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Will Web3 help decentralize the web and give us more privacy, or will it fall into the same old traps? This week, Gina Trapani joins Paul and Rich to dissect Web3 and its many utopian promises. Are they right to be critical of it, or is their point of view out-of-touch? Probably — but there’s still a lot to discuss.

Transcript

Rich Ziade This has been an honor, to meet two pioneer–

Paul Ford God! Shush! [Gina & Rich laugh]

[music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]

PF Oh my god, we’re back! I can’t believe it. Last time, we talked all about the internet, Web1 and Web2. And Gina Trapani is back with us. Gina, the CEO of Postlight. Hello!

Gina Trapani Hello! Hello! 

RZ Welcome back, Gina. Because it’s getting real now. Look, we talked about the rise of the web, and the rise of Web 1.0. And the ability for anyone in the world to read something that’s published to anyone else for free. And then Web 2.0, which gave everyone the sort of programmatic building blocks to build anything they want. And you saw this explosion of creativity and this mass empowerment. 

PF Now we’re like 14 years into that. And we’ve got giant companies, centralized platforms, everything that you could do with those older webs, you can still do, you can still publish that HTML page and put it on a server and link to it. 

RZ I love peeking into those communities out there that still do the old school stuff. Like there’s libraries like BeautifulSoup and Python that just does all kinds of wacky things. That is still out there.

PF Nothing is taken away, the culture just really starts to emphasize certain things over others.

RZ And look, man, the convenience and the power. I mean, what’s in my pocket, and my kids asking the google home device, what’s the capital of what country. I mean, they don’t want to hear these nostalgic stories. By the way, if you didn’t listen, the last episode of this podcast, took you down memory lane. But then it took a hard like Ridley Scott turn to this place where they know everything about you. So let’s criticize the state of technology today. This massive democratic experiment that is Web1, that becomes Web2, which actually gave even more power if you could program a little bit. Or if you could just read a really well designed API, you could build things on top of other things. And all of this empowerment, eventually coalesced into four companies. I mean, let’s just say it out loud.

PF What else are we going to do in a podcast?

GT Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google. That’s FAANG. That’s the really bad acronym.

PF It doesn’t make sense either. Because there’s like, where’s Microsoft, which is like the sleeping giant in all this.

RZ It’s there. It’s there. They’re all there. And there is a lot of discussion today, like Facebook, is this behemoth. It’s billions of users. And there’s a lot of internal motivations within Facebook. 

PF They love that guy for the congressional testimony because you kind of sweat it out, right? Like Jack Dorsey was never as good and congressional contexts, because they’re just like, who the hell is he? He’s got that beard, like they could never figure him out. But the Congressman love Facebook.

RZ They do love Facebook. But I’ll say it out loud. I think Facebook does a lot of really bad things to the world. Like, I mean, I don’t think there’s malice. But I think there’s malfeasance a lack of doing the right thing. There’s a lot of lack of doing the right thing happening there, because they can. But look, this thing is a machine, it reports to stockholders, it makes billions of dollars, and it has to do what it has to do. But let’s go even more subtly than that, like when I just hit a web page, I hit the New York Times. And if they’re seeing me steer towards a health article about raising kids, there’s data making its way out of the New York Times and out of any site that is providing any content over to people who want to buy that data, so they can tell me about booster seats, and baby food and anything else, right?

GT Isn’t that a better experience Rich? It’s personalized.

RZ Well, there is that.

PF You can just click on AddChoices, the worst and stupidest little icon interface ever. And then set your ad choices! [Gina laughs]

GT It’s such a bad–

RZ One of the most bizarre–

PF They suck so bad for that. But it’s just such like, oh, no, of course, we absolutely care about your choices. We’re gonna put for a little pixels in the corner and make–it’s like Pac Man to try to actually click on it. And then when you get there, it’ll be some garbage interface that makes no sense. It’s a misbegotten industry. 

GT This is, you know, there’s intent and there’s impact, right. And those are different. I don’t think that anyone at Facebook intended to have the impact that they have. But the impact is undeniable. And I think one of the collective delusions we’ve all lived under in the technology industry with big pipes and huge storage available to us as having more data is going to make a better experience for you because it’s going to make it personalized and just for you.

