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How do you think you would answer if I asked you the following question: “What do you own online?”
In real life, you own your home, the car you drive, the watch you wear, and anything else you have purchased. But do you own your email address or your business’s website? How about the pictures that populate your Instagram account? Or the in-game purchases on Fortnite or FIFA video games or whatever else you are playing?
My best guess is, after casting your mind through the things you use the internet for (which for everybody is pretty much everything, social and professional), you would struggle to find a solid answer.
Maybe you would ask me to explain what I mean by “ownership.” But it doesn’t really matter. And while I don’t mean this to be a trick question, it kind of is. Because in the current version of the internet, we don’t have ownership rights online.
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Digital ownership: Participants and products
To understand why we don’t own anything online, we must first understand the evolution of the internet and how it gave rise to the business model that has dominated its current iteration.
In the 1990s — the decade of desktop computers and dial-up connections — the internet was predominantly a content delivery network consisting of simple static websites showcasing information. What we refer to today as Web1 was slow, siloed, and disorganized.
Next came the platforms, such as Facebook (now Meta) and Google, driven by wireless connectivity and the development of handheld devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets, which gave us free-to-use services that enabled us to edit, interact with and generate content. These platforms centralized the web, putting in place a top-down structure that saw users reliant on their systems and services.
This evolution of the internet took place in the mid-2000s and is the version we know today. We call it Web2. It is a model based on connectivity and user-generated content, made in the image and interests of companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
In this environment, netizens are both participants and products. We sign up for services in exchange for our data, which is sold to advertisers, and we create content that generates value and fuels engagement for these platforms. We do all this while having no rights to anything online.
Our social media profiles can be taken down and our access to email accounts or messenger apps suspended. We don’t own any of the digital assets we purchase and have no autonomy over our data. Businesses we build online are often reliant on platforms and are therefore vulnerable to algorithms, data breaches and shadow bans.
The deck is stacked against us. Because the option not to be involved, when so much of the commerce and communication in the world takes place online, is not really an option at all. And yet there is nothing that we can point to and call ours. Nothing we have any actual authority over.
And, it is this dynamic that Web3 is determined to change.
Web3 and the “internet of value”
Right now, when most people hear the term “Web3” they probably think “metaverse”. But a better way to think about Web3 is as the evolution of the internet.
Today, the digital experience is very corporate and very centralized. Web3 will offer the dynamic, app-driven user experience of the current mobile web in a decentralized model, shifting the power from big tech back to the users. It will do this by spreading the data outward — putting it back in the hands of netizens who are then free to use, share and monetize it as they see fit — and expanding the scale and scope of interactions between users and the internet.
Underpinning that expansion will be guaranteed access, which means anyone can use any service without permissions and no one can block, restrict or remove any user’s access.
The idea then is that Web3 will not only be more egalitarian but that it will create an “Internet of Value” because the value generated by the web will be shared much more equitably between users, companies, and services, with much better interoperability. Users will have full ownership, authority, and control over both the content they create and their data. But how will this help us transition toward true digital ownership?
NFTs hold the key to digital ownership
The truth is that digital ownership is not too hard a problem to solve. And we already have the solution: NFTs.
In the public consciousness, NFTs are known for the projects that have garnered the most media attention, such as CryptoPunks and Bored Ape Yacht Club. While projects such as these have catapulted the term into the zeitgeist, the usefulness of the underlying technology has been much less discussed.
Simply put, NFTs act as proof of ownership. The details of the NFT’s holder are recorded on the blockchain, all transactions and transfers are tracked and transparent and available to the public, and everything is managed by the token’s unique ID and metadata.
So, how does this work in practice? Let’s say I create an NFT. As soon as I upload it, a “smart contract” is created that tracks its creation, the current owner, and the royalties I will receive. If someone decides to purchase it, they own that NFT and any additional perks that come with ownership. Their details are registered on the blockchain and nobody can edit or remove them.
Now, let’s say that the market for my NFTs starts to heat up, demand grows and the value of my collection begins to rise. If the owner decides to sell, they make a profit and I earn a small royalty from the resale. The change in ownership is tracked on-chain in real-time and the smart contract ensures my royalty fee is deposited directly in my wallet. This is the key value proposition of NFTs: Verifiable ownership and the option to liquidate digital assets.
What’s next for Web3?
This is what ownership looks like in Web3. It is the promise that netizens will be able to own their digital assets in the same way that they own their home, car and watch. NFTs will usher in a more equitable digital economy and will play a central role in the future of digital commerce.
The fact is that as of right now, we are still writing the Web3 rulebook. This is still a very new, very young space. And while few things are certain, what we can say for sure is that the internet is only moving in one direction: ownership.
The guiding principle in Web3 is to accelerate the transition towards a more equitable digital environment. It is very much opt-in, an internet built by the people for the people. It is one in which ownership is the foundation upon which new products, networks, and experiences are being built. And it is fundamental to establishing the internet of value.
Over the next few years, as Web3 develops it will operate alongside Web2. The infrastructure supporting Web2 is very strong and I don’t see us completely shifting away from that any time soon. However, in the medium-to long-term, Web3 will completely reshape our relationship with the internet.
Filip Martinsson is cofounder and chief operating officer of Moralis.
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