Commerce In The Fluid Web
January 30, 2023
Written by: @mattigags
Building Better Online (Social) Commerce
There was an idea of Web 3 before crypto monopolized this buzzword. I came across a Wired article from 2014 and tracked the term back to a 2007 blog from the same author. What Sramana Mitra referred to as Web 3 back then is much different from the current framing.
“Web 3.0 results from combining content, commerce, community, and context, with personalization and vertical search. Or, to put it in a handy phrase: Web 3.0 = (4C + P + VS).”
Putting this into an illustration:
Let’s revise this thesis from 2014. In my understanding, Mitra’s Web 3(.0) is built mostly around sophisticated algorithms making the web experience feel much more personalized and fluid. She discusses highly personalized recommendation engines for shopping and travel.
“In a Web 3.0 world, then, a personalized travel agent will help you find and book a highly customized itinerary, leveraging all the power of previous generations of Web technology –searching (both generic and vertical), community building, content, and commerce. ”
Mitra’s take on Web evolution would read like this:
- Web 1: search & commerce
- Web 2: social
- Web 3: context-based/personalized commerce & social
Compare this to a more recent, minimalistic, and more established a16z take:
- Web 1: read
- Web 2: read & write
- Web 3: read, write & own
Now, I like Mitra’s thesis of 4C+P+VS but with a slight adjustment of adding another C and getting rid of the personalization. Voila: 5C+VS(P).
I’d like to explore these key pillars: context, content, commerce, community, and crypto. The theme of personalization and vertical search (which are kind of the same thing to me) will be apparent throughout, being closely linked to the actual context.
From Stocks To Flows
The web truly is a web of information. For an actual user experience to emerge something/someone has to index all of that information, creating an actual web of relationships (also known as a “graph”). Indexing makes information discoverable and relevant.
It is Google that has dominated the indexing of the web with the advent of PageRank. We can only search the web because someone has organized the information. Until very recently, Google seemed to be an undisputed winner of search or more broadly: information discovery.
Google’s approach has some limitations as its search is focused on horizontal relevance, meaning it is not that personalized (chatGPT has similar limitations). The more time we spend on the social web the less we seek bits of information that are horizontally relevant (context-independent) and the more we seek vertically relevant (context-dependent) information.
Vertical relevance could be framed as “subjective” or “biased”. Google’s horizontal search has its limitations and a new generation of users is exploring the web differently. They leverage the social web (social media platforms) to discover new things or search for specific items.
For example; in the past, you’d probably search for a t-shirt on amazon or google but these days you might want to wear what influencer X recommends. How do you find these things? You search influencer X’s social media account. The social web is now setting the context for our digital journeys.
This changes how we interact with the world of bits and among each other. The context of how to access things is changing. The user experience on the web is becoming more dynamic and fluid.
As Kevin Kelly wrote; we’re moving from stocks to flows, from fixity to fluidity. The future will favor fluid discovery that will be context-dependent, meaning it will become more personalized as it will grow more natively social.
Perhaps this would mean building the next social media platform could be a futile endeavor for the following reasons:
- Social platforms as a category have moved towards creator-centric discovery
- Social media platforms like TikTok are more asocial rather than social (AI takes UGC and recommends it to people)
- The web itself will become natively personalized and social to the extent the user desires it
The Vertical Web A La The Rock
Imagine typing these queries into Google:
- What caffeine should I consume?
- What shoes to buy?
- What exercises should I do?
- What alcoholic beverage is best?
- What movie should I watch?
- What diet should I follow?
The horizontal discovery via Google will supply you with some general information and links. But these will be devoid of any context. These will be a vanilla type of recommendation. Now imagine you follow The Rock on Instagram. For these types of queries, there are very different (yet implicit) answers.
Horizontal (context-independent) search provides general information about topics. It is a cross-section of “average” or “generally relevant”. The exposure to the social web and the class of influences provides a very different experience. This is an example of the verticalization of web discovery and search which spills over into commerce.
The fluidity of the web stems from the spectrum of choices between the horizontal and vertical; the overlays of social interactions and recommendations by the influencers. Going back to Kevin Kelly:
“The efflorescent blossoming of liquid streams is an additive process, rather than subtractive. The old media forms endure; the new is layered on top of them. The important difference is that fixity is not the only option anymore.”
