Like, Share, Collect

April 19th, 2022

Web 2.0 was defined by the “upvote”. This was powered by a technology called AJAX (short for Asynchronous Javascript), which allowed users to interact with a website without refreshing the page. As users interacted with websites more quickly, voting on content became a popular feature. Reddit and Digg were among the first to flourish as icons of Web2.0, using this simple voting mechanism.

In 2009, Facebook incorporated upvoting into their timeline; the “like” became a new statistical input they could use to prioritize content alongside time. Asynchronous Javascript thus lead to an asynchronous social web. Moving away from chronological ordering meant that machine learning algorithms could combine the social graph and upvoting to present a “personalized” newsfeed. You could now see more of what was trending within your close friend groups. In hindsight, the “like” was the first crack that started opening society up to manipulation by algorithms.

Shortly after, Twitter announced the “retweet”, so that members could endorse, ridicule, or reframe posts publicly to their followers. Jonathan Haidt’s latest article in the Atlantic shows how resharing ended up polarizing the web. As the web became more critical to our lives during the pandemic lockdowns, political polarization reached a climax that was epitomized by the 2021 United States Capitol attack.

Algorithms that amplify emotional content are the source of the contagion of socio-political polarization. The effect so often ends in personal harassment or disgrace, that we are left wondering whether to express online personalities at all. It has broken trust in leadership and institutions, and has nourished seeds of anarchy across the world.

Web3 invents another verb for digital content: to collect. Media sites like Delicious or Pocket already allowed users to “bookmark” content in a profile – but only through ownership on public blockchains do we have independently veritable digital collectibles.

Collection is based on appreciation. It only has a positive mode. Collectibles also imply communities based on mutual appreciation. Web3 communities often have meaningful governance of their online resources, such as a treasury, or software upgrades.

We may be hesitant to add a new verb to the internet, given its history so far; as Haidt argues, neither liking nor sharing has been good for society. He ends with a bleak conclusion:

…there is little evidence to suggest that America will return to some semblance of normalcy and stability in the next five or 10 years.

But by giving netizens ownership, we may change the web’s shallow, hyperactive attention economy of “digital swarms” (to borrow a phrase from cultural philosopher Byung-Chul Han). We see new political forms – vested collectives, imbued with governance responsibilities. Will this change hold an answer to Haidt’s bleak prospectus for society?

The web's new verb “to collect” (and the collectivities it implies) will to grow to become as meaningful to society as the “like” and the “share” were. Is it too optimistic to think we can guide it better than our previous digital gestures?

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