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Every time someone invents a new standard, the rest of the world is compelled to comply: VHS to DVD, DVD to Blu-ray, or Blu-ray to streaming. Change is inexorable, but it can also be glacially slow. Converting the tech geeks and conspicuous consumers is easy, but getting the long tail of ordinary users to embrace the “new paradigm” is fiendishly hard — and so, it is with Web3.
We’re living through a transitional time when the slow deprecation of one standard is being countered with the mainstreaming of another. To say that red pilling the masses on the wonders of Web3 has been tough would be an understatement, however. At this stage, it cannot even be said for certain that Web3 will replace its numerical predecessor — rather, it is more of an if. For Web2 to go the way of the VHS and fully transition to a new format — much needs to happen first.
The promise and the problem
The current internet is, if not broken, extremely patchy. What started out as an information superhighway to connect people and ideas has degenerated into a siloed series of walled gardens where speech is metered and access is permissioned. Censorship, de-platforming, rent-seeking behavior by monopolistic tech giants and opaque data sharing — you name it, Web2 is guilty of it.
Web3 has the potential to, if not eradicate these problems, certainly ameliorate them. Distributed storage can provide redundancy, censorship resistance and mitigation of hacks. Digital IDs can support secure authentication. Blockchain can route assets and currencies and facilitate micropayments while circumventing the geo-restrictions that have caused Balkanization.
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There are just two problems. The case for Web3 may be compelling to the tech-savvy, but to mass market users, it is nothing of the sort. Additionally, the average user simply cannot deal with Web3’s peculiarities, such as having to securely store a 24-word seed phrase in a way that is accessible for them but impossible for anyone else.
In its current incarnation, Web3 is an unforgiving environment. Grappling with private keys is not for grandma. Cryptography is not for kids. And irreversible transactions are not for the faint-hearted. Of course, there are solutions in the works to abstract these complexities and dress Web3 up in the recognizable colors of Web2. There remains one intractable bottleneck to mainstreaming this new internet standard, which no one has quite yet mastered: Onboarding.
Where are the on-ramps? Or more to the point, who will provide these on-ramps and become the cornerstone of this new Web3 world?
What needs to change
Remember the Segway? It was billed as the “transport of the future.” However, with a $4,000 price tag, it was competing with a small car and never made it into mass-market production. So, what must Web3 do to avoid becoming the next Segway? It needs to focus on removing points of friction that will deter prospective users before they’ve even had a chance to get started.
Among the Web3 components that need to be eliminated or abstracted:
- Seed phrase as first point of interaction: It might be a valuable way of securing your wallet, but when you need to save a seed phrase before seeing any value from the product, it’s a huge deterrent. Why not permit wallet creation and only suggest saving the seed phrase once they top up their wallet?
- Vocabulary (HODL, staking, gas): Terminology is a massive barrier to adoption. Such terms should be swapped for analogues in our everyday lives that make the meaning clear rather than scary. HODL = hold, Staking = savings account, Gas = fee. To go mass market, we need to stop demanding that people learn a new language, but rather explain to them what we mean using words they understand.
Make it simple and they will come
Blockchains, web wallets, NFT marketplaces, seed words — when the unicorns of the 21st century were building their killer apps, accessibility did not necessarily have to be factored in. The focus was simply on creating the most immersive and intuitive user experience as possible: Pull down to refresh, swipe right to accept. Web3 is app-design on hard mode. Not only do its architects have to create highly playable, “swipeable,” shareable applications, but they need to do so while cramming in the kitchen sink — the nuts and bolts that make Web3’s defining features possible.
We need to deliver this in an easy-to-understand package. If we can achieve that, it will create a true on-ramp. It will unlock that magic moment whereby the next 100 million or next 1 billion users can enter Web3.
Gradually then suddenly
Change always occurs glacially — until it doesn’t. Talk of a Web3 takeover appears premature, but the movement is undoubtedly gathering steam. While nimble Web2 platforms attempt to sneak in decentralized components and hope their users will like the taste, Web3 platforms are trying to create something so great it triggers a stampede. Only with the passage of time will it become clear which approach yields the greatest dividends.
Web3 can’t fix failed Web2 platforms, but it offers a pathway to a better internet. The onus is on developers to harness its features and benefits, while sugar-coating the parts that are unpalatable to all but the tech-literate. Great content is important. But first, we need to fix the on-ramps. Great gateways that provide a combination of irresistible value and simple UX are the key to mainstream adoption.
Oleg Fomenko is the cofounder of Sweatcoin.
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