On web3, you're missing the point
The future of the Internet isn't just going to be decided by what web3 is and isn't. It's also going to be decided by how we talk about it.
People debating whether web3 is the future of the internet or a giant scam are missing the point. That’s because they are the point.
Web3 is the Internet on blockchain, which promises a more decentralized internet. Imagine social media, but they can’t censor you if they believe you’ve violated their terms and conditions. Or crowdfunding platforms, but they can’t shut down your campaign if they think you’re funding the next trucker convoy. Or the major credit card networks, but they can’t switch off payments to sex workers in Russia—not even if a hegemonic government demanded they do it. Decentralized means no intermediary can call the shots.
It has been hard to browse the web without reading about it. Some believe web3 will liberate the Internet from today’s web giants, such as Facebook or Amazon. Others believe that web3 is the product of a Silicon Valley hype machine that’s helping venture capitalists make their next big buck.
Web3 opinions are polarized. I’m not into monocausal explanations, but if I could only pick one idea to understand why web3 is both celebrated and hated, Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire would be a contender.
Web3 flipped the switch of people’s mimetic desire
Girard’s first run-in with mimetic desire was as a young man. When he was studying medieval history in France, he was “interested in girlfriends.” One day, a girlfriend of his asked him to marry her. The curtness and timing of her request put him off, and so he ended the relationship. Soon she got over it and started seeing other men, rekindling his interest. Because others wanted her, Girard wanted her again.
According to the theory of mimetic desire, people want what others want. It sounds intuitive when you consider that we learn by way of mimicry. We learn how to smile as babies by copying our parents. That’s also how we learn to walk and talk. Why wouldn’t that also be how we learn what to desire? If Girard were describing me, he’d say Alex “does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind.”
The first mimicable mention of web3 I can find is from Gavin Wood, who is the co-founder of Ethereum, a type of web3 infrastructure. In 2014, Wood wrote that web3, or what “might be termed the ‘post-Snowden’ web, is a re-imagination of the sorts of things we already use the web for, but with a fundamentally different model” because “no government or organization can reasonably be trusted.”
If Wood turned a few heads when he wrote about web3 in 2014, 2022 turned a few million. When you Google web3 today and filter for only the good stories, you can find many about how much money investors are putting up, or how top talent is turning its back on Google, Facebook, and Amazon to rebuild the Internet.
The reason investors and talent are being drawn to web3 is not that it’s successfully decentralizing the Internet, even though that’s what enthusiasts say it will do. The Internet has been centralizing for years, without any breaks in the trend. Facebook. Google. Tencent. Amazon. Alibaba. The giants still guard the gates of the Internet. The promise of web3 is still just that: a promise.
The reason for Web3’s gravitational pull is more circular: investors and talent are drawn to web3 because investors and talent are drawn to web3.
As Girard said, people don’t know what to desire and turn to others to make up their minds. Investors and talent are people, and so they’re doing the same. They’re mimicking the desire to build, breaking through the technological boundaries of what is possible and redrawing them. They’re mimicking the desire to right wrongs, embarking on a crusade that is as ideological as it is technological. They’re mimicking the desire to make money. They’re even mimicking the desire to be cool and get laid.
Like the accumulation of wealth, mimetic desire compounds. The mimicker becomes the mimicked. The group gets bigger and bigger. Eventually, there are more people with shared desire than there are objects to be desired.
That’s when mimetic desire turns into something else.
Desire plus scarcity equals conflict
Girard’s theory is more elaborate than the simple idea that people want what others want. A corollary of the idea that we learn what to desire by mimicking others is that we also compete for shared desire. When you desire something, you go for it. But so do the people who taught you what to desire. Early web3 investors showed later investors what to desire, and now they’re both competing for companies to invest in. Likewise, early web3 entrepreneurs showed later entrepreneurs what to desire, and now they’re both competing for capital, talent, and customers.
