A Brief History Of The User: From The First Telephone to Web3

Here’s a look back at how the user’s role has changed in the past three decades.

The term “user” appears to have emerged alongside one of the first pieces of interactive communications technology. That’s right – the good old telephone.

Today, the word applies to anyone who does anything with any form of technology. But while the actual word may be unchanged since the late 19th century, the role of the user has evolved significantly, particularly since the advent of the Internet.

The very earliest Internet users were a breed apart. Often technically adept, they could spin up their own servers, share information, and read content others had posted in total freedom.

Then the rest of the world woke up to the potential of an interconnected world and piled in, triggering the dot-com boom – followed by the dot-com bust. Out of the ashes rose the second age of the Internet, now known as Web2, along with the cadre of tech powerhouses that dominate today's landscape. Big Tech made everything in Web2 simple and central and users exchanged freedom for convenience.

Today, Web3 promises to restore the decentralized ethos of the early Internet. With blockchain technology, users can break free from centralized powers and retake control of their identities, data, and content. And while the vision of Web3 has not yet been fully realized, its builders are taking us one step closer every day.

Here’s a look back at how the user’s role has changed in the past three decades:

The user in Web1: Freedom – with technical limitations

One of the most remarkable things about users in Web1 is that there weren’t very many of them.

In 1995, just 1% of the world’s population used the Internet. Today, that number stands at 63%, or 4.4 billion people, with 1 million more joining each day. Similarly, in 1992, there were just 10 websites up and running. Ten years later, 39,000. And now? There is something like 1.6 billion out there.  

The Web1 user was also interacting with a very primitive version of the Internet. This was the syntactic or “read-only” web: most sites were text-based and static and the user’s role was limited to that of a reader. You could view content, but there was no direct way to comment or otherwise interact with it or its creator.
But despite Web1’s limitations, those pioneering users had more freedom than we do today in Web2. This is because Web1 was decentralized – by necessity, if not by design. Since the infrastructure grew up organically, even haphazardly, anyone could host a server, and every computer on the Internet acted as a relay between browsers and servers. Whether you were an individual or a company, if you wanted an online presence, you had to spin up your own website from scratch (remember Geocities?)

Because of this accidental decentralization, people were also free to create and share content, and to read that of others without censorship or external limitations. There were no authoritative bodies or platforms dictating what users could and could not share, no algorithms determining what content consumers would (or would not) find interesting.

The user in Web2: Ease and convenience – for a price.

Starting in the early 2000s, the user’s online experience changed radically. This was the dawn of the era of Web2, the so-called social or “read-write” web.

This incarnation of the Internet, which quickly became vital for both our work and our leisure, rose up when large corporations began pouring capital into innovations that opened it to everyone. Web2 became the interactive web, the user-friendly web, the web that even those with the barest hint of tech know-how could navigate.

But all that ease and convenience came at a cost.

The rise of social media may have made it easy for users to post, share, comment, and connect with others, but they’ve been forced to give up freedom, privacy, and control in exchange. Similarly, centralized providers such as Amazon Web Services have made it simple to build and share websites and applications, but users are subject to high fees and constant data mining and targeted advertising practices.

The centralized platforms that make up the infrastructure of Web2 have the power to determine what kind of content is allowed, and what should be promoted. Additionally, each platform takes a hefty share of profits generated by user-produced content. And although most will protest that users retain control of what they create, the reality can be quite different.

The user in Web3: The best of both, without the worst

The developers building out Web3 – the semantic or “read-write-execute” web – aim to restore all the freedom and autonomy of Web1 and, drawing on lessons from the Web2 era, couple that with convenience and ease of use. It’s a powerful vision, even if it hasn’t yet been fully realized.

In a decentralized landscape, users can act without central powers limiting their behavior. And since Web3 is based on the principle of sovereign ownership, users retain control over their creations, digital assets, and identities. This means they can more readily monetize their creations and their information: they can earn for creating and sharing content, or sell the behavioral data they generate during time spent online. And unlike in Web2, no one can use their content unless and until they consent.

Users can also have collective power over Web3’s platforms and protocols via new concepts such as Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). These uniquely egalitarian structures give users a chance to participate in the governance of the communities they belong to and the platforms they use. And this community ethos means they can also take a direct role in building the infrastructure and culture of the next incarnation of the Internet.

The user’s role has morphed again – in Web3 s/he can again become a developer: helping to shape the products, services, organizations, microeconomies, assets, and experiences across the online world.

Web3 and the user of the future

We may be some way from decentralizing the entire Internet, but there has already been substantial progress, particularly in user-friendliness. As with Web1, the very earliest Web3 platforms could be opaque and tricky to understand for the average user. But the Web3 community is working hard to improve user experience.

The Tally Ho team saw from the outset that for the world’s first community-owned wallet to succeed, it needed to be easy for everyone to use – from the Web3 veteran to the timid newcomer. And everything about it, from governance to infrastructure to UX, had to exemplify the values of Web3.

So that’s what we built.

Tally Ho is straightforward, designed to work for a wide range of users, and entirely community-controlled. Unlike Metamask, there is no centralized entity to make unilateral decisions about who can use it or how.

Any member of Tally Ho’s community can shape Tally’s future; anyone can suggest and create improvements. Anyone can participate in the discussion. And since Tally Ho is structured as a DAO, anyone can own a piece of it.

Download Tally Ho’s browser extension and experience decentralization in action.