The "metaverse" is not the "metaverse"

Viewing the contemporary conversation on the "metaverse" through the dystopian lens of Snow Crash.

The "metaverse" is not the "metaverse"

It's pretty difficult to spend more than a few minutes anywhere on the internet today without tripping over another mention of the metaverse. These have become even more pervasive since Facebook decided to co-opt a portion of this phrase and create their parent company Meta.

It's generally quite well known that the term metaverse was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian science-fiction novel Snow Crash. The book is fascinating for many reasons including how it explores virtual reality, digital currency, migratory and transient identity, among other topics, and has caught the fascination of technology leaders, cypherpunks and readers like me.

What I find missing in most current references to the metaverse is that they exclude all the dystopian elements that Stephenson depicted throughout his book. The metaverse as its described in popular culture today is missing a lot of context in which the metaverse existed in the world of  Snow Crash.

And while that's fine and good, terms don't need to remain static for eternity, the only thing that's constant is change and all that, I do think being rooted in some historic context is important, and can be instructive.

I thought it might be interesting to observe the metaverse, not in the currently popular context of virtual (Oculus-ish) or voxel centric spaces but in the context of the original dystopian novel.

For brands trying to experiment with today's definitions of the metaverse, there are likely valuable observations to be considered on both the virtual ("metaverse") and physical ("flatland") aspects of Snow Crash since neither can really be thought about in isolation.

This is not intended to be a holistic analysis or critical review of the book and Stephenson's world but three broad themes that I think are worth thinking through when we the word "metaverse" is hurled at us from every direction.

1. Plural and/or decentralized

Relatively early in the book, Stephenson introduces the concept of FOQNEs, franchise operated quasi national entities. This is a dystopian depiction of how nation states operate in the imagined reality of Snow Crash. A FOQNE is a non-contiguous piece of land that exists within a larger land mass, say North America, governed by a parent corporate entity. Some of these parent entities have names like Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, Novo Sicilia, Caymans Plus, or New South Africa. This is sci-fi satire meant to depict a form of political collapse and a future governed at least partially by corporate controlled mobs.

Note that the metaverse existed in the book as a virtual escape from this strange reality. FOQNEs describe how the physical world operated and users plugged into the virtual metaverse when they wanted to to live somewhat alternate lives.

Being an optimist, I don't foresee anything quite this extreme happening in our physical world in the next few decades (fingers crossed), but this is quite a useful way to think about the virtual spaces that we are popularly calling the metaverse today.

While Stephenson's Metaverse was this singular universal entity you could plug into, the virtual spaces being built today look a little more like a virtual version of FOQNE's albeit without the extreme dystopia and lawlessness. This may not be terribly easy to imagine without reading the book so perhaps the simplified image below will help. Each grey circle is meant to represent a landmass in Stephenson's depiction with the colored circles within them depicting franchise operated regions. Each franchise may own and operate property in multiple geographical landmasses.

If we now think about current day 2022, the parallel I'm drawing here is between the landmasses in Snow Crash and virtual online spaces. Similarly between FOQNEs and brands. The brands trying to create a presence in these virtual spaces. So if you think of a virtual space like Decentraland or Roblox you may get a sense of plural and decentralized aspect of the challenge. Today Decentraland and Roblox are the different grey circles and each brand trying to create a presence in their virtual worlds is one of the colored circles. Lets imagine a brand like Nike is the blue circle. This means Nike might need to exist in each one of those grey circles to say they have a significant presence in the metaverse (or they buy an NFT studio that helps them do this).

Of course you could make a bet on one platform or virtual space succeeding but that's a risk given how fast things are moving and how unclear the future is. The flip side is that whether you're a brand or an individual, attempting to play in many of these spaces could be a time and capital intensive activity.

Some of the many metaverses

There might perhaps be a winner-take-most future where only a few of these end up dominating but if the web3 space has the traction it's proponents hope for, and if digital assets more popularly take the form of tradeable NFTs on permissionless blockchains, brands are going to need to account for a plural existence where they have spaces, customers, products and assets scattered not in one "Metaverse" but in this web of virtual spaces.

This has important implications for everything from design to intellectual property to interoperatability to attention and identity (which I'll explore next).

2. Migratory and pseudonymous identity

Snow Crash raises questions of identity that are becoming more and more relevant in our virtual spaces today.

The business card of the primary protagonist in Snow Crash

Most of us largely live an existence where our identity is tied to our real names. A government ID like a passport or driver’s license governs most of where we go and what we can do. But as we think about our evolving virtual spaces migratory and pseudonymous identity are continuing to become very relevant. With this it's pretty important for brands to think about how they are going to bridge between worlds, not just the different virtual worlds, but also the physical and online worlds (though I know that distinction is rather tenuous in reality).

A tweet from Balaji Srinivasan showing the team of the decentralized exchange Sushiswap, many of who operated pseudonymously

This is not purely a technical challenge though I'll go into that aspect in a minute too. There's a cultural challenge here too that maybe hard to navigate. In an era where individuals are taking privacy a lot more seriously can we afford to assume that our future involves one identity to rule them all?

