Read Write Own: Building the Next Era of the Internet, by Chris Dixon (Random House, 320 pp., $32)

The Internet is not what it was.

In the beginning, the web was structured as a collection of open, decentralized protocols. This era, roughly spanning from early 1990s to the early 2000s, was a time of rapid, permissionless innovation. Tech observers call it Web1.

Open protocols proved hard to commercialize, so Internet firms centralized in search of profits. The result is our current era, Web2. This iteration of the Internet has been dominated by a handful of very large platforms, giving users less independence. Most major platforms operate with “take it or leave it” terms of service that prevent meaningful consumer choice and leave disgruntled users to opt out and lose access to the digital economy.

Since the dawn of Web2, five or six companies have become the Internet’s gatekeepers. While regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission Chair, Lina Kahn, want to use public policy to break their stranglehold, a cadre of technologists and activists believe that software could accomplish this goal, propelling the Internet into Web3.

In his new book, Read, Write, Own: Building the Next Era of the Internet, entrepreneur and investor Chris Dixon argues that blockchain technologies—decentralized and distributed digital ledgers that securely and immutably record interactions across computers—could return agency to users. He believes that blockchain’s widespread adoption will enable users to wrest control from the mega-corporations that currently own the web. Dixon, however, falls into a classic trap of founders and investors in thinking that software alone can cure the Internet’s ills. His vision, while tantalizing, will not succeed inevitably. Its realization will require those not already on board to adopt a significant change in outlook.

According to Dixon, networks are all-important in understanding the Internet’s past and improving its future. Web1, he says, was dominated by “protocol networks”— decentralized software networks such as the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) that enabled email. He calls this period the “read” era, where the web was mostly static and informational, designed primarily for users to consume content rather than interact with it. Later in the “read” era, the Internet became more interactive, with the development of email and instant messaging, but it still did not feature dynamic, user-generated content platforms or social media sites.

In Web1, companies found it hard to monetize web services. This, Dixon explains, resulted in firms in the early 2000s “drawing the Internet inward, collecting power into the center of what was supposed to be a decentralized network.” The process culminated in the development of “corporate networks,” such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which enabled effortless interaction online and ushered in Web2. Dixon deems this period the “read and write” era, because its advent allowed users to interact more dynamically, using images, audio, video, and built-in instant-feedback mechanisms.

For Dixon, the downside of the transition from Web1 to Web2 is twofold. First, creators no longer own their creations. Second, the drive for profit maximization has effectively closed the Internet into a small number of walled gardens. In a Marxian sense, you might say that the rise of corporate networks “alienated” software developers and content creators from the products of their labor, spawning the largest corporations in human history, while leaving users high and dry.

Dixon believes that the Internet is primed for its third era. Whereas the “read” era democratized information and the “read and write” era democratized publishing, the next phase will democratize ownership. Dixon believes that, in the “read, write, own” era, blockchains will catalyze a newer, better Internet, since they “shift control to software governed by immutable code, not people, and thereby make ownership real.”

The dawn of Web3, as Dixon sees it, could move power from centralized corporations toward individual users and creators, giving users more agency in the form of ownership. This shift would not only allow them to control their data and digital assets but also would enable direct engagement through blockchain-based financial instruments and smart contracts. Dixon envisions Web3 as a more equitable and open Internet, where users share in its value and governance.

But Dixon assumes, incorrectly, that the mere existence of blockchain technology will necessarily facilitate these developments. This shortcoming is most apparent in his analogizing of a reinvented Internet with the building of a city. In the latter case, the interaction between “public and private spaces” generates community growth. Public spaces, such as roads and sidewalks, convey people to private spaces, where they conduct commerce, producing taxable revenue that then helps pay for the maintenance of the public spaces. In this analogy, the roads (blockchain technology) perform an essential but ultimately secondary function, while the innovation, entrepreneurship, and community growth (Internet users’ interactions and created tools) happen off the roads. Dixon believes that “roads should be thin and their surroundings should be thick.” In the Internet context, he thinks that blockchain networks “should be thin utilities” that serve as conduits for interaction and commerce. The tools and applications built on top of these networks “should be innovative, diverse, and thick,” with “boundless room for creativity.” Dixon wants the Internet to resemble cities, “built from the ground up by the people who inhabit them.” He envisions an Internet built “by everybody, for everybody.”

It’s a Field of Dreams model of development—if you build a blockchain network, users will come. All that is required for Web3 to become reality is for a few dedicated software developers to build the infrastructure. Dixon argues that the subsequent exodus of users from corporate networks will be inevitable because of the decentralized Internet’s inherent superiority. This claim, predicated on the Schumpeterian theory of creative destruction, ignores the advantages of incumbency and users’ natural resistance to change. In the same way that building roads and sidewalks is insufficient to convince people to move to a new city, simply building new blockchain networks won’t drive all users from the digital establishment.

If Dixon were correct and the inherent superiority of blockchain networks alone would reinvent the Internet, we would already be seeing an exodus from the big platforms toward decentralized alternatives. But user flight from Web2 has mostly failed to materialize. Blockchain-based X clone Farcaster, for example, hosts a modest 314,000 users, while X itself retains a user base north of 200 million. Even Bluesky—Jack Dorsey’s decentralized X clone that has nothing to do with blockchains—dwarfs Farcaster, with nearly 5 million users. Dixon fails to mention a single blockchain-based project that has effectively usurped its Web2 counterpart.

Dixon would presumably respond that users have to let the scales fall from their eyes. He would likely claim they don’t fully appreciate the promises of ownership and redistributive economic value associated with blockchain networks. One transformational app, he might say, would convince everyone to leave behind the Internet of old and join the decentralized revolution.

But it’s far from inevitable that such an app will arrive, or that people will suddenly see the light even if it comes. While a future where users and developers collectively own the means of computation is appealing, blockchains alone will not reinvent the Internet.

Photo: Yuichiro Chino/Moment via Getty Images


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