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The thriving communities of Web2

The thriving communities of Web2
By Conor Svensson • Issue #21 • View online
What Web2 gets right

There’s a lot of emphasis in Web3 on decentralisation, and moving on from the opaque platforms that have proliferated in Web2. Community governed, open protocols that exist as decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) are, at present considered the most equitable and fair governance platforms for Web3.
However, whilst the current Web does suffer from a number of overbearing centralised platforms that exert undue control, there are platforms that have managed to thrive and build great communities which haven’t been marred by bots and bad actors.
These latter types of communities are shining beacons of what well-functioning communities should look like, and it is my hope that the approaches and learning from these will be embraced in Web3, as there is a lot that can be gained from them.
I believe that many of the issues that Web2 suffers from can be tied to a lack of community-led governance on many of the most popular platforms.
Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, not only are they closed platforms, but they also govern their platforms in private. They rely on their users to report offensive content, but the power to deal with this is held internally.
In addition, all of these sites make use of machine learning-based systems to recommend content for users. Whilst such algorithms were never initially deployed with bad intentions, they have helped to create an echo chamber that has ensured clickbait and sensationalist content flourish.
These algorithms learn by watching people’s behaviour on these platforms and show them recommended content based on similar users’ preferences. In order to cast the net wider, they will throw in the occasional curveball to see how the person responds to that new piece of content. If the person engages with it, they’re likely to be presented with more similar content.
Hence what starts off as trying to find some posts of workout videos or political opinions can evolve quite quickly into more extreme content that the end-user has to moderate consumption of themselves.
South Park: It’s Not a News Story!?
South Park: It’s Not a News Story!?
The reason for this is simply that the algorithms providing this content don’t know what they’re serving up, simply that it’s generating engagement from the user. The dumb part of the algorithm here is what’s dangerous, as these platforms rely on their users to police and report content rather than stopping it from circulating in the first place.
Of course, this is a simplification — Facebook, YouTube, etc all invest huge resources in trying to prevent harmful content from going out and protecting their users. But the effect is magnified on all of these platforms because at their heart they all have single, closed global platforms.
This means that content can go viral incredibly quickly good or bad, as there aren’t gatekeepers other than the employees of these organisations and more proprietary closed-source algorithms in place to control them.
This usage of internal controls by these organisations to manage the content going out on their platforms has resulted in various nefarious individuals and organisations finding ways to exploit these platforms. No place is this better understood than its usage on Facebook where fake news was used to great effect in 2016 for the American presidential elections in and the Brexit vote in the UK.
The downfall of Facebook over its handling of fake news is still resonating now and is likely one of the reasons why they rebranded to Meta in late 2021. However, the issues you see on Facebook with anonymous digital armies trying to game these platforms are endemic elsewhere on these widely used platforms and unfortunately result in a sea of negative content proliferating on them.
For instance on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, for all of the positive content, they are still full of negative comments from bots and trolls, which can bring out some of the worst of the web.
However, it is not on all of the major Web2 platforms where this is the case. There are online communities that have managed to thrive at scale without many of the issues users face on these centrally controlled, internally modified platforms. These other platforms are also ones that rely less heavily on algorithms and internal employees to monitor their content but instead stick to the more simplistic approach of community moderation.
Two sites that have thrived in this regard, and I personally find more useful than Google and the majority of the major web platforms are Reddit and Wikipedia.
Both of these platforms rely on unpaid armies of volunteers, to create, govern and moderate content on these sites. These volunteers are not incentivised with tokens or direct financial incentives, they simply care about having well-functioning communities for people to share opinions in Reddit’s case and provide accurate information on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is the 7th most visited website in the world, and Reddit is 20th (source). Whilst they may lag behind Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I am of the opinion that they are both better at servicing our needs as neutral platforms for accurate information.
SEO has now been optimised to the point where most Google searching for information will take you to evergreen content written by organisations with the ultimate goal of building brand or product awareness. Half of the posts you’ll see on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are click-bait trying to lure you in, and Twitter is incredibly noisy and very difficult to keep up with.
In order to use any of these platforms you need to be incredibly disciplined, otherwise, you will be pulled in and emerge minutes or even hours later realising you’ve lost yet more of your life to the tangles of the web.
Contrast this experience with Reddit where you go searching for some advice. Reddit is brimming with communities. Governed by moderators and its users it is a breath of fresh air and positivity compared with many of the widely used sites on the web. For an unbiased opinion, it has become my go-to advice ranging from home improvement advice to the latest happenings in the Ethereum community.
There are real, functional communities on Reddit. When users bring negative sentiment or inflammatory opinions, they are quickly shot down, being either downvoted or blocked by its moderators. People can be their true selves without fear of abuse, and instead have messages of support and helpful feedback on their posts, which in my view is a more utilitarian view of how the online experience should be.
Of course, this does mean that these communities can become echo chambers for their own beliefs, but there are so many diverse communities, that if you don’t see eye to eye with the views of one community, it’s likely there’s one that you can. It is for this reason that I believe Reddit is one of the best examples out there of how well online communities can thrive.
In a similar vein, Wikipedia, whilst it does still face ongoing challenges to keep its head above water financially, relies on community fundraising. The content there is excellent, and it is still considered to be the world’s encyclopaedia. It has not deviated in its goals or usability during the past decade, hence continues to be another great example of how the web can be.
There are many other sites which have equally strong communities behind them that I could discuss, but I wanted to highlight these two as prominent examples of where Web2 is not broken. That being said, they are both traditional web platforms in the sense that they still run as centralised platforms.
In light of this, what are the learnings for Web3? What Wikipedia and Reddit both have in common are the human gatekeepers that continue to help ensure well-functioning communities on their platforms. But importantly, these gatekeepers are in their positions based on merit and overall contribution to the community.
Given the success of these open communities, one hopes will be indicative of the potential upside of embracing community-centric governance models as we see in decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) in Web3.
As DAOs mature and are embraced more widely, perhaps success from a governance perspective may be more akin to the well-functioning communities we see around Wikipedia and Reddit, and this is something that certainly excites me with respect to the potential upside of Web3.
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Conor Svensson

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