The Metaverse is quickly becoming the hottest buzzword in the technologist lingo, as well as every self-respecting advertiser. Still, the word isn't widely understood yet, and for good reason.
Most people see it as some sort of mystical cyber-paradise where consumers will pool together in an escapist dreamscape; free to express themselves, become their ideal self, and most importantly, buy whatever trend the collective consciousness of crypto twitter decides to hype up next.
While this idea may sound enticing to some (especially those of the “pump my bags” variety), it barely touches on what it could come to mean on a wider scale. To explain how the Metaverse is affecting us, and how it will when it comes full force, we must first understand how the average person interacts with brands.
Let’s go back to medieval times. After many-a-days of riding, you come up to an old building sitting by the road. Above the door, you spot a sign with a horse on it - “Le Cheval Blanc”, you’ve finally made it to your destination. A hot stew and a warm bed await you.
Thus did logos originate, the ever-recognizable symbols of the trade for artisans, innkeepers and a myriad other professions. As time went on, craftspeople adopted the brandmark to signify their handiwork, a seal of honor of sorts.
Coming back to modern day, the concept of a brand has evolved past what you do and into how you make people feel. Nike’s image is built around victory, Apple’s around innovation, and Disney has come to own the very concept of storytelling. With just a squiggle on our screens, we’re transported into a world driven by stories, and the brands behind them.
It's no coincidence that the former are among the first brands jumping headfirst into the new digital landscape, having a firm grip on values and influencing people's behavior through products is a tale as old as industry.
In comes the Metaverse.
Sorry to rain on your parade Zuck, but the Metaverse isn't about a 3D zoom call. While our collective dreams have been brought afloat with pictures straight out of “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One”, the Metaverse proper will likely start off looking very different to what you’ve come to envision.
The defining factor is web3, the opportunity to have a distinct digital identity and ownership of the platforms shaping this industry. While this may sound a bit too vague at first, think of how Cookies paved the way for the social graph and web2 as a whole, now extrapolate that into the next step for our online behavior.
While metaversal platforms and protocols already exist without the blockchain, it's only through this piece of infrastructure that our digital paradise has entered the main stage. Without web3, the Metaverse is just another MMO.
Having a digital passport that cryptographically identifies us on every online platform offers the opportunity for brands to act as individuals both IRL and online. And while XR has a huge role to play in the coming of the Metaverse, it’s only a piece of the puzzle.
To understand this, I ask that you imagine what kind of technology would be necessary to simulate a fully immersive virtual world. We're still leagues away from living out our power fantasy while strapped to VR headsets, but there's a way for our Metaverse to become a reality much quicker than we expect. Instead of sending our physical behavior online, how about we bring the online experience to the real world?
We're already seeing the Metaverse's baby steps with the advent of social media, online behavior transforming our primitive hardware. What the buzzword promises is a formalization of this. To understand, take advantage of, and integrate the psychological aspects of digital entities interacting with us in the meatspace.
The rise of Youtube brought on an interesting phenomenon to our everyday lives, one that can paint a better picture at what could happen once brands become entities on the physical plane: Parasocial Relationships.
The dictionary defines them as “a relationship that a person imagines having with another person whom they do not actually know”. This misses the point entirely. Parasocial Relationships aren't just an imagined relationship, they're a one sided-exchange of value, similar to how Web1 brands could announce their products into the ether and web2 brought on your ability to talk back.
Disney princesses have a significant impact on our everyday lives, as well as Hollywood’s latest batch of celebrities. While you may not know them in real life, you’re still immersed in their lives, you feel their highs and lows, and care about them as deeply as some of your closest friends and family members.
The same has happened on the web with our interaction with content creators, enormous brands have arisen through the concept of a tribe. We make one-sided connections with our favorite creators. While this phenomenon has been regarded as damaging to a person’s everyday life, and led to the term becoming a slur of sorts, human connection, of any kind, shouldn’t be brushed off so easily.
The “relationship” part of parasocial relationships has led to amazing change in our world. It’s what helped Britney Spears claim her freedom after a decade of being oppressed by her father, what sparked the social movements of our time, and what I’d argue has led to the ownership economy we’re seeing bloom in the past few years.