With the rise of social media, the discovery on the internet is becoming more verticalized as people rarely seek generic information devoid of emotion. They seek “secrets”. Who else sells “secrets” better than other human beings one can look up to?
If a user today can only move left and right when searching, maybe clumsily up and down through its social media, by indexing the vertical layer we create a much different experience and the user could go any direction.
As we have seen above - discovering the web from the perspective of the social web is different. People follow people. It’s only natural that they look to others (rather than the plain old boring non-emotional Google recommendations) when deciding what to desire and buy.
Amassing a huge cultural relevance through social media, The Rock was able to successfully penetrate a bunch of markets. Our vertical relevance chart hints at Zoa Energy, Under Armour collection, and Teremana tequila.
Whereas a plain vanilla algo would associate a coffee product with caffeine, Adidas rather than Under Armour with a workout shoe or other brand of tequila than Teremana, a devoted follower of The Rock would probably favor a The Rock-flavored search with a very seamless ability to purchase what is implicitly (or explicitly) advertised.
Today the content is still separated from commerce despite seeing some attempts at making it more fluid (e.g. the Instagram store). You rarely see influencers like The Rock posting and tagging their products directly (with few exceptions). We believe that the content-to-commerce-and-back will become much more fluid in the future.
Why? - Because to experience commerce in Web 3 there should be no explicit store, perhaps not even a new window, just a seamless “click and it’s yours” kind of experience. Perhaps we’re setting our imaginary bar high but it seems anything below will be very iterative and underachieving.
The blurring of the content and commerce will mean that value will flow freely on the web. It is always at the user's disposal to buy into anything at any moment. On the other side of this multidirectional marketplace - it’s at the content creator's disposal to recommend anything without explicitly selling. We’re talking about automatic referrals and recommendations - the web tracking this without any additional user action required.
The enforcement of these transactions (whether it’s a referral or a purchase) will become native to the applications of the future and as seamless as storing a cookie. Creating, capturing, and transferring value on the web should be as easy as creating a piece of content. This is where a16z-esque “own” from the “read, write & own” meets Mitra’s personalized commerce & social.
But before we dive into ownership attribution, let’s see what role the “community” plays.
Community: A Tribal Web 3
People complain about the internet polarizing society, pointing out the echo chamber of social media. The internet seems to have the ability to exacerbate existing realities (and conflicts) as the social arena becomes mostly performative rather than informative.
In the Web 2 era, we have been mostly populating the internet with users. In terms of social engagement we have come up with large arenas (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) into which we put everyone and now expect them to get along.
For a lack of a better analogy, Web 2 is The New World and we’re all settlers that have been sucked into it. We are looking around trying to figure out where to settle, who to listen to, who to do business with etc... Slowly, but surely, we are finding our interests and tribes.
Individuals have many online identities as they become parts of different “tribes”. Their interests are not singular - they become part of various implicit “fan clubs” by pressing “the follow/subscribe” button, they are patrons, they are warriors (arguing with people on Twitter) and, in some instances, they are both salesmen and customers.
The future of consumers is webfluid
Today web users’ economic activity is very loosely organized and mostly chaotic - we’re buying stuff all over, logging in into different accounts, and always having to fill out credit card details (sometimes blessed with the ApplePay option), etc...
You see something on social media that you like, you try to google it with no avail, you ask in a subreddit, then you find a store - you’ll go ahead to register to be able to make a purchase, and so on. It’s a very ad hoc process. Can it get any better?
Can we build social and commercial graphs with automated referrals? Can we build portable identities for users to automatically plug into every store? Can we build seamless fiat <> crypto gateways facilitating more fluid experiences such as Mover?
The relationship between users on the web will get increasingly more defined, not by government-enforced laws but through the power of code and useful products (we call it “partitioning the web”). New apps will make it easier for groups to find each other and connect, potentially monetizing their relationships. Whether it’s a content creator and audience or regular peer-to-peer.
The newly-found freedom will make browsing smoother. Empowered by adaptive tribalism, we will be able to help each other to bootstrap ideas or businesses and discover answers across various niches. Imagine subreddits with the ability to fund their own endeavors and enforce agreements.
Today, Molecule is already enabling the funding of intellectual property. Similar models could be applied to commerce.
