A Note on Terminology

People in the tech community have been using the phrase “read write own” since at least 2016 to describe the progression of the internet through three eras, each defined by a new capability for users. (If anyone is aware of earlier mentions, please let me know.)

The phrase is an extension of early 2000s-era descriptions of the web as “read-write”, which evolved from language Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, long used to articulate his vision for online interactivity. Alan Turing’s famous 1936 definition of a computer as a “state machine” that can scan and write, represents an intellectual forebear. Perhaps the earliest usage of the three terms in a computing context dates to 1971, when AT&T introduced the Unix operating system along with commands that enabled programmers to set file owners and change digital permissions to “read”, “write”, or “execute”.

I chose Read Write Own as the title for my book because I, like other people who subscribe to the worldview the phrase embodies, see the history of the internet as a three-act play.

  • The first act, called the “read era”, circa 1990-2005, democratized information. Anyone could type a few words into a browser and read about almost any topic through websites.
  • The second act, the “read-write era”, roughly 2006-2020, democratized publishing. Anyone could write and publish to mass audiences on social networks and other services through posts.
  • The third act, the “read-write-own era”, 2020-present, is democratizing ownership. Anyone can become a stakeholder in a digital service or network, gaining power, governance rights, and economic upside previously reserved for only a small number of corporate affiliates, like stockholders and employees.

The technology that makes the internet’s latest act possible is blockchains: computers that can, for the first time ever, make strong commitments about their future behavior. Bitcoin pioneered the first blockchain for a financial application, cryptocurrency, in 2009. Ethereum and other blockchains have since generalized the technology – and the closely related concept of tokens – to power many more kinds of services, including social networks, game worlds, marketplaces, and more.

The terminology to describe this new software movement is still in flux. Some people call it “crypto,” since its foundations rest on cryptography. Others call it “web3,” a nod to the internet’s latest act. I prefer the framework “read-write-own” because it encapsulates the big ideas behind the internet’s three-era arc, while conveying how essential the concept of ownership is to the new era.

You can read and write on the internet, and you can also now own – an ability that can help us build a better internet.