With the arrival of the Metaverse, we’re very likely to see this type of connection happen in a more center-stage position. To make it in the space between the digital and physical, you must learn to harness the power of empathy and pack-bonding that lie at the core of every human being.
You might think this sounds dystopian, and I don’t blame you. If brands were given this power to manipulate people’s emotions, our world could very quickly turn into every VR fantasy’s nightmare.
This is where web3 comes into place as the key mindset that will unlock the true potential of our Metaverse. There’s no need to fear the giants if your voice speaks louder than theirs. Brands might have the power to move the masses through their stories, but people have the power of shaping the story and uncovering the truth behind them.
If recent times show any indication of how this will shape up in the coming years, there’s one thing I can know with certainty. Being disingenuous in this space will lead you nowhere. You might get some wins with name alone, but looking at it long term, only the people who are capable of building a sustainable and honest community will stand the test of time when the gimmick phase of this industry comes to pass.
We’ve seen big names try and fail at cashing out on this space’s optimism. Launching million-dollar collectibles in a matter of weeks, and soon after leaving never to be heard from again. This may feel pessimistic at the moment, but it also reveals what will likely happen in the fight for the open Metaverse.
When your opponent is too short-sighted to build a narrative that people can get behind. The end result will always be rejection. You don’t want to be the brand that thought of this space as a fad and played your hand too soon.
To make a lasting impact and build a brand people can identify as, you’ll need to take a page from this space’s pioneers. Interact with people, be transparent, rally your folks towards a common mission. Don't talk the talk if you're not going to walk the walk, every lie has on-chain proof, and people are becoming savvyer to low-effort scams.
Embrace your stories, and let your audience join you in the journey.
What does every “blue-chip” NFT project have in common? It isn't a so-called community as many would lead you to believe, it's agency. The power to not only own, but shape a brand, to share your ideas and make them have an impact in something bigger than yourself.
When the bubble bursts on the collectible scene, the projects that stick around and go on to become international phenomena will do so through the power of memes, fanart, CC0 and around 10 thousand independent creators acting under a single banner.
Just take a look around twitter to see this happening in real time, you can already tell a distinct personality based on a person's profile picture. Punks, Apes, Cats, you name it; they all have developed a hive-mind of sorts that sets their tribe apart from everyone else. I expect this to exacerbate as time goes on, similar to how you can learn from a person's identity through their clothes and the car they drive.
Now the question becomes: If you had an army of brand advocates adding value, what purpose do your logo and style guides serve? Coming back to the medieval inn example, did you sleep there because of the sign out front, or because Joe the innkeeper and Mary the bartender built rapport with you and your friends over the course of decades?
Content, service, and word of mouth are the rule of the land in the open and free Metaverse. Brands that use this new frontier as an advertising opportunity will be met with disgust. The few brands who've launched branded projects on the blockchain have met success based exclusively on the story they've been telling for years, not because their customers identify with them. Show me a person using their Pepsi NFT or Adidas BAYC collectible as a profile picture, and I'll show you someone who bought in just for the expectation of prices going up.
Our current data paradigm is the writing on the wall for traditional advertising, in order to make it in a world where users control their information through open ledgers, brands must lean into stories and tribes. Aim to inspire, not to manipulate.
There isn't a more powerful force in this world than that of people building together towards something they care about.
Brands are transforming from faceless entities and into dynamic characters with a personality of their own. Their users will become evangelists more than ever before if you play your cards right. The ownership economy welcomes any player willing to play by the rules, that is, anyone not looking to just exploit them.
The roadmap is still being built as we speak, but the direction is there. For a brand to succeed at the crossroads between the digital and physical, it must learn to let go of their old ways and learn to collaborate with their advocates. If the word “consumer” is becoming obsolete in exchange for “prosumers”, then what happens when the prosumer gets an active role in shaping the way your brand presents itself to the world?
Plato’s allegory of the cave speaks of a world of archetypes casting the shadow of real world beings. When the line between reality and virtual becomes blurred, the people become demiurges to your story.