The cultural dimension of Web3

We will recognise Web3 by its cultural dimension: how it shapes, influences and creates reality and culture.

The internet is a technological phenomenon, but we tend to overlook its cultural dimension. For Web3, the next iteration of the web, this dimension is even more significant. We don’t know exactly what Web3 will look like yet, but it’s likely that it will grow beyond the reach and impact of Web 2.0. If it doesn’t, it wouldn’t be worth its moniker. Why call it Web3 when it stays in a niche?

At NEXT22 on September 22, Ana Andjelic will talk about what Web3 means for brands. Apply for NEXT22 and learn more. We’ve interviewed Ana for our upcoming book Next Level CMO.

Web 2.0 added a dynamic social dimension to a hitherto static, impersonal web. It created context and a web of relationships. Websites started requiring personal accounts, people began creating personal identities and networks on the web. During the Web 2.0 era, these phenomena grew out of their subcultural niches into the mainstream. Web3 will probably add a new cultural dimension.

What does that mean?

Hugging the cultural system

Culture is a dazzling, confusing term. It’s often seen as something separate from nature, but we can leave this debate to philosophers. We can spot culture on every level, in families, teams, and companies; we can also see it in local (sub)cultures and regional cultures or national, pan-national and even global cultures. All these cultures can be described as systems of symbols or signs.

Now, digital transformation shifts the processing of symbols and signs into the realm of digital networks. The symbol-processing industry has turned reality into bits. Not only does this mean that our existing cultures are being digitised, but also that new, digital native cultures are emerging. Eventually, these emergent digital cultures will become dominant.

We’ve already witnessed social networks rising to global dominance. Large hybrid analogue/digital computer networks have emerged and taken over. The relationship between reality and virtuality is in a process of reversal: soon, the digital world will be the real world, and the physical world will turn into a second-order phenomenon.

Life on the screen

Digital cultures and subcultures sprang off the screens from the early days of the internet. Already in the eighties, sociologist Sherry Turkle looked beyond the understanding of computers as mere tools. A decade later, she examined virtual worlds and anticipated how they will change the way we act and think. Web3 will put all of this into overdrive. The cultural dimension of Web3 is the most important one.

However, we have to add a few caveats. The first one is that we shouldn’t take anything we currently associate with Web3 for granted. It could well be that neither blockchains nor NFTs, neither VR nor AR will have anything to do with Web3.

The second one is that web technology, regardless of iteration, is highly dependent on energy. There is a global energy crisis that we need to solve for both geopolitical reasons (read: the war in Ukraine) and sustainability reasons (read: climate change). This crisis could delay Web3 – or even speed it up, if it can be part of the solution. For this, web technology, and thus Web3, needs to be key to the green energy revolution.

My fellow blogger Adam already established two learnings from previous iterations of the web, assuming

  1. That the changes will be bigger than we expected
  2. That the changes will be different to the ones we predict.

From a cultural perspective, it’s not unlikely that Web3 will be the foundation of a new culture, or rather many new cultures. While Web 2.0 predominantly digitised and enhanced preexisting cultures — think Facebook and the social graph – Web3 will foster new ones.

This brings me to a third caveat.

Timing is everything

This is about the pace and the path of change. It’s possible that some or even all elements of the cultural revolution will arrive later than anticipated. The technology may need more time to mature, and progress might be uneven. For example, blockchain and NFT tech could be faster or slower than VR/AR. Or other, heretofore unknown technologies may arrive overnight.

As a result, the cultural revolution we associate with Web3 may be delayed till Web4. And so, Web3 could be a step in between. We wouldn’t switch our concept of reality away from the physical world and towards the digital in one fell swoop. Web3 could be a hybrid reality.

At this point, we need to clarify our terminology.

Virtual often means occurring or existing primarily online. In that sense, virtual reality simply translates to online reality. There’s life on the screen, and then there’s real life. By contrast, VR is usually defined as a fully immersive (virtual, digital, or online) world. However, the physical world is fully immersive as well. Thus, both are real. Or are they?

There is another definition that contrasts virtual and real: virtual is not real, and vice versa. This is the basic assumption of my theory that we’re about to switch our default reality from physical to digital. If virtual isn’t real, virtual reality is an oxymoron.

Web3’s cultural dimension is crucial

But what if Web3 turns out to be a hybrid reality, like mixed reality? It could feature fully immersive digital and physical experiences, interacting with each other. This comes closer to what we already have today, with much of our reality and our cultures shaped and mediated by digital technologies.

The cultural dimension of Web3 is going to be the most important one. We will recognise Web3 by its cultural impact: how it shapes, influences and creates culture. The first iteration of the web was about interaction and commerce, Web 2.0 was about social and context, and Web3 will be about reality and culture.

With each iteration, the scope is getting broader, and while technology enables the change, its relative weight in the game is shrinking. Therefore, we shouldn’t focus too much on blockchain, NFTs, or slick VR/AR technology. All of that is important, and interesting, but what matters more is the cultural change they catalyse.