Terminology is a slippery commodity. And especially when viewed over time. The meanings we assign to words evolve. Contending meanings battle it out for dominance and frequently there is no clear winner left standing when the dust settles. Now what is true of language in general seems to be doubly true for the words we use in the technology field. And ironically it is three times as true when we look at what we mean by the moniker "Web 3.0".
It is ironic because early on, say 15 years ago, when we said "Web 3.0", and very few people did, we typically meant the "Semantic Web". Although the ideas behind the semantic web predated it, the explosive rise of Social Media effectively usurped the title of "Web 2.0". So this left us with Web 3.0 for the Semantic Web - a web where the meanings associated with data representations are described with a precision that machines could "easily" traverse and process them. We had in fact been looking at this semantic web as far back as the late 1990s. As one example, at a conference in Boston in 2000, Tim Berners-Lee and I held a kick-off town hall meeting that was all about introducing more "meaning" into the web so that people and machines could do more together. One of the diagrams that Tim used to describe the semantic web follows:
One of the reasons I find Tim's original diagram to be interesting is the prominence it places on "trust" which, in retrospect, probably deserved an even more prominent treatment. Indeed, if there is one thing missing from our digital world, or from our world in general, it is trust. Putting that aside for a moment, we can also note that the prominence placed on "trust" connects us to another usage made of the "Web 3.0" moniker - one that has since elbowed the "semantic web" out of the way. This is the usage of Web 3.0 to refer to the blockchain revolution and the notion of an open, and irrefutable, ledger of transactions. It is true that the hold that the semantic web held on the Web 3.0 title was tenuous at best so this change feels somewhat inevitable. Basically, despite much energy being expended on it and with many people, including many of my friends, falling hopefulessly in love with all things "graph" (there is even one friend who I nicknamed a "graph with a beard"), the semantic web, as a thing, never took off.
It turns out that the same thing has been happening to the more recent use of Web 3.0 as a label for the blockchain revolution. While it was claimed, or hoped, that blockchain technology would dramatically reform sectors such as finance, and for some actors like North Korea it most definitely has, its impact has been limited. So this usage of Web 3.0 hasn't really taken root either. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge the recent (2023) book by Alex Tapscott and its valiant terminological efforts.
I should come clean at this point. I have something of a vested interest in the use that is made of "Web 3.0". As is evidenced in my past post about "Content 4.0" one of the 1.0 to 4.0 rubrics I work with traces a history of the Web from 1.0 to 2.0, onto 3.0, and yes even points towards a 4.0. Being a child of the early days of the web, I naturally gravitated to the older use of "Web 3.0" for the semantic web even though I was familiar, through a number of projects, with both the potential and the pitfalls of blockchain technologies. Nevertheless, as I am also a child of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I am both inclined to respect the changing patterns in word usage and to find ways to reconcile contending meanings. This has led me to propose a new positioning for "Web 3.0" and to unilaterally adopt it.
Henceforth, I think it is worth using "Web 3.0" to refer to the "Transactional Web". I had considered the "Data Web" which isn't bad but "transactional" captures both the data orientation, with a focus on its processability, and its practical application. And as with Tim Berners-Lee's original vision for the semantic web, and as manifest in the DNA of Blockchain Technologies, the trust element continues to loom large when we place a spotlight on the transactions - on the things that actually happen and for which somebody is, or should be, accountable. This is a useful fusion of the two preceeding usages we have noted for Web 3.0, and I think it will figure prominently in my own rubric going forward.