PF We’re big fans of there’s no harm in it. We’ll just keep logging, right? 

GT Yeah, just keep the data keep logging. Yeah, like this might be useful later in aggregate we can see this and that right. And then Rich gets better booster seats.

RZ I think because we understand how the machine works, I think we’re able to make better judgments about it. And I’m not I don’t want to I want to say this without sounding elitist. But I gotta tell you, my mom, if I took out her Capital One browser add-on, she has a browser add-on, that’s just Capital One. It just has a button on it that says login to the bank. I’m like, Mom, why do you have it freaks me out because it’s this Internet Explorer add-on, that has been sitting there, which has rights that go beyond a webpage. And I understand how these things work. And she said to me, Look, do whatever you want clean up my machine, but don’t take that out. That’s my bank.

GT And it makes sense, right? From her perspective, I want to know how to get to the bank.

RZ I’m going to call it I’m going to use a radical term, can you abuse usability, to the point where ease of use can actually overwhelm decision making, such that you want these conveniences in such an extreme way, that you’re not even judging the implications of them? And that’s a lot of the world. A lot of the world are not technologists, they have all kinds of professions. And they love that convenience. And they love the power of it. And she loves being able to see where I am on the map.

PF We find all that stuff kind of gross. We’re just like, tacky. 

RZ Dude, we’ve graduated into being whistleblowers.

GT Yeah, there’s something in my mind. I’m like, is that browser I don’t actually mining Ethereum in the background? Is the I in Capital One really a one and it’s a complete scam? [Gina laughs]

RZ So this is bad. And now there is this promise. I’m going to say the words, I’m going to turn it over to both of you to take a crack at defining it. The word, they tend to glue it together, I’ve noticed. They put the 3 right next to the B, I’ve noticed when they type it up now.

PF Branding.

GT More like technology when you do that. 

RZ Exactly. Web3.  And Web3 through is promising to tackle a lot of what we’ve been venting about for the last 15 minutes here, 10 minutes. What is Web3?

GT This is my real cynical take. Web three is a concept designed by forward thinking technologists, as a form of backlash to our current setup of very centralized technology experiences, you know, led by giant companies to capture capital from investors and the market to swing the pendulum back toward more decentralization, more privacy, and I mean, let’s just say it, more blockchain.

RZ Whoa, okay. There’s a lot in there to unpack. Paul, your turn?

PF Sounds about right. I’ve officially neutral opinion on crypto, which is, well, I don’t like the environmental effects of a lot of it. But for the most part, if people believe in what they want to believe in, if people decided that that’s the currency that they like, okay, that’s the system that they want to use, okay. I’m not gonna judge their software, software as money. And I don’t have a lot of trouble with the idea that money and software can be the same thing because that we’re kind of we’ve been edging that way in our, the rest of the economy for a while. So I’m like alright, it’s not my thing. But that’s okay.

GT Wait, wait, though, where did where did crypto come from? Serious question. 

PF  about building on top of blockchains. And the way that blockchains are understood, perceived and operated upon in our society today is that you create a currency, some sort of blockchain that is also has a token associated with it. And that finds its way into a marketplace. And that’s actually, to me, the biggest problem that I think Web3 has which is that Web1, Web2, those ideas showed up and people did the best they could make work, and then the market would figure out if they could thrive or not. And what that did was kill a lot of really goofy ideas, as well as some great ones, some absolutely wonderful stuff went away because it couldn’t get venture capital. But it meant that there was a certain bias towards good things that lots of people wanted that survived. Web3 stuff shows up pre-financialized. It just shows up as commerce. And then it’ll be like, well, it’s commerce, but it’s also art. I got these things on the blockchain, and I can point to these images, and then you can you put some Ethereum towards them, and you’re gonna own that pointer. And all these sort of things happen. I’m talking about NFT’s there. What is Web3 to me? Web3 to me is a set of decentralized blockchain driven technologies that tend to be associated with tokens in various ways, because that’s how that culture works. And you can do web like things, but with a few different features added. So with marketplaces built in at the absolute fundamental core level. I can buy assets. I can have little racehorses that race. And I can buy those resources and then I can raise them and they can compete, the kind of gambling context. I can do sort of all these like little exciting things. I can put documents into the file coin network, and I can store them that way or stuff like that. I can do the things I used to do with Web 1.0. But I can do it using Blockchain technologies, without a centralized server without coordination using a relatively, anonymous is a tricky word, but sort of abstract identity for myself, and I can jump in and do that wherever I want, whoever I am, anywhere in the world. The problem I have with it is that the things that lets me do are just the things that I tend to want to do. So like when I say problem, it’s like my personal problem with it, like I don’t I put all my money in index funds, I don’t care. And I don’t like to gamble. I don’t enjoy gambling, I barely know the rules of poker. And I want to use Google blocks at this stage of my life. So there’s it doesn’t have a lot for me, but people are very excited about it. They feel that it’s gonna let you do all those things eventually, but you won’t need to have Google. You’ll be decentralized Google Docs.

