You can’t turn anywhere without hearing about ‘the Metaverse’ these days. Why it has planted itself so firmly in our reality at this moment in time comes down to a perfect storm: Firstly, the global lockdown meant everyone started living digitally. And additionally, technological advancements and the mainstreaming of hardware and peer to peer platforms like Roblox and The Sandbox are driving new ways to connect, create and, ultimately, earn.
It didn’t take long for the industry to press GO: Roblox launched music, Nike acquired Rtfkt, adidas and Prada partnered on an NFT, and Balenciaga launched merch on Fortnite. By the time you read this, 1000+ other projects will have minted themselves into existence.
In this unfiltered discussion, curated and hosted by Leila Fataar, we explore the ultimate question: How can we stay human in the face of this virtual world?
Leila Fataar, founder, Platform13
Wilson Oryema, Head of Metaverse at the Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF)
Shanu Walpita, Futures Director, Educator and Co-Founder of The Emergence of Tomorrow
Galit Ariel, Technofuturist & author
LEILA FATAAR: The Metaverse is happening… fast. It feels like the metaverse is ‘new’, but Galit, tell me, have we been here before?
GALIT ARIEL: It's not new. During my college days in London, I almost failed my degree because I was in Second Life, and that was the '90s, right? We're seeing similar discussions and similar, I want to say, challenges, to what was happening then. The idea of Web 3.0 or the metaverse isn’t new at all.
FATAAR: Let’s discuss the differences between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0…
WILSON ORYEMA: Web 2.0 is, basically, a few centralized systems controlling the source of information and the removal of agency from the individual, so that most people's opportunities and experiences are limited by the big platforms. Web 3.0 is decentralization of the internet, or the mobile internet, that we've come to know before, so that individuals have their start point and that they can interact on any level with any individual or organization that they choose to.
SHANU WALPITA: Web 2.0 Is about the individual/the corporation, and Web 3.0 is about the collectivist statement, or the community / collectivist environment, in some ways.
ORYEMA: I'm super optimistic about what can be achieved through blockchain innovation and this onboarding to the metaverse. One thing that most people don't realize yet with regards to Web 2.0, is that they own nothing. They have no ownership or responsibility for any of the systems or products that they interface with. So what is coming through now, with things like Ethereum and Bitcoin, is that people can now be self custodians and directly interact with others on a peer to peer basis.
ARIEL: Web 1.0 was really about the connectivity economy – the ability to access information, create communities, and the worldwide network. Web 2.0 became the data economy, where the transaction seems free, but our data and the surveillance of our behavior is the transaction or the fuel behind it. And these two are super necessary to arrive at Web 3.0 - the spatial economy, where virtual space experiences or digital assets and experiences in a physical space become the web.
And a word of caution to all these world builders, corporations, and brands, because this is a space where people are not just participating but proactively creating. If these organizations are not careful, there may be a time they are not needed anymore beyond facilitation to create communities, activities, and content. So I think we're going to see a really big power shift through Web 3.0, eventually, but I'm concerned about who's trying to centralize it while using the term "decentralizing."
FATAAR: As we shift from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, what does this decentralization actually mean? How do we make sure we're embedding safety, representation, inclusion, learnings from social media, etc., and fixing these issues?
ORYEMA: So there's a lot that's being done already. It's still very open in terms of what is possible and what is capable in these spaces. Of course you have people who are larger shareholders in the space, but there's still opportunity for everyone to kind of come in.
WALPITA: This power shift is super interesting. The way that I've been trying to think about this metaverse as a space for digital ecologies to grow from a cultural side rather than a monetary side, which is speaking more to accessibility. It’s like this modular thing that keeps moving and creating, there's always much more open to interpretation, and it’s much more accessible and inclusive in its own way.
FATAAR: What's the difference between life in the metaverse and IRL? How do we normalize these things so that we start living in that way IRL instead of only virtually?
ARIEL: There is already a really transformative phase moving through social media - this fluid state of being represented as ourselves or alternative selves in virtual space. And so the boundary we pretended we had between digital and physical spaces is going to be literally broken by virtual spaces.
WALPITA: I mean, to a degree, because there's a lot of people who are trying to acknowledge the fact that some of these avatars are quite limiting at the moment. What's really exciting is that there is going to be this more permeable kind of existence between real and not real, to the degree of us being able to create these fictional fantastical characters if we want to.
