My Insights

Web3 and Empowerment

Web3 and Empowerment

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to share a Web3 primer with the Clubhouse Network, a global consortium of over 100 Clubhouses that use creative technology as an empowerment tool for young people in marginalized communities. The Clubhouse model originated out of work by Mitch Resnick and Natalie Rusk at MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group, and Clubhouse youth around the world have been experimenting as young makers and creators for almost thirty years. I worked with the Clubhouse Network for a few years, and it was an honor to return.

I believe that demystifying technical terms is a first key step in empowering communities to access and leverage new technologies for their benefit. The following slides and explanation are a summary of what I shared at that session. I provide them here as a resource for anyone who is new to Web3 (also referred to as Web 3 and Web 3.0), and in search of entry level explanations of the terms, and why they will be transformational for creators and communities.

A successful web3 will empower creators and communities to capture, and benefit from, the value of their work. Currently, web3, and related concepts like NFT's, social tokens and DAO's are still foreign to most artists and populations. My work at ENiD revolves around demystifying these terms, and building bridges between tech and art communities, in service of building a highly inclusive, equitable and functional web3. I first wrote about this here at the Open Music Initiative, and it continues to power the work I do.

A colleague and co-conspirator of mine has said, for years, that we would know blockchain technology had made it when people stopped saying the word blockchain. He was right. The word web3 has replaced the term blockchain, and serves as a more all encompassing term to include crypto/cryptocurrency, as well as NFT's, social tokens and DAO's (more explanation of these terms and acronyms below). While web3 is certainly a more accessible term, many are still unclear on what it encompasses, and even what webs 1 and 2 are.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the early Internet, that was Web1 (a deeper comparison of Web1 and Web2 is here). This included early e-commerce, as well as static websites such as blogs, fan sites and company websites. It was a novel and very exciting concept that any entity or person could publish information on a computer that was then readable by anyone else around the world with a networked computer. Content was not interactive, and was controlled by centralized websites.

Web2 was initially even more exciting than web1, as it enabled anyone to become a creator, and to respond to and interact with each other's creative works through likes, follows and remixes. However within the decade, web2 pivoted to feeling unsatisfying, and for many, deeply troubling. Platforms such as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon promised enormous value to creators through exposure. Ultimately, the results of web2 have been platforms that use content for their profit, while controlling it in opaque and exploitative structures. We see now that content and data are used in ways that, at best, are without permission, and at worst are damaging and harmful. While a bit dated, I recommend Jonathon Taplin's book, Move Fast and Break Things, as a comprehensive overview of this evolution and the impact of web2 on creators, especially musicians.

Web3 is the next generation of Internet development. It is categorized by systems where data and content are not centrally held, and instead, creators have control, or autonomy, over their channels of distribution. Web3 has been made possible through, amongst other innovations,  blockchain technology.

Blockchain technology existed before the invention of Bitcoin, however it was this digital currency that catalyzed interest and further development in blockchain, or distributed ledger, technologies. I recommend reading Satoshi Nakamoto's Bitcoin white paper. While a bit dense and difficult to parse at the outset, it is fairly short, and with a few readings, it begins to make sense, even for most non-technologically minded people (myself included). This white paper set in motion a movement that has brought us to today's web3. This includes the introduction and development of Ethereum by Vitalik Buterin, as well as the model for development and communication of ideas in the web3 community generally.

Blockchain technologies are important to different populations for different reasons, but ultimately it takes trust, control and power out of the hands of centralized intermediaries, or middlemen, and transfers it instead to a peer-to-peer network. If your lens is finance, then the potential to build finance tools that enable peer-to-peer exchange is enormously exciting (hence the explosion of decentralized finance, or de-fi, this past year).

If your lens is music, or creative works generally, then the ability to not only exchange directly between creators and fan communities, but to own your audience and means of distribution, rather then depending on platforms like Spotify, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, can be transformational. I wrote more deeply about this here, in what I call, "flattening the pyramid".

