What do a 3D TV and a Web3 avatar have in common? No one asked if anyone actually needed these things. While the 3D TV is no longer around, numerous Web3 projects continue to emerge, despite any proof that they actually have everyday utility. If you look at who is building the products of Web3 and whose needs those products serve, you start to realize that the builders look a lot like the same people who built Web2.
Tricia Wang is a tech ethnographer designing equity into systems. She co-founded Crypto Research and Design Lab (CRADL) with Sheila Warren and Lauren Serota. Web3athon is open for submission to anyone until August 7, 2022. Sign up here.
I’m a huge proponent of the idea that Web3 is for everyone, but we are on track to repeating Web2 where we had a small class of people building tools for everyone globally.
Web3 is supposed to pick up where Web2 failed
Many of the problems we had with Web2 came down to a lack of representation and participation by people building and using the tools, an infamous example being Google’s photo image recognition algorithm tagging Black people as gorillas. Web2 leaders designed and built in the direction that made them profitable (based around an extractive ad model) putting people’s needs and experiences second.
Despite mounting evidence that diverse teams can lead to better, more inclusive products, many of today’s Web3 builders are just Web2 builders with a hexagonal Twitter profile picture. But unlike Web2, it’s much easier for someone to start learning about Web3 and build a product that anyone can use. At least, in theory.
A key part of the Web3 promise is that the blockchain enables everyone to have sovereignty over their data, which is why Web3 is referred to as the “creator economy.”
That’s why in Web3 we need everyone to be a builder. Because when you control the use of your data (or your community’s data), you can do so much more with it. And being a builder doesn’t mean you have to write code (especially as we move towards a no to low-code Web3). It should also mean grokking the tech enough so that you can understand its use case scenarios and the larger environmental, social, policy and governance implications. But when so much of the Web3 dialog and headlines center around billionaires, scams and price volatility, it’s no wonder that some people may look at the industry and think “that’s not for me.”
Hackathons are where Web3 culture is built
At the Crypto Research and Design Lab (CRADL), a lab I co-founded and direct, we looked into what would enable more people to build community-centered Web3 use cases. We learned that hackathons (especially at conferences) play a big role in how products come to life. Chains dedicate entire departments to nurturing their developer ecosystems, with hackathons as a key activity to recruit and maintain talent.
But most hackathons follow behaviors typical of Web2’s typical creators: The focus of crypto hackathons is usually on building, not listening. Education at hackathons is centered on the technology, not the people using the technology, which creates a high barrier to entry even for new developers.
As CRADL’s lead researcher of our product research Katherine Paseman explains, “In an industry like cryptocurrency where the stakes are people’s life savings, digital identity or pathway to financial freedom, it is worthwhile to avoid the Silicon Valley culture of 'move fast and break things.'”
So we asked ourselves: How do we design a new model of a crypto/Web3 hackathon that leads to a greater range of participants successfully applying Web3 tools that are centered on real needs from people and communities?
Make hackathons centered around people, not just technology
Based on our findings, we teamed up with CoinDesk and HackerEarth to create the Web3athon, a hyperlocal, people-first crypto hackathon that brings creatives and developers together to solve some of the most pressing problems facing communities.
Here are a few of our design decisions that any chain can implement in their hackathons. First, instead of continuing Web3’s focus on mass adoption, we chose to focus on the “hyperlocal” as the overarching theme because designing solutions for actual communities will ensure that products are people-centered from the start, which is the foundation of any successful use case. To focus participants even more, we then narrowed in on five pressing hyperlocal challenges that blockchain technologies are well suited to solve: generational wealth, financial health, sustainable culture and communities, environmental well-being and disaster response and relief.
Then we implemented a “people-first, chains second” approach. Most hackathons in crypto up until now have been single-chain. But what if the chain isn’t appropriate for your idea? What if all the people using your app have leapfrogged desktops and primarily use mobile phones? Then developing on a chain that is mobile-first is important. We made the Web3athon a multichain with 16 layer 1s, or base networks, and the first stage two months so that participants have enough time to understand the problem they are solving and learn about the chains. Our hypothesis is that multichain hackathons that are people-first will lead to ideas with faster and better product-market fit.
Lastly, we focused on inclusive language to ensure we were a welcoming for a broader range of participants. For example, instead of bounties, we have prizes. Prior to tech adopting the term bounties as the reward for hackers to find bugs, the U.S. federal government, states and private citizens offered financial bounties for people who caught runaway slaves, freed slaves or Native Americans. Even now, Texas’ abortion laws have a bounty component. Inclusive language efforts in tech have picked up in the last few years to examine legacy offensive terms. To make Web3 a place for everyone, we can start that effort now.
Just by implementing these few changes, we've already seen a greater range of hackathon participants enter. Lucy Edosomwan, a Nigerian American-born financial literacy educator, data analyst, and digital strategist (and contestant in Miss Nigeria USA) told us, “I’ve done hackathons like at MIT, but with the Web3athon I feel more connected to the mission of building hyperlocally and getting marginalized communities that aren’t represented in Web3 as actual builders.”
Ahmed Hamid, whose background in finance has led him to investment banking, aviation finance and nonprofit funding, has formed a team to develop Refound, a product to serve frontline and wartime journalists. Solar panel installation practitioner Jon Ruth said, “As a non-technical person I came away encouraged to jump in and sign up for the Web3athon. This was the first time I have felt welcomed into a hackathon as a nontechnical founder."
Most importantly, we’re seeing projects that are being led by community leaders, built for their own community. Indigenous leader Henry Foreman, program director of New Mexico Community Capital, is launching IndigiDAO to support Native American entrepreneurs to provide access to investment, capital, grants and tokens in ways that will advance Indigenous core values, such as collaboration, reciprocity, shared ownership and nourishment-based exchange.
We’re also seeing more Web2 folks like startup founder Ronald Hernandez, an Ecuadorian-Venezuelan who is creating an e-commerce platform with Web3 solutions for small to medium-size businesses in Latin America. And Web3 developers are coming back to us to tell us the benefits of being at a hackathon that emphasizes listening before building. One developer told me under conditions of anonymity, “I travel all year for crypto hackathons, but the Web3athon is the first hackathon I went to where I was asked to slow down and actually listen. And I think that’s going to increase my chances of making a product that people want to use.”
What we're seeing so far has been encouraging for our thesis that hackathons are an ideal place to meaningfully shift the culture of Web3. By centering the event around community needs, more people from diverse backgrounds are inspired and empowered to build solutions.
And on the brink of a recession, it’s even more important now to demonstrate how Web3 innovation can benefit everyone. If Web3 is to emerge from this downturn with greater legitimacy, more buy-in from policymakers and more relevant solutions, then we need builders to learn how to listen to people’s experiences and make products that truly demonstrate the applications for blockchain technology.
UPDATE 7/14/22: additional biographical details for Lucy Edosomwan.