Web3 and Web 3.0 are NOT the same thing. Here’s why.
I’ve been doing a lot of research about the Web3 phenomenon (check this long read, you won’t regret it) for the past weeks and one thing I noticed was that there seems to be a lot of confusion about the difference between Web3 - the decentralized, blockchain-based web - and Web 3.0 which is Tim Berners-Lee vision of a linked or semantic web.
I mean, even Wikipedia adds to the confusion, saying in the same entry that Web3 is not the same as “the concept based around machine-readability, also called Web 3.0, see Semantic Web” only to add that Web3 is “also known as Web 3.0”. Here’s a screenshot of that, to further disorient you:
So, on the one hand, the difference between Web3 and Web 3.0 is merely semantics (Ahahaha! Chaos! Get it! Get it?) but when Web 3.0 is used to discuss the semantic web it is definitely NOT a synonym of the blockchain based Web3 concept.
So, in order to create some clarity, here is – in the most concise and simplest of terms – how they differ and how they are alike in some other aspects:
Web3 or the decentralized web
The vision: The core idea behind Web3 - coined by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood in 2014 - is to fight the centralized power and dominance of a handful of Web2 giants like Facebook, Amazon or Google by creating a decentralized version of the internet.
What does that mean: The first iteration of the internet – Web1 - was pretty static and read only. The second one – Web2 – was (and still is) a more interactive and social version, where users can create and share their own content. The dark side of this Web2 approach is that a handful of platforms own and control the data of their users and can manipulate them in certain ways that are not always considered ethical or democratic.
And that is exactly what Web3 wants to solve.
How will it solve this: Through the use of blockchain technologies, decentralized storage and self-sovereign identity in a community-driven setting, Web3 will take away the data ownership from the Web2 giants and give it back to the users. These can then decide who gets access to their data and to their identity.
What is blockchain again: Very simply put, it is a system of recording information (on a timeline) in a way that makes it almost impossible to change or trick because each transaction is synchronised across an entire (more or less) decentralized network of computer systems.
How would this work? Users will keep (keys to) all of their data and their identity in a cryptocurrency wallet like MetaMask, Venly or TrustWallet. This allows them to interact with other types of blockchain apps and choose who can read their data and who can’t. Signing in with a cryptowallet is actually a lot like signing in with a Facebook account on other apps, but you own and control all of your data.
Web3.0 or the semantic web
The vision: Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wants to connect everything on the web at the data level in order to “unlock its full potential”.
What does that mean: In the current internet, we have URLs or links. Those links connect documents with each other. Documents. Not facts. Not raw data. The result is that you end up with information silos. To give an easy example: if you change jobs and adapt that information in LinkedIn, your Facebook details will not be updated because they are not linked.
Berners-Lee wants to connect all that info so that you only need to change that information once. The result would be more accuracy - because all the same information will appear everywhere - and more intelligence. Why the latter? Because the more you can connect things at the data level, the more people have access to that intelligence and the more they can mine insights from that.
How does it work: The semantic web solution is to store all of your data in one central place called the Solid pod. This allows users to control which people and which applications can access their data. On top of that pod, a WebID is added so that you can identify yourself over the web. Just like with a crypto wallet, you could compare that WebID to how we can sign into apps with a LinkedIn or FB account, but – again - without losing control of our own data.
Example: The data utility company of the Flemish Government (datanutsbedrijf for the Flemish readers) is investigating this approach for Flemish citizens. This is their vision on the matter, in case you’re interested:
The Flemish Data Utility Company wants to stimulate citizens’ trust in sharing data, by focusing on responsible and secure data sharing. At the same time, we want to give oxygen to the Flemish economy by making data more findable and exchangeable, and by building bridges between citizens, companies and associations for better cooperation. We are a neutral third partner and catalyst for innovative initiatives and we a stimulate economic and social prosperity. With this approach, Flanders has the potential to become a leader in the European data economy.
