Is web3 bullshit?
And is that even the right question?
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Is web3 bullshit? The hazy vision of new decentralized internet, built on the blockchain, to succeed the "Web 2.0" of Google and Facebook seems to be reaching a threshold of ambient cultural awareness such that non-tech pundits, news-engaged normies, magazine editors, uncles, online attention-seekers etc., feel the need to weigh in on the question.
Here, for example, is Adam Davidson, former host of Planet Money, sometime New Yorker writer, and recent web3 convert, detailing his journey "From contemptuous to indifferent to curious to pretty damn excited" about web3, and then, in response to unnamed "haters," making a list of "Real world problems that web3 could solve—at least for me."
Here's another crypto convert, Will Wilkinson, the Last Tolerable Libertarian Besides Radley Balko, making the case that crypto is "totally legit and crypto/blockchain networks really might be technologically, economically, and politically transformative."
Here's a new piece in New York magazine (my former employers) called "A Normie's Guide to Becoming a Crypto Person." Admittedly this is not exactly an advocacy piece, nor does it make strong predictions, but let's say it's a data point about the cultural position of crypto and web31.
Squared up against these proselytizers and converts are prominent and forceful skeptics: Elon Musk, for example, as you can see above. Here's author Robin Sloan's extremely skeptical "Notes on Web3"; if you want something more heated there's this scornful take on web3 from the programmer Stephen Diehl, and a couple Twitter threads from Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski.
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Trying to keep track of this argument — understanding the positions, remembering the people, and zeroing in on the Savvy Take — can be frustrating, especially because if you dip your toe in on Twitter there's a decent chance you will end up reading, I don't know, a thread claiming that web3 is the future of the labor movement. Luckily for you if you're receiving this email, at some point soon I'm going to write an Official Read Max Syllabus and Opinionated Guide to Web3 and Associated Technologies and Personalities for subscribers, since this is a newsletter about the future and web3 appears to be, at the very least, "the short-term future of arguments about tech," if not the long-term future architecture of the entire internet.
For now, though, for my benefit as much as readers', I want to see if I can articulate my general understanding of the discourse around web3 and sketch out what I think is going on. I am not going to answer the question "is web3 bullshit?" definitively here, though I am going to try to ask it in a more productive way.
So, first, a refresher. In general you can understand "web3" as describing two things. One, it's a set of technologies based on the blockchain, the distributed, unfalsifiable record first described and built by Satoshi Nakamoto for Bitcoin in 2009. (In this sense "web3" is basically a V.C. rebrand of "crypto.") Two, it's a whole vision of The Internet of the Future: a world of decentralized, user-owned apps, sites, businesses, communities, and groups, related to but not necessarily identical to "the metaverse."
Will Wilkinson describes web3 as "deeply polarizing." Davidson says he "didn’t realize just how much some people despise the very idea of the blockchain and web3." If you click around on Twitter a bit, it's very easy to see this polarization in action, probably most visibly around NFTs, the ownable and tradable digital objects, and the ongoing Twitter battles between NFT collectors and enthusiasts and the "right-clickers" who profess bafflement at the willingness of a bunch of doofs to spend thousands of bucks or more on a receipt for a JPEG.
But, OK, what is the root disagreement, exactly? The way I read it there are two broad "is web3 bullshit?" debates, not just one, centered around the following questions:
Can the blockchain do anything that other currently existing technology cannot do and/or do anything better or more efficiently than other currently existing technology?
Will the blockchain form the architecture of the internet of the future (i.e. "web3"), and/or will blockchain-native companies and organizations become important and powerful?
So, you have true believers like Wilkinson, Davidson, and Andreessen Horowitz investor Chris Dixon, who'd answer "yes, yes" because they believe both that the blockchain represents a qualitative step forward in technological progress and that it will be foundational to the web for years to come. And you have haters like Ceglowski and Diehl, who believe "no, no" — that the blockchain offers nothing new or worthwhile (if it offers anything at all), and that, therefore, it will never provide the foundation for anything.
