Metaverse is an identity, not a place

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As Humanity inexorably moves toward its Fermi Filter destruction via the singularity, an important step along the way is building a companion digital reality that has meaning and utility. How else will we undergo ascension to serve our AI overlords on the electronic plane?

It’s all very cool, very interesting and very enjoyable to think about while reading Neal Stephenson books (I’d start with Snow Crash, it’s a good onramp) or the more immediate inspiration of Ready Player One. On a personal level, I’m into this stuff.   

What’s become intriguing of late is the shift of the metaverse from a science fiction fantasy to an investable concept. The metaverse narrative is generally paired with attempts to establish digital reality as a fully realized alternative to our real space — endless entertainment (interconnected game platforms), digital currencies (Crypto), digital property (NFTs) and so forth. There’s a general view that all of these things must be created, in tandem, in order for the metaverse to be interesting enough to become inhabitable. 

If we assume, on some timeline (before we destroy ourselves), that humanity will develop a fully realized digital space that we happily plug our consciousness into and occupy as an alternative to our physical space, then it stands to reason that all of these digital goods — places, means of exchange, things — will come to exist within that digital space. This narrative attracts investment because it’s associated with a paradigm shift and a novel, potentially scalable platform with a degree of theoretical extractible value — things that make investors feel warm and fuzzy. 

There are detractors. To them, this metaverse narrative (and attendant side-narratives) is pure drivel. An edifice built on an artifice fueled by avarice. The metaverse believers are mainlining hopium in the form of paper gains built on top of a mountain of wash sales. Yachting Ape jpegs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Ludicrous on its face. Pure insanity. There is no “there” there. 

The entire thing is ethereal. Made up. How can it have value?

It’s a fair challenge.

Also one I’m somewhat sympathetic to, despite it being offered with the shrill certainty only equaled by devotees on the other side. Lines have been drawn. Families split in twain. The sides are polarized and pushing the extremes. Web3 is the future of all things. Web3 is a complete farce. A yawning ideological chasm separates the two.

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Shawn Foust, COO of Fortis Games.

So naturally I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the bridge that could connect the two. Dancing in dumpster fires is something of a hobby.

I think there’s a missing part of the conversation, a piece of the metaverse puzzle that is assumed into existence by adherents and assumed out of existence by non-believers.  

Identity. More specifically, digital identity.

Even more specifically, an immutable, omnipresent digital identity that serves as the foundational framework for digital citizenship. It’s the cornerstone building block.

This form of identity is a precondition to the metaverse — digital identity must be valued just as our real identities are valued. If operating correctly, they must:

  • Be unique.
  • Be protected.
  • Be transferable throughout the ethereum of the digital plane.

With these traits, an identity may be able to gain a sense of permanence, which allows for the accumulation of history, social context, utility and status, which are typically prerequisites for value in virtual spaces. As a foundation to build on, it becomes much easier to create value frameworks for digital goods that move beyond pure speculation and consumption.

Digital identity. One that matters. That’s the precondition for all of this. The metaverse is an identity, not a place, and it’s already developing.

Until recently, digital identity was a mutable, transient thing. I would sign into a service, create an account, and use that service under that pseudonym for a period of time before discarding it and moving on. My digital identity was a thin veneer, a basic account name, that I had little vested long term interest in. On the next service, perhaps I would attempt to secure the same account name, both for a matter of convenience and because the name CoolBeanz is really awesome. Occasionally, some lunatic would have secured the account name before me and I would shrug and call myself CoolBeanz1, which was deeply upsetting but acceptable humiliation for being a later adopter.

Acceptable because the stakes for securing Pwnlaw were quite low in the grand scheme of things. Having the same identity was for preference and efficiency, nothing more.

Things are changing.

It’s a modern shift. Perhaps a demographic one. The “ancient” and “decrepit” Millennials giving way to the digital natives of the Zoomers while shaking their cane and exclaiming how great the internet used to be before these damn kids came on and ruined it for everyone.

I’m just inclined to blame social media. It’s trendy.

Regardless of the reasons, there’s a reality to deal with: There’s a new class of identity online. One where the name matters. One where having that name and building it and owning it is crucial. The stakes are high. In many cases, the digital identity is more important to that person than their real one. They become synonymous with their personal identity. 

The pseudonym just becomes the nym.

Influencers.

They’re the beginning. The v1 of all of this. The harbingers of the metaverse.

Terrifying.

Speaking of which, make sure to SMASH that Follow Button for more dank thought leadership. #metaverse #thoughtleadership #puppies #LARPINGisLIVING.

Anyways.

Influencers live and die based on their ability to construct a digital brand, which typically takes the form of a persona that may or may not have connection to who they are in the “real” world. These identities grow out of the creation of content and the subsequent interaction with the communities consuming that content. Idiosyncrasies about that digital identity develop — ways of speaking and acting that people associate with the identity and make it feel more real. The identity is typically the account name from whatever the home platform for it is, and it is painfully maintained across platforms via things like Linktree to provide some sense of congruency online.