The differences, and the similarities
So. Both Web3 - the decentralized web - and Web 3.0 - the semantic web - want to offer an alternative to the current web, which they consider as broken.
But they do have a different focus. The semantic web or Web 3.0 focusses on efficiency and intelligence, by reusing and linking data across websites. The decentralized web or Web3 focusses on empowerment and security: by giving power over data and identity back to the people.
Quite important, too: they use different technology to get there. Web3 is built on the blockchain. Web 3.0 uses data interchange technologies like RDF, SPARQL, OWL, and SKOS. An important consequence of this difference is that data in Web3(blockchain) is difficult to change (distributed over so many places) while data in Web3.0 is easy to change.
But, though their focus is different, their method is similar-ish: both want user data to be kept under the control of the user. In the case of the semantic web this data is kept in a Solid pod. In the case of Web3 it is kept in a crypto wallet. The difference is that the data is kept centralized in the solid pod. Whereas a crypto wallet merely holds keys to assets which reside decentralized on the blockchain.
If anyone asks you what the difference is and you don’t remember any of the above, just put on a poker-face and say “ob-viously, the absolute core difference between both is that Web3 is decentralized and Web3.0 is semantic or linked”. And then you quickly walk away before they have the chance to ask any follow-up questions. Another option would be to feign a phone call.
We don’t really grok it
So, in the end, will this difference matter? To be honest, most probably not very much. Remember that both want to create a better version of the internet, and - more importantly - that both are still being built. Chances are that the final version of this more linked, more secure, decentralized and user-centric new internet will be a convergence of these and other technologies (insert any buzzword you want here: metaverse, AI, quantum computing, you name it) and approaches.
What fascinates me the most about the whole Web3 and decentralization discussion is this: most of the discourse is really focussed on the technology. And during my many-ish years in the technology industry I have learned that if people almost seem obsessed with the technology (behind a concept), they just don’t know what the hell it will really mean. You see that same dynamic in the rhetoric around quantum computing, for instance.
Because - unless you’re an engineer or a coder or something along these lines - the only thing that truly matters is the impact of a technology on society, companies, employees, consumers, the environment etc. Just to compare: does anyone even know how electricity, the internet or a car works anymore? Most of us don’t, right? But we do know how to use them, and which impact they have, and how we might change some of their negative consequences.
Just don’t mistake vision – in Web3’s case: of decentralization, security, empowerment etc. - for impact. In fact, we’ve seen a similar utopian vision at the very moment that we had no idea about the actual impact of Web1 or even Web2. Back then, there was talk about creating a hive mind, enlightenment, wisdom of the crowd, radical freedom, etc. And we had no idea about the polarization, filter bubbles, individualization, rampant consumerism, political manipulation etc. that would ensue.
Does that mean that the internet is all bad? Obviously not. Just imagine getting through the pandemic without it. But we also can safely say that there is a big gap between the initial utopian vision of the first iteration of the web and its actual impact. And I truly believe that there will be a rift between the current ideas of decentralization, empowerment and how Web3 will actually pan out.
The true challenge with Web3 is that this is its building phase. That is on the one hand exceedingly exciting. But also really confusing, and chaotic. Hence, the bewilderment about Web3 versus Web 3.0, even on Wikipedia.
Too conclude: with Web3 (and also Web 3.0), it’s just too soon to tell. Just say that to people who ask you about it, and then maybe pretend you have a phone call, to avoid any follow-up questions.
Oooorrrr, just read this extensive long read with the best subtitle in the entire world( yes, it’s mine and I’m proud of it): “Everything you always wanted to know about Web3 but were afraid to ask because everyone around you is pretending that they DO know and now it feels too late to admit you don’t without losing face and you were already insecure because of your COVID depression and this is just too much to handle for one person.”
A special thank you to the wonderful blockchain expert Koen Vingerhoets for giving very useful feedback on my first notes (originally intended for our Radar podcast).