Real world problems that web3 could solve--at least for me

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, including the haters

I didn’t realize just how much some people despise the very idea of the blockchain and web3. Luckily, twitter is a great tool for finding exactly the people who hate your ideas the most.

There are a bunch of arguments against web3, most of which--I think--are rooted in a circa 2010 understanding of the tech or are focused, solely, on a handful of extreme use cases. It’s just a pyramid scheme, or a money laundering tool, or a general scam! (The answer, I think, is: it is all those things, but not just those things.)

There is one complaint about web3 that is surprisingly persistent and which I’ve become a bit obsessed with: what problems does it solve?

You can do this test at home: tweet out anything positive about web3 and within minutes several people will reply with tweets asking you what problems does web 3 solve. It’s the second most common complaint I’ve seen (after the general scamminess one).

This is a weird question. New tech rarely solves some clear, well-understood problem. Sure, now, we can look back and think of the “problems” that were solved by, say, trains, cars, the telegraph, email, cell phones, etc. (We can, also, think of a ton of problems they created.) But when they were launched, all these new inventions were seen as, at best, tentative solutions to a narrow set of problems.

But, with web3, the question is even weirder because… it could solve some of the biggest, most persistent problems of our age. It could solve problems that most of us deal with constantly and don’t think of as solvable.

Wait, what is web3?

If this phrase is confusing, do not feel bad. It’s a confusing idea that is being formed, chaotically, in real-time. If you’ve never heard of it, you are not alone. Most people haven’t.

There are a ton of resources to get you started, some good, some bad. I find the best starting place is the A16Z canon (which, I was thrilled to learn while writing this piece, I have been added to). I do hope to write more basic intros, myself. I know others are working on this, too.

For the purposes of this essay, here are some key ideas:

It’s not (necessarily) about money

The idea of the blockchain erupted into public consciousness through bitcoin. The blockchain has been hyped by many of its most devoted fans and a confused media (me, included) as being a new form of money that will replace the dollar and other government-backed currencies, for good or ill.

Personally, I have little interest in blockchain-backed currencies. I only keep a tiny bit of dough in Ethereum (the more sophisticated younger brother of Bitcoin). I own no bitcoin, no doge coin, no any other coin. I am making no life decisions based on the idea that the dollar is going away and I very much hope it doesn’t!

The blockchain comes out of cryptography, not finance or monetary policy. It is a tool that allows a bunch of people who don’t know or trust each other to feel confident about the provenance of some bit of digital code.

If you scroll down to the bottom of this essay and buy one of the "editions” listed below (please do!), you will then have permanent, unremovable, and easily demonstrated proof of your support of these ideas. I can’t take that away from you. Nobody can. Ten years from now, you can prove to me and anyone else that you placed value on this essay today. (Just think how cool it would be to be able to prove that you really, truly liked REM before they went all commercial! Or that you supported AJR when they were just some kids with a youtube channel.)

It’s not (necessarily) all that different from what you already do

You spend money and time on all sorts of intangible things. You might contribute some money to a charity, post your thoughts on a discussion board or a photo of your cats on Facebook or comment on someone else’s cat photo, buy a book because you love an author, play a video game, watch Succession, subscribe to a magazine you could read for free online.

With the blockchain, you can do all of that with the addition of a new option. You can record your activity in a permanent record that nobody else can alter or destroy. You can also control what that record reveals about you. Some, like me, use real-world names and easily identifiable details. Others--most, I think--use an anonymous identity. So, you might not know who SparkleUnicorn576.eth is, but you can be confident that the SparkleUnicorn576.eth who commented on your post today is the same person who bought a copy of your book two years ago.

You can have multiple, different identities. I know a guy (I’m pretty sure it’s a guy) who has five or six online identities. So, he can build and preserve a track record in different communities. You can have one immutable identity in, say, an online accountants forum and a totally different one with your bronie little pony crowd.

It is very different from what you already do

The addition of a permanent, immutable record to the existing internet offers some profoundly different possibilities.

When I see a tweet that puzzles or enrages me, I often click on the person’s handle to see what else they’ve tweeted. If they just joined twitter two days ago and have 4 followers, I feel confident dismissing them. If they have been tweeting for years, have. a high follower count, and generally tweet things I find sensible, I will likely spend more time trying to make sense of their argument. If they DM me, I’ll be more likely to respond.

The same goes for Facebook. We all, I’m sure, have made a new friend and then looked over their page to see what they have said and liked in the past, as we decide how much to commit to this new relationship.

Now, imagine a more comprehensive record of not only what a person has said or done but how they have spent their time and money. POAPs, for example, allow the convener of a meeting to give everyone who attends a permanent, non-transferable token proving their attendance. So, if someone starts spouting off about some local, municipal issue, you can see if they have been attending all the meetings where that issue has been discussed or are a first-time interloper. (This is a big issue in my new hometown in Vermont).

