I have a great deal of respect and admiration for those people who create metaverse-themed video essays and documentaries on YouTube. I simply don’t have the time and energy at this point in my life to fiddle with video editing software, and I don’t particularly consider myself photogenic enough to put my face on your screen! So today, I want to introduce you to two new (and very different!) documentaries about the metaverse, by two creators whom I admire.
A little over a year ago, I blogged about Straszfilm’s thoughtful and nostalgic video essay on Active Worlds, which can be considered the granddaddy of virtual worlds, founded on June 28th, 1995, and somehow still limping along 27-¾ years later. Well, Strasz (a.k.a. Chris Hornyak) is back with a second video essay about another almost-forgotten virtual world, There, in a video cleverly titled Nobody’s There: The First Failed Metaverse (I wrote about There on my blog here). And, as a fellow virtual worlds nerd myself, I really enjoyed it!
There has to go down as one of the worst possible names for a virtual world—something which becomes rapidly apparent when you try to search on Google for it. In his video essay, he compares and contrasts There with another virtual world started around the same time, Second Life. I recommend Strasz’s video because of his insightful commentary on why There ultimately failed, tying the discussion to Second Life and to the newer NFT metaverse platforms. Here’s a representative extract (but watch the whole 45-minute video, it’s great!):
It is utterly bizarre to me to look back on this almost two decades later for a bunch of interconnecting reasons. Obviously, the concept of buying digital goods isn’t new or interesting now. But in 2003, it absolutely was. Almost bizarrely so. It’s wild to read journalists fawning over buying Levi’s for your avatar [in There] in a time when buying actual Levi’s online was so new. It’s almost unbelievable, and I mean that in a very literal sense. So, just for a second, imagine taking that out-there idea and then deciding that you were going to build an online 3D chat program on it in 2003…While this sort of thing is a little more acceptable today, it’s still readily mocked, and for a pretty good reason. I was recently interviewed in Esquire for a story about virtual fashion in the metaverse. During that discussion, the concept of NFT clothing came up, or just metaversal clothing in general.
Fashion is expression. With it you can quickly communicate who you are to the world…Yet, in the real world, that expression is always a bit limited…On the internet, especially in 3D social places, you were free from those boundaries. You can be anything, you can wear anything. And yet, it’s in that context that folks have stood back, folded their arms, and gone, “Hey, what people really want to do is own things.” It’s so utterly bizzare to think that, in the period I’m writing this, places like Decentraland and The Sandbox are being widely mocked for the very same sort of attitude. These places took one look at past and current virtual spaces that exist, and essentially just tossed all the creativity and novelty to the side, somehow coming out the other end thinking that the most important part of a seemingly post-scarcity virtual world is owning something…
To be clear, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with designers being paid. When someone in Second Life makes a piece of clothing for others to wear, or someone makes a model in VRChat, I think it’s important that those people get paid for their labour. Yet, when a big fashion brand comes in, it feels like you’re not paying for their handiwork, but rather the opportunity to paste a digital logo on your avatar. I mean, at least with IRL fashion, outrageous pricing is justified by craftsmanship, aesthetic leadership, small product runs, and exotic materials. But here, in this 3D space, there is limitless possibility, and we’re deciding to celebrate that by selling branded jean textures?
Of course, none of this worked. It didn’t work in There, and it isn’t working now. It would be fair to say that, in the last few months, the NFT market has just completely cratered. Just like with There, creators of these new technologies seem to have missed the part about people having to want to spend money before they, well, spend money. You have to be making something desirable before actual humans want to buy it.
There, as well as every metaverse/NFT/Web3 project or whatever, both fundamentally made the same mistake. They just didn’t pause to try and understand why people will dress up their avatars, or spend time in these spaces. It’s not just the peacock, it’s because it’s fun! It’s expression in its purest form. It’s finding your, well, YOU, then hanging out with other people who were doing the same.
In other words, it’s about the community and community-building first, with fashion as a secondary add-on, not the other way around! Second Life started as a place for people to gather, make friends, and form communities first. I was around during the big corporate boom in 2007 when companies like Playboy trooped into SL, set up shop, and tried to sell branded products. In all cases, these companies eventually left, because they didn’t understand what Second Life was all about. First you have to have places like role-play communities spring up, which then organically leads to things like stores selling medieval role-play outfits! Putting the sales cart before the community horse (for example, in Decentraland) doesn’t tend to lead to engaging metaverse platforms, which keep people coming back.
