How Web 2.0 and social media failed to change the world for the better – and why Web 3.0 and the blockchain could succeed.


Social media has been getting a lot of bad press lately. It’s sad to think that just 10 years ago so many of us had such high hopes for this medium and the positive impact it could have on the world.

I was one of those optimists. In early 2008, I was invited to give a conference presentation on how Web 2.0 and the then-new phenomenon of social media could potentially be used for social action. At the time, there was a crisis of trust in the global financial system and growing disillusionment in how the international development and aid system works.

I thought it would be radical if we could use these new collaboration technologies to create a democratic and inclusive system that would enable all stakeholders have a say in how capital for development should be invested. Credits (now referred to as tokens) would be distributed to these stakeholders so they could literally stake these on the projects they believe. Successful projects would give these ‘share-stakeholders’ dividends on their stake and increase their economic power of decision (and reputation). This would draw on the wisdom of a very specific crowd who are close to where the action is happening.  Success would be measured using verified data. . I proposed this platform would enable donors, service providers s and local stakeholders to connect with one another through this new decentralised marketplace of ideas, funding and action, with real incentives to engage in constructive collaboration for development.

This would enable us to all become share-stakeholders, to receive credits for participation, and to invest in projects that we believe in. Social media seemed to be a liberating technology that could enable us all to have a greater role in generating positive impacts.

But this idea of an alternative, decentralised, collaborative marketplace for impact didn’t take off. I was also too naïve about what we could do with Web 2.0 technologies.


The age of the hashtag

What we did get was the hashtag. And to some extent this has delivered positive impact as a symbol of the power of social media to launch cultural and political revolutions. But arguably, it has also become a symbol of the limits of social media, particularly of our self-centered dependency on the medium to give us some form of legitimacy.

However in the emerging Web 3.0 era – of decentralized platforms, the blockchain and artificial intelligence – maybe hashtags can evolve into a new form of meme, which for now I will refer to as hash-claims.

Let me explain.

Imagine a scenario where a vaccine (with a barcode identifier), is administered to an identified young woman, at a specific time and place, by a healthcare worker who records the event, with his signature, on an immunisation card issued by a health NGO. The organisation announces on Twitter that it has achieved the target of 1,000 immunisations — hashtag #StopHepB.

Can we trust any of these claims?

Perhaps. But they are far from irrefutable. And in an age of cynicism and mistrust, we need more certainty.

Compare the scenario with a new “high-definition” way of making a digital claim in the Web 3.0 era – a machine-readable data resource that can be verified by evaluation agents (including human evaluators augmented by software algorithms) then validated through consensus on the blockchain.

The result is a hash-claim that anyone can trust. Suddenly we have a valuable digital asset. Why is it valuable? Because so many parties – from individual donors, to charities, to government agencies – want to be able to track and value the impact of contributions to people on the planet. A verified claim can represent the digital manifestation of a payment coupon, invoice for services, carbon credit and any other form of claim on payment or entitlement, or reward.

When a record of this impact is stored on a blockchain, this provides provenance of impact data over time, transparency of impact funding, accountability for performance, attribution for results and a marketplace mechanism for sharing impact data.


Impact tokens

But an even more exciting innovation for impact financing is that it creates a new asset class for the impact economy. By tokenizing hash-claims, impact data with proof of impact can be traded for impact capital. This should enable new decentralized marketplaces to emerge for delivering, evaluating and investing in impacts.

This could profoundly change who gets to benefit from the impact economy.

Cryptographic tokens will have inherent value because they give the holder digital rights – which include rights to access, rights to use and rights of ownership.

Now let’s consider that the UN Sustainable Development Goals are founded on a framework of rights — the right to health, the right to clean water, the right to gender equality, and so on…

I believe that a tokenized impact economy will provide a much fairer, more inclusive and abundant way of distributing these (tokenised) rights to many more people.

But this is going to depend on how we use these technologies to create impact projects and how we give agents the new tools to participate as service providers, evaluators, investors, beneficiaries and stake-holders.

The Web 2.0 era didn’t live up to expectations. But as we enter the age of Web 3.0, each and every one of us have an unprecedented opportunity to make positive, verifiable, valuable impacts on the world.