The conceit of web3 is that an online identity that can not be faked or altered offers a new level of trust and transparency. (This word, transparency, may not be the right one. On the one hand, your blockchain identity is fully transparent. Anyone can see every single thing ever done with that identity. On the other hand, it is trivially easy to prevent anyone from knowing who, in the real world, that identity belongs to.)

web3 is not good or bad. It just…is

It’s easy to think of all sorts of abuses that web3 will make possible. It could be easier than ever to become, say, an active member of a neo-Nazi group, building up deep levels of trust among other Nazis, while, also, building a public identity in a big corporation. No longer, will you be forced to choose between these two paths.

My core argument is not that web3 is this amazing thing that will make all aspects of life better. And it’s not that web3 is a terrible thing that will make life intolerable.

I do believe that--like, say, email, cell phones, stocks, bonds, and other innovations--web3 is a major new tool that will transform a lot of how we live our lives. It will foster beautiful things and ugly things, crime and charity, love and vicious hatred.

web3 is a new internet architecture

Web 1.0 was what existed in the 1990s and early 2000s. Webpages were static. What you saw, when you went to or was exactly what I saw. It was one-to-many. A website broadcast its message to everyone who came to look at it.

Web 2.0 is Twitter and Facebook and all the many sites that know who you are and creates a unique feed just for you. It’s infinitely more interactive than web 1.0 and offers lots of opportunities to create content, share it, and make money and gain influence. But it all goes through a small handful of gatekeeping firms. They can shut you off (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not) and their algorithms determine which content thrives and which fails.

web3 is something else altogether. Each participant--meaning all of us--can create whatever we want to--artwork, insurance products, currencies, and on and on--and share it with whoever might be interested. web3 contracts can make sure that the chain of ownership of any “thing” is transparent and clear. web3 trading tools allow for a dynamic measure of value. These “things” can be brought together in one way and then separated and recombined in some other way. The fundamental base is not a big company, it’s … whatever the hell we all decide to create.

Let’s get to those solutions you promised us

Oh, right. The solutions.

I’m defining solutions, here, as a way web3 can improve on things that are not great now. This means I am looking, backward, through a narrow lens to the things I see and understand now. What is most exciting (and, yeah, most terrifying) about web3 is that it will, surely, produce a ton of things that, today, we can’t imagine.

Solving the problem of assembling a good team

When I became the CEO of a new company, every founder I talked to had the same warning: hiring is the hardest thing you will do. Whether you are hiring an employee for a long-term staff role or assembling a team for a quick project, it is so hard to know whether or not someone will be the right fit.

Currently, we use approximations: we look at the school a person attended, the jobs they’ve held and the length of time they were there. We might take a look at two or three references. Anyone who has ever done any hiring will tell you that these are horribly inadequate. People who have all the right credentials can be the worst employees. The best ones can be those who barely squeaked by the application process.

With web3, a candidate can share a far more robust career story than whatever is shown on their LinkedIn profile. They can show not just what titles they had, but what projects they worked on, what courses they took, what communities they contributed to.

Of course, someone could tell you all that now. But resumes are, typically, works of creative aspirational fiction. With web3, people can share tokens showing someone’s crucial role on a project. This happens, now, on DAOs (more on those here), blockchain-based communities. I spend a lot of time at the Bankless DAO, where it is just a routine part of the daily flow for people to send tokens of gratitude to those who have been helpful in some project or other. People who attend meetings, get a POAP, a token of attendance. So, you can see at a glance if someone is an active member or an occasional lurker. Every day, people send “tips” of tokens of gratitude to others. One person giving a particularly helpful colleague a tip often leads to an avalanche of others doing the same. (Come to think of it, I really haven’t gotten a lot of tips. I should up my game.)

As web3 becomes more ubiquitous (as I expect it to), younger employees will ask their bosses and co-workers and, eventually, demand of them that they implement this kind of in-real-time, collaborative credentialing.

Similarly, people can build up a collection of immutable tokens showing the conferences they attended, the courses they took, the skills they proved, the books they read, the creators they supported.

I expect it to become routine--first among younger people in more technical fields--that recruitment will involve looking at someone’s blockchain-backed identity to see a richer picture of the person’s background. If a candidate with an unpromising resume can demonstrate an unusually large number of these Gold Star tokens--in which former bosses and colleagues sent digital expressions of gratitude--from their past, you might overlook the fact that they didn’t, quite, graduate college. Alternatively, if someone with pristine credentials has a dearth of such expressions of gratitude, you might look at them more critically.

