There’s a new buzzword on the tech horizon, joining the ranks of AI, robots and Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. I am of course talking about Web 3, or – as many people think of it now – THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET.

…Or is the future the Metaverse? Or IS the Metaverse Web 3? The truth is no one really knows, and that’s because, in reality, neither yet exists.

In a way, Web 3 sounds pretty rudimentary (are we only on Web 3? We’re already on the iPhone 13!) But remember we are talking about the concept of the web itself: the way it is structured and governed. For a system born alongside Taylor Swift, it’s done well to have two iterations, let alone three. In the space of thirty odd years, that’s a lot of reinvention.

So… the big question… What IS Web 3?

Let’s start at the beginning. Before we try and define web 3, let’s ask ourselves: what exactly is the web? Here’s a definition:

The world wide web is an interconnected network of public pages, available through the internet.

Available through the internet. I’ve highlighted this because we often use the terms “internet” and “web” interchangeably, but they actually refer to different things. Whereas the internet is a network of connected computers, the web is a collection of pages accessible via the internet. i.e. the internet provides the infrastructure on which the world wide web sits.

Why is this important?

It’s important because the web, as it was conceived early on, was about the readability of pages. Web 1 (or Web OG, as I like to call it) is often called the “read only” web, and that’s because it was seen as a static resource. Really, it was a kind of digital book, or collection of books. We call webpages, well, pages. And early web sites were just text-based, allowing users to simply look at content.

 

Here is a screenshot of the first ever webpage (taken in 1992, as there were no screenshots before this time).

 

The web is described as an initiative giving access to “a large universe of documents”, and this was the idea. A small group of users could upload information as webpages, and a larger group of users would have access to those pages. Academic roots underpinned all of this: the web was a resource for knowledge and data. Best of all, that knowledge was free.

So what changed between Web 1 and Web 2?

In a nutshell, Web OG became socialized. Around the time that Taylor Swift discovered boys (and lots of them), Web OG also threw off its studious credentials. It went to parties, drank alcohol, and had that first sweet SWEET drag of a cigarette. Okay, not exactly – but it did become more social, emphasising user-generated content and a participatory culture.

Web 2.0 is also commonly referred to as the “social web”. Under the umbrella of the social web sits interactive web applications (e.g. Google Docs), video sharing sites (Youtube), blogs (WordPress) and social media sites like Instagram, Pinterest and, of course, Facebook. Yes, in the early 2000s, Mark Zuckerberg makes his debut on the Web 2.0 scene.

Web 2.0 describes, for the most part, the current state of the world wide web. Rather than a “new web”, something to replace the old, the social and user-generated platforms are built on top of the existing OG structures. We still use the web for its readability. The difference is users, on a mass scale, can generate and interact with content. Web 2 (whether we like it or not) is a voice for the people. In political terms, it’s a democracy. Everyone has a say.

Or do they?

The problem with Web 2 is that, whereas users can participate in “conversation” and generate their own content, much of the control lies in the hands of (yes I’m going to use the term) TECH GIANTS. They hardly need mentioning, but for those living in a cave they are companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. It’s unclear how much data these companies own individually. Collectively it’s estimated to be over 1000 petabytes. A petabyte equals around a million gigabytes (it goes kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, terabyte, petabyte). Basically, it’s a lot of bytes.

With web 1, users were taking content from the internet; with web 2, we are giving it. But what are we, as users, actually giving? Well, we upload photos of our cats. And little thoughts on Twitter. We give away our names, phone numbers; on Google Maps we announce our whereabouts. On Facebook we “like” political posts – or perhaps not. Perhaps we show that we are angry. Yes, angry, sad, happy – with emoticons, we hand over our feelings – and that’s not all. The creators of Google are privy to humanity’s most burning questions and desires (and, of course, how to unplug a light bulb).

In actual fact, web users are giving away a lot. And so the question remains…

What are we getting back from online data?

Of course, an obvious thing we are getting back from our data inputs is advertising. Our Google searches drift back onto our screens in the form of little geometric shapes. THERE’S those shoes I was looking at! THERE’S the bag I really wanted, but shouldn’t buy, but I really wanted, but – ah go on then! Ads are like sometimes friendly, and sometimes not so friendly, ghosts. They remind us of products we need, or bother us with products we don’t.

Good marketing in the digital age often comes down to good data. A campaign which leverages data in an intelligent way will achieve intelligent results. It will reach the right people and provide users with products they are searching for or, if they haven’t been searching, that might be of use. This is the power of good marketing: connecting people to the goods and services they need. Bad marketing will leverage the wrong data, or use data in the wrong way, leaving ads to drift aimlessly into the web stratosphere and never reach their audience.

So where does web 3 come into all of this?

The “problem” with the Web 2 (as people see it) is all about data. If Web OG was boring, then Social Web is a bit too wild. Or at least unregulated. Or regulated by the wrong people. As we move through Web 2, we are leaving a little trail behind – an email address here, a like there. Little pieces throughout the day, but over time building a fairly intimate picture.

Let’s be clear though. Data collection is not bad. Generally it’s a good thing for the user, creating a more personalised experience on websites and making life, well, easier. Collection of our data allows website browsers to remember login details, save items in a shopping cart, and deliver content in the right language or currency. It mitigates the over-saturation of adverts designed for another audience.