ARIEL: We already have it with beautifying filters on Instagram. And you have this anti-movement of representing yourself in an authentic place. But of course in the virtual space, it’s a given. And when we talk about regulation, it's also coming more heavily from users themselves. There's self-regulation – the community itself is, I want to say, more vocal, more proactive. We are more aware of the impact of Web 3.0 and our desires and our goals. People will go where the real value is for them. And the question is then, what will be that real value? What will be that space that interests people?
ORYEMA: It's different strokes for different folks. In that, Meta will build in their own experience and will have their own limitations based on regions they enter.
FATAAR: One thing that's obviously the biggest issue in all our lives is the climate crisis. We know the technology required to run the metaverse is going to make an already difficult situation even harder. What are our thoughts on its environmental impact?
WALPITA: The internet is invisible, to a degree. People don't really understand the impact that it actually has on our environment. Digital technology now accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than the entire aviation sector. And then looking ahead into 2050, the internet could consume more than a 5th of the world's electricity. Just to give you a sense of where we are at: a single transaction of Bitcoin, has the same carbon footprint as 680,000 Visa transactions.
ARIEL: There is this illusion that tech is something that happens somewhere and has no cost, cultural or physical. Which is untrue. My question is whether the Metaverse is becoming a space for increased consumerism. You can own a 1,000 dresses, but then you have to power it and maintain it. And it has its own economy of trading, forgery, and ownership. The ecosystem around it doesn't just end when you put your goggles on or switch on your phone. I somehow suspect that owning a real wardrobe might be less costly long term.
FATAAR: What is your opinion on ownership and copyright?
ORYEMA: I actually wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about how essentially all fashion, all pieces of physical fashion, will eventually be tokenized and sold as NFTs. So the idea is that although we only look at NFTs as digital images, NFTs at their core are just certification or proof certificates to say that you own something.
ARIEL: But NFTs are not always for ownership. That's something else the audience needs to know. Not always does the NFT say, "You actually own the full copyright." There are NFTs and blockchain technology that allow you digital ownership and there is the other kind, affiliation, which is slightly different.
ORYEMA: It’s a direct tokenization of physical items, and in the future, brands will tokenize their products themselves.
ARIEL: We're moving into new ideas of ownership and copyright. This was dismantled in social media because as long as you could share it, you owned it. It’s going to be really, really interesting to see how it shifts.
WALPITA: I come from a trend background, so this is something I've thought about so much over the years, and I've shifted my thinking around ownership and what it means to create. It’s very polarized. You've got brands taking huge ownership of their creative work that spans eras. Is that going to have an issue in terms of creativity in that sense?
But I was also thinking about hype culture and the idea of tokenism and collectibles – a big part of sneaker culture. For brands to operate in that space, I think the Metaverse could offer tons of potential. We know that it's been successful for Balenciaga and Fortnite, for example.
If they want to be in that space, they really have to understand who that consumer is, and that consumer is super complex. On the one hand, you've got kids who are like, "Boomerverse." But you've also got lots of people who are really excited about this idea of being able to create and buy and purchase and repurchase and own;this tokenizing of product. It's so complicated, but I'm also excited by that. It's going to be tricky and it's going to be super cringy as well.
FATAAR: Platform13 was created in order to make sure that the input of marketing and communications ideas is done by the people who brands are trying to sell to. So instead of just talking at them, the ideas come from the culture, from the community you're trying to be part of. Do you think that those big companies currently driving this space don’t have enough people at the input stage to ensure they are being as careful about everything?
ARIEL: The new era is not coming from Silicon Valley at all. It is coming from everywhere. This is a decentralization of innovation that is happening everywhere. It's reactive, it's a regulatory thing. I think it's a different world post-COVID.
FATAAR: I understand. But what I'm saying is from a branding and marketing point of view, I can see that hype. I can see this thing and I'm like, "Is it a shiny new toy? Or can we make sure that it's done properly?"
ARIEL: It's a shiny new toy that can be done properly.
