Editorial: Why Focusing Exclusively on Blockchain-Based Metaverse Platforms Ignores the Bigger Picture, and the Rich and Vibrant History of Social VR and Virtual Worlds

Have you also read: The Problem with NFTs: the Growing Push-Back from People Who Are Sick and Tired of the Current NFT Craze?

As I wrote a couple of days ago, I am angry—mostly about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and our failures in dealing with it, both at the individual and societal levels. I’m also angry at myself for my own personal failings in navigating through these past two years of pain and chaos, trying to find a way forward in these unprecedented, heartbreaking, soul-destroying times.

But that’s not the only thing that has me irked, peeved, and annoyed me lately. So buckle up, because I have some opinions to share…I’ve been meaning to write this editorial for a long while.

A couple of days ago, I saw via a tweet that Cathy Hackl (a tech pundit who has dubbed herself “the Godmother of the Metaverse” in her Twitter profile) had been named Dean of something called the Repulic Realm Academy, which I had not heard of before. Intrigued, I began my investigation by visiting the Republic Realm website.

Featuring a trailer of footage compiled from various blockchain-based platforms (I recognized a couple, such as Decentraland and the Sandbox), the website states:

Developing the metaverse: Investment, development & infrastructure innovation across the global metaverse & NFT ecosystem.

Republic Realm is one of the most active investors in and developers of the metaverse real estate ecosystem.

We invest in, manage, and develop assets including NFTs, virtual real estate, metaverse platforms, gaming, and infrastructure. Today, we are among the largest landowners in Axie Infinity, Decentraland, The Sandbox and Treeverse.

We have holdings in 24 metaverse platforms and own over 3,000 NFTs. 

We develop our own metaverse real estate NFT projects, including:

• Metajuku, the first metaverse shopping mall with retail tenants and leases 
• Fantasy Islands, a luxury, master-planned real estate development in the Sandbox metaverse, and
• Republic Realm Academy, the first online university set in the metaverse and driven completely by tuition NFTs.

(“The first metaverse shopping mall with retail tenants and leases”? *cough*Second Life*cough*cough*)

Taking a look at the web page describing the Republic Realm Academy, you get the following slickly-produced, 40-second promotional video…

…as well as the following explanation of what the Academy is supposed to be all about:


What is Republic Realm Academy?

Republic Realm Academy is a series of online courses about the metaverse and NFTs. Courses will be taught by multidisciplinary educators hailing from some of the most prestigious universities in the world alongside top industry professionals in web 3.0 technologies. After completing the coursework, students will earn a certificate in Metaverse Technologies and become a permanent part of the Republic Realm Academy alumni network.

Renowned metaverse expert Cathy Hackl is the dean of Republic Realm Academy.

Why Republic Realm Academy?

Republic Realm Academy is a place for people to learn and collaborate about the metaverse and NFTs, built for the metaverse in the metaverse by metaverse experts. Republic Realm Academy makes highly technical concepts easy to understand.

Apparently, they have set up a virtual campus in the blockchain-based social VR platform Somnium Space, and Somnium Space CEO Artur Sychov himself will be teaching “a class at the Academy about VR and the future of the metaverse:”

Tuition for four weeks, which includes a “limited edition Republic Realm Academy NFT Tuition Badge”, which will “be your campus ID card and unlock all Republic Realm Academy resources and initiatives at the start of the term”, six online courses, plus “limited office hours with professors, subject to availability”, costs US$1,000.

Taking a good look at the entire Republic Realm website leaves me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here’s a sample blogpost from their blog, touting their “2021 Metaverse Real Estate Report”, with the following illustrations:

Image source
Image source

Notice anything interesting about what platforms are discussed, and which are ignored?

A relative newcomer to the concept of the metaverse would be forgiven if, after coming away from this website, believing that the metaverse solely consisted of platforms which incorporated blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs)! And I, as well as countless others who have been working in social VR platforms and virtual worlds for literally decades, are starting to get a little pissed off at this myopic viewpoint (VRChat even felt forced to issue an official statement today).

More and more often lately, I am seeing the term metaverse being used ***ONLY*** to refer to blockchain-based platforms, and NFT-based virtual real estate, as if the previous quarter-century of metaverse history had never existed! (I take my start date as June 28th, 1995, when Active Worlds was launched.) Those of us who know better have been watching all this NFT metaverse madness unfold and grow steam since Facebook’s pivot to Meta, and now it seems as though the blockchain bros (and women!) have completely taken up all the air in the room.

Let’s face it: it’s to Cathy’s and Artur’s and so many other people’s advantage to sell (and yes, I deliberately use the word sell) as many people as they can on this frankly blinkered perspective on the metaverse—even to the point of offering thousand-dollar certificates for things could probably be learned just as easily from others for free! The overall messaging here is that the non-blockchain-based metaverse platforms which predate this boom in artificially-scarce NFT-based real estate are simply not worth bothering with or investing in.

I am officially fed up, and I think it’s high time that those of us who were the true pioneers begin to push back on this narrative. There’s a whole history of the metaverse which is being completely ignored, as if it never existed. And that’s wrong. There are valuable lessons to be learned here from those who went before, which are being forgotten in the current greed-driven gold rush of the NFT metaverse.

Enough is enough of this deliberately misleading view of what the metaverse is. What good is a “2021 Metaverse Real Estate Report” which completely ignores one of the biggest success stories of the past two decades, Second Life, simply because it doesn’t have NFT-based real estate which can be inspected via the blockchain? Or the absolutely incredible content creators working in places like VRChat, AltspaceVR, ENGAGE, NeosVR* and countless other successful platforms?

This is just too simplistic a picture to paint, and if I have to haul myself up on stage in every single goddamn metaverse-themed room on Clubhouse to remind people, once again, that there is more to the metaverse that just the blockchain and NFTs, then I will.

Look, I am not opposed to the idea of a blockchain-based metaverse. I’m not opposed to NFT-based virtual real estate. I’m not even opposed to selling thousand-dollar courses to people! But I am getting rather angry that so many people are deliberately focusing on just one segment of the rich and vibrant history of social VR and virtual worlds, to the exclusion of all others. There are many ways to organize and run a metaverse, not just on the blockchain! And this perspective overlooks all the work that is being done on dozens of useful and popular metaverse platforms, which do not use cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens.

*Note that while NeosVR does have an associated cryptocurrency (NCR), it does not have NFT-based virtual land sales, a key distinction.