Social media has become a cornerstone of our lives, making it difficult to imagine the future of the Internet. However, a brief glimpse into the Internet of the past explains not only the current shape of the web but why some people believe it needs to shift to curtail some of the sacrifices we’ve become accustomed to over the past few decades.
Welcome to the Web — 1.0
Web 1.0 was the first stage of the Internet. It was a bit like the wild wild west–or web. The web looked and operated much differently from the Internet as we know it today. Websites consisted of static Web pages that were often hand-coded, so only the most intrepid geeks were creating content with HTML and Server Side Includes or CGI scripts, which meant pages offered little interaction.
Finding websites also differed. Search engines, as we know them, didn’t exist. Instead, web admins could list their websites in directories. However, listing depended on approval. Often, you might browse every link on a web page to find other interesting or useful sites. Webrings, which were small directories that often focused on specific niches, were one way you could get traffic to your site or find sites of interest.
The Interactive Web 2.0
Web 2.0 ushered in major changes. It was easier to find, create, and interact with websites, one reason why it’s been called the “participative social web.” Site owners could communicate directly via comments on their pages. This shift signaled the rise of social media, where users could communicate with each other without going to specific sites about a given topic. Instead, they could discuss any topic within the confines of Myspace, Twitter, or Facebook, which all allow(ed) users to easily create pages to which they can add content.
During the early years of Web 2.0, RSS feeds were quite popular. Adding a feed to your feed reader enabled you to get the latest updates from your favorite websites as they added new content. News websites and blogs offered RSS feeds, for example. While RSS still exists, the prominence of social media as a way to stay up-to-date with new content has pushed RSS feeds to the sideline.
Search engines also rose to power in the era of Web 2.0. Never had it been so easy to find what you were looking for online or to have others find you. This is an important factor in the web becoming user-friendly to just about anyone, regardless of their familiarity with technology. As a result, site owners who recognized the utility of search engines began to look for ways to rise through the ranks, setting the foundation for search engine optimization or SEO.
Progressing to Web 3.0
Experts knew the next wave of the web was on its way as soon as 2006 when people first started talking about Web 3.0. You’re likely familiar with many of its practices, even if you aren’t familiar with the technology that powers Web 3.0. As time progressed, smartphones joined the fray with their apps. We’ve seen the difference between “desktop” and “mobile” operating systems and apps shrink over the years. Broadband Internet gave way to the cloud, allowing users to perform more activities in their browsers than ever. Google even released Chromebooks, slim laptops that run on Chrome OS, entirely based on the company’s browser.
Aside from lightning-fast connections, data requires massive server farms to store. Although primarily known as an online marketplace, Amazon has accrued most of its revenue through renting server space to other companies. As long as you have a connection, you can access data from anywhere in the world. Thus, Web 3.0 is known as a decentralized internet.
Behind the scenes, web services are joined by semantic markup. This markup bridges the gap between the language people use and those used by computers. Thanks to semantic markup, apps “understand” what content is important. Semantic markup is responsible for many answers to your questions appearing directly on the search engines results page without you having to visit other sites.
Now able to understand what’s essential, computers are smarter than ever. Cameras can identify people in airports, identity when you’re taking a picture of a cat, or translate text on a screen, all of which reflect this “intelligence.” Furthermore, machines can make connections between people, places, things, and events. Computers understand our world through Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, which means that computers may be making more decisions than you realize.
Web 2.0 paved the way for companies to collect massive amounts of data, analyzed in a field known as big data. Thanks to this data, you get personalized advertisements that track your behavior online, and brands constantly strive to engage users to remain visible. Of course, this hasn’t happened without raising some privacy concerns. Our phones are far from the only smart devices in our homes, and it isn’t easy to exist in society without being the source of some of this data. Portability and personalization are hallmarks of Web 3.0, and some are happy to sacrifice a bit of privacy for this convenience.
A Different Future for Web3
However, some people envision a different direction for Web 3.0, sometimes known as “Web3.” As long as the Internet remains decentralized, it’s possible to remove those middlemen who control information to create a more equitable internet. You won’t have to log onto Google or Facebook to get information. Proponents don’t want a future without search engines or social media. Those sites have their utility, after all. Instead, they want versions without corporate overlords that benefit by abusing their users’ data.
Although Web3 hasn’t yet come to fruition, the technology that would power it already exists, the blockchain is a system that has so far been used to generate, track, trade, and manage cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. However, the blockchain can be used for much more than just crypto. It can be the backbone of a peer-to-peer network on which open-source platforms run. Users can move from social media to shopping to other sites, each time earning tokens for their activities. Thus, users will have a stake in everything they do online without the rules, costs, or regulations that currently exist on sites and services owned by corporations.
Fans of this movement, including instructor Mat Dryhurst of New York University, describe a future where users have a single account that carries all of their information with them no matter what site or service they’re using. This essentially knocks down walls built by the corporations that currently control your online experience. With Web3, users will finally be able to take back their power. Imagine if you are the person who controls all your data and can choose if and when to sell it.
Web3 is finally becoming less theoretical and more reality. For instance, Twitter is researching how it might allow users to sign in with cryptocurrency accounts instead of Twitter accounts. A successful Web3 won’t entirely supplant the Internet as we know it, however. Web 2.0 will continue to run simultaneously, giving those who don’t want to use the blockchain a familiar alternative. Like Twitter, other companies will likely incorporate elements of Web3 into their products to remain relevant and satisfy users.
The Future of the Web Is Still Uncertain
This future won’t come without risks and challenges, of course. For example, the Biden administration is considering regulations for crypto, the blockchain, and related technologies that may hamper the utopia envisioned by fans of Web3. On the other hand, the ability to do what you want appeals to those who don’t have others’ best interests in mind. Web3 can look like a haven to those who want to build communities based around antagonistic ideologies such as white nationalism. Currently, many platforms strike down such content that can be categorized as hate speech, but those regulations may not exist if Web3 becomes as big as some people hope.
Still, proponents believe Web3 will allow for some self-regulation because it evens the playing field. Although Google, Amazon, and Facebook may be here to stay, they won’t be nearly as powerful when blockchain-based alternatives become an option. That’s a benefit that most people can agree with.