Just as everyone is getting used to the new world of web3, it’s time to introduce a new technology: web5. It’s confusing and unfortunate, but it’s the name that’s been chosen and it has a real vision behind it that’s worth paying attention to.
Web3 is a catch-all term for anything cryptocurrency. And while cryptocurrency used to imply ideals of decentralization and user ownership, today it covers an ocean of projects and financial innovations, and no longer has a strong central narrative beyond ‘innovative digital objects of value’. The heavy dilution of the web3 narrative has created a vision gap that web5 has come to replace.
Web5 is specifically focused on users, their identity, their data, and the idea that we can build large-scale applications such that users have control rather than corporations. For web5, cryptocurrency is a background element — it’s useful sometimes, but it’s just a tool and not a core principle or driving reason to exist.
Web5 couldn’t come at a better time. Users are more aware than ever that they do not control their online presence and they do not control their online future.
This was underscored recently by Elon Musk’s bid to acquire Twitter. By throwing around tens of billions of dollars, Elon Musk demonstrated that he has the power to take unilateral control of a platform that has enormous influence over the global political landscape.
The hidden Twitter story though is the people and communities that use and depend on Twitter every day. The majority of the value of Twitter is not created by people on Twitter’s payroll, but by unpaid users who have spent an enormous amount of effort building up their online presence, which includes both their social graph and also their persona.
Because of this, acquiring Twitter is different than acquiring something like a laptop company, a restaurant, or a movie studio. For traditional companies, most of the value is created by the company (or people who are getting paid by the company), and most of the effort involved in delivering the end product comes from the company itself. The consumer’s burden in buying and consuming the product is a fraction of the total effort that went into creating the product.
Twitter is less like a traditional company and more like a small nation or government. In order to use Twitter, you have to put material effort into growing your social network. Furthermore, this effort is entirely non-transferable. If you decide that you don’t like Twitter’s policies or terms of service, your only recourse is to abandon your friends and followers and start from scratch on a new platform.
If Twitter were a grocery store, it would be a grocery store where the shoppers themselves planted all the trees, tended to all the animals, and the only compensation the shoppers receive is the ability to consume the food that they grew themselves — they aren’t even allowed to consume the food produced by other shoppers! If some new rule appears (like “Twitter is now for vegan food only!), the shoppers’ only recourse is to start over with seeds and baby animals in a new grocery store.
Twitter of course is just one example. These dynamics are at play on every major social platform — Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat, Discord, and so on — all of these platforms are platforms where the majority of value is created by the users rather than the companies, and all the users of these platforms cannot easily switch to a new platform if new or unwanted policies are introduced.
Perhaps the most brutal example is the sale of WhatsApp to Facebook. Prior to its acquisition, WhatsApp was a world leader in privacy and encryption. Users chose WhatsApp in part because of the security and privacy it offered, and they put a great amount of effort into pulling their family and friends on this privacy-first network. After the acquisition, the story changed to “give all of your private information and data to Facebook or you will not be able to speak to your grandmother anymore”. Again, social networks are more like nations and governments than they are like traditional companies that sell products.
Web5 is a bleeding edge class of technology that’s aimed at solving this problem for social media. And specifically, web5 wants to solve this problem by putting the data in the hands of users, rather than having the data owned by the corporations.
Web5 goes a step further than just governance. The governance solution would insist that users need to vote and consent to any change of power like a transfer from the WhatsApp company to the Facebook company, or a transfer from the Twitter board of directors to Elon Musk. The web5 solution insists that social media platforms should be commoditized, and just as shoppers could switch from grocery store to grocery store, users should be able to switch between Twitter and TikTok with the same ease (and without losing their followers or friends)
If web5 is successful, events like Elon Musk acquiring Twitter lose much of their societal implication. In a web2 world, when Elon Musk owns Twitter, he captures users who have little alternative or ability to switch away. In a web5 world, he gains an audience, but it’s an audience that has the full freedom to leave for greener pastures if they decide that Elon’s changes are unfavorable.
Web5’s goals are ambitious. The entire Internet was built around the idea that the server owns and controls all of the data, and that the users trust and depend on the server. For user’s to own the data, several dramatic shifts are needed in the way web applications are built.
In many ways, the biggest problem is identity. And while identity is traditionally thought of as a set of credentials that you use to prove yourself, your online identity is actually useless if it’s not also accompanied by all of your data. And by “your data” we don’t just mean your files on DropBox. We mean the list of friends you have, your message history, all of the music playlists you’ve created, all the videos you’ve liked — every piece of data that’s required from users to build a modern web application is a part of your online identity.
Web5 solves this problem with decentralized storage. All of a user’s data is stored in a decentralized cloud where the public data (such as blog posts, social media videos, etc) can be accessed by anyone, and the private data (such as personal photos, download history, etc) can only be accessed by properly authorized parties.
Central to the idea of decentralized storage is also decentralized certification/authentication. When you are reading data from a user, you want to be able to verify that the data was actually published by that user. This is typically an easy problem to solve once you have decentralized storage — wherever you are storing the data, you can also store a signature that authenticates the data. These signatures make data re-hostable; data published by one user can be stored and distributed by any arbitrary third party, and users who fetch the data from a third party can still be confident that it the correct original data.
The other major problem facing Web5 is compatibility. If you want users to easily migrate between platforms while retaining their data and connections to other users, you need data to be interoperable. Different applications need to use compatible formats for their data.
Most Web5 projects address the compatibility challenge with a concept known as “schemas”. The general idea behind a schema is that you formally define a specification for a specific type of data and expect everyone to adhere perfectly to that specification. Every new type of data needs a new schema, and every application developer needs to learn all of the schemas of any data that they wish to be compatible with.
At Skynet Labs, we found the idea of schemas to be incredibly cumbersome and came up with an alternative solution called “modules”. Modules share data by creating APIs rather than schemas, and mimic the way that most of the Internet shares data today. The APIs run locally in webworkers rather than on remote servers, making them decentralized. Otherwise, they create and manage data in much of the same way that traditional websites create and manage data. This approach allows for:
- Rapid development
- More flexibility in introducing changes or upgrades to data formats
- Substantially reduces the total coordination required between different developers to share data
While Web5 is the new kid on the block (no pun intended) with funding and Jack Dorsey’s name behind it, a lot of the old players in the web3 space and building under the same principles that web5 proposes.
Skynet Labs, my own company, has been working on Web5 ideas and building a community of developers for 2.5 years now. Our platform emphasizes ease of use, developer ergonomics, and matching the performance and scalability of web2 platforms.
The other two major players in the space are Dat/Hypercore and Ceramic. While some might include IPFS as a player too, IPFS is more narrowly focused on infrastructure and has not done as much to solve the challenges surrounding identity and data interoperability.. (Typically when you think Web5 + IPFS, you think Ceramic).
Each of the major web5 players has a slightly different approach, but we’re all working towards the same goal — give control of the Internet back to the users. We all agree that the Internet is in bad shape, and we would all like to return to the open data archive that used to exist. We also all believe that it’s possible, and that an Internet with open data under the Web5 ideals will be more innovative and more beneficial to humanity than the Internet we have today.
If you would like to learn more or even join the fight to take back the Internet, come visit our discord at https://discord.gg/skynetlabs
For extra web5 content, watch our Twitter Spaces that we hosted!