Skeuomorphic is My New Fave Word
People are saying that most of the early web3 innovations are just copies of prior internet companies, the big winners long term will use this tech in completely new ways that are not skeuomorphic.
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I learned a new word recently. It has been coming up a lot on web3 podcasts and in blog posts. It is called skeuomorphic. I’ll be honest, I had to look this one up. Never heard it before. A skeuomorph is “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that were necessary in the original.” In the early days of electric lights, bulbs were made to look like burning candles. That is skeuomorphic. As it relates to web3, a new technology is considered skeuomorphic if it basically just takes a prior web concept and adds a token or NFT to it. These days, skeuomorphic is a bit of a diss on web3 as nothing truly new and unique.
When the internet first started, a lot of the early experiences were skeuomorphic. Early innovators took offline experiences and put them online. Amazon sold books via a website. Expedia let you shop for flights online instead of on the phone or via a travel agent. Wikipedia took the encyclopedia books and made them available over the web. All of these were big and successful, but they were also skeuomorphic. What was really unique in web1 and web2? Using your phone to order a car, track its location, map your drive, and pay for the trip. You could sort of argue that all of these things existed offline and Uber combined them, but this was fairly new from a technology perspective. Social networks in web2 also would be consider new. It would be hard to argue they simply copied something from the offline world.
Real value to the world typically comes from things are not skeuomorphic. Simply upgrading some web2 things in a decentralized manner will be helpful and might lead to some early winners. The real leaps forward will come from business models that could not have been done without web3 technologies.
Let’s talk about some practical applications in web3 and see if we think they are skeuomorphic or really new stuff. If you take something like OpenSea, I consider this skeuomorphic. It offers nothing special or different than a traditional web1 online exchange like eBay, other than the fact that the underlying assets traded are NFTs. This one is pretty cut and dried for me. They are a web3 leader, but they are not using this new technology in a new way. They are just copying an older business model. OpenSea has centralized ownership by the founders and their VC backers, just like eBay did in the early days. There are some NFT marketplaces working to redefine the model, and we may see something groundbreaking there soon.
How about Coinbase? Easy answer, it’s skeuomorphic. Yes, they are trading Cryptocurrencies, but they are doing it just like their stockbroker counterparts. You open an account with them, fund it, and make purchases of assets. Nothing really groundbreaking here from a technology perspective, other than the assets being traded. I would argue that Crypto wallets and the way these integrate with decentralized exchanges and other apps, these are new tech for sure.
What about another topic we covered in this newsletter a few weeks ago called Fan Tokens? Are these just new web3 versions of online fan clubs or are they employing Crypto technology to do something more innovative? I think these are breaking new ground. The blockchain gives fans the ability to “prove” just how early they started supporting a musician or other creator. In the past, everyone could claim they saw a now popular band at some tiny bar, but few had the receipts to verify it. On chain, you’ll easily be able to show when you first bought a creator’s fan token. The way that creators are using fan tokens and NFTs to gate access to content is a meaningful update to prior fan offerings of merch or tickets.
There are very new things happening in the DAO space that are truly innovative. Also, in my next post I’ll be discussing decentralized talent networks. These are definitely not skeuomorphic. I’ll continue to be on the lookout for companies building businesses that simply would not have been possible before blockchain. You should too. Watch for the market innovators that are pushing past skeuomorphism and you’ll likely find the leaders of the next decade.