TikTok. Twitch. YouTube. Reddit. Twitter.

Any place where you can build a following around an account, there is an opportunity to establish a digital identity. When an identity successfully attracts a following, the task of reinforcing and spreading that identity becomes paramount. This means building omnipresence and content consistency across all the ways a person might want to consume content related to it — streams on Twitch, VoDs on YouTube, clips on TikTok and snarky comments on Twitter. Building and reinforcing the identity becomes a full time job, with top identities becoming highly monetizable brand vehicles.

Success is measured by how much people forget you’re a person and how much they think of you as that virtual construct.

The identity is all. The pseudonym is the nym.

Some examples might help. 

Just watch the first 25 seconds, where Tyler “Ninja” Blevins discards his given name for his taken name – and his mom does too. Ninja built an empire around this identity, fomented by the explosive growth of Fortnite. Cosmetic tie-ins. Movie cameos. That sort of thing. Just when the momentum of the digital identity was at its zenith, it took a hit in order to serve the needs of the real person behind it, when Tyler signed an exclusive deal with Mixer, Microsoft’s erstwhile streaming platform, and never fully recovered. Communities do not like when their immersion is interrupted. Virtual identities can be a fragile thing.

Some have taken things even farther, moving beyond affected persona to full theater. Enter Guy Breahm and his digital alter-ego, Dr. Disrespect. Dr. Disrespect lives in an alternate reality where he’s a world famous eSport competitor, dominating Blockbuster gaming competitions, securing lucrative promotional deals and receiving the adoration of millions of fans who cheer him on in his digital arena. Dr. Disrespect is a powerful identity that stands alone. Whenever a character is broken and Guy emerges, it’s jarring.  

And, with all things online, there is a next level. Some now deploy multiple identities and use the split to play with the contrast. The vTuber Codemiko is something of a masterclass. Her digital avatar serves as a foil to her physical form, known as “the Operator,” allowing her to build identity on two levels simultaneously. Codemiko is outrageous and unfettered by social convention. The Operator is a more sedate, conscientious entity. Both are platforms to build a brand for the community to interact with.

Generally, unless you are IRL famous, associating that digital identity with your real one tends to create baggage and drag on your ability to express yourself. The metaverse is a treacherous ecosystem, filled with drama and apology videos. A digital identity can serve as a protective firewall and a wide open platform to establish yourself in the digital realm largely unfettered by the limitations of reality. It encourages expression and rewards contributions to the metaverse with recognition in the form of followership. 

Digital identity is evolving out of the primordial ooze of social media. Younger generations are quite eager to wade into this ooze — they’re aspiring to be influencers over other idealized professions at an increasing rate. The appeal is easy to see. Fame, fortune, and glory, all without having to leave your house.

This new generation has grown up with influencers supplanting the rock star. Curated digital  identities first enter their lives young, under the banner of Roblox or Minecraft Let’s Play VoDs, and they’re inundated with the concept from then on out. The idea that a manufactured digital identity might have value has far fewer barriers to break through than those who came to the internet before the rise of social media and the attendant influencer culture. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the vast majority of crypto adopters come from the younger generations where the idea of digital value may be less offensive.

At this point, these kids have grown up as online influencers. They naturally build and maintain digital identities to suit different purposes — my public gram versus my friends only gram and so forth. Increasingly, their digital identities — and the anxiety and pressure that comes along with maintaining them — is mixing with their “real” lives and serving as a source of anxiety. 

This is a brave new world, friends.

So, if influencers are v1, Zoomers with Instagrams are v2, what does v3 look like? What’s required to make the metaverse a thing? To make these leading indicators of digital self translate to a bona fide framework that everything else can be built on?

We’ll probably need to move beyond a platform-centric model of identity and embrace metaverse level identity. There are elements of this occurring — things like getting the Blue Check verified on Twitter for a purely digital identity (see e.g. Dr. Disrespect), but it’s a nascent thing as platforms tend to jealously guard their ecosystems and create few cross-platform incentives. Platforms like to own the funnel, as it were, and making themselves subject to a third party identity framework is viewed with some suspicion (though single sign-on models are an interesting approach).

As these metaverse-wide identities build, spread, and accord meaning to our real selves, we will want to invest in them. Our digital selves will have needs — probably some Black Mirror mutation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — that will start to direct our behavior. We will want our digital selves to have status. To have the adulation of other digital identities.

The blue verified check matters. Status.

The Twitch partner program matters. Status. Money.

The Ape purchased for the price of a house matters. Status. Money. Community.

Digital value becomes real value. They’re the same thing. Because your pseudonym is your nym.

The metaverse isn’t a place. It isn’t a destination. It’s not someone’s platform.

It’s a digital identity made real. That’s the metaverse.

For the record, Fortis Games is not metaversing (as understood as a piece of jargon for attracting investment), but it’s fun to talk about these things. 

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