But a "yes" for one question doesn't have to lead to a "yes" for the other. Steve Randy Waldman, for example, takes up the "yes, no" position in this post, arguing that crypto has "a tremendous range of new applications" but is ultimately a "transitional technology" whose artifacts won't "endure and dominate in the way that their proponents imagine and hope," and are likely to be co-opted by existing legal and financial structures. There are also "Bitcoin maximalists," true believers in the originary idea of competing, blockchain-based digital monetary regimes who are skeptical that a Silicon Valley-sponsored "web3" is a fulfillment of Satoshi Nakamoto's vision.
And it's also very possible to be a "no, yes": to believe that the blockchain is not a particular technological leap, that its uses are redundant or narrow, but that nonetheless, thanks to the cultural and economic forces arrayed behind it, it is likely to play some kind of infrastructurally important role regardless of its technical novelty or merit. My sense is that many people charged with web3 "skepticism" live here: It's certainly the position I gravitate towards.
Okay, so, we have a kind of pedantic schema here. What's the point?
First, I think as we argue about and think through "web3" it's probably important to decouple (to whatever extent possible) the more narrow (and in some cases unresolvable) technical questions about the blockchain (what does it do and what might it be used for?) from the broad political-economic or cultural questions2: who is participating in, sponsoring, and getting rich off of web3 technologies? What is the particular political or economic dynamic that makes the blockchain attractive? Given this, what will it be used for? If there's one thing the last couple decades have taught us, it's that the fundamental value, quality, or innovation presented by a particular technology is not necessarily correlated with its broad overall success; an assessment of the bullshitness of the blockchain in either direction needs to take into account the socio-political-economic scene in which the blockchain is developing. (This is, I guess, another way into Hussein Kesvani's argument that "The Left Should Talk About Cryptocurrency.")
Second, I think it's worth noting a distinction between the two "is web3 bullshit?" questions: While the first question is the kind of open-ended technical question that is difficult to definitively resolve to everyone's satisfaction, the second has a relatively narrow scope and condition. Either web3 will "win," or it won't; it has an outcome you can bet on. Put another way, the first question divides between skeptics and enthusiasts. The second question divides between bulls and bears.
Something that has frustrated me so far about the debate over web3 is the extent to which it's articulated in the latter terms — those of a prediction market, basically. Skeptics of the web3 future are understood to be "bears"; enthusiasts are, naturally, "bulls." This is not really that rare online, where basically all discourse is subconsciously understood to be people taking speculative positions on various topics (called "takes") against the value of their online brand, but it's particularly acute in the web3 world, where every project and community is blockchain-based, and all of your beliefs can be and usually are securitized into crypto tokens that can rise and fall in value3.
So I suppose I'm presenting this little crypto opinions matrix as an effort to carve out a space for skepticism that's unconnected to a predictive position — skepticism not necessarily of the likelihood of a web3 future, but of the culture, values, and especially the backers of the web3 world. (The only falsifiable prediction I'm willing to make is that ten years from now, Chris Dixon and the Winklevoss Twins will be much richer than me, and my quality of life will be the same, or worse.) You find a lot of writers right now asking, essentially, why bet against Andreessen Horowitz? Which I understand! But my feeling is also: Why do I have to bet at all?! Why am I in this awful, ugly, unfun casino in the first place?? Is there a way out of the casino?? And if not, can I at least just get slowly tanked on free booze and annoy people with a reminder that the house always wins?
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Four years ago, at the height of 2017's Bitcoin mania, I helped write and edit a similarly normie-oriented package about Bitcoin and the blockchain. My memory is that Bitcoin crashed the day after we closed the print magazine, before it had even appeared on newsstands. Whoops!
Arguably the real innovation of the blockchain seems to me to be at least as cultural as it is technical, in its spooky ability to gather and organize a group of incredibly motivated people and continuously reward them for spreading the gospel of the blockchain.
The characteristic innovation of web3 is that it securitizes everything. Under the web3 regime, every business, every institution, every community, every group, every project is bounded and structured by crypto tokens — "shares" you can sell on decentralized crypto markets. Your token's price will rise as your web3 project becomes attractive to outsiders who'd like to participate, or invest. In theory, this incentivizes project participants to work hard to complete or improve the project; in practice, as is sometimes the case in markets, it also seems to encourage participants to "talk their book," promoting their projects so as to draw the attention and money of speculators.