Zeitgeist is a German term associated with Hegel’s philosophy of history. It might be translated as “the spirit of a time,” alluding to the intellectual and cultural milieu or atmosphere of a particular era.
In historical and political contexts, it has often been said that in order to understand the present and imagine the future it is necessary to know the past.
For several years YouTube used the term to run down the landmark events of each year coming to an end in year-in-review videos lasting less than 3 minutes.
In this new blog entry, I am the one who will draw on the term zeitgeist to describe the different eras in the history of the Web, as I think this is a good way to better understand and view in perspective the exciting moment of technological change that we are now witnessing.
Web1: Read, 1990-2005
These were decentralized, community-governed protocols over which no one could take unilateral control, and anyone who wanted to was free to build on them. Moreover, most of the value generated by these developments was enjoyed by their users and the people who created them.
It was a market stage characterized by competition and that resulted in the advantage of interoperability: customers did not have to be tied to a single Internet provider to benefit from services such as email: we could change companies and take our entire address book with us; it was possible to operate with a Gmail account, for example, and exchange messages with someone using Yahoo, Hotmail, or a business email address.
It was an era that saw the emergence and progressive adoption of the Web. But, back then users could only read text and view static images, with interaction limited to email.
Companies and brands that rolled out websites in that era did so as one-way marketing showcases.
I remember the first time I was ever involved in an Internet job, back in late 1994. At the time I was an account manager at the consumer advertising agency DMB&B. At a meeting with Banesto’s (now Santander) marketing team, we were given a briefing to design, almost overnight, the interfaces and navigation buttons of what was to be the first website of a banking institution in our country.
Soon after that the agency itself began to adapt to this technology, first with a single computer (there were about 80 of us on the team) located in a small room that connected to the Internet via a modem, which emitted a shrill beep, like this 😵💫. Later, with the arrival of desktop PCs, I expressed my preference for a Mac (I’m not sure why), but to no avail. In any case, I was fortunate because at the beginning not all workstations had any computer at all, let alone access to the Web. When I left DMB&B in March of 1999 to tackle a new professional challenge, we still didn’t have a website in Spain… and at the new agency I found myself, once again, with a single computer in a corner of the company’s large meeting room, and that same dreaded, deafening beeping sound from which I thought I had escaped, so I was back to square one.
During the Web1 era, I’m sure many of you also remember the dot com bubble, which began in 1997 and peaked in March 2000. Many of the companies then offering Internet services were overvalued, the market was highly speculative, and the bubble finally burst in 2001, with many technology firms going bankrupt or shutting down.
Meanwhile, in January 2001 the first iteration of Wikipedia was released, a milestone that spelled the beginning of the end for Microsoft’s legendary Encarta encyclopedia, which disappeared eight years later.
The average user spent just 30 minutes a day on the Internet at the end of the Web1 period, compared to 7 hours a day today. Analog still prevailed over digital.
Web2: Read & Write, 2005-2020
Entrepreneurs and new private technology companies appeared, with business models featuring the development of their own closed, centralized platforms based on the free and open source protocols that had been created in the Web1 era.
These platforms made it possible for users to not only access information and static knowledge on the Internet, but also to, for the first time, contribute by generating and disseminating (Reading & Writing) their own content on the Web. It was an era of communicative interactivity driven by social networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many others.
Time magazine cited Web2 in its Person of The Year issue in 2007.
In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone, a decisive breakthrough that opened the way to mass access to the Internet via smartphones, whether through the company’s IOS operating system or other devices running Android, today dominating the world market, with a 70% share.
New collaborative economy service applications appeared, like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit, and other native social networks on mobile apps such as Instagram, Spotify and WhatsApp.
Amazon, meanwhile, evolved from its original e-commerce platform for books to become a technological giant, especially through the commercialization of services such as Cloud computing and storage, serverless technology, automatic learning, etc.
In the end, a small handful of technology companies – the big four or five – transformed economies and culture, leisure, access to information, commerce, mobility, etc., and they did so by assuming the cost of their services without explicitly charging users. But there was a catch, of course, because in the Web2 era we were the product; nothing was free.
These companies ― some of the most valuable in the world ― have created a closed silo of user-generated data: our content, behavior, interactions and social graphs. This data has never belonged to us and has been used to implement advertising campaigns targeting followers, engagement generation, SEM, ASO, Amz. Ads and other types of campaigns with their advertising clients.
In addition, the privacy of our data has never been ensured for the simple reason that it has not been in our hands, but rather in those of these companies, where, as we all know, there have been regular security breaches.
In the wake of Web2, an economy of professional content creators emerged on the networks, made up of YouTubers, Instagrammers, Tik-Tokers, etc. When these creators are not actual celebrities, however, and belong to the very crowded and predominant “long tail” world, they receive hardly any remuneration from the networks on which they post.
Arbitrary criteria applied in many cases of post censorship, the suspension of accounts, and algorithm changes to penalize organic content and favor paid media, ended up characterizing the scenario these networks comprised.
Oh, and if you unilaterally decided to leave any of them, all the work you’d done during the time you were active, in terms of the community you’d created and the content you’d generated … was lost forever. You couldn’t take it anywhere else.
