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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A Web 3.0 revolution that could relieve us of our social dilemmas

Platforms are emerging that promise to decentralize the internet again and respect user privacy

Social media is being heavily discussed again, ironically largely on its own creations. There are really three big reasons why it is in the spotlight. The first is the impending US presidential election. Ghosts of Cambridge Analytica, the social analytics firm that manipulated Facebook accounts to impact the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote, are returning to haunt us again. The US election is spawning the likes of uber-conspiracy group QAnon and stoking a divide in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, making Cambridge Analytica look gentle in comparison. The second reason is the covid pandemic. Social media has emerged as a force for good, with effective communication and lockdown entertainment, but also for evil, being used effectively by anti-vaxxers and the #Unmask movement to proselytize their dangerous agenda.

The third reason has perhaps been the most stunning and appalling—an innocuous drop by Netflix of a documentary called The Social Dilemma. This one-and-a-half-hour film exposes the ways in which technology giants have manipulated human psychology to influence how we behave. If this sounds frightening, it is. It explains how chiefs of tech companies severely curtail the screen time of their own children, while apparently trying to addict every other adult and child on the planet. Reportedly, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg masks his laptop camera with a tiny duct tape.

As people realize that social media is a quicksand inexorably sucking them in bit by bit, a clamour has arisen for an alternative. But what is this alternative? The big problem with social networks is not the technology, or the product, or even the early objectives of their founders. It is their business model.

The internet was created as a distributed set of computers communicating with one another, and sharing the load of managing the network. This was Web 1.0, and it worked very well. But it had one big problem—there was no way to make money off it. For instance, a Web 1.0 startup called Google had heavy traffic, but could not encash it. Then, in 2001, it developed AdWords, a pay-per-click, auction-based search advertising model, backed by search and monetization algorithms. Google’s revenues rocketed to $2.7 billion from $87 million in three years when it went public, and now in 2020, it sits on a trillion-dollar valuation. The internet got monetized, Web 2.0 was born, and our intentions, personas and desires were identified with laser precision for sale to willing advertisers. Facebook joined the party, though with a different way of dipping into the same advertising honeypot.

Come 2020, search and social media advertising has crossed $200 billion, rocketing past print at $65 billion, and TV at $180 billion. All this money comes from us users, who purportedly get these wonderful products free, forgetting that when anything is free, you are the product. This business model has led to a “winner-takes-all" industry structure, creating natural monopolies and centralizing the once-decentralized internet. It is estimated that over 90% of the trillions of pictures out there are hosted by Facebook or its other platforms, WhatsApp and Instagram.

An alternative is unlikely to be driven by technology or regulation. It will take new business models. The good news is that these are coming along with the emergence of Web 3.0, a revolution that promises to return the internet to users. It has a different construct and philosophy. One principle is to allow users explicit control of their data, an initiative aided by Europe-like data protection regulation. Another is to grant creators of content—artists, musicians, photographers, me and you—a portion of revenues, instead of platforms taking it all (or most). The technologies that Web 3.0 leverages are newer ones, like blockchains, which are inherently decentralized. They have technology guard-rails against the accumulation of power and data in the hands of a few. Digital currencies enabled by these technologies offer a business model of users paying for services and content with micro-transactions, as an alternative to advertiser-pays.

The startups driving this are still at an embryonic stage. An example is homegrown GoSocial, tellingly born of a tweet that Anand Mahindra put out when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, appealing for a “new kind of social network". The path to success for these new kinds of democratic networks will be arduous. But a revolution has begun, and it is our revulsion of current models that could relieve us of our social dilemmas.

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters

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