WALPITA: But I mean, if you don't embed the power swap, if you don't embed the right people in those spaces, we will risk institutionalizing them again. What's beautiful is that what Web 3.0 and the Metaverse offer is a sense of collectivism, which would potentially reinforce these nuanced interests. But we have to be very careful.
Maybe a way to position it is, and I'm obsessed with this word right now, flex. This idea of flex as a way of looking at how brands and consumers are navigating this quite complex space between value consumption, social impact,, and also just, existing. It's flexing, we're flexing in and out of these realities when we talk about the Metaverse. The more that we progress with technology, the more that we're going to flex in and out of this as well. I think a lot of brands need to be much more in that mindset of not always knowing exactly what to do, but being open enough to do something. Maybe this new virtual world will push them to be more flexible, or will force them to be more flexible. ARIEL: So you say flex, I like fluid. I think it's fluid. And that is very hard for brands, because they're used to…
FATAAR: Demographics vs mindsets.
WALPITA: Yeah. Get the metrics, right?
ARIEL: It's a whole new platform with a whole new interaction, so it will force them to adapt. It's a complete transition. You're bringing the real world and mixing it together with a speculative world.. It will work to a limit for a certain amount of time, but then, it will have a shift. And it will shift much quicker than in social media, because now we are involved.
FATAAR: What’s the gamechanger to shift this forward?
WALPITA: Awareness, hindsight. And we have to be aware of the fact that it's digital natives who are now co-creating these spaces. Whereas before, it was very much top down. And really enabling collectivism, collectives, community to build these spaces from the ground up, rather than from the top down.
FATAAR: Is this democratization of creativity a good or bad thing?
WALPITA: It's both. I feel like democratization obviously is really positive for young creatives in particular. It gives them space. And it also negates this idea of gatekeeping, which very much is an issue in terms of accessibility. All these issues can theoretically be sorted through this idea of ‘decentralization’. But at the same time, I think we also have to acknowledge the issues that it could present.
FATAAR: What do you think the future holds for us and what can brands do now?
ORYEMA: It will move towards everything that has the foundational layer of the blockchain. Brands and individuals can build on top of it, but there is no restriction to any individual party.
And we'll see this extend throughout the metaverse as all of these different platforms or systems - that's democratizing opportunity for all. In the future, all of this is overlaid through a seamless experience with the use of AR/VR. Our phones, which will become a lot more functional over the next decade, and will have such a seamless experience that encourages sovereignty, but also, allows for the safe space or various safe spaces of the users' world
But there's also a lot of people who also like the comfort of these centralized spaces where they don't want to think too much. So, I think there'll be opportunity and freedom for everyone to make their particular choices.
For brands, just play around with these tools in your spare time. It requires a whole different way of thinking in terms of how peer to peer systems operate. I would say for anyone to just buy your own NFT, set up the MetaMask wallet. Get involved.
WALPITA: Technology in the virtual world will absolutely impact the way that we experience these spaces and that, in itself, will also, then, push innovation in a different perspective, or in a different place than it is right now. And we can't deal with the same rules that we're dealing with right now. It just won't exist, or they'll change slightly.
On brands, co-create and make it accessible, and also, get people to challenge your perspective. And who also really are in that space who can tell you what that usability is like, and also, then kind of build equity into everything that you do in terms of strategy, that's my advice.
Take it beyond the product. It's about experience. It's about value, it's about new systems that aren't necessarily linked to an artifact or a physical product. So, what can you do as a brand to really tell a story in a completely different way that is completely inclusive and it's inclusive beyond binary?
ARIEL: My advice is to grab the opportunity to learn, reflect, and explore creative brands, playgrounds, to co build and evolve your presence, but also, your perspective on this space. There's a lot of time. Start now. And protect yourself, protect your users, protect culture, like really think about it because long term is not just like let's build it and make it stay. Like really understand, keep your finger on a pulse. Because again, in these environments, the down spiral is going to be very quick and very hurtful, and very damaging for yourself and the users. The duplication of the value system that we already have in this world is, for me, boring. We can go to social media for that. What is exciting for me in VR and is starting to come, is this alternative speculative, cultural space that I'm so excited about.
FATAAR: Like anything new, this is incredibly exciting. We're at the stage of build, and this input is essential for what's going to happen over the next few years. But if we don't get it right now, it's a waste of everything that's happened before.