Eyal Shay shared this interesting observation about how in Ethiopia each child is called a different nickname by different family members. This is different from the core challenge I'm describing here but a helpful way to reframe the conversation on identity. We could better understand the idea of identity being migratory, plural, and often pseudonymous by studying representations across history and cultures in this vein. We should think about we can allow for such affordances in the virtual spaces that we are calling the metaverse with the option to migrate from one to the other, not only with minimal friction but also allowing people to determine how much or what parts of their identity they want to take to these different spaces.

Of course, there is, as I mentioned also the technical challenge. Handling identity and sign-on isn't a trivial thing. I'm reminded of this almost every single day.

In this regard, there are some interesting things happening that I'm enjoying. If you've played around a little in the crypto space you've been able to log on to a host of sites with your Ethereum address, without need for your real name, email address or any connection to what you look like. This isn't ideal for a brand that wants a user's email address to mail them offers and such but it is one option that may allow you transact across different virtual spaces.

This is just one option that has gained traction in the past couple years and is part of the larger question on how brands will plan for a multi-identity future. This has implications on a whole of things including how tracking and targeting in the advertising world work, loyalty programs and community building.

Creators and brands in the web3 space are using NFTs as one way to traverse this. A holder of the token (popularly images today) is part of the brand or creator's ecosystem who they can communicate with, share projects with and who's loyalty they can reward. While most of the world is distracted (or annoyed) by the image/art NFT scene there's a lot more experimentation happening here and anyone thinking about or participating in anything surrounding the metaverse will need to start paying attention and more importantly experiment themselves.

3. Alternate/digital currency

If there is one positive externality of the polarizing nature of the cryptocurrency discourse it's that this aspect of Snow Crash has a good amount of attention, both good and bad. In the book Stephenson popularized the idea of alternate and digital currencies. One example was Kongbucks the currency of one of the FOQNEs, Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong. We can see this play out in the metaverse conversation with different platforms having their own currency like Robux (Roblox) or Mana (Decentraland).

Today, fiat currency, whether that's the US dollar or the Euro are the primary on-ramp to everything else and they may perhaps continue to be for decades to come. But that still raises the question for brands playing in the "metaverse" on how they will want or need to transact. Perhaps this becomes more and more seamless technically. I can swap betweeen ETH and MANA or USDC quite seamlessly using Uniswap. But that still involves me needing more than just a bank account or a credit card if I wanted to buy something.

For brands who want their customers to transact on their metaverse storefronts this means the added work of educating their customers on the on-ramp and off-ramp process, if and why they need different currencies, wallet security, anti-phishing among other things.

Of course the future may involve a streamlining of the financial infrastructure surrounding these metaverse-ish platforms and maybe brands in 2030 only need to care about USD and its fiat ilk but if the decentralized space maintains the traction it has this will continue to be a topic that carry weight. The recent Biden executive order on digital asssets and currencies seemed to indicate the U.S. government is taking this space seriously, not just to protect consumers from grifts and scams, but also to maintain their (supposed) global position of technological and financial leadership. To me, this seems like a sign that while the technology and infrastructure may eventually get easier to use the future involves one with alternatives.

Ok so a lot of this does sound like doom, gloom, complexity and chaos, which really was a lot of the essence of Snow Crash and the context in which Stephenson's metaverse existed. But with that said, I want to end on a slightly more optimistic note. As you can probably tell I'm sometimes annoyed by the constant references to the metaverse but I don't want to give the impression that I'm vehemently opposed to the concept and what some of the many companies working in this space are trying to create.

On the whole, while the rest of this piece may not represent it, I'm pretty excited by a lot of the experimentation happening in this space. Ben Thompson had a great interview [likely paywalled] with Roblox CEO David Baszucki recently that capture a few reasons why.

Baszucki started Roblox in 2004 so he has more experience than most building for something like this. One thing he called out clearly was the focus on storytelling and the evolution of ways we tell stories. If we stop seeing whatever we are calling the metaverse as a replacement to the rest of our lives but an evolution of connection and storytelling this creates a subtle but powerful reframe and something I think deserves more conversation.  

“We have seen an evolution in both communication and storytelling, as supported by technology, that both have been inexorable. And on the storytelling side, whether it started 100,000 years ago sitting around the campfire, and migrated to cave art and oil painting and photography, and then the movies, and what we call 3D movies today, we’re always wanting richer ways of telling stories.”

This brings another degree of optionality for brands in how they tell their story for a variety of audiences and that is pretty exciting.

On a much more important note though and one where I'll try to end. As it relates to individual humans and communities of humans one optimistic end goal of the idea of the metaverse is that you get to choose which parts of yourself you bring to different spaces and conversations. Humans beings are complex and our current models of identity don't accomodate for this complexity too well. Social media platforms started to solve for connection but by forcing their singular definitions of identity created a system that has become stifling for many with control largely remaining with the platforms.

A positive sum, plural, identity and optionality rich metaverse may take us towards a future where we can bring the best parts of ourselves to different spaces, build unique forms of connection and tell richer stories than we can today.