This is mostly about a set of technologies that will enforce the rules on the web and enable new games to be played. The “new web” will be an innovation of social scalability, an improvement from the current internet offerings. In “Money, blockchains and social scalability” Szabo writes:
“Innovations in social scalability involve institutional and technological improvements that move function from mind to paper or mind to machine, lowering cognitive costs while increasing the value of information flowing between minds, reducing vulnerability, and/or searching for and discovering new and mutually beneficial participants.”
The internet applications loosely labeled as Web 2; e.g. Airbnb, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, have mostly improved social scalability via (what Szabo calls) commercial matchmaking: *“searching for, finding, bringing together, and facilitating the negotiation of mutually beneficial commercial or retail deals (and their subsequent review).” *
The internet, to this day, has drastically increased our matchmaking capabilities and helped in our ability to transfer and trust, opening a “renting/gig economy” (albeit through trusted third parties). Our costs to find, negotiate and enforce commercial transactions are dramatically reduced compared to the 1990s or even 2000s.
The rise of the influencer/content creator class is a manifestation of lower (transaction, discovery, and other) costs enabling smaller firms to operate at scale. This does not necessarily mean there are no monopolies but the long tail has become even longer. In Web 3 as we have been describing above we make it easier for individuals to create, find, sell or buy digital and non-digital assets.
Today the mainstream understanding of Web 3 is reduced to crypto. Crypto has been mostly a revolution in capital formation that was first demonstrated in the ICO bubble, followed by innovation in permissionless speculation (DeFi) and original content encapsulation (NFTs).
That is because crypto, specifically smart contracts, is an innovation in the enforceability of rules. When it comes to money (especially large sums) we tend to be less lenient and more specific about terms of engagement. Thus having a seamless set of enforceable rules built into our web experience - the commercial transactions should increase with the removal of friction.
This does not require the user to understand whether it’s using a blockchain or Ceramic for state transition or data indexing. But if someone would like to operate on a “Web 3” commerce app, it will inherently use this technology stack.
Why? - Because only through the implementation of this set of technologies can we achieve seamless monetization of “digital assets” such as NFTs.
Crypto is an order of magnitude greater improvement in seamless enforceability of simple or more difficult financial operations (lending for purchase of physical goods with digital collateral etc.) online that lower user friction. This will enable new monetization models and subsequently new bundling and unbundling.
The Fluid Web 3
Above we discussed in the detail:
- Context: Adding indexed vertical layer for discovery
- Content and Commerce: The blurring of the line between the to and emerging social commerce
- Community: Web partitioning enabled by tooling for the organization of online communities
- Crypto: Enforceability and seamless value capture (owning)
The gradual transition from Web 2 to Web 3 will mean that we’ll replace Google with a series of different, probably competing, algorithm providers that will be able to factor in vertical search, or Facebook/Twitter with a cryptographically maintained open social graph with a series of various applications built on top.
The user movement on the web becomes increasingly fluid. The mix of the 5Cs will add up to a new level of personalization. The discovery on the web will not be disjointed anymore but a smooth experience.
Today the web offers a very fragmented vertical discovery. Commerce is almost entirely disjointed from this process. Slick one-click checkout is nice but imagine if we were able to build a layer of the commercial graph on top of the social graph. DeFi already manifests as an open complex financial graph.
The social, financial, and commercial graph layers will be a new intertwined 3D web that various algorithms will try to serve to users. The internet-native transaction facilitated by crypto will help to tie it all together.
Crypto is yet to enable commercial payments at scale. Still, today it already offers a scalable bi-directional value transfer. Web 2 delivered a scalable bi-directional information transfer and it absolutely destroyed the old media monopoly on information distribution. Crypto will do the same to payments and commerce.
Ben Thompson did a great job describing the unbundling of old media business models.
Our best guess is that it will create a new integration point for online commerce thus enabling the fluid web experience that will be marked by ease of value capture and monetization. Kyle Samani did a write-up on unlocking crypto payment solutions, outlining specific use cases that we might come to use in the near future.
In the following months and years, we will be working from both sides, from Mitra’s vision of Web 3 and from the crypto version of Web 3, meeting somewhere in the middle. The end result will be a more decentralized, functional, and fluid web experience enabling new business models.
As we have emphasized before, Web 3 is not a destination but a user preference. Our expectation is that the potential new application will drive adoption and preference for Web 3 apps because of increased marginal utility.
Disclaimer: Zee Prime has invested in Mover and Molecule.