People have been thinking about the next generation of Web ever since Web 2.0 landed and got its incarnation in Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. No conclusive Web 3.0 road map has ever convinced me, though, so I started thinking about my own one.
I started looking at what made Web 1.0 and then Web 2.0 and decided that the trend could be extrapolated from there. The approach, I thought, should be Hegelian: every manifestation of the Web should solve a problem, create a new problem, and find its own solution in the next one.
What made Web 1.0? The problem we were having was information. Mainly the availability of information anywhere. People were paid for information back in the days. They were in a huge industry of information gathering, sifting, sorting, and selling. Web 1.0 was all about that information – easier ways to distribute it, easier ways to connect with it, easier ways to share it.
If the problem was information and access to it, the solution was given by new ways of consuming it. What was available in print was now online. What was a catalog became an e-commerce site. Newspapers made themselves obsolete, Craigslist stole the classifieds, and eBay the for sale signs.
The process is not linear. Long after we started seeing the first issues with Web 1.0, we still had old economy in places, especially where there was regulation or a monopoly. The best example is probably the banking and insurance sector, as well as real estate. This is an important realization, because the pressures generated by these hold-overs are going to be pushing towards Web 3.0.
The problem (in Hegel terms: antithesis) to the access/consumption thesis became the flood of information. Spam, search engine rigging, low-quality sites and information polluting the value of the Web. We now had access to a lot of information, but there was no quality control. That’s still an improvement over no information at all, but the novel problem still needed to be solved.
Web 2.0 sounds like it’s about content generation by individuals, and the sites mentioned above are all in that category. But that would be the solution to an orthogonal problem to that of information quality at first sight, and it would explain only one tiny fraction of the development on the Web.
Instead, I believe that Web 2.0 is all about relevance. We now had tons of information and we had to find out what is relevant. Part of it was finding content about people we care about – which is what social media was all about. But the majority of it is sifting through information by quality. That’s what Google was all about.
The crown jewel of Web 2.0, though, and the one that points the way to Web 3.0, is neither Facebook nor Google. It’s Wikipedia. Wikipedia is to the 21st century what the automobile was to the 20th, the key invention from which all other developments would derive.
Wikipedia has an obvious Web 1.0 function: it makes content available in massive quantities. The amount of information that can be gathered by a lookup of a keyword is staggering, and the online links make the information infinitely relevant to the task at hand. People that don’t use or don’t trust Wikipedia as a matter of principle in 2010 are not just wrong, they are in the wrong century.
Less obvious are the Web 2.0 implications of Wikipedia. The information on it, namely, is hugely relevant for no specific reason. There are no automated algorithms that need to be constantly perfected as is the case with Google. There are no walled gardens and privileged information, as is the case for Facebook. Wikipedia is relevant because it is.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interaction between Google and Wikipedia. In a vast array of searches for non-products, Wikipedia is the first available link or at least near the top. Try Constantinople, lung cancer, string theory: Wikipedia is there to help you with (mostly) accurate information.
What does that have to do with Web 3.0? Well, the problem that we are facing now, increasingly, is that relevance is starting to be used against us. More and more, the problem is that relevant information is available, but we cannot shield ourselves from this availability. Privacy is a concern, identity theft, the consequences of information availability.
How does Wikipedia point in the direction of a solution: the main thing that it does that is revolutionary is that it organizes people. The organization is phenomenally unexpected, as the same thing that causes much of the Internet to be unusable (trolling, faking, lying) is miraculously only a side aspect of Wikipedia life.
At the same time, when we look at the hold overs from the pre-web era, the information processing giants in finance and insurance, we see that they continue to broker information and make tons of money with it. The reason for that is that to make use of the information they have, you have to be organized.
What do I mean? A bank doesn’t do anything but connect people with money to people in need of it. It is an honest broker, and the thing it sells is not money (although that’s what you buy) but the information of who has it and who needs it.
Insurance companies behave in much the same way: they insure by giving a value to a risk, which is something that comes from lots of information. They figure out how likely it is that something happens and give you a premium that will cancel out the risk because it is distributed.
Banks and insurance companies, furthermore, share the same methodologies. Financial firms, for instance, need to insure themselves from the risk of default, which is properly an insurance risk.
Web 3.0 is about organizing the individuals into entities that can replace information brokers. The first inklings of it are already visible: there are micro-banks that pool people into borrowing money, there is Wikipedia with its collaborative approach to content relevance improvement.
What we will see in the future, though, is going to be more powerful: sites that organize people into political movements for specific causes; sites that aggregate and pool decision making; sites that provide for much of the information distribution that we are used to buying right now; finally, sites that are organized by users, instead of being provided by companies.
That’s the one thing that Wikipedia didn’t get right, and the source of much of the frustration with it: it is run by a dedicated group of people with their own opinions, that do not match the community. If you believe in community generating an encyclopedia, you probably should also believe in the same community running it.