Speaking of Decentraland, last night I watched the latest documentary by Dan Olson, whose YouTube channel, Folding Ideas, is well-known for his year-old video critique on blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (a.k.a. NFTs), titled Line Goes Up, which has racked up over 10 million views to date. Dan’s latest video essay is a nearly two-hour-long documentary about Decentraland titled The Future is a Dead Mall – Decentraland and the Metaverse, and it’s two hours very well spent!
Dan’s documentary, split into six chapters, is an intelligent dissection of the concept of the metaverse in general, and Decentraland in particular. He is obviously extremely well-read, citing a wide variety of sources, including Ryan Bolger’s concept of reified space and Johan Huizinga’s concept of the “magic circle”, in this video. Dan is someone who has clearly put a lot of research into this work, and it shows!
Like Straz, Dan casts a very critical eye upon recent corporate forays into the metaverse, remarking on Lindt’s virtual chocolate store in one section of his video as follows:
…[T]he whole of it is elevated to transcendental when you see the actual thing that they’re describing: a laggy, hideous, cheap, faux-3D website that would probably be a camp hit if it were pitched instead as a throwback to FMV video games from the 90s….The vast majority of these so-called metaverse offerings are virtual spaces only insofar as they are painted to resemble a store. We already tried this 25 years ago, and discarded it because it turns out the human brain can shop from a list of items or a grid of photos far better than in can from an imagemap photo of a display case.
However, the main part of this documentary is a devastatingly detailed critique of everything that’s wrong with Decentraland. Having followed the Decentraland saga almost from the beginning back in 2018 on my blog, I already knew most of this, but it’s a truly a joy to watch Dan do such a wonderful job of pulling everything together into such a neat package, with a bow on top! I highly recommend this documentary.
Among other topics, Dan Olson discusses the many corporate (mis)adventures in Decentraland, as well as a lawyer’s office that is really nothing more than a (presumably) expensive three-dimensional brochure with links to outside websites like Facebook. He critiques the Decentraland Report news site at great length. He also talks about marquee events such as the Metaverse Fashion Week and the Metaverse Music Festival, and he takes a whole chapter in his video essay to dissect, at length, Decentraland’s somewhat byzantine DAO or governance structure.
Dan sums up his tour-de-force opus with the following summary, again referring to Huizinga’s magic circle:
So the authors of Decentraland, its creators and users, paint a magic circle around it with a narrative of inevitability, a narrative of the metaverse, a narrative of a true, separate, new world that you will eventually move your life into. Because if your neighbours aren’t going to eventually be compelled to be here tomorrow, why would you ever want this today?
Decentraland is, at every level, a collective fairy tale. Just people playing pretend… Whether it be the Pedigree Fosterverse scraping data from Adopt a Pet, users playing lawyer in their corporate offices or purporting to be the future of news, Decentraland’s value to businesses is patently absurd. And, as we’ve seen, even its decentralized premise is a fantasy. The DAO has no authority and is comically hapless—content to play politics, all the while pretending they have a stake in a billion dollar product. And it’s not enough to convince themselves, they need to convince you. So that is what they do by any means necessary. They will pander, mislead, outright lie—whatever it takes for you to buy into their narrative. Because this only makes sense from inside the circle.
Decentraland is a farce and a tragedy. It is painted into a corner by a combination of ineptitude and inherently bad ideas, and it cannot escape its fundamental being. Whatever other ideals are spit out, whatever rhetoric about liberation or political experimentation is employed, the simple fact that it was materially born as a pre-sale of lots of “land” based on a fiction of people “moving in” sets off a chain of decisions and incentives about design and functionality that bind it, forever, to being little more than a fantasy real estate scheme, an endless world of uniquely scarce dead malls.
So, go pop some popcorn, perhaps grab some wine to go with it, and settle in for a some entertaining and enlightening videos about the metaverse! And please, leave a comment on the videos, and tell’em Ryan sent you. 😉