GT I mean, I always try to separate the blockchain from cryptocurrencies, right? Like so blockchain is just a way to prove ownership, and you prove ownership because everyone agrees that you own the thing, instead of the bank agreeing that you own the money. I mean, cryptocurrencies is the way that we’ve seen blockchain actually be a thing. And blockchains problematic because the computing power, it’s an ecological disaster. So yes, agree.

PF Are there any blockchains that aren’t ultimately sort of treated as crypto though?

GT I mean this is the thing, crypto is the most popular and known application. We haven’t seen other popular applications of blockchain. But my understanding, I could be wrong here, my understanding of Web3 is that, is using the blockchain to decentralize proof of ownership and identity and storage of data, take it away out of Google’s hands or out of Apple’s hands or out of Facebook’s hands. And we all agree that this, you know, piece of data belongs to you.

RZ I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this. 

PF Yeah, go ahead, tell us what we missed.

GT Yeah, tell us what we got wrong.

RZ I don’t think we missed anything. I think what we are, are victims of, it’s a hype campaign right now. And it lacks real definition of what it is.

PF Why are people hyping it? What is the reason that anyone have?

RZ I’ll tell you why. They are hyping it for the same reason that ML is hype, that same reason that AI is hype. The same reason that augmented reality is hype. The Metaverse is hyped. Technology is propelled forward by anxiety just as much as it is propelled forward by innovation. We are the business owners of an agency that actually runs counter to how a lot of them work. And a lot of them, the way they work, is they tell you, you’re missing out because you’re one step behind the latest tech. And if you don’t hire us, and we don’t let us transform where you’re at, you’re going to be left in the dust, right? And so right now, what you have in Web3 is a lot of momentum around speculative value creation, frankly, that’s fueled by investors, that’s fueled by marketers, that’s fueled by media. It’s that famous onion t shirt, right? You’ve never heard of my favorite band or something like that. I forget the exact wording of it. Right? It feels real good. Right? It feels real good to know that you are one step ahead. And the truth is, there’s a lot of people writing those Medium posts and writing articles to define it. And they’re throwing everything in. I bailed on a few of them because it’s like, and now let me tell you how augmented reality helps the Web3 come alive. And I’m like, oh, come on, dude. Like, are you just gonna throw it in there? Is that where we are? But I think you guys both touched on it. It’s funny how it all works, because there is something so dramatically capitalist about all of it. And yet, the promise is that it’s going to give you control back and take it away from the powers that be, which the irony is just rich here, right? 

PF I guess they’re DAOs, the digital something somethings. I’m sorry, I’m sorry to the Web3 people.

RZ Don’t apologize, Paul. 

PF Essentially, they’re like, this is the future of democracy. And you just have to buy in to get, you know, the maximum number of shares, and then you get all the voting rights that you could ever want. You just have to buy them. And you’re just like, guys, you missed literally the last 3000 years of human society. Like you’re kind of rolling it back.

RZ Let’s do it through a use case. Okay? When I log into my Washingtonpost.com account owned by Jeff Bezos, but I sign in with my Google account, you can do that, right? It’s a very common thing, sign in with Google, sign in with Facebook, sign in with Apple. So I sign in with Google. When I sign in Google hands over, essentially a little package to the Washington Post that says, here’s Rich. And a lot of times they’ll ask me, like, Google will say, are you cool with us telling them about your height, your weight, where you live, how many kids you have? And who doesn’t allow right? It breaks everything if you don’t, so you say allow. And then what happens is now the Washington Post is going to create its own version of me so he can get to know me. So for example, if it sees me hanging out a lot in the business section, it’s doing two things. One, it’s able to To better tailor the content to me because it sees I’m into, I’m more interested in business news, but they do something else, which is they participate in a marketplace where now that they have built a richer, a higher fidelity profile of me, they’re able to sell that information back out to the world.

