If you’ve paid any attention to the chatter around cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) or blockchain, you’ve probably heard rumblings about web3. The term functions not only as a catchall for the aforementioned technologies but also as a way to reference an evolution in the tech industry. In this piece, we’ll define web2 and web3, point out the key difference between them and outline the pros and cons of each.
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What are web2 and web3?
The terms web2 and web3 are relatively new concepts used to market blockchain technologies. Blockchain refers to technology that stores and shares digital information across a peer-to-peer (P2P) network of computer servers. Those with access to a blockchain cannot alter or delete any existing data, but they can view it, use existing data, or add new data. Two mainstream blockchain technologies are cryptocurrency and NFTs.
Web3 companies have used the term “web2” to describe social-based, centralized technologies such as those controlled by Big Tech or “FAANG”: Facebook (renamed Meta in late 2021), Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
Web3, on the other hand, describes open-source, blockchain technologies that decentralize data. Proponents of this technology say that it takes away power from Big Tech, increases transparency, facilitates innovation and gives users control over their information and online interactions.
Web2 and web3 have been commonly mistaken for Web 2.0 (a term Dale Dougherty used in 2004 to describe the user-centric internet that was emerging from social media and massive smartphone adoption) and Web 3.0 (a term used to refer to Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of The Semantic Web, or “a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise and community boundaries.”)
Web2 vs Web3: Key differences between them
A key difference between web2 and web3 is data ownership. In web2, data has been mainly controlled by one intermediary or another.
For example, blockchain-based Etherum notes that in web2:
Twitter can censor any account or tweet
Payment service may decide to not allow payments for certain types of work
Servers for gig-economy apps could go down and affect worker income
Web3 brands, however, market that users data is autonomous and thus doesn’t need to be managed by an intermediary.
For example, on that same Ethereum page, they note that web3’s:
Tweets are censorable because control is decentralized
Web3 payment apps require no personal data and can’t prevent payments
Web3 servers can’t go down—they use Ethereum, a decentralized network of 1000s of computers as their backend
According to Charles Naut, co-founder of the web3 corporate-card startup Rain, web2 revolves around reading and writing whereas web3 is all about rewriting and owning. For example, if you want to build an app that builds on top of the data or infrastructure of an already-existing web2 platform, you’d need the owner’s permission. Web3, however, offers permission-less and composable features like smart contracts, that create opportunities for interactivity and building. “That’s really allowing innovation to accelerate faster than we’ve seen in web2 because we aren’t building silos anymore,” says Naut. “We’re actually building blocks and foundations that anyone can build on top of.”
Web3 is often mentioned alongside the metaverse, but most metaverses available to consumers today still operate with web2 principles since they lack interoperable infrastructure that lets people own virtual items and an identity that is not platform-specific.
Benefits of web3 over web2
A marketed benefit of web3 over web2 is greater control for the users and less surveillance from companies. As users own their data, they can share or keep their data private as they wish.
For example, in the future, artists with digital art portfolios could use smart contracts and NFTs to cut out middlemen when selling pieces and directly connect with the owners of their works.
Additionally, as computing power is not centralized in one place, web3 technologies will likely be more stable and readily accessible than web2 technologies. However, many web2 technologies like Wix have recently shifted toward multi-cloud hosting to provide more stable site reliability with full global coverage and 99.98% uptime.
Pitfalls of web3 over web2
Web3’s greater openness and decentralization also means it will be harder to filter out harmful content like cybercrime, hate speech, and misinformation. A decentralized web would also complicate regulation and enforcement—for example, which country’s laws will apply to a website that hosts content in multiple countries around the world?
Web3 is also likely to be slower than web2, because every transaction will have to be processed through the entire P2P network. This requires a huge amount of computing power, and the instantaneous transactions that we have become accustomed to may take far longer. In fact, these transactions, like making an NFT, require so much power and electricity that “gas fees” may become required for transactions that we now make for free.
Integration with current web browsers could also be slow. The computer chip giant Intel said that we need to achieve about 1,000 times our current computing power in order to make Web3 a reality. In many ways, software innovation has far outstripped hardware innovation.
Many optimists see web3’s nascent stage as full of opportunity, but currently without enough benefits to make a functioning, mainstream internet ecosystem. However, pessimists feel that blockchain technology will be unable to make good on its promises. In fact, Tim Berners-Lee has recently started a competing platform called Solid using standard web tools and open specifications based upon his defined Web 3.0 principles.