Of course, this system--like any system--can be abused. Tokens might go, disproportionately to privileged people, reinforcing existing inequities. Or those who are better at manipulating others could get more tokens of gratitude than the quiet, solid performer who focuses, solely, on doing a good job. There could be token-hunters who play the system, acquiring this new status symbol, without building any real skills. Though, since these tokens reveal the date on which they were shared, someone would have to be very clever to figure out, today, what tokens they will need in ten years to get some job or other.

My hunch: all will happen. There will be different ways of assigning credit created by different protocols. Some will be better, some worse. Hiring will still require a lot of careful attention and thoughtful discretion. But, on balance, I think web3 will offer a far better way of assessing people’s real skills, abilities, and interests.

Another criticism: you could do all that now! With LinkedIn and references and stuff. I don’t agree. You really can’t.

Solving the “problem of the firm” and assembling quick, purpose-driven teams

Companies are weird. Why do we concentrate so much productive activity in these huge, inefficient institutions? (This is a big question in economics and one I will be eager to explore more in future essays). The key reason: it is very costly to assemble a team for all the reasons outlined above.

If you want to achieve some quick result--design an app, create a conference, build a new kind of bicycle, whatever--that you couldn’t do on your own, you typically have to spend a ton of time and resources NOT doing the thing you care about. You probably need to hire people, which means you need to raise money, which means you need a business plan and have to spend most of your time pitching.

Then, if you’re lucky, you raise that dough and you have to spend even more time and money creating a corporate structure, renting offices, and--most difficult of all--finally assembling that team.

Along the way, you’ve given pieces of power to your investors, to your lawyer, to all sorts of people who might not have precisely the same goals. Also, the ownership structure is determined before anybody does anything. A new employee who is good at negotiating or just more insistent often gets a bigger share than a great employee who is a crucial part of the team but didn’t push so hard. This is a well-known problem that, among other inequities, leads to men owning more than twice as much of a company than women with the same experience.

With web3, you could announce your goal publicly. People who are interested will reach out. You can quickly see what they’ve done (see above) and choose the team that meets your requirements. You can create a coin or token and distribute it among the team members. You can have a system that grants more of these coins when someone is recognized by the rest of the team for a helpful contribution. Ownership, then, will be dynamic and will reflect real activity.

When the thing you all are building launches, the profits can be distributed through the coin system, and the people who added the most value will get the most reward.

If the whole thing fails, the system just fades away.

Solving the problem of having only one job

Another weird thing about companies is the idea that the best way for human beings to work together on a project is to have all of them work the same, fixed schedule all of the time. And to insist that each person only have one job. (Yes, I know, lots of people have lots of jobs; and lots of people are freelancers; and lots of people have no job at all. I’m speaking, here, about people with full-time, salaried employment at a firm that would fire them if they took on a second job at some other firm.)

If web3 makes it possible to assemble ad hoc, dynamically-rewarded teams more easily, participants can have a portfolio of projects, rather than a single job. They can increase their level of involvement when a project becomes exciting and promising, lower their involvement on those that are failing, are in a lull period, or just become less fun.

This is how much of Hollywood works. Producers, writers, actors, and others, typically have a large number of potential projects in some stage of development. They know that most will never happen, but they can’t tell which ahead of time. Even the projects that do go from idea to pilot to execution might fail to make much money. The goal is to balance a portfolio of potential projects with the hope that enough move forward to make a living.

Now, this kind of system is probably going to work best for already fortunate creators and knowledge workers with enough of a financial or family safety net to be able to take on the risk of multiple uncertain projects. I would guess that such a system might be disastrous for lower-status gig economy workers.

But there are a lot of creators and knowledge workers whose lives are not as joyful as they could be because they need to channel their creativity and knowledge through one, single corporation.

Solving the problem of incentivizing creative work that endures

One of the defining moments of my career came in a simple conversation with an editor in 2008. I was working at NPR’s business desk, but had been seconded to This American Life to work on the show that became The Giant Pool of Money, an hour-long audio documentary explaining the financial crisis (you should listen to it!).

My editor at NPR was frustrated. He wanted me to be filing three or more stories every week and I was spending weeks focused on this one show. He said, “It’s better to do five stories in a week than spending five days doing one story. Is that one story really five times better?”

Volume was the metric of success at the time at NPR. Each month, editors would get a report of how many minutes worth of airtime each of their underling reporters were responsible for. The measure was simple: more minutes meant a more valuable employee.

To my mind, this was absurd. One story--like The Giant Pool of Money--could have enormous value. I still, 13 years later, hear from people that they remember listening to it and it shaped how they see the world. I did tons of high-volume stories for that editor that had no enduring value. Nobody remembers them. I don’t remember them. In fact, it became a joke. On the weekend, someone might ask what I had reported on that week and I could not remember. I had no idea.

