Web3’s Promised Metropolis Just Isn’t Fun Yet
If you think of Web3 as a virtual city, you’ll realize that we’re still a long way off from creating a town you’d enjoy living in
Mulina Vesile/Shutterstock modified by Blockworks
A great cityscape, a network state, a metaverse: The Web3 industry is fond of envisioning a shimmering virtual metropolis.
Much like that recurrent emblem of American exceptionalism, the Shining City upon a Hill, the Web3 metropolis represents a potent symbol of a brighter shared future — a user-centric and decentralized internet that belongs to us all.
As a mental model for Web3, the radiant vision of the virtual metropolis invites us to see Web3 through the eyes of urban planners rather than technologists.
But is the Web3 metropolis that we are constructing livable?
The honest answer is not yet.
Most of Web3 is not particularly livable at the moment. For the most part, it is good at attracting speculators and opportunists looking to make a quick buck primarily using nifty DeFi applications, but it is not good at attracting true residents — which is to say, it is not good at attracting consumers.
In certain ways, this is surprising.
Public blockchains vastly improve the urban planning of Web2 by delivering interoperability, composability and peer-to-peer networks.
Yet, despite these advantages, a Web3 metropolis has not been able to get off the ground. In large part, this is because Web3 has failed to deliver the fast-paced and data rich environment that sustains a teeming virtual city and makes it a destination for aspiring residents.
The flawed urban planning of Web2
Famed urban activist and observer of North American cities Jane Jacobs championed what she called the livability of cities.
She had no formal training as a planner and yet introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail. She wrote poetically about sidewalks, parks, retail design and self-organization. And she believed that a livable city was one that was designed with the needs and desires of its inhabitants in mind, creating a sense of community, and promoting social interaction.
Observed through this lens, Web2 is rife with an astonishing array of poor urban planning.
Like the physical garden cities that Jane Jacobs detested for their rationalist detachment, Web2’s walled gardens comprise a closed and predetermined artificial schema set by a supreme urban planner that is often at odds with the needs of real people.
The walled gardens of Web2 are platforms or apps that encourage consumer activity inside their walls, but are not well integrated with each other or the wider web. And they rely on protectionist data silos that prevent users from owning or moving their data.
In short, you can have some fun in a walled garden, but you (the data that comprises your online self) can never leave — like the Hotel California.
In contrast, public blockchains are designed to offer a city plan that opens up the virtual city. Opening up the city means that consumers own and port their data across a wide variety of integrated, mixed-use neighborhoods (interoperability) and developers can reimagine and repurpose dated architecture in new and perhaps unintended ways (composability).
The overall effect is an urban plan that is more user-centric, integrated and dynamic, rather than rigid, sterile and controlled — a city whose neighborhoods are more like brownstone Brooklyn than the sterile towers and uninspired courtyards of Hudson Yards.
The netizens at the gates
Contemporary trends are exacerbating the flaws in the urban plans of Web2, resulting in growing discontent among Web2 netizens and more urgent demand for blockchain-enabled urban planning.
Users are facing censorship for political and business reasons, while developers are faced with data superiority and power monopolies that cannibalize the ecosystems that they support.
Growing complexity in work and leisure is causing users to transition from generalized apps to more specific ones, leading to greater fragmentation of user data. Annoyed users are leaving data stranded, registering multiple accounts, creating content across different apps, and then publishing the same content multiple times.
Imagine that a video posted on TikTok is seamlessly and synchronously published across all of social media; that a comment on YouTube can be aggregated and synced with others from different apps; or that drivers and customers are able to order and accept rides in one interface without toggling between ride sharing apps.
This is what Web3 promises. Yet, the Web3 metropolis remains largely devoid of true consumer inhabitants because it lacks more fundamental data infrastructure for sustaining a teeming virtual city.
A better place to call home
“Will the city be any fun?” is one of the most important questions that an urban planner can ask, according to Jacobs. The answer to that question (in the negative) has so far been Web3’s undoing.
Despite its advantages over Web2, the Web3 metropolis has been unable to deliver infrastructure capable of supporting the blazing fast performance and advanced consumer applications that make Web2 fun.
To attract true residents, a Web3 metropolis needs vital neighborhoods in which to explore, socialize and play. Above all, this requires building an interoperable and highly responsive data layer that enables users to store, update and share their data while promoting the organic development of advanced consumer applications — a big challenge in a mostly decentralized environment.
If today’s urban planners are successful in their aims, the eventual inhabitants of the shining Web3 metropolis might not remember that their predecessors contended with an Internet that was fragmented and dotted with data silos; that they did not own their data; and that they were forced to remember a litany of passwords, fill out endless forms, complete verifications, and repeatedly repost the same content.
They will simply have the vague but correct sense that the city had arisen naturally around them but somehow with them in mind. Most of all, they will feel at home in it.
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