TMW #169 | The Protocol Pivot

Apr 7, 2024

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The Protocol Pivot

The future of the internet needs to look a lot like 1995

Toward the end of 2020, with COVID-19 raging all around us, something happened that captured the tech industry’s collective attention in a big way.

That something is the blockchain. Every day, you’d hear stories of average rubes turning into Lambo-driving, gold watch-wearing promoters of passive income, digital artworks were selling for millions, and out-of-nowhere projects like Doodles and Bored Apes becoming wildly successful. All in the name of a decentralized future powered by crypto, NFTs, and the mysterious promise of the blockchain wrapped up in the idea of “web3”.

That was 2020-2022. Today, the bulk of this online movement has fizzled, with scam after scam revealing a loss of what Web3 Is Going Great researcher Molly White totals to $72 billion over the past four years. Most of the loss is a result of crypto fraud, theft, and pure user error, leaving regular people exposed to hackers and grifters. 

This culminated in one of the movement’s most visible leaders – FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried – being sentenced to 25 years for his fraudulent use of the blockchain to misappropriate customer funds. One of the final nails in the Web3 coffin.

On top of this, almost all of the blockchain projects in the history of technology have failed to materialize outside of financial speculation – despite promoters like Chris Dixon urging that the blockchain is indeed the future the internet needs.

But what remains in the runoff is a very pure idea: The internet needs to shift back to a more decentralized and user-controlled economy.

Chris Dixon’s employer, prominent VC firm A16z, has this quote on its current homepage, which represents the core problem they are trying to solve with decentralized technology and an internet that moves away from private, centralized control:

“Most of what people do online involves networks: The web and email are networks. Social apps are networks. Payment apps are networks. Marketplaces are networks. Almost every useful online service is a network. Networks — computing networks, of course; but also developer platforms, marketplaces, financial networks, social networks, and all variety of communities coming together online — have always been a powerful part of the promise of the internet. Developers, entrepreneurs, and everyday internet users have nurtured and nourished tens of thousands of networks, unleashing an unprecedented wave of creation and coordination. Yet the networks that have lasted are mostly owned and controlled by private companies.”

A16z and Dixon’s vision is that crypto is the right future to break up a centrally controlled web. But they are dead wrong. Shifting from a centralized web to a financialized web has very different incentives, but both fail to achieve the future state the internet needs – freedom of expression, access and ownership. They got the problem right, but the solution is far off the mark.

The real clue to how we can move past a centralized internet of platforms is to look to history: Back to the early pioneers who built the early foundations of the web we use every day, and upon which the platforms that control the web still rely.

I’m talking about protocols – the invisible force of the web and the solution to a centralized internet. You know, the things that enable email, SMS, podcasts, and the HTML code that runs in your browser. The stuff that delivered this essay to your eyeballs.

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Juan Mendoza

Juan Mendoza is an expert in researching global media, marketing, data, and technology trends. He is the CEO of The Martech Weekly, a media and research brand with subscribers in over 65 countries.

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