Momentous technologies often look useless. Especially information-related technologies. Why did we need the printing press, when most people were illiterate? Plus, the priest could already read aloud from a hand-copied Bible. Why did we need the personal computer, when people already had filing cabinets, type-writers, and TVs? Computers were for wealthy corporations.
We’re facing a similar question today — why do we need the decentralized web — when we’ve already got Facebook, Google, and fiat currencies? It simply looks useless.
It seems to me that the decentralized web has gotten traction among those who are excited by the freedom and empowerment ideology undergirding the dWeb. But if we look back at past technologies, we find a repeating pattern: consumers come for value-add, not for the ideology.
What’s the dWeb’s value-add?
Now, the dWeb-crypto cult following might say something like “privacy” or “democratization!” But these ideologies don’t motivate most people. Even most of us in that cult-following continue to have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and continue to rely on Google for search, email, or navigation. We still use traditional banking, and some of us even store our crypto asset private keys there. So let’s agree to take these ideologies off the “value-add” table. They simply aren’t enough.
The dWeb, at it’s core, is about a personal platform. As Steve Jobs tried to take the computer and put it in everyone’s homes, so the dWeb is about taking the technology platform (like Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc.) and putting it into everyone’s homes. If we’re honest, at first blush, this seems unnecessary. Who’s going to switch their accounts over to dWeb accounts, simply to gain access to the same underlying services? We already have photo-sharing and navigation abilities.
Why do I need in-house photo sharing and navigation? I think dWeb engineers are distracted by technologies that will come later in the game (namely social media dApps).
Value-add #1: Making More Money
The killer first use-cases of the dWeb will be for marketplaces. There is a lot of value-add for user adoption if you can cut Uber, TaskRabbit, Amazon, and Airbnb out of economic transactions. More money for all peers involved. It’s simple. It’s also low-hanging fruit because of the non-exclusive contract relationships these marketplaces have with the workers.
This aids in the chicken-and-egg problem, as they can continue to work for Uber while also checking for driving opportunities in the p2p app.
If you pay attention, you’ll find that there are far more third parties which are now trivial to eliminate. As I’ve learned more about the publishing industry, for instance, I’ve found that often the success of New York Times Best Sellers is due to the advertising efforts and pre-existing fan-base of the author, not the publisher.
Publishers know this, and so they typically only grant contracts to authors who have a large following, have pre-advertised the book, have shown that the market for similar books is large, have agreed to continue advertising to their fan base after publication, and have shown that they are likely to publish more books (ideally in a series) in the future.
Authors who go on to enter these contracts subsequently get only small royalties from the sales. So I think in today’s world of ebooks and online audiobooks, content creators may be more open to stripping these sorts of third-parties away. They are required to bring most of the value to the table anyway.
Value-add #2: Direct Connections
The importance of online relationships indicate another value-add that the dWeb can offer: direct, unencumbered access to your contacts. As it currently stands, social media gives us indirect access to our contacts as a courtesy — one which can be revoked if the platform determines that it’s Terms of Service have been violated (even when this determination overreach or mistake).
This might be as lofty as enabling the distribution of content which governments compel platforms to remove (for instance, the sharing of books which are censored from public distribution in certain countries), as simple as selling goods to your contacts directly, or as common as messaging a friend your password without fear that someone working at Facebook will read the message. The value add is control over your contact list, one that follows you from platform to platform, not one that stays in Facebook when you log off.
This aspect of the dWeb is particularly useful for influencers and entrepreneurs, who will want the flexibility to be honest and to move fast. In practical form, this value-add dApp is something like a meta-social-media that allows a person to broadcast to all of their personal contacts at once (not just to Facebook friends or to Twitter followers).
Value-add #3: Offline-first
The dWeb is about self-hosting data, which means that we also have access to our data even when we are offline. How many times have we wanted to access our cloud library of music or videos while we’re stuck on an airplane? Or, how many times have we had shoddy internet connection, so our Medium stories stop saving what we’ve written?
How often have we wanted to track down some old email, and our phones take forever and a day to find it because Google servers are being slow? A lot. The dWeb has a lot to offer train commuters going in and out of tunnels. It’s got a lot of offer businesses whose payment processors go down from time to time. It’s got something to offer people like me — who are desperately holding out on updating Microsoft Word, because I don’t want to have to exercise the foresight of when I’ll be disconnected from the internet and then need to have already downloaded my documents.
The cloud is useful, but I want offline-first.
Value-add #4: Nudging via Reminders
The long-game of the dWeb has the most compelling value-add: the ability to help us achieve our goals. Essentially, advertisements can be replaced with messages we’ve tailored to aid us in whichever pursuits we’ve prioritized.
This flips the current model upside down. The point of centralized platforms’ surveillance capitalism is to modify consumer behavior in such a way as to turn corporate profit. On the dWeb, self-hosted reminders will be tailored and curated to our personal agendas.
Our reminders will be used to modify our behaviors, but this time behavioral modification will be self-directed toward achievement of our personal goals, rather than toward emptying our wallets.
A person with the goal of staying in touch with friends may see a reminder that pulls up a memory with friends along with a button to call those friends. After emotion recognition software identifies sad affect, a person who struggles with depression might be reminded to take their prescription and to go out for a jog.
A person who has a goal of eating healthily might, around lunch time, start seeing a reminder that they bought trailmix last week, and that it might make a healthy snack. This is not to say that corporate advertising will go away altogether. But, instead of ads targeting people, people will target ads. Any corporate advertising which bleeds into our digital space will be selected by its alignment with the goals an individual has already specified.
These are the types of features which just might attract users to the dWeb. They cannot be mimicked by centralized companies, at least not over the long-haul. They require a fundamentally different business model — one which prioritizes the self-sufficiency of people over the self-sufficiency of monopolistic corporations.
I am building out the egalitarian infrastructure of the decentralized web with ERA. If you enjoyed this article, it would mean a lot if you shared it, and connected with me on Twitter! You can also subscribe to watch or listen to my podcast!