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Web3 and the Ethics of Personalization

by Soo-yeon Hwang

Did you know that the “www” in domain names refer to World Wide Web? This used to be the full name of the “web” back in the early days of the technology. It was the days of early web browsers and static HTML web pages: mainly focused on read-only contents. Then came Web 2.0 which was more focused on the community aspect of the web, characterized by forums, blogs, and wikis and then the proliferation of social media. Nowadays the talk is on Web 3.0, or Web3, which is about individualized service powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Some also say that Web 1.0 was about information sharing, Web 2.0 about social interaction, and Web3 about personalized immersion. The main characteristics of Web3 are being portable and personal, individual focus (compared to company (Web 1.0) or community (Web 2.0) focus), consolidating content (compared to owning content (Web 1.0) or sharing content (Web 2.0)), decentralized processes, and smart/intelligent applications with personalized data. We are already seeing some elements of Web3 such as NFTs, blockchain, distributed ledgers, Internet of Things, and personal assistant technologies like Siri.

Another example of Web3 is metaverse. Metaverse is a 3D-rendered immersive virtual world built on Web3 frameworks. Already 17% of the global computer and IT sector businesses and 12% of global education sector have invested in the metaverse as of March 2022.[1] Among those who have invested in metaverse, 22.2% see it as the future and 21.9% as full of opportunities.[2]

One thing to be mindful of before Web3 takes hold, however, is the ethical aspect of the technology, especially in relation to personalization which is a core part of Web3. Personalization in Web3 promises to deliver an experience built around the users. Still, when it is not done right, it can be invasive or even creepy. In 2012, Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant through data mining her shopping patterns even before her father knew it, and this took to the news as an example of creepy personalization.[3] Still, people are willing to give up their personal information for more personalized experience on the web. According to Accenture’s 2018 report, 83% of consumers are willing to share their data to enable a personalized experience.[4] In addition, 90% of US internet users said in 2019 that messages from companies that are not personally relevant are annoying and 44% said they are willing to switch to brands who better personalize their communications.[5]

Yet, according to an international survey study commissioned by WP Engine in 2019, most consumers want transparency in terms of how their personal data is being used.[6] 93% of respondents believed that protections for personal data shared on websites should meet established data security and privacy standards; 92% of respondents believed organizations should be able to explain how they use personal data; and 91% of consumers believed maintaining trust during personalized digital experiences is important. In other words, the users should be able to feel that the data they have given up has resulted in a real value that they know is safe and protected by the service provider.

Sometimes, the glamour of new technology makes us forget the actual user experience. The technology itself is just a tool to drive the user experience. We are in an era of shaping the future of new technology – Web3 – and I would like to see businesses and developers going beyond compliance (especially because laws almost always fall behind technological breakthroughs) and starting a commitment to ethical principles in privacy and personalization.

Copyright 2022 by Soo-yeon Hwang.

About the author: Soo-yeon Hwang is the Assessment and Analytics Librarian at Towson University. She has a PhD in Communication and Information from Rutgers University, and MS in Information from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her professional experience includes software development, technical writing, testing (QA), and technical support, as well as web services and user experience librarianship.