PF To be clear, we’re speculating. The Washington Post is a general case, we’re speculating, we don’t know exactly how it does their stuff.

RZ I would take it one level up, Paul. It’s not the Washington Post that’s doing it. There are beacon sitting in the Washington Post that saying, hey, listen, if you let us do this, we’ll give you some money. Right? We’ll give you some money, some pennies per user, right? 

PF They’re tricky because they have their own ad and publishing platform. But yes, the general principle.

RZ If you ran certain tools on your browser and hit the New York Times, which is has very nice typography, is very well regarded. North of 30 other providers are touching my information. 

PF You know, God bless them. I love them. Most righteous organization in the world, and they’re just, wow, you just wow, okay, you just given it up right there. That’s, that’s not mine anymore.

RZ So now let’s log in with my Web3 ID.

PF Hell yeah. First of all, how do you do that? 

RZ Okay, it doesn’t exist, nothing exists Paul. The stock market is essentially a marketplace for hope. And nothing exists, right? But let’s let’s go to the future. What’s fun about this stuff, and I’m gonna say this in a positive way, is that when you make these promises, these insane promises, it really gets certain people excited to experiment and innovate and try things and fail. And that is cool. Like, there is a lot happening on GitHub, because people aspire to achieve what is being written up in a very frankly, casual way in other places. The year is 2028. My options are sign in with Google, sign in with Apple, sign in with your Web3 ID. I click that one. And then something very different happens. The promise is that the New York Times, let’s say I’m signing into the New York Times, has to go and reach out into the blockchain, where my identity has been decentralized, nobody owns it. It’s in fact distributed, it’s on the blockchain, effectively, which means its integrity is there because of the the assurances that the blockchain provides.

PF It’s kind of a decentralized database at this point, it can go out and it can traverse that blockchain and find my record in some reasonable amount of time. This implies that I have created an account on my Web3, whatever it is, and then I’ve probably paid a little some nonsense nickels into the thing.

RZ I mean, you’re touching on something really important here, right, which is, all of this consolidation that’s occurred over the last 20 years is a product of people providing conveniences and improved experiences. That’s really what it is right? Like, that’s why Coinbase–let’s just jump right into it. Coinbase exists, because they’ve created an interface to make it easy to deal with this very complicated world. You’ve got, I think, one Coinbase portfolio, but they’ll deal with all the dirty work of dealing with different cryptos, and all of that stuff. But guess what happens here, there’s and Coinbase is actually indicative of how hard this really is. Because guess what happened? Coinbase has your account, and Coinbase is on the stock market. And while Coinbase is promising, the dream of crypto, your identity, Coinbase is going to defend what it has gotten to know about you, that is going to happen.

GT And your wallet.

RZ And your wallet. Which I do think there’s something here but I thought there was something here with Web2 and Web1 one. And I think what this is about isn’t a bug in the technology. But a bug in humans.

GT It presupposes that a bunch of people have spun up their web three nodes, you know, someone’s got to run software somewhere for you to register your identity and to do the mining and verify the ledger and all that, right. So we are we are presupposing that but that’s okay, web one. Everybody had their own web servers, right? Like, I think about Git and GitHub, right? Like Git is a decentralized version control system. Anybody can run their own git server, they all there, it’s completely decentralized, right? You have to be online to use Git, you can have it locally, but then get up came along and made an amazing interface to that right. And that’s what Coinbase did, right? They mean an easy interface for anybody to sign up and have a wallet and exchange crypto and buy crypto. 

RZ But are we back to square one?

PF Well, that’s the thing. Git is hilariously like absolutely no more centralized server ever we are done. Anyone can have their own entire history of the entire code base and everybody can kind of meet up when they want and merge those code bases together. There is no source of truth ever. There is no canonical repository. Turns out people desperately want and need a canonical repository for their brains like their brains can handle. And I think the same things happened with Coinbase, where it’s just like, yeah, yeah, Blockchain, absolutely, no central control. No, but I do like that one central control.