But – and there is a but – the collection of data by a small group of third-party governors cannot be entirely good. It leaves users, to some extent, “out of the loop”, handing over complex data profiles which can, in theory, be used for purposes other than personalisation. Web 3 (blockchain) enthusiasts aim to solve this, by creating an architecture that is both open (i.e. transparent) and decentralized.

So WHAT IS web 3?

Since web 3 has not yet happened, there is no solid definition. However, here are a few likely properties:

> Decentralization

Web 3 applications will run on decentralized networks, which do not rely on a lead server. Blockchain technologies, like Bitcoin and Ethereal are examples of decentralized applications (Dapps). In the blockchain, data is collected in blocks, each of which has a limited storage capacity. When filled with data, they are closed and linked to another block. This creates a string of data, with no one party in control.

> Trust

The goal of decentralized networks, like the blockchain, is that data can be distributed, but never tampered with. Since data exists in a string of blocks, there is no one “place” in which data exists. Every piece of data is time-stamped, and there is a clear audit trail, meaning information is immutable. The blockchain could be used for transactions that involve fraud or rigging, such an election votes, legal contracts, or product inventories.

> Semanticity

Web 3 will be based on technologies which allow computers to better understand data (in a more “human” way). At the moment, machines use things like keywords, alt tags, metadata etc. to understand web pages and offer back relevant search results. The way machines and humans look at web data is completely different, and humans have had to adapt to the way machines look at things. This is what SEO (search engine optimisation) is about: manipulating the content so that it can be understood by computers. A vision for Web 3 is that this dynamic will work in reverse, with machines able to better process data on our behalf (i.e. in a more “human” way).

> Ubiquity

In a Web 3 era, there will be more applications connecting via the internet. This includes everyday items – and we’re already on this trajectory, with wearable technology (Apple watches) and smart speaker devices like Amazon Echo. AT&T are already collaborating in the first “smart city”, powered by AI, 5G, and edge technologies, and will offer things like immersive retail shops, self-driving vehicles, and an automated sustainable infrastructure.

So how will Web 3 change advertising?

If Web 3 is about rebalancing, with users taking back control, then what does this mean for digital marketing? As a marketing agency, we’ve been trying to figure this out – and we’ve come up with a few suggestions.

> There will be less need for SEO

With a semantic web, machines will operate more in a “human” way. Or they’ll process data more like us, with a focus on linguistics and meaning, rather than keywords, tags, and numbers. SEO has evolved as a specialism, a kind of mediator between human and machine – after all, we speak very different languages. But with AI-driven computers becoming more human, or at least processing data in the way humans do, SEO (as we see it now) could become redundant. At the very least SEO professionals will have to adapt: there may still be a need to bridge the gap between humans and machines – just in another form.

> There will be more user control

It’s unclear what form this will take, but there will almost definitely be more user control in a Web 3 landscape. Think less spammy ads, more relevant ones. Think less pop ups and a more structured advertising space. This should all work in marketers’ favour: with no deluge of online ads, customers will be more inclined to engage with brands.

> Semantic web = more personalization

With the semantic web, machines will better understand humans. Online data will be scanned more accurately; more intelligent AI-driven computers will deliver more intelligent results. As machines get to know you more, they’ll offer up better products, and better services. Online ads will become less invasive and more useful, and with 5G, advertising will take place in real-time. We’ll be offered the things we need exactly when we need them.

> Content anytime, anywhere

IoT applications will deliver an online experience that follows us everywhere. Or at least, that’s the idea. More everyday objects will become “smart”; refrigerators, washing machines, coffee cups all could in theory become robotic. Sounds eerie? Perhaps – but with data control and better online privacy, a connected universe should help humans, anticipating needs and providing tailored solutions. And with more everyday objects connected online, this (again, in theory) offers up more platforms for advertising.

Marketing agencies will boom as there are more “spots” for adverts to be filled. OR, it might go the other way, with privacy restrictions limiting the amount of content we view in our homes. With more “online” products, product marketers will also gain better data on lifestyle trends, seeing how specific products are being used. This will, in turn, inform better products. The relationship between consumer and marketer – already brought together by a social web – will become entwined.

And so what about the Metaverse?

Yes, the Metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and, as many see it, the future of the web.

The Metaverse builds on the concept of Facebook – connecting people through the web – but transports social media to a VR landscape. Users will wear VR headsets, can “teleport” to the office or to events, and chat to people as little holograms – beyond the constraint of screens.

Okay, so, the Metaverse does seem to fit in with some Web 3 ideas. It will leverage 5G and IoT technologies, with our online reality becoming more immersive and happening in real-time. But in another way the Metaverse seems opposed to a key Web 3 idea: decentralization. Facebook and other social media giants currently operate as centralized entities (with data stored in one place), and Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t offered up the Metaverse as having any kind of decentralized governance. Although in Meta’s founder’s letter, he did say this:

“Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one. So do open standards and interoperability. This will require not just novel technical work … but also new forms of governance.”

What these new forms of governance are remains to be seen. Either way, the Metaverse will likely be a shaping force in the Web 3 movement. If successful enough, it may become synonymous. Mark Zuckerberg has a talent for reinvention. And, in the fast-changing world of the world wide web, that may be all that’s needed.