Web3’s Promised Metropolis Just Isn’t Fun Yet

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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. 

Ivo Entchev is a strate­gist and advi­sor to ear­ly stage ven­ture with Youbi Cap­i­tal, a lead­ing dig­i­tal asset VC and accel­er­a­tor since 2017. Youbi is focused on invest­ing in projects that abstract the func­tion­al­i­ties of infra­struc­ture applications.

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