In crowded spaces, where there just aren’t enough objects of desire to go around, mimetic desire turns into mimetic conflict. This is when employees chasing a promotion sabotage each other’s chances, destroying whatever relationships they had. It’s when chefs commit suicide, crushed under the stress of fighting for Michelin stars in a fiercely competitive market. What brings people together in pursuit of a common desire also tears them apart.
If mimetic desire explains the rise of web3, mimetic conflict explains the backlash to it. By backlash, I don’t mean sober criticism, such as Moxie Marlinspike’s critique of web3, or even Scott Galloway’s sloppier take. I mean the unhinged stuff.
“Web3 is a scam.” This is unhinged criticism. Some people think web3 is literally a scam, as if it has no promise and people are being duped into giving their money to Silicon Valley con artists. The idea is ludicrous. Others think the promise of web3 is overstated by the marketing machine of Silicon Valley, but they sensationalize their sentiment to grab attention. This is more reasonable, but it’s unhinged in style rather than substance.
Such critics “hate” web3 because they’re in a mimetic conflict for attention. The scarcest object of desire is attention, and web3 has been getting a lot. Late last year, the popularity of web3 spiked. In all of the prestigious places, you could read the same article about it. The New York Times published an explainer: “What is web3?” The Economist magazine offered its own perspective: “Will web3 reinvent the Internet business?” NPR did the same: “People are talking about Web3. Is it the Internet of the future or just a buzzword?” Vox had to get in on the action, too: “So what exactly is Web3, and why is everyone in Silicon Valley obsessed with it?” I could go on, but I won’t. It’s as if editors, on the same wavelength, and at the same time, cried aloud: “newsroom, we need a story about web3!”
People fight for attention in different ways. In web3 circles, they do it by out-web3ing each other. Outside web3 circles, they do it by lowering the status of web3.
Some critics are lowering the status of web3 by expressing their hatred of it. If you’re good at thinking, you don’t do it by expressing hatred of things. You don’t throw around terms like Ponzi scheme, spineless, or fraud to describe a complex ideological and technological movement to reorganize the Internet. When you do, you sound like conservatives who liken social democrats to Soviet-era communists, or like social democrats who liken conservatives to organized groups of racists. Quite frankly, doing such things is stupid—unless you’re not trying to be good at thinking. If you’re trying to do something else, such as lowering the status of something to reclaim or redirect attention, hatred is effective.
I doubt such critics really hate web3. It’s possible they do, but it’s also possible their hate is feigned or a self-imposed delusion to eliminate cognitive dissonance. Either way, the critics are spinning a new flywheel of mimetic desire, modelling that hating web3 is cool and enlightened. Don’t you want to be cool and enlightened?
It depends on what being cool and enlightened means
The debate over whether web3 is a scam that will eventually erase itself or the future of the Internet isn’t only going to be settled by better arguments about web3, per se. It’s also going to be settled by what we decide is cooler and more enlightened—or by what is more desirable: web3 pessimism or web3 optimism.
Girard’s theory doesn’t predict which way things will settle, but his theory predicts how. The final stage of his theory rests on the idea that humans have evolved a scapegoating mechanism, which is triggered when society is at risk of falling apart. When the conflict is so destructive that people are on the verge destroying themselves, a switch is flipped. A new mimetic flywheel starts turning, as people decide that their conflict was never with each other. Instead, it was with someone else or some other group. In the end, society reunifies around a common desire to sacrifice a scapegoat in a moment of catharsis. That’s how society resets itself, with peace subsuming violence before the cycle repeats.
Web3 optimists and pessimists aren’t literally killing each other, but they’re engaged in conflict under more civilized rules. As the conflict gets bigger, so will the need for a scapegoat. I’m not sure who the scapegoat will be. What I do know is we’re shaping our future by how we talk about it. Perhaps more than anything else, the future of web3 will depend on our meta-discourse. So let’s make it better, rather than worse.