The Internet Is Worth Exploring Again
Personalization algorithms killed discovery, but web3 projects are revitalizing the explorer in all internet users
The internet feels weird again in a good way. In middle school, I remember spending all my free time on computers. My afterschool program was in a computer lab, and I spent some more time on our family computer when I got home. The internet seemed larger back then despite having less information. To young me, there seemed to be no end to what you could discover in a single seating, and I wanted to know it all. The internet was teaching me more than I was learning in school at the time, the most advanced computer classes I had access to prepared students to use Microsoft Office.
Unsatisfied with school, I turned to online forums where communities formed to synthesize their knowledge, grow their interests, and find belonging. Without the internet, I may not have discovered my love for software engineering, investing, or writing. I had an educational YouTube channel where I created visual basic and C# tutorials, a couple of gaming blogs, and many internet friends. I can’t pinpoint why it was the case, but collaboration was more widespread.
One specific example was when I released my first app, SaveGame Profiler. It’s been over a decade now, but I still remember how pleasantly surprised I was when internet strangers offered to translate it for me. I hadn’t planned on supporting different languages, but I was eager to do the additional work. With the latest version, people could use the app in German, Hebrew, and Russian in addition to English. I learned everything I knew about my hobbies on the internet by discovering new websites, learning, then doing.
Fast forward about a decade, and the internet is no longer as fun. It’s not like the creativity stopped or people stopped putting their ideas out there, but we all spend our time on a handful of sites, and most of the ongoing creativity has to conform to those sites. The problem is with discovery: we don’t get to explore the internet anymore, it’s spoon-fed to us by a handful of monotonous algorithms. Most websites used to be beautiful (or at least unique), but now we need to go on curated lists like r/InternetIsBeautiful to find something truly different on the internet.
The Difficulty Curve
Last year I wrote about the problems with algorithmic content feeds. I defined feeds as personalized content recommendations that are now commonplace with sites like Netflix and Youtube. These algorithms filter and order what you’re exposed to, resulting in an inauthentic experience. Even search results are filtered and ordered on today’s web.
This is the problem. Platforms prioritize personalization so much that they don’t make room for exploration. Removing friction is great, but spoon-feeding every user regardless of skill level leads to bad experiences. Google search results are designed to satisfy most people with the same inquiry. For example, search results for “how to make a website” are dominated by website builders. But what if you’re learning to code and are interested in making one from scratch? “How to make a website from scratch” provides the same results despite Google knowing that I’m a programmer.
Personalization comes at the cost of exploration. Everyone gets the same answer, more or less.
As we often do on this blog, let’s borrow another idea prominent in the gaming industry — the difficulty curve. Video games usually scale their difficulty as the player progresses. The tutorial and first few acts usually introduce game mechanics. Soon after, players are faced with challenges that require them to combine many of the skills they picked up earlier. Some titles are notorious for their extreme difficulty, but they target a specific group of gamers — the “built different” types.
Most games have a dynamic sweet spot that offers something fun to gamers of all skill levels. A game like smash bros can be exciting to beginners and experts alike, but you’ll find both of them on the extremes of the difficulty curve when paired against one another.
A proper difficulty curve allows players to maximize fun while challenging themselves. Making a website has different difficulty levels:
- Website builder with a pre-made theme
- Website builder with light CSS & js scripting
- Embedded dev environment that auto deploys and updates
- Host a local server, and find ways to bypass your ISP blocking all inbounds on ports 80/443
I’m not sure if that’s the most challenging way to create and host a website, but that falls in the “frustrating zone” for me. I’m sure some people love the challenge and host custom websites within Minecraft or a Ti-85. My point is that by spoon-feeding every player, the internet’s difficulty curve has flatlined. There’s a good chance we all started out exploring and leveling up as we were rewarded, but at some point, the internet turned into more of the same.
The internet is worth exploring again because web3 reintroduces a difficulty curve to our online experiences. Either intentionally or otherwise, projects are layered with subtle details that leave a lot for explorers to discover.
Let’s take a basic example of learning about web3 or diving down the rabbit hole. Depending on your approach, getting your hands on some ether can be very easy or difficult. On a centralized exchange like Coinbase, you can do it in a few steps. But on a DEX like Uniswap, you’d need a non-custodial wallet like Metamask or Ledger. Coinbase is easy, but Uniswap is not. But those that choose Uniswap will also learn DeFi in the process.
Digging a bit deeper, let’s say you want to stake your newly acquired ETH. You can stake it on Coinbase (easy) or Lido (intermediate) or run your own validator (difficult). Your staking return or rewards scale with difficulty, though most people don’t have enough ether to run their own validator.
Web3’s difficulty curve shines the most with NFTs. I think they are so controversial because what you see depends on your understanding and skill level. Let’s take CryptoPunks, for example. Crappy pixilated copy-pasted digital art? A piece of web3 history? A community of knowledgeable players? The lens through which you view them varies depending on your understanding of the underlying tech and culture.
What do you see when you look at the image above? Don’t lie, I also didn’t get all the rage till they started selling for much higher than I thought they were worth. I don’t think anyone knew they would turn out to be a massive success.
Loot challenges what we know about the creator <-> fan relationship. In this example, the creator published the idea for free, and fans were the ones who decided to fill in the blanks and build on those ideas. Multiple communities took these building blocks and expanded the universe of the project beyond what you’re seeing in that image. Now, I’m still not convinced they are worth 100 or even 70 ETH, but many people spend their free time researching and building Loot projects. They obviously have more information than I do and see things I do not. They’re playing the game at a different skill level.
In retrospect, Loot was a bet on web3 culture. Most of what Vitalik envisioned for Ethereum was built by the community, not its founders. It is common for different groups to implement the ideas in someone else’s whitepaper, and this social experiment proved it. Regardless of what you think about the experiment, allowing the community to write the story is why Loot remains relevant today.
Then there are Corruption (s*), another project by Loot’s architect, Vine’s founder, @dhof. These ones blew my mind when I came across them.
The project launched with the following message: “EXPERIMENTAL ART. NO ROADMAP, NO UTILITY, AND ABSOLUTELY NO PROMISES.” Nice. The NFTs were fully on-chain and could change properties over time. I was very interested.
I wasn’t the only one. A community immediately formed and started working tirelessly to decode hidden messages and unlock more secrets about the mysterious project. They found a way to communicate with the architect and created multiple tools to document and track the game. If you’re looking to flip NFTs, this is probably not the project for you. But it may be for you if you’re curious and are interested in the game theory behind “deviating” your Corruption, effectively ending the game and unveiling a new piece of art, or continuing the game to see where it leads.
This is a fun example of the difficulty curve web3 projects introduce. You can obviously participate passively or go much deeper to unlock the game’s secrets. Web3 enables many of these gaming and metagame experiments and discoveries. From DeFi to NFTs, and even within DAOs, players can always find the sweet spot on the difficulty curve and settle with what they’re comfortable with. But you never feel like you’re an expert because there’s someone else exploring some side quest you didn’t deem worthy. And sometimes, those side quests are more rewarding than the main quest itself.
Now there’s a good chance the internet got boring because I grew up and started focusing on other things like paying rent. You may be reading this and thinking that the internet is better at discovering novel creations now compared to a decade ago. But outside of human-curated algorithm-assisted forums like Reddit, we’ve basically given up on that front. Conformity killed creativity, and web2 is all about fitting in for the YouTube algorithm or Google PageRank. With web3, creators are incentivized to stand out. Unlike web2, discovery and exploration are rewarded, not penalized.