Technologists Say Look Beyond NFTs for the Real Future of the Internet

Web3: Future tech or Bubble2.0?

Amy Webb
Amy Webb

Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist and professor at New York University, has watched fads wash in and out of SXSW festivals since 2005. In the early 2010s, Webb was in Downtown Austin during the festival when gaming companies SCVNGR (“Scavenger”) and Gowalla were handing out T-shirts outside the convention center. Along with the better-known Foursquare, Webb recalled, these companies were peddling hype generated by the collectable badges made available via geolocation on their app-based game (precursors to 2016’s Pokémon Go). At the time, “everybody was going crazy for badges,” Webb recalled, and SXSW attendees spent much of the weeklong festival attempting to collect the festival-specific tokens developers planted throughout Downtown. But in hindsight, Webb says their true contribution – the location-based social network layer baked into the applications – was “kind of boring.” The long-lasting influence of that trend is apparent in the success of Foursquare City Guide, which provides personalized business recommendations based on location and today has 50 million users.

“We’re gonna look back on avatars and digital collectibles the way that we are currently looking back at ultra low-rise pants and whale tails in the early 2000s.” – Amy Webb

This year, Webb believes the same idea translates to hype surrounding uses of Web3, the new version of the internet built via blockchain, the system of public-ledger record-keeping that’s enabled the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. The SXSW schedule is filled with panels that promise to reveal secrets to getting a head start in this new digital era, chiefly by designing avatars and digital collectibles. One workshop promises to teach attendees the basics of creating digital avatars using non-fungible tokens, a unique digital image file built on the Ethereum blockchain. Another panel description swears that the future of fashion lies in the digital world.

“I think we’re all caught up in the digital collectibles and the avatars,” she said. “We’re gonna look back on avatars and digital collectibles the way that we are currently looking back at ultra low-rise pants and whale tails in the early 2000s.”

Webb suggested the future of Web3 more likely lies in practical applications like infrastructure and the supply chain. At a grocery store like Central Market, she said, blockchain could be used to more accurately track where each individual piece of produce comes from because it enables more sophisticated uses of barcode technology. In the realm of city planning, one application of Web3 known as the metaverse, a virtual reality built on Web3, could be to more accurately model density trends, traffic planning, and other ripple effects of expansion in a city like Austin.

As CEO and founder of the Future Today Institute, Webb has overseen the annual creation of the Tech Trends Report, which will be celebrating its 15th anniversary at the upcoming festival. This year, that 800-page report will feature long sections differentiating between what she believes is part of the marketing blitz and what might actually stick for years to come.

The concept of a third iteration of the internet (Web3, for short) is not a new concept. The term was coined in 2014 by Zurich-based tech entrepreneur Gavin Wood, who founded Ethereum. The metaverse, on the other hand, is a more recent idea. The word was popularized in October of last year, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s rebranding as Meta. Much of the buzz about the new internet at this year’s SXSW, Webb says, is the knee-jerk reaction to speculation surrounding this latest major announcement out of Silicon Valley. That’s why she believes there are so many people scheduled to talk about marketing and branding at the upcoming festival.

Even so, some people are hopeful that the new internet could revolutionize society.

Entrepreneurs like Gary Sheng believe Web3’s potential for decentralization can be used to take the core power out of the hands of a handful of companies that operate platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter and redistribute it to individual web users. In 2019, Sheng, a former Google software engineer, co-founded Civics Unplugged, an organization founded to train, fund, and provide community for young people who want to reform democracy. Through an initiative called Dream DAO, Civics Unplugged is training Gen Zers between the ages of 15 and 20 to be proficient both in developing and navigating Web3.

He and the young adults in Civics Un­plug­ged are most interested in Web3 as a way to boost accountability. A DAO (which stands for "decentralized autonomous organization") is simply an organization with rules encoded in code that is controlled by all organization members and not influenced by a central government. A cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Eth­er­eum is itself technically a DAO because there is no central governance and members, in theory, have sole control. The blockchain records all transactions in a public forum, thereby boosting accountability. Sheng said this is revolutionary for civic involvement because it reinforces the idea that each individual has power and requires that transparency be built into an organization.

When he started to learn about Web3 a few months ago, he said he knew it was a natural next step for his organization. “Gen Z should not just adopt Web3, and not just not be left behind, but also build and be the future of Web3,” Sheng said. “There’s so many applications that indicate that Web3 can be a source of reinforcement of individual sovereignty, community sovereignty, movement building, and creating more trustworthy governance systems and voting systems.”

Sheng isn’t the only person talking about this potential. One panel on the schedule declares 2022 to be “the year of the DAO” and says they “have the potential to redefine the way we work, make group decisions, allocate resources, distribute wealth, and solve some of the world’s biggest problems,” while another argues that they can be harnessed to reduce administrative waste and curb middlemen’s control over in investor pools, charitable organizations, and community projects.

But when it comes to whether this is something the average person needs to learn about immediately lest they be far behind the curve, most probably needn’t worry much. Web3’s integration into society may be on the horizon, but hardly anyone outside Silicon Valley and the East Coast is practicing it on any concrete basis. Yet.

Web3 at SXSW

Welcome to Your Digital Afterlife: Upload Creator Greg Daniels in Conversation With Amy Webb

Friday, March 11, 2:30pm, Convention Center

Gen Z Is Making Change: New Tools for Impact

Friday, March 11, 4pm, Hilton

2022: The Year of the DAO

Saturday, March 12, 10am, JW Marriott

NFT School: Create a Freshly Minted NFT Token

Saturday, March 12, 2:30pm, JW Marriott

Amy Webb Launches 2022 Emerging Tech Trend Report

Sunday, March 13, 11:30am, Convention Center

Fashion’s New Frontier: The Metaverse

Monday, March 14, 4pm, Fairmont

Move Over NFTs. Here Come the DAOs

Monday, March 14, 11:30am, Convention Center

Think Like a (Nordic) Futurist

Monday, March 14, 4pm, Convention Center

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SXSW 2022, SXSW Interactive 2022, Amy Webb, Gary Sheng, Future Today Institute, Civics Unplugged, Web3, NFTs, DAO, non-fungible tokens, decentralized autonomous organization

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