The Passive Layer of The Internet

If 2020 was a lost year, 2021 seemed like a game of fervent catch-up.

Sports leagues and engagements quickly returned to acceptable normalcy. More extravagant birthday parties replaced the invisible ones of yesteryear. And for the time we spent in gripping Zoom fatigue for the better part of a few months, 2021 saw a new boom in internet use, as we all rabidly debated the future of the internet.

It’s less surprising that NFTs and crypto have entered the conversation in a year where we were bored (again) and when Coinbase hits its reputational apex, but it’s definitely surprising just how quickly the conversation moved from “What is an NFT?” to “NFTs might be the future of commerce” and “Web3 is taking over the internet” in quick, mercurial leaps.

What I’ve been thinking about is less whether or not the web3 and NFT theses have weight and a bit more about what the conversation is missing.

To date, so much of the conversation has been focused on creation, consumer power, and decentralization, all tenets of a more consumer-friendly internet.

But it’s still a struggle to explain some of these basic concepts to family members and skeptics. A brand tweeting wagmi or Meta tweeting literally anything still follows a somewhat predictable pattern of cringe-driven exasperation. There’s a fun little binary on and offline where it seems like logging onto Twitter effectively gives you a different mark of the world than sitting down at a familial dinner table.

Is the divide purely digital? Or is there more there?

While I don’t think people are inherently lazy or unforgiving, what I’ve been thinking about more is what this divide tells us about the general role the internet plays in our lives.

Interestingly enough, my thoughts didn’t come from a lively internet influencer but from a more unlikely source: musical theatre composter Stephen Sondeim.

Any fan of theatre likely has some loose connection to Sondheim.

If you grew up performing, you may have performed in a show that was made by (Mine was Into The Woods, the first time a harmony truly bent my brain) or influenced by Sondheim.

If you grew up watching, it was always there at a distance. Even if you’ve listened only to mainstream musicals like Hamilton or glimpses of the Greatest Showman, you’ve listened to the product of his mentorship in composers Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pasek-Paul. He was your favorite composer’s muse.

When Sondheim passed a couple weeks back, I spent the weekend lost in his Broadway setlist.

An endless loop of West Side Story, Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd, ending the musical bereavement by rewatching an early rendition of his Pulitzer-Prize Winning show Sunday In the Park With George.

Decades removed from any contemporary conversation about the creator economy, Sondheim’s musical was interestingly enough about the topic of creation.

In the musical, painter George Seurat is building out his famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and soon finds himself obsessing over the perfection of the piece at the expense of his relationship, friendships, future, and – at times – sanity.

In a cathartic Act 1 song called “Finishing the Hat”, we see George reflect on his trouble of being devoted to anything but his art:

And when the woman that you wanted goes
You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.”

But the woman who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live
There’s a part of you always standing by
Mapping out the sky
Finishing a hat…

In the same act, George sings a song about two dogs, lamenting how easy they have it on an average Sunday. This is cleverly juxtaposed against the artist himself, struggling with the curse of forced observation, while the dogs and by extension the rest of the park are at peace with doing nothing.

Sondheim certainly didn’t intend to make this a memoir or a representation of average creation more than just a unique story about obsession. But it’s telling of the two extremities that come with creation vs. passive participation in society. In his story, the artist is both the hero who can create from nothing and the one the audience scoffs at for neglecting everything else.

As I think more about our recent obsession with everything creator-focused – creator economy, creator ownership, power to the creator – I keep thinking about Sondheim’s dogs.

In the song, The Day Off, George sings as one of the dogs:

Roaming around on Sunday
Poking among the roots and rocks
Nose to the ground on Sunday
Studying all the shoes and socks

Everything’s worth it Sunday
The day off
Bits of pastry…
Piece of chicken…

Basically a tribute to the freedom they have compared to the pressures of creation.

If we think about the modern parallel to the internet, many of us are dogs.

We’re sniffing around, consuming, just observing the greater spectacle of internet content in front of us in fascination or disgust. We’re the misfits, the doomscrollers, the people who pop in and out of Instagram pretending that a notification could’ve surrealistically appeared in the five seconds between when we last left the app.

In a report for Pew Research, the team found that a staggering 97% of tweet volume comes from the top 25% most active tweeters. Lots of lurkers indeed.

There’s no impulse for creation, no envy for the restlessness that comes with the creator identity. Web2 opened up social participation with apps like Facebook and Twitter, but even social participation came at a low cost. You can “like” or “comment” on artifacts of the internet without much gatekeeping. An internet account and an email are largely what it takes, your participation is essentially free.

This free participation built what is essentially a passive layer of the internet, the part of the internet with the lurkers, the doomscrollers, and the happily lazy consumers. They powered validation with likes and gave creators a raison d’etre without demanding much in return. Just like the dogs and the debutantes in the park gave George a reason to paint, the lazy layer brought creators their deserving visibility and inspiration.

The simple argument against this model is that it became hard for creators to extract value from their creations – ads slightly solved for this (i.e. youtube paying creators for lots of views) but web3 is taking it a step farther by giving control to artists, giving artists more economic power, and solving the problem of creator attribution through things like NFTs and public stamps.

Still, it’s hard for us to sell the idea of NFTs to people who don’t have money or an incentive to buy them. It’s hard for a population adjusted to passive social participation on the web to suddenly adopt a more economic mentality of every interaction.

Part of why I can’t explain NFTs easily to my mom is because creator frustration was never her bone to pick with the internet – sharing photos and connecting with friends isn’t something that can easily be fixed by a chain transaction.

I’ve already written about how I think the idea that the Metaverse can fix this is misguided but I think it opens up a new question:

Will web3 ever exist to support passive layers?

Is simply putting a “gm” on a discord enough for people? Is there another version of Twitter (RIP Bitclout) that rewards both creators and consumers better than Twitter could? Even with NFTs, is not owning one something that makes you a pariah in an ownership-driven world?

I think you could certainly make the argument that the goal of web3 isn’t to support a passive layer as it is to prevent a tragedy of the commons with better vetting (in this case, an investment in the outcome with something like an NFT) but we need to start talking about whether it is the future of the internet, or simply another iteration of one part of web2 – a complement vs. a replacement.

As I go further into exploring web3, it’s a question I want to sit with. What would it take for friends who are untethered to the incentive of creation or ownership to get really excited about thisThe ones who resonate with the dogs vs. the artist?

I’m open to answers – and open to even more questions.

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