The New Robber Barons

Is Web3 fated to follow Web2?

Text Joshua Citarella
illustrations Mary Zet
Published 02 Aug 2023

If you’re a millennial, like myself, you’re used to things getting worse. For as long as you’ve been around, seemingly all political and economic changes have been to your detriment. Neoliberalism is the overarching story of our young lives. Rampant privatization has eroded any chance for long-term stability and decimated the cultural sphere by shifting all creative pursuits into the domain of the market.

Under these uniquely worsening conditions, having the “right” or “wrong” analysis was often immaterial. In most cases, the chances of changing anything were so slim, and the opposition so powerful, that having the correct critique usually didn’t make much of a difference. Millennials learned to be pessimists, and reality reinforced this view.

But this (mostly warranted) pessimism has had some unfortunate downstream effects. Many of today’s radicals are unable to trace the extraction of surplus value, to locate the material causes of disparities in outcome, or to articulate any path to the prosperity and flourishing that was once so essential to the worldviews of previous progressive eras. This confusion, incubated by our generation’s unique lack of political possibilities, now works to obfuscate the real opportunities of the present. Most troublingly, many of today’s so-called “dissidents” refuse to interface with any real structures of power. In doing so, they manage to hold fast to their shaky ideals but cede the ability to ever reshape the current state of things. Doomer prophecies are self-fulfilling.

As a number of progressive critics have said, it’s possible to describe our current political-economic period as a kind of techno-feudalism. Under this regime of extreme inequality, the familiar structures of bourgeois market competition have broken down and been replaced by rent-extracting monopolies. The same can be said for today’s online creative economies.

1990s kids will remember Web1 as a cyber form of primitive communism. It was inefficient but abundant, characterized by the open sharing of resources and voluntary association with one’s tribe.

Today’s Web2 platforms, like the feudal lords of the past, hold sovereign reign over the territory and allow serfs to till the land in exchange for productive labor. Some people assume that because users are not charged for the digital space upfront, they are still somehow scraping by on the shrinking bounty of Web1’s natural abundance. Make no mistake: you are only given the space for “free” so that your audience will look at ads. In a feudalistic exchange, users are allowed to cultivate the digital terrain so long as they produce value for its true owners.

Now, Web3 looms on the horizon. Doomsayers warn of a hyper-financialized future that threatens to turn our already unstable world into a speculative media hellscape. The real red pill is that today’s internet is already financialized; you’re just excluded from it.

Most public pressure campaigns and boycotts against Web2 monoliths fail because they take place in feudalistic economies. (What are you going to do, not post?) There is nowhere else to go. Removing your work from Spotify or YouTube just directs eyeballs to other content. The unfortunate reality is that content-serfs have no real leverage with which to lobby or bargain. So long as “attention is currency,” creative labor is not the source of value.

The indirect funding structure of ad-driven media, where creators must stir controversy in order to reap ad views, has shaped cultural and political discourse for the past decade. The result is viral disinformation, outrage, sensation, political division, conspiracy, digital addiction, and many other social ills. In its infinite wisdom, the United States Post Office (indisputably the greatest institution of modern American life) chose to require a postage stamp in order to mail a letter. Today, we send our messages for free and wonder why the internet is full of spam. Many do not know, and cannot imagine, that it could be any other way.

The web is replaying historical stages where new political-economic models arise to compete with and eventually replace one another. Development is linear and chronological.

The great irony of the millennial experience under neoliberalism is that now, against the backdrop of monopolistic digital fiefdoms, the relative left position is to argue for policies that curb the enormous power of platforms by increasing market competition. This peculiar discursive twist has taken many committed progressives by surprise and left them rhetorically ill-equipped to respond. Their habitual critiques of laissez-faire policy, along with a characteristically millennial aversion toward any analysis of value creation, now functions to uphold the sovereign property rights of the very platforms they have spent the last decade railing against.

In a surprising turn of events, some of the leftist critics of Web2 have now become its most vocal defenders. As the Meta, Youtube, and Twitter terms of service close in around them, edgy political dissidents awkwardly argue to remain aboard a ship whose crew is actively seeking to throw them overboard. But the unique opportunities of Web3, chiefly the potential to emancipate online communities from the attention tyranny of advertising, are placing these lazy and flawed analyses under increasing degrees of scrutiny. Soon, their confused narratives will break.

The good news is that arguing for liberal freedoms against feudal absolutism is rather easy: the transition from feudalism to capitalism spurred explosive growth and opportunity. It redistributed immense concentrations of wealth from centuries of royalty. Over time, it greatly increased living standards and life expectancy. Private ownership allowed for more people to have greater control over their own destinies. While these structures were still deeply inequitable in their implementation, they were vastly preferable to any continued servitude to an aristocratic lord.

The web is replaying historical stages where new political-economic models arise to compete with and eventually replace one another. Development is linear and chronological. Web3 capitalism is not the end trajectory of this process but it is a necessary step towards the ultimate goal. In this new paradigm of online economies, the urgent task (for progressives) is to demonstrate that self-managed cooperatives are not only more stable but also more productive than a system of private ownership.

It’s important to not overstate the current moment. Unlike the stories told by many of today’s loudest and highest-paid voices (who thrive in an ad-driven media environment because they are quite literally financially incentivized to spread outrageous disinformation under the thin guise of creative practice), we are not moving from the digital equivalent of a hunter-gatherer gift economy (Web1) to a newly supercharged neoliberalism. Rather, we are slowly transitioning from an unchallengeable feudalism (Web2) to a marginally improved bourgeois capitalism (Web3). The proposal is simple and achievable: more transparency into the extreme inequality of creative economies and the possibility for funding streams that do not float on the attention currency of ad views.

Creatives from previous decades wisely fought the encroachment of market forces onto creative practice. They could do this at the time because they had the foil of strong institutional backing, protected spaces in universities and museums within which decommodified decisions could be made for research and the production of art and culture. But platforms have driven a total liquidation of the old institutions, along with their creative affordances and privileges. In this period of institutional collapse and platform censorship, exit has become necessary and unavoidable.

20th-century arguments that seek for the state to support and steer creative production defer a present problem. By proposing infeasible and distant priority goals, aims that we have no clear path towards or plan for achieving, these directionless criticisms ultimately only serve to uphold the status quo. One must place these arguments in their proper context: a national health service is the ground floor of a functioning political economy in the advanced world. If we do not have the class power to demand Medicare For All, then any talk of increased funding for the arts is a delusional priority. There are no subsidies for new media art while insulin is 1,000 dollars per vial. And there shouldn’t be.

In today’s media environment, hot tub streamers thrive while great novels wither. All cultural production is subject to a narrowing TOS and increasingly opaque algorithmic preferences. The signs of this dysfunction are all around us. But alternatives are now being built, and new forms of patronage will shape new modes of creative practice.

Ultimately, we will judge the success and legitimacy of these new models of patronage using the same criteria with which we judge other elite institutions: Do they provide generously in the form of social goods? Do they build great works of culture? Or will the new Web3 elites resemble the Web2 robber barons who, instead of building libraries and museums, sent themselves to Mars and left us with clickbait on YouTube?

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