I explain the tools and technology of web3 in more detail below, but first it is valuable to explain why autonomy and transparency are important to creators. The Black artists pictured here are just a sampling of those whose work gave rise to the many styles and genres we consume today, in most cases without giving sufficient compensation and attribution to their pioneering creativity. These aren't novel concepts for BIPOC artists. This month, Black TikTok dancers went on strike due to ongoing patterns of others profiting from their choreography, and platforms centering white creators, without attributing or compensating the originators of the work.

Modern musical genres have largely been developed by taking and profiting from the music of BIPOC artists, while their labor and creativity goes uncredited and unpaid. These artists include:

One of the most recent instances of this was reported by the L.A. Times, of Daft Punk's "One More Time" sampling Eddie John's "More Spell on You" without compensation, and in the food world, Bon Appetit magazine's leadership was revealed last year to have entrenched racial discrimination throughout the leadership.

While creators across genres and mediums have been consistently under-compensated for their labor, the platforms that profit from that content have benefitted enormously over the last ten years of web2. By promising creators that exposure would eventually result in financial gain, and by creating platforms that enabled creators to effortlessly share and broadcast their content, they attracted millions of artists who gave their content willingly and freely.

This content was then used as a loss leader for companies like Facebook and Google to sell ads, as well as the surrounding hardware and services sold by Amazon and Apple. While these platforms may feel exploitative and ineffective, artists have few other options to share their content on a large scale. Due to the opaque and centralized nature of the systems, artists also do not have the option to take their audiences and followers elsewhere. In most cases, artists do not even have the ability to know who those followers are and have no means to interact with them outside of the centralized platform.

With the introduction of web3 platforms, and importantly, protocols, this is starting to change. Web3 platforms store content and relationship data on publicly accessible blockchains, or digital ledgers. If a platform disappears, the content and data distributed by that platform does not disappear. Through open protocols, or sets of instructions, any developer can access the content and connections that are stored on that blockchain, and build another platform that makes it available. Rather than being stored on a private, centralized server (like Amazon or Google's "cloud" servers), blockchain data is stored on a network of anonymous, decentralized servers that cooperate to store and share multiple copies of the same data. This ensures trust, transparency and consistency.

As followers and content are now portable, new technologies are being developed to allow creators and their communities to interact. Tokens are signifiers of value, connection or ownership, and can be tracked and traded on a blockchain. Tokens can also follow sets of instructions coded into them through smart contracts, automating payments or exchanges. Video game currencies, or Chuck E. Cheese tokens are helpful analogies to understand social tokens. Both of these stores of value are meaningful within that world. Now imagine that they were tradeable from person to person, from world to world (e.g. exchanging Fortnite V-Bucks for Chuck E. Cheese Tokens), and could follow a set of instructions that you set in advance, based on a certain set of criteria that you devised.

However, even more than the novel and inspiring possibilities that these technologies unlock, what's meaningful is the ways in which web3 technologies are being developed. Communities like Seed Club, Songcamp and Friends With Benefits, and platforms like Mirror, Zora and Gitcoin, are developing the tools for web3 in partnership with creators, involving them at every step.

Currently, NFT's (or non-fungible tokens), social tokens (these are the fungible ones) and DAO's (decentralized autonomous organizations), are the buzz words of web3. As communities adopt these tools, I predict that more of these terms may disappear as the technology becomes indistinguishable from magic, while others emerge to describe the new ways that artists use technology to broadcast their work. What's important is that the web3 communities are open and eager for artist involvement, and deeply engaged in developing artist-responsive tools and platforms. With basic understanding, artists can ask these questions of themselves, and be part of the movement building the tools that we will use in the future web3.

Additional Resources:

The definitions and resource I've provided here are by no means exhaustive, and, fortunately, are always improving. I welcome suggestions and additions, so please feel free to be in touch.