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Introducing Web 2.5, the messy new future of the internet

We’re approaching a new form of the net which should hand more power to creators – but what’s it going to look like?

The internet is now so vast, formless, and ubiquitous that it’s hard to think back to a time when you’d wait five minutes to load a picture of Jim Carrey as The Mask on AltaVista. While things have changed dramatically since the days of grayscale messageboards, MSN, and Neopets, we’re now approaching a new advent of cyberspace, sparked by a growing sense that the web has been steered by tech’s power players for too long.

We’re amid a paradigm shift towards what’s being called ‘Web 3.0’ or ‘Web3’, a sort of utopian ideal of online existence also known as the decentralised web. Where Web 1.0, the original internet, was all about static, read-only pages, Web 2.0 saw the average Joe transformed into an active participant on the net, posting Insta thirst pics and snarky tweets, for example. This has led, though, to a small bunch of corporations (Google, Facebook, Amazon) controlling 50 per cent of global marketing spend. And people – understandably – want to change that.

This third iteration, Web 3.0, will, hopefully, let users do away with the middle men via the blockchain, which in theory hands power to creators and artists. NFTs are one part of this (although many look like pyramid schemes in all but name). As the internet is now seeing a swell of users engaging with things like cryptocurrency, NFTs, and DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations), some people are calling the stage we’re arriving at ‘Web 2.5’, a liminal space where it feels like things are changing, but not radically enough for our web experience to feel wildly different.

Is Web 2.5 the metaverse? Will it involve a poorly rendered Mark Zuckerberg ominously talking about BBQ sauce? Well… no. It’s more of a term used to describe new platforms that are opening up that let people subscribe to the content they’re consuming and, crucially, pay those who made it. “I have often used the term ‘Web 2.5’ to describe services like (newsletter site) Substack or (membership platform) Patreon that are slowly transitioning audiences away from the expectation of free stuff,” says Mat Dryhurst, technologist, lecturer, and web futures researcher. “I use 2.5 in this context because I believe Web 3.0 will inevitably eclipse those services. So in that sense, I use Web 2.5 as a transitional term.”

Not everyone is a fan of the term, though, especially people that find round numbers nicer to deal with. But at the glacial pace that technology sometimes feels like it’s moving at, it’s useful to have some kind of marker of where we’re at. “There really isn’t a ‘Web 2.5’ as such, it's really Web 2.0 in a business suit, as there has been a grab back of control and market share by the leading web platforms compared to the free market and democratisation we saw in 2005 with Web 2.0,” says Andrew Tattersall, an information specialist at the University of Sheffield.

Growing discontent with big tech – Spotify’s investment in AI defence technology while paying musicians peanuts, for example – means that taking power away from these tech monopolies is increasingly attractive. “Data is king for these technology companies now and the more we want to use these tools, the more data they need to generate income,” Tattersall adds. “The old line of ‘If you are not paying for the product, you are the product’ has probably never been truer’.”

But how easily will the decentralised platforms of Web 2.5 be adopted? If we have to pay creators for things we’ve previously been getting for free, is it financially viable for our broke selves? Dryhurst believes that paying for content will lead to more value-for-money results, and could be a positive thing for culture. “There are exceptions to this, but often the production of free content leads to fairly cheap results,” he tells Dazed. “Where I do think we will run into a problem is that ultimately not everyone can afford to be forking out $50-100 a month for various media sources. I started a project named Channel with some friends to experiment with bundling independent creator content into channels, where, for example, you get access to three premium feeds for the cost of two.”

What’s difficult about all this web discourse is that it’s hard to imagine the future of the web in real-life technicolour. One practical, real-world example made by the producer Plastician, shows how a DAO wouldn’t need mainstream adoption to be useful. “You could set up a DAO focused on keeping your road clean and make your neighbours engage and collectively invest and benefit. If (the) street stays clean then it’s a success,” he said. Culture writer Andrew D. Leucke believes thatWeb 3.0 could cause real subcultures to reemerge”, writing that, as it’s based on “trackable ownership and faux scarcity that one must opt into … many will never participate in Web 3.0 and would be part of sub-Web 3.0 culture(s).”

But these kinds of utopian benefits come hand in hand with concerns about the decentralisation and deregulation of platforms. While you could rightly argue that fake or misleading news is printed in the UK’s papers every day, completely unregulated and private communities could also cause misinformation to flourish, with conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxers given more power to fund and spread false ideas. If you thought one Joe Rogan was bad, get ready for many, many more.

Beth Dean, a product design lead at Meta, tweeted that “Web 3.0 plants seeds for environmental disaster, artificial scarcity, and general disregard for bad actors. The world has been asking for a more regulated internet, with more transparency and accountability. Presently, Web 3.0 makes all of those things as difficult as possible right from the get-go.”

Dryhurst is “more optimistic,” however. “I do think that transitioning towards better and more diverse support models for media and art will be very helpful in terms of supporting and rewarding strong work. It’s going to be messy, but I’m confident it is the right step.”