From newspapers to radio and television, mass communication has traditionally been a one-way street.
Sure, readers could send a letter to the editor of their favorite newspaper or magazine, and musicians could spend afternoons poring through thousands of fans’ letters, but the level of interaction between creator and consumer was always limited. Then, the advent of the internet changed everything.
The paradigm of mass media shifted, albeit slowly, to a more interactive model. The first version of the internet, Web1, was characterized by media uploaded from institutions. Established entities like governments and corporations owned the largest amount of real estate on the newly integrated world wide web. Information was still being passed down to the masses from the man in the high tower, but now consumers could access it from the comfort of their own homes.
“Content creators were few … with the vast majority of users simply acting as consumers of content,” said Graham Cormode, professor of computer science at the University of Warwick.
The massive growth early internet companies enjoyed during Web1 reached a crescendo in 2000 when the “dot com bubble” finally burst. The Nasdaq fell 78% from its 400% increase at the height of the boom, precipitating the death of Web1. From its ashes, a new paradigm emerged.
Web2 is characterized by greater interaction between creator and end-user. Early forms of social media like AOL chat rooms and Friendster paved the way for the robust, instantaneous sharing of all forms of media we enjoy today. End-to-end communication is at the heart of Web2. Content is dissected, ingested, manipulated, and thrown back into the digital cosmos for the process to be repeated over and over again ad infinitum. Platforms that constitute Web2 have integrated their massive network of user profiles into a digital brain.
The network is composed of individual strings or lines that connect to each other, similar to the way synapses connect neurons in the brain. When one string is broken, by someone deleting his or her social media profile, for example, links have already been created between other nodes – profiles – that interacted with the deleted node. Because of this interconnection, the multiplicity survives by constantly changing and connecting to new nodes. The result is a complex network that adjusts and changes in response to the creation and destruction of individual links.
However, the digital brain that has manifested through Web2 is still dependent on human interaction for its neurons to fire and to create new connections.
The Semantic Web
We are now transitioning into a new era of digital communication that invites AI and machine learning into the existing paradigm. Web3 promises to take the brain established by its previous iteration and give it a higher degree of autonomy.
In 2001, world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee published an article in Scientific American about what he believed would be the future of the internet. The semantic web, as Berners-Lee named it, would be readable by humans and machines. Both content and context would be important to programs, bringing syntax (the way sentences are constructed) and semantics (the meaning of the sentence) together.
The result of assimilating the two is a more intuitive internet that better analyzes content and metadata, combining relevant data for greater efficiency and convenience for the user. Websites will be able to learn from users and become more intelligent. One example of the way Web3, or the semantic web, is already being implemented is how Amazon recommends products to a buyer based on what other users have browsed or purchased.
It may seem like a small advancement, but features like this are the building blocks for an AI-powered, fully integrated web experience.
Berners-Lee’s semantic web is still in its early stages, and it may be years before his prophecy is fully realized, but the current direction of Web3 is something the web founder may not have anticipated. Web3 is becoming a decentralized network that gives users more privacy and security while continuing to ramp up end-to-end communication.
The advent of the blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, have provided people with a higher level of ownership over content in the digital space. Instead of everyone’s data being stored on a single server, people now have the choice to store their digital assets independently. Individual crypto wallets are encrypted and belong solely to the owner of the wallet. The same is true of NFTs.
This gives people power over their data in a way that wasn’t possible until recently. Meanwhile, the creation of the metaverse is combining blockchain technology with virtual reality. It takes social interaction to an even higher level than Web2 by placing avatars in the same 3D virtual environment.
Many of the bars and clubs in the metaverse have VIP areas that can be purchased with cryptocurrency via the blockchain and digital real estate has sold for millions in the cyber world. Where the internet goes next is open to speculation.
The semantic web may be relabeled as Web3.5, as the third iteration seems to be moving more toward decentralization and interactions in 3D space.
Web3 is the path to the future, but maybe it is only a rest stop on the way to a fully realized AI network that would constitute a true digital brain. Users will have to embrace a reality of more intuitive online marketing while watching from the window of his or her virtual penthouse until then.