Creative work, educational work, technical work is not fungible. Great work is not X% better than something mediocre. The world would be better if there were fewer but better articles, radio shows, books, songs, movies, tweets, etc.

Of course, we can debate what defines “better.” It will always be subjective. So, I’ll stick with my own definition. I would like more work that is enduring, that people continue to admire for a long time.

Most media distribution and monetization models incentivize quantity over quality. Newspapers, radio networks, podcasts, magazines, books, movies, and on and on receive the lion’s share of their revenue in a short window after release. It is increasingly hard for any medium to have blockbuster success. So, the creators and distributors of content are rewarded for having more stuff that might get a lot of attention over a short time. They are not rewarded nearly as much for creating great stuff that is beloved for years.

This is why I love and the idea of web3-native media. I think it can incentivize more work that will endure.

Right now, you can make an assessment of this piece. Is it a quick hit that nobody will think about? Or will it be seen as playing a key role in refining the arguments and promoting the ideas of web3? (Hey, my last piece was literally canonized; see above). Or do you think (as I do) that I am on to something interesting but am still in the early days of exploration and idea-shaping? That may (or may not) be worth supporting in a way that shows you got on this particular ride early. If I do write a breakthrough piece that becomes iconic, you’ll be able to show you were supportive way back when, before it was what all the cool kids were doing.

So, if you think this piece or the project I’m taking on has a shot at enduring, you might want to support it by buying one of the editions below. When others see that you got an early token demonstrating your support, they will know that you were prescient! (Or, of course, this piece might fade away and you just wasted some precious eth).

Whatever choice you make, I truly feel incentivized to create work that other people will think has real, enduring value. That feels good to me. I like that more than the incentive I’ve felt in the past to get a whole bunch of stories out, even if nobody values them at all.

As with everything to do with web3 (or, for that matter, to do with life), this can be abused. Maybe the stuff that is most inflammatory or that appeals to an audiences’ basest instincts will be rewarded. But I think that is less likely. When sending support for a piece in return for a token of support, you, the buyer, need to not only weigh your own interests and values. You, also, may want to weigh what others will think about the thing you supported, now and later.

It solves the problem of creators profiting from the subsequent use of their work

One of the key ways that people like me--magazine writers and radio journalists--make a bit of extra money is by selling our stories to Hollywood. From time to time, some producer will ask to pay me money so they can have the right to make a movie or TV show based on something I created.

I’ve made somewhere around $60,000 over the last fifteen years this way. Not nothing, but, spread out as it was, not life-changing. I’d guess most writers at more prestigious publications and radio shows have made a similar amount. Of course, some make millions. Many make nothing.

I’ve heard from filmmakers that something I wrote influenced them and played a key role in a script they wrote or a movie they directed. They say this, often, without apology for not paying me anything. As if them giving me secret credit is reward enough.

The system of IP exploitation (that ugly word, exploitation, is the commonly used term of art) has a huge amount of friction. It involves agents, lawyers, sometimes a manager or two, and extended negotiation over terms: how much will be paid right away, how much if an idea becomes an actually produced TV show or movie, how much if it’s a huge success. It’s a pain and it’s expensive. So, people avoid it unless it’s absolutely necessary. And, so, a tiny percentage of stories with potential are ever sold.

I’d love to help build a platform where writers can turn their stories into NFTs with clear rights attached. A filmmaker could pay one fee for full rights to a story, a smaller fee for a short window -- 30 days say -- to control a story’s rights.

It need not be limited to filmmakers. You could assemble your own digital magazine, filled with articles and podcast episodes and movies and pictures that have influenced you. You can do that, now, with most content. But we are already seeing that in the communities that have embraced web3, there is a growing norm of sharing those things that you supported. If your personal library included blockchain-backed proof of your support of the things you are sharing, the people viewing it will take your selection more seriously.

I’ve been a working journalist for 29 years. I’ve written, recorded, contributed to thousands of pieces of content. I’d guess most don’t have enduring value. But a few hundred are probably worth something to someone. And at least a dozen or two might just be worth a lot to the right people. But there is no good system for me to make those available.

I would love to have my collected works available, as NFTs, that are viewable in order of active support by others.

I would love to have marketplaces where filmmakers can look through all sorts of articles, radio stories, and the like, sortable by topic, writer, dramatic arc, and price.

I would love to have a secondary market, where people who supported me in the past are able to sell their support to someone who is more supportive now.

More soon?

If you read this far, why not buy one of the editions below. You, clearly, seem to find some value here.

I’m planning to write a lot more in this space and seeing folks support the work fuels my excitement.

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