing about how that future might play out used to be a full time gig for many of us. It was at the center of our editorial mission at Wired – to paraphrase founding editor Louis Rossetto, our job was “to make a magazine that felt like it was mailed back from the future.” But around a decade ago, arguments about the future subsided – what was the point, given that future had consolidated into a handful of technology titans like Facebook, Tesla, Apple, Google, Netflix and Amazon? Whatever gifts or perils the future might bring, one thing was certain: The tech giants owned it. Where’s the fun in that?

This turn of events was profoundly dispiriting for some, particularly those of us who had taken the red pill at the dawn of the commercial internet. Sure, I moderated a conference on Web2, and I wrote a book on search and Google, so watching Web2 businesses grow into the most successful firms in the history of business was … cool, for a while. But by 2012 or so, I had lost the optimism and excitement I once had for the industry. It felt like our dreams for a better world had been hijacked by centralized models of capital, and the future had become predictable again. Boring.

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Predictions 2021: How’d I Do? Pretty Damn Well.

As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year.  As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…

My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar.  A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power.  A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.

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