The Fundamental Ideological Divide Between Web2 and Web3
January 27th, 2022

Hey folks, it’s Sylve. I’m currently building briq, a protocol to build and combine NFTs easily. Today I want to deep-dive on a fundamental ideological divergence between Web2 and Web3 communities and how it can help us better understand why people are so vocal against blockchain technology.

In this article I’ll use Web3 to broadly refer to communities and projects arguing for decentralization of ownership through blockchain technology, and Web2 to communities and projects endemic to the “normal” part of the Internet, such as Tumblr, Reddit or Wikipedia. FOSS will refer to Free and open-source software.

The current line of argument in favor of Web3, especially NFTs, is that they’re the only alternative against predatory centralized ownership systems. You either get a decentralized record of ownership on the blockchain by registering an NFT, or Facebook will gobble up your immortal soul in their scary centralized databases.

@punk6529 exemplifies this position:

Some Web3 critics take a wholly different stance on the topic by arguing that you don’t need record of ownership, or even ownership at all, on the Internet.

The argument is the following: the Internet is not based on property but abundance. Native digital content has the very weird property of being naturally abundant. If you create a GIF or a JPEG you can generate unlimited copies of it and distribute it to everyone. Unlimited stock. Cornucopia of copy/paste. Internet communities have flourished on the premise of remixing and sharing content for free with others, and it works really well: memes, copypastas, webcomics, emerged because of this. Therefore, if the Internet is based on abundance, why would you divide up the commons and sell them? Why would you introduce scarcity? Why would you introduce property? Why must you be so greedy?

This is reminiscent of Rousseau:

"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality

A recent tweet by @eevee, a Web2 content creator, follows this line of reasoning and got a large engagement on both side of the debate. It’s an interesting read to understand this critique of Web3.

The truth is, copyright already exists and the Internet was never truly free. But there is indeed a quasi anarchistic or communistic ethos lying at the heart of the Internet. We can’t deny the counterculture’s influence on the initial dreams of what the Internet could be (From Counterculture to Cyberculture, What the Dormouse Said). That’s where the expression “Information wants to be free comes from.

And history tells us we don't need records of ownership, token incentives, ICOs, or even money, to build impressive projects. Think about what has been achieved by the FOSS movement: Linux, Wikipedia are testament to the heritage of this ethos. The blockchain community cannot forget that we built most of the incredible stuff the Internet runs on with no records of ownership or money.

If someone were to build Wikipedia again today the first comment from Web3 folks would be: “where are the token incentives, why would people spend time to write articles, NGMI”. Turns out people like creating stuff and handing it out for free. To be more precise, an elite minority of insane super-creators make up most of the content creation on the Internet.

So when someone comes around and says "let's build token incentives, let's build DAOs and structure everything" it triggers a knee-jerk reaction from these communities. “It worked well so far, why do you want to change it? How is this making anything better?”

This is why I don’t necessarily like Web3 as a definition of the blockchain technological paradigm. It is not a necessary strict improvement compared to what came before, it’s not an optimization, it’s a choice. It’s a technological paradigm that enables creating what was previously impossible (native digital ownership for example) but this does not entail that it is strictly superior to the ways of the past or that it will replace it.

I like to compare blockchain technology to a sort of uchronia, an alternate version of history where ownership exists natively on the Internet. Imagine just how different the world would be if we had invented blockchain technology in the 90s.

Turns out we’re living in a version of history where ownership doesn’t natively exist on the Internet, and looking back that's pretty weird. But we had to make do. This is why we have the attention economy, ad-based business model and centralized records of ownership. It has its flaws, yes, but we built a lot of stuff under these constraints.

I would argue that @eevee’s argument is a tad naive. In the end, to monetize content the Internet, you only have three ways:

  1. (trying to) enforce a copyright: this is where Web3 and FLOSS agree that this is subpar. Copyrights are omnipresent on the Internet precisely because it’s one of the only way to make money with naturally abundant content. If you make create digital art, nothing is stopping someone else from copying it and selling it. Nothing except the threat of copyright infringement and sometimes a DRM.
  2. be paid to create new content: this is what Stallman said in 1984. This is also why we have Patreon, commission art, and ever increasing supply of incredibly specific furry porn.
  3. advertisement: slap an advertisement on top of your video or preach the gospel of NordVPN. This option applies most to content creators like Youtubers rather than digital artists.

NFTs offer a new to make money: sell the digital originals of a piece of content.

NFTs are a way to represent scarcity natively on the Internet: they are like digital object that you can sell just like you’d sell a painting. Creating an NFT does not entail closing down access to the content. I see NFTs as a new option and a very natural way to monetize abundance on the Internet. This is what the CC0 NFT movement is trying to achieve: publish a work of art in the public domain to allow anyone to reuse, remix and copy it as much as they want, and inscribe the record ownership on the blockchain to be able to monetize it.

NFT collections actually follow different intellectual property strategies, and content creators are free to choose whichever fits their needs. For example:

  • Don’t grant rights to the NFT holder: buying a Cryptopunk or a Cryptokitty does not grant you any rights on the intellectual property, it belongs to the parent company.
  • Grant some rights to the NFT holder: buying a Bored Ape will actually grant you rights to produce and make money out of derivative products.
  • Don’t grant any right to anyone (CC0): buying a Noun or a CrypToadz will not grant you any right as the IP is in the public domain.

You can keep on creating content just like before. You now also have the option to create NFTs to sell it. It’s not antithetical. If you’re selling prints of your art, you could also be selling NFTs.

To take a concrete example: Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, released them for everyone to reuse, and sold NFTs of the source code.

As he puts it:

“This is totally aligned with the values of the web,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian. “The questions I’ve got, they said: ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like the free and open web.’ Well, wait a minute, the web is just as free and just as open as it always was. The core codes and protocols on the web are royalty free, just as they always have been. I’m not selling the web – you won’t have to start paying money to follow links.

“I’m not even selling the source code. I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python programme that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me.

*“If they felt that me selling an NFT of a poster is inappropriate, then what about me selling a book? I do things like that, which involve money, but the free and open web is still free and open.”

Source: The Guardian

There’s no fundamental difference between a token-gated community like FWB and a Patreon. I’d argue that a token-gated community gives more control to both the content creators and the fans compared to Patreon as they can’t be censored by a centralized authority. As porn is increasingly censored on social networks, Web3 offers a viable alternative for some communities.

In the end I believe there’s room for both frameworks. Just like video didn’t actually kill the radio stars (podcasts anyone?), Web3 will not kill Web2.

Digital ownership will not kill abundance.

Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.

Robert Nozick, book Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Or as @damedoteth says:

So when you hear blockchain critics say that "we don't need blockchain", try to understand where they come from rather than build a strawman argument that they're necessarily advocating for full deluxe data centralization. They might be saying "we've built so much stuff without it, I don’t understand what it can bring to the table".

They might be saying that Web3 has everything to prove compared to Web2.

And they would be right.

So let’s continue building.

Special thanks to my co-founder @wraitii for the brainstorms, careful reviews, and for teaching me the difference between FOSS and FLOSS.

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