It is true that, as individuals, we gained a lot in terms of connectivity, access to knowledge, socialization, exchanges and recognition. Access to technology has been democratized, and all this has been great. But we have lost much in terms of freedom, privacy and ownership.
As brands, we have seen how many of the 95 theses of the visionaries who wrote the “Cluetrain Manifesto” in 1999 (“markets are conversations”) have been borne out, yielding a unique opportunity to do branding through socialization, dialogue and interaction with the members of communities created ex novo. And, if you really contributed and behaved like one more of them, magic arose when, in a natural and organic way, the members of the community became ambassadors of your brand, giving it credibility and unique value; this is what has been called the “word of mouth” effect, or organic advocacy branding -― the only one I believe in.
Six years ago I wrote an entry entitled “What’s wrong with you, Twitter?”, to convey my concern about what I thought was happening with the networks, and in January 2020 I publicly reflected on it again in “Social Networks: Disaffection and Evolution”.
Now I understand what was happening: the Web2 model was running out of steam, for all the reasons I have described. We needed a technological change maintaining all the benefits that had brought us to that stage, but this time recovering our sovereignty as individuals. What I didn’t know was that Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2008 white paper “A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” heralded the solution: Blockchain.
Web3: Read, Write & Own. From 2020 on
- Web3 constitutes a new decentralized economy created thanks to Blockchain technology. Total transparency permeates the services that are built on it, with all data, updates and transactions stored, validated by nodes, encrypted and distributed in Blockchain networks.
- Any of us can access and participate in the Web3 ecosystem without the need for any central authority or intermediary to approve this, which is why there is current talk of the “permissionless” nature of this stage. The same thing happened with Web1, as we are going back to open source protocols with distributed, decentralized and collective ownership.
- It has always been difficult to forge trust between humans, hence the historical need for intermediaries playing roles as validators and guarantors. Now, they are no longer necessary, as trust in Blockchain is based on cryptography, and smart contracts function as consensus mechanisms between all the members making up the Blockchain network. It is its “trustless” nature that defines and drives this technology.
- Smart contracts are open source and publicly available; that is, developers can freely use and integrate code from other applications into their products. This is the “composability” component of Blockchain.
- Web3’s element of ownership means that we can now own a piece of the Internet thanks to this technology ― possession that is immutable, unalterable and verifiable through the acquisition and exchange of fungible tokens and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), the crypto-assets on the Blockchain network.
Brands are already creating their own NFTs to allow their customers to acquire stakes in them and to use them as certificates of ownership granting them access to certain experiences and services. They are even using these tokens to certify the ownership of real, physical assets, as in the recent case of the luxury firm Tiffany and its embracing of the CryptoPunks phenomenon:
Other consumer brands such as Nike, Samsung, Adidas and Coca-Cola are already using NFTs collections to grant customers access to their newly launched metaverses.
In the Healthcare sector, a paradigmatic case is DNAVerse, a disruptive and innovative project with a unique roadmap:
- Their NFTs, comprised of an exclusive collection of 200 cryptoproteins, were designed in 3D with complete scientific precision, with these tokens forming the genesis of the project.
- The DNAPass NFTs are limited to 3,200 units, and entitle their holders to undergo a genetic sequencing test 🧬.
- The individual results of each test, performed on the Blockchain via a custom NFTArt with the genes, are encrypted. Users who are also holders of a cryptoprotein receive a DNArt token with genotype 0, thus becoming the ancestors of organic life in the metaverse and decision-makers in the DNA replication process. (By the way, this is non-generative art, i.e. created by man and not by a machine).
- Your genetic information, one of your most valuable assets, will be exclusively in your hands thanks to its encryption in Blockchain. This will allow you to live the experience of health in the BioMetaverse, actively participating in personalized medicine and being an agent driving scientific research by contributing with the DNA data that you wish to share.
Another feature of Web3 is that, with your identity registered on the Blockchain, you will be able to reveal only that information required to verify something, thanks to the Zero Knowledge Proof function. For example, in order to prove that you are really you, it will not be necessary to reveal your address, your date and place of birth, parents’ names, etc. Users will be able to choose what to share and what to keep private.
Zero-Knowledge Proofs with Sarah Meiklejohn | a16z crypto research talks
In addition, everything you build and contribute on a decentralized social network on the Web3 is portable to other networks on that same Blockchain: your identity, content, contacts, crypto assets, etc.
The last feature of Web3 that I would like to stress is the interoperability between different Blockchain networks and protocols. This aspect is key to facilitating the mass adoption of this technology, as it allows multiple Blockchains to communicate with each other, sharing assets and other digital data so that users can work in a multichain manner. Solutions such as Polkadot and Cosmos act as a kind of bridge between Blockchains to make possible interoperability between them.
With more than 5 billion people in the world already connected to the Internet, and with lifestyles that are much more digital than analog, we are living a kind of back-to-the-future scenario with Web3; I confess to considering entitling this blog post “Back to the Future”, just like the movie.
We can now reclaim the core values of the Web1 era, retain all the good things that the interactive era of the Social Web brought us, and embrace a new future in which technology, thanks to the Blockchain network, restores to us sovereignty, privacy, trust, independence and ownership.
A future of unstoppable change, one that forces us to reinvent ourselves as individuals and as companies, awaits.
Let’s fix the Web.
By Ángel González