GT I mean, think about the features that GitHub built in that Git didn’t have, it was pull requests, it was collaboration, it was people joining and understanding each other’s identity and talking to one another, right?

PF Because the way that Git does that as you like, email patch files to Linus Torvalds, right, like, it’s like a real, like, it’s just very like computer to computer, it’s truly decentralized. If GitHub had not come along, Git would have 50,000 users. There’d be books about it, like Gina and I would have learned it, we’d be really into it, we’d be like, this is a cool solution, in the same way that we learned HTML, because it makes sense. And it’s useful, and it’s decentralized, and we’d be really committed to that aspect of it. And then the other 10s of millions of people who use GitHub would never have used that tool.

RZ I was thinking hard about like, you know, the piping of the web as it exists today. And if there are any part like because it is truly still decentralized, even though your data is living in like four places, it is actually very decentralized. I’m thinking like, who what part of the web is just impenetrable in terms of attempting to centralize, and I figured it out. So I found an example. Have you ever tried to move a domain name from GoDaddy to like, name.com? [Gina & Rich laugh] 

PF Yeah, no.

RZ Have you ever tried to do it? It’s remarkable. It’s a beautiful thing.

GT The amount of handshakes and pin numbers.

PF You want to change that one record in your DNS with like, the magic key.

RZ You know, there is something about that, which is like, look, no matter and they bury it too, GoDaddy does not want you leaving. And so it’s buried in under eight layers. It’s anti usability, right? Because they are losing control, effectively. And it’s the same with like, you know, telling Google, I want my emails back, and I want you to wipe everything out. There is a way, but boy, it’s painful for them. That really hurts when that happens, right? So you know, humans and organizations, and people who have aspirations can’t help but centralize and I think the reality is users want it, they want that ease of use, somebody is going to nail that Web3 wallet, somehow, someway. I think somebody’s gonna nail it. And they’re gonna make a billion dollar company.

PF Then we have a really slow database for authentication. What’s the point? [Rich laughs]

GT That basically destroys the planet before Web3 actually gets popular enough to help us.

RZ Paul, let me tell you something, I’m an important person. And I want three GForce 3090s to spin up every time I sign into anything.

PF But here’s what you’re talking about with that this is what you’re really talking, you’re saying, okay, what we’re gonna do is we’re going to create all the same basic services around authentication and content management, and profile and personal data and all that stuff. We’re gonna do all that we’re gonna do it on the Blockchain in such a way, like Git, that anyone had, you have your own copy or stuff and your stuff could be spread throughout the internet. And you can kind of meet up and merge depending on how these different Blockchain algorithms run. But what’s really going to happen is that everybody’s going to consolidate that data to make it quick and fast. So we’ll have like this nice mirror of the Blockchain thing, because the New York Times can hit that. They’ll index it for you, and it’ll make it really easy.

RZ For an extra $3.99 a month, you’ll get hyperfast logging.

PF Well, no, you know who will pay for that, is the New York Times, because they can’t go out to log people in. If the demand exists, right?

RZ Let’s assume that’s solved though.

PF No, but what you’re saying really is it like if that’s if all that stuff is gonna centralize, it’s all the same stuff slower, with a layer of financialization due to the tokenization of all the different digital assets built in. So that’s what you’re gonna get, you’re gonna essentially, all the things that we think of as core internet services that have become centralized, will be centralized again, within the decade, except this time, there’ll be banks.

RZ I think that’s right. Look, let’s go back and connect it to the last episode, Web1 promised the thing. There was the .com boom, pets.com, CDnow when everybody’s buying CDs, and then it burst, and then Web2 came out of it. And that felt like very democratic, very empowering. And then that created a lot of consolidation eventually. I’ve seen this movie before, I guess, is what I’m getting out here, around centralization, is that what we’re seeing?

GT And we’re just gonna constantly centralize and decentralize?

PF We commodify that revolution over and over again, right. And I think what is interesting here, and what’s different is that it’s actually coming pre commoditized through the exchange to Bitcoin and to the marketplaces for this stuff. 

