The Web3 of you and me

Taken from Le Marché de la Place de L'Annonciade a Florence by Jacques Callot (1617)
Taken from Le Marché de la Place de L’Annonciade a Florence by Jacques Callot (1617)

Were the web to iterate once more, it shouldn’t be towards complex ‘investment’ scams and tokenism. A better way is possible: the creator economy, but for real this time.

I’ve been thinking about industrial action, since trade unions are beginning to lean into the so-called cost-of-living crisis. In this era, there’s disparity between the increase in returns to the wealthy and the pay to the workers. So, in time-honoured fashion, the better-organised unions are flexing their mandate to protect workers’ interests.

That led my train of thought to the recent Etsy strike: conducted not by staff, but by the makers peddling their handmade wares via the platform (and to a lesser extent, their buyers too). The web has always offered so much promise to independents all kinds, but the reality has often, if not always, fallen short. The action by Etsy sellers is reminiscent of similar, smaller-scale protests by eBay vendors more than a decade ago.

Creators borrowing and emulating the actions of trade unions is an interesting digitally-enabled behaviour. Although there’s more to be done to ensure trade-unions are representative of all members regardless of their protected characteristics, the movement is generally positive as a means of pushing for reason and fairness on behalf of a workforce. Those working with established technologies, such as trains, are a long way ahead of those working with new technologies, such as internet-enabled ventures. But there are signals that the times they are a-changin’, again, with the likes of Uber recognising a union (in the UK) to represent the interests of drivers.

For years Uber resisted calls to recognise unions, which had criticised the firm for not granting drivers basic rights such as sick pay or a minimum wage.

Uber had argued its drivers were freelancers and not entitled to these benefits. But in March it changed its stance after the Supreme Court ruled that its drivers should be classified as workers – a category entitling them to better pay and conditions.

Now it provides them with a National Living Wage guarantee, holiday pay and a pension.

And by recognising GMB, the ride-hailing giant has gone a step further, giving a union the right to negotiate on behalf of drivers for the first time.

Currently, the creator economy depends upon platforms—not only Etsy but Gumroad, Patreon, Amazon, eBay, Indiegogo, Facebook etc. Creators are beholden to the terms of these platforms and, of course, once they become established it’s hard to up-sticks and move away. It’s nearly impossible for creators to own their own customer relationships: the platforms’ network-effect is all-powerful, and everyone knows it.

What’s noteworthy in the case of Etsy is that both buyers and vendors are customers of, not workers for, the platform. Here, we are seeing the same technologies enabling opposing digital behaviours: the means that make a platform viable also make it possible for customers to gang up on it.

In his executive bubble in New York, one day into the strike CEO Josh Silverman couldn’t help commenting on the record at a Wall Street Journal event, revealing his strategy to have Etsy compete with Amazon. On the same day, he denigrated sellers in an interview: “Each of our sellers is a blade of grass in a tornado. They’re someone you haven’t heard of.” It’s the kind of tone-deaf comment we’d expect to hear from an out-of-touch CEO sitting high in his tower behind security gates, hoping the angry populace will go away and taking whispered advice from “crisis communications” experts.

A few weeks after the strike, the topic still wouldn’t go away. At its May 8th quarterly shareholder meeting, Etsy had to answer for the strike to Wall Street investors. In the meeting, Etsy’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Rachel Glaser responded that when the fee change went into effect last month, fewer than 1% of sellers went into “temporary vacation mode,” active listings dipped less than 1% during the week and returned to the prior level when the week was over. “Based on past experience and significant research leading up to the change, this was all within our expectations,” she said. 

But as one commenter to the linked business article wrote, “1%. Meh. But is it really? It was ‘significant’ enough to address it’s ‘insignificance’.” The fact that the strike had such heavy media coverage, that investors are demanding answers, tells us that the strike struck a chord. Unions are on the rise. 

So what might a further iteration be? Web platforms—enabling users to exploit functionality over the web—are the archetypal vision of Web 2.0. The bundle of technologies that fall under the bracket of Web3, while not the natural successors that the name implies, do offer an alternative: a means by which creators, not platforms, can either exploit the network effect, or bypass it completely.

Right now, in real terms, the only overlap between creators and Web3 is the nonsense that is NFTs. If we’re honest about it: Web3 is the very pinnacle of Web 2.0: just another bunch of platforms, plus hot air. This will become increasingly apparent as they inevitably begin to fail. What they might leave behind is a pathway to disintermediation: the means to create their own content, products and services, build communities and command their creative direction while doing away with platforms to unite them with buyers and transactions. When Web3 untwists its knickers about cryptobullshit, its true implementation could be post-industrial action.

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