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The History of the Web

Where it came from and where it is going.

The Web as we know it today is the product of decades of innovation, spanning two distinct eras. With Web 1.0, the world experienced a period of rapid internet adoption, piquing the interest of companies which then rapidly ballooned in value on the back of new-fangled business models. It wasn’t until Web 2.0, however, that the modern internet as we know it today began to take shape, one built on user data and dominated by a relatively small number of giant tech companies. 

Now we stand on the precipice of Web3, a new model still in the process of being built, emphasizing decentralization and user ownership. So how did we get here, and just what will Web3 offer that the previous web generation didn’t?

Web 1.0

Web 1.0: In the Beginning

First, let’s define our terms. Web 1.0 is a more recently coined term referring to the Web as it originally emerged. It’s important to note that the Web, or World Wide Web to give it its full name, and the internet are not synonymous, despite common usage. The Web is the system by which information is accessed over the internet, the underlying raft of interconnected computer networks. 

Invented in the late eighties by scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, the Web was initially intended for mostly academic purposes.  Soon enough the emergence of web browsers with graphical user interfaces made the previously daunting task of browsing the web far simpler for the average person.

And as the Web garnered interest from the general public, so too did it begin to attract attention from businesses. Despite the then generally static nature of Web pages, so-called “dot-com” companies were able to pioneer new business models which are now commonplace, such as e-commerce, building their services largely on open protocols which they did not themselves control. That resulted in a global internet population of 412.8 million people in the year 2000.

It all ended in tears, however, with the dot-com bubble bursting in the same year. The big beasts of the Web 1.0 era pre-dot-com bubble are largely forgotten today. Companies such as Pets.com, Webvan, and eToys.com all went bust, while the likes of Amazon were severely wounded. It was out of the ashes of Web 1.0 that a new idea for the internet coalesced, emphasising interactivity and participation – Web 2.0.


Web 2.0: The Platform Era

Much has happened since the Web 2.0 era began in the mid-2000s. Technologies such as JavaScript, Flash and HTML5 have made the user experience progressively more interactive. The way people access the Web has itself changed, with smartphones becoming the most prominent gateway to the internet. And Apple and Google’s near-monopoly on smartphone operating systems led to centralization in the ways people accessed the Web, helping give rise to a few supremely dominant platforms. At the same time, social media sites blossomed, pioneered chiefly by the likes of Facebook and YouTube, bringing whole new ways of communicating and sharing content. Their rise was powered by a symbiotic relationship between the platforms and creators, with user-generated content attracting the eyeballs they needed to sell to advertisers.

The basic agreement we sign up to as users of Web 2.0 is that our personal data grants us “free” access to a wealth of services via the cloud. As part of that agreement, businesses are free to change the rules (such as the percentage of advertising revenue given to creators) whenever they feel like it. That approach has undoubtedly been a success in terms of uptake – with 4.66 billion active internet users across the globe at the start of 2021, representing 59.5% of the world’s population. There are signs the contract is wearing thin, however.

The latter period of Web 2.0 has involved a backlash against the dominance of centralized platforms and the perceived societal ills they have created. An increase in political tensions between groups algorithmically fed content that aligns with their biases and the rise in disinformation and fake news have focused the attention of governments on the ways businesses might be abusing their place on the Web. The stage is set for another paradigm shift in the way the Web operates: Web3.

Web History

Web3: Decentralization

The single concept most important to bear in mind when comparing Web 2.0 with Web3 is decentralization. The maturation of blockchain and cryptocurrency technology has made a move away from centralized platforms possible by ensuring open access and offering in-built traceability. Indeed, it’s little surprise the concept of Web3 is intimately entwined with blockchain technology, with the term itself coined by the co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain. In many ways, this move towards decentralized digital networks actually represents a return to the aforementioned open and community-led protocols common during Web 1.0.

Marry that with ever more intelligent machine learning algorithms and increasingly affordable and popular routes into augmented and virtual reality, and some are forecasting a new type of collaboration, unmediated by gatekeepers and taking place in new virtual worlds: the Metaverse. Indeed, much of the excitement about Web3 is less about the underlying technologies and more about the new experiences that will be able to be built on top (for instance virtual land ownership). And motivating the creation of these experiences is the existence of a new decentralized creator economy, one that means users can be the prime beneficiaries of their creations, rather than the platforms which host them.

Of course, don’t expect everything in Web3 to be a totally unfamiliar new world. Web 2.0 has brought new levels of convenience to many of our daily activities such as mobile banking or shopping online, and existing Web 2.0 methods of accessing those services are unlikely to be transformed purely for the sake of it. But Web3 has the potential to allow more direct forms of interaction between entities, be they individuals, businesses, collectives or machines, by cutting out the middlemen and deriving its authority from the blockchain.

The eventual form of Web3 is yet to be fully understood, as the tools that power it are in their infancy. As adoption grows and users migrate over, however, there is every opportunity that the Web’s latest incarnation will be its most transformative, bringing a new era of openness, personal ownership and mutual collaboration. As it stands, Web3 is pure potential – it is the users who will ultimately help decide what shape it takes.

To find out more about NFTs, Web3 and the metaverse at large keep reading gmw3.

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