RZ The financial scaffolding went up first. There’s a $3 trillion valuation on blockchain related like currencies, right? So that’s equivalent to Google plus Apple. And it is held by lots of different people. I was gonna say like the stupid monkeys, like that’s all we get? At the same time, like my buddy Jack is doing beautiful generative art and selling it through the hicap Nunc NFT marketplace, which is much less ecologically damaging than other ones. So it’s like, there is a whole world that is emerging that is really interesting, and we And the art is good. And there’s all this other stuff happening. There’s cool bands involved. So it’s like I’m not that down on it that way. But I think that we are headed, like I said, 10 years from now. It’s all the same stuff except that you’re able to get to it from one website. And it’s also kind of a bank and it’s the same stuff, but now banked.

RZ I want to close with a question for each of you. Pioneers of the internet. Start with Gina. Gina, are we just old people getting it wrong and being grumpy? And are we going to be proven wrong?

GT Maybe. [Gina laughs]

PF Always!

GT Always. Listen, we have to assume that there are things that we’re not seeing. Listen, we the patterns reemerge, I think that we’ve seen you know everything happened before will happen again. But there are parts of this that we’re probably not seeing. I remember making an argument to my to a friend of mine that websites were for documents for publishing and not application should never run in a web browser, that that was banana cakes, and I was dead wrong.

PF You were right! Look what happened! [Gina laughs] They should’ve listened to you. 

RZ They should’ve stopped at PDFs and that would have been that.

PF I have a rule. And the rule comes because I remember looking at Twitter and going boy, they ruined it all. That will never succeed. What a terrible idea. And the thing that I’ve learned is that the thing that you identify, stop thinking about what’s wrong or right, the thing that you identify as the worst thing, is often the thing that is most primed to succeed. Like your repulsion is actually a very powerful indicator of success. 

RZ TikTok.

PF Oh, god, they’re all gonna just dance.

RZ Vine lived and died in like three months. And like, okay, now this.

GT We are so old and wrong. TikTok is great. [Gina laughs]

RZ I love that. I love the surprise behind it.

PF What are you reacting to? We’ve generated a lot of our power and authority in our life by being really good at certain forums. When we were doing them, people thought blogging was gross. They thought Gawker was terrible. They thought that I was a joke when I was writing my website. And then people as time went on, like, better publishers started to reach out to me. And so like, there is an acculturation process. When I look at the Web3 stuff, and I feel like, ugh, really? That’s usually an indicator that something is gonna get really, really big. [Rich laughs] And so I accept that.

RZ There’s a lot of static right now, like, somebody’s got to write that killer essay that resets it all. I don’t know.

PF It’s just scams. 

GT Paul, I don’t know who’s gonna do it. 

RZ Paul Ford maybe?

PF No, I had to choose between blockchain and climate. 

GT And you chose climate. 

PF I chose climate. I just want to build something with it and see what happens. But then whenever I go to do that, it’s like, first, follow these 360,000 steps and learn 12 programming languages. Second, wouldn’t you rather just trade Bitcoin? So it’s just hard to get enthusiastic. And I’ve read so many explainers.

RZ I think if you brush it off, it’s bad. But I think if you’re suspicious and probe it. And there are interesting things going on here, I think the idea of creating markets that ensure like, is there opportunity, because people are fed up with all their data being just sold around constantly? Yeah. So there’s opportunity. There is opportunity there. I think people are a little casual about the implementation, as always, and the hard works ahead, we’ll see. This has been great. I mean, two pioneers, talking about the past and the future.

PF Nothing’s worse than being a pioneer. That’s just like being prematurely dead. 

GT I was just gonna say, I’ve never felt older. [Gina laughs] 

PF Pioneer just means that your best years are behind you. 

RZ Oh, no, no.

PF You happened to do something when you were younger, that was a little bit relevant. But now your mole the corpse continues to float through.

GT I’m dust! I’m past mold.

RZ Postlight.com. We don’t need to market Postlight because we are the future and we are run by one of the most forward looking teams. Gina is just leading the way here. Jokes aside, great, great work comes out of the designers, engineers, product thinkers at Postlight. Check us out at postlight.com. Have a great week. Have a great holiday everyone.

PF Bye everybody!

GT Bye!

[music ramps up, plays alone, ends]