A fundamental premise of web3 is ownership. But ownership isn’t just a technical or financial shift, it’s a shift in how we connect with one another.
To fully leverage the power of a democratically owned web3, we need to understand what ownership means for us as humans. And more importantly ‒ we need to expand beyond our current views of ownership to redefine and reshape how we choose to collectively own the next generation of technologies.
Our early understanding of ownership is based on a simple premise: control. If you ask a 6 year old whether a person who is asleep or in a coma can own property, there’s a reasonable chance they say no ‒ if the person cannot assert their will over something (i.e., control it), they do not own it.
While control is a necessary part of ownership, ownership as an experience is made up of more than just control. To understand why, let’s talk about why we (as humans) want to own things:
As young children, the desire to control drives our desire to acquire ownership. But the desire to belong and the desire to express ourselves emerge as our social brains evolve. We begin to understand that ownership is more than control ‒ it becomes relational. Owning something becomes a way to belong, to self-identify, and to signal to others what we belong to and identify with. And so, our sense of ownership becomes social.
The way we think about ownership in web3 today is not unlike the way a child thinks about ownership: it’s about control. Governance tokens represent a unit of control over a protocol. Yet, the act of simply giving someone ownership doesn’t inherently make them feel like an owner.
Because ownership is contextual, it’s relational, and it’s social.
So if today ownership in web3 is about control, where are we going? What happens when we begin to fold identity and belonging into our notion of what ownership in web3 means?
The popularity of pfp NFTs hints at what’s to come. It’s likely that web3 will usher in an entirely new wave of social experiences that haven’t been possible before. Our identities and sense of belonging will be rooted in the things we own.
But wait… this sounds like a lonely dystopia I don’t want to live in.
Yes, your identity being defined by what you own sounds shitty and lonely. This is the way we currently think about web3 ‒ and it’s not going to work.
Here’s the thing: ownership is lonely. You can buy four Porsche convertibles and still feel lonely. It’s collective ownership that’s powerful.
At its core, ownership is vulnerable ‒ it’s personal. To co-own something is to have a connection with someone. And so while individual ownership is great, collective ownership is the true social primitive in web3.
Collective ownership allows us to feel heard (control), while also making us feel like we’re a part of something greater (belonging) in a way that helps us define who we are to ourselves and the world (identity).
Every technology creates a new way for people to connect. Web3 introduces ownership as the newest social primitive that allows people to go from internet strangers to co-owners. And with that shift, we broaden the landscape of art, communities, and protocols we collectively value and own.
By making it a multiplayer game, ownership becomes a tool for social movements.
And let’s be clear: ownership has always been a tool for influencing the fabric of our society ‒ but it’s a tool that was reserved for those with the most privilege, wealth, and power.
Democratizing ownership means giving people the power to decide what’s valuable, what’s collectible, and what feels like home. For the first time, we have an opportunity to collectively co-create and truly co-own our digital landscape.
By creating art, communities, and protocols that we collectively own, we don’t just retain control (though that’s important). We create spaces that start to become our digital homes, spaces that we don’t let rot ‒ but instead tenderly care for.
After all, if their owners don’t take care of them, who will?
Special thank you to David Phelps for wonderful feedback on this piece and inspiring conversations around collective ownership.