When people were dialing up using 56k modems to connect to AOL, the internet was a much different, more open place where anyone in the world could share information, communicate and transact. Ad models and the attention economy had not yet been built and people’s journeys through the internet were limited only by what they were able to search for, discover and interact with. Things were good and simpler too! People were happy.
How Web2 hamstrung digital inclusion
Then social media was born and the internet shifted to attention-based business models aimed at harnessing attention, moving people through models that relied on engagement. We entered the era of “Web2” with excitement and glee. Monetization of content opened up the potential for revenue streams that could be massive depending on the creator’s ability to capitalize on these new tools and the scale they brought to their audiences.
However, it didn’t take long for the flaws underpinning this new model to begin driving society apart, siloing conversation and creating communities that felt real, but were really based on your invisible, algorithmic internet sherpas. These guides gently steered audiences into places where their attention could be monitored, harnessed and monetized. This model reaped huge financial returns and made shareholder value the major driver of these systems’ designs.
Under this regime, internet adventurers became “users” whose valuable data could be mined, shared and monetized without them even realizing what was happening. Personal privacy was laid on the sacrificial altar without those “users” choosing to do so with informed consent and knowledge of the consequences.
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Ads got better, more targeted and relevant; some people liked that, and platforms like Facebook really liked that. Seemingly overnight, our devices began listening to our conversations and feeding us content based on what would create the most shareholder value. It worked! Business was good and people were spending money (and attention) on platforms that coaxed them into creating content and providing extremely valuable data for free.
NFTs and the path to user empowerment
Today, it’s clear this model has led us astray. Outrage and narcissism have become the tentpoles of this new economy, and society is suffering the consequences daily. Many have realized what they’ve been pulled into, but have found no off-ramps or escapes from this broken model.
The next generation of the internet is being built around a set of values to correct these mistakes. Users are turning into “members,” and content creators are rapidly abandoning broken Web2 platforms in favor of solutions that remove the middleman and connect people directly to the information they want to see — instead of the information the corporate behemoths want them to see. NFTs, though relatively new on the scene, are enabling this connection in previously unimaginable ways.
NFTs are basically membership cards that can follow you around the internet and unlock specific information. They’ve gained notoriety through their application to art, but there’s so much more to this technology than pictures of apes.
Take the recent controversy around de-platforming and the questions about whether the major technology platforms like Twitter and Facebook have a responsibility to serve information to their users that complies with an ever-changing set of values, morals, standards, etc. As NFT adoption continues to take root, we’ll begin to see a digital world where people who choose to see specific content can access it and those who wish to avoid certain things can do so. This model shifts responsibility from centralized organizations who stand to financially benefit from our outrage to individuals who are empowered to make their own choices.
A more inclusive digital world
In this world, certain groups aren’t excluded from information based on what algorithms think they want to see or should see. Everyone can access whatever content they choose, without outside influence from shareholder-driven entities who stand to benefit from the decaying mental health of their user base.
Inclusion on the internet won’t be achieved by forcing everyone to see everything. There’s simply too much information. Real digital inclusion will be achieved by empowering society to make informed decisions for themselves — allowing people to self-select into groups based on informed consent. This is a drastic shift from the current model and it means that centralized entities will lose control over their massive user bases as people turn from users into members. Instead of relying on curated content provided by groups with ulterior motives, people can actively seek the information they are interested in finding.
This doesn’t mean that people will automatically find “correct” or even “good” information, but it means that they’ll be in control of how they construct meaning from reality — a stark contrast with the current state of affairs.
Digital inclusion isn’t achieved by forcing everyone through the same funnel of beliefs that are cherry-picked based on what will outrage them or make them feel a false sense of “belonging.” Real inclusion happens when everyone is free to make their own choices in order to find their version of reality.
We feel this disconnect every day in the contrast between what we see online and what we experience in real life. The truth is that most people want the same things — peace, security and community. Yet if you interacted with society solely through the internet, you might come to a different conclusion. This disparity is algorithmically created and the shift from old internet models to new ones will be instrumental in closing that gap. NFTs will be remembered years from now as the key piece of infrastructure on this journey because of how they’ll give control and power back to the people.
Julien Genestoux is founder & CEO of Unlock Protocol
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