Is it just me, or is the metaverse feeling like some serious déjà vu?
I remember like it was yesterday when Facebook opened its beta API to third-party developers by invite-only in the mid-2000s. I was driving to Vermont on a Friday evening with my business partner to go snowboarding for the weekend. For reading material on the way, I downloaded the API documentation.
As I read, a lightbulb turned on in my head. I cracked a Red Bull and felt my heart race. Not because of the sugar and caffeine, but because a rabbit hole opened up. We, engineers, tend to dive in headfirst, and this was no exception. By the time we got to Vermont, I had taught myself Facebook’s API language and had a simple app running, thanks to Verizon’s mobile hotspots. By morning, I had built a few rudimentary apps.
Within a month or so, we had landed a gig with what was then called Edible Arrangements (now just “Edible”) to build one of the first-ever Facebook contests. Of course, we had to create a business page for them first because most brands didn’t even bother with a Facebook presence back then.
In less than 24 hours, we garnered over 100,000 likes (zero media dollars spent) an unheard-of breakthrough engagement. If Edible had the e-commerce presence they do today, instead of the in-store-only ordering features, it would have also driven crazy low customer acquisition costs (CAC) and boosted lifetime value (LTV) — two of the most coveted metrics for brands and DTC marketers today.
From this moment on, I became hooked on what was then called Web 2.0.
That led to us partnering with a hot NYC agency to bring to life a “wish-granted” winter holiday promotion for none other than Sephora. Connecting user wishes with a shoppable surprise experience that garnered massive engagement and made fashion and beauty bloggers everywhere go nuts.
Like Neo’s character in The Matrix, I spent my days servicing clients’ needs. From dusk until dawn, I launched myself into new possibilities reading ProgrammableWeb to find new APIs and different data sources and platforms to connect to.
My team and I pitched, won, and executed novel concepts, which sparked customer engagement and drove breakthrough sales numbers for flash sale sites, brands, and culture-defining moments.
We turned advent calendars and custom APIs into whimsical sales-charting experiences for celebrities like Lady Gaga. And we connected top flash-sale eCommerce brands to their “friends” using early social commerce and community-building tactics.
We also memorably turned a simple search — women Googling their hair salons’ phone numbers — into growth hacking paradigms to help them discover and buy new hair care products.
Back then, the web was exciting and colorful. The new open platform connections were a dream for creative technologists like me.
Every new client was an opportunity to innovate and push the boundaries of what was possible. And a new API opened up almost every week, from weather APIs to foodie recipes and what restaurant of the month was cool to frequent.
Before we chased Discords and Reddit for the next drop in the newly forming metaverse today, we traveled with our phones in our pockets to check into locations on platforms like Gowalla (acquired by Facebook). And we competed to become mayor of a given location on Foursquare.
And then, one day, what felt like multidimensional unbridled creativity went flat. Google (material design) and Apple (flat UI) homogenized their interfaces. They fought to shut down platforms like Flash, which acted as a glue to stitch together technologies.
Front-end UI platforms like Twitter’s bootstrap helped to normalize and speed up development (read: cut costs), and the web got pretty boring again a few years later.
The next frontier lives encapsulated in the matrix (I mean) metaverse.
Of course, Facebook and Google pioneered many of the aspects of Web2 that we take for granted (or, perhaps, they take us humans for granted — I’d say it’s both). And clearly, they have laid their claim to Web3 with their Meta rebrand.
But what about your claim? If you’re like me, you’re probably not ready to drop $650K on a virtual yacht to trawl the metaverse.
In my opinion, we can all benefit by starting simple. You don’t even have to pull an all-nighter to begin exploring. (Although I certainly have, for reasons that anyone — not just developers — can appreciate.)
Luckily, the basics of Web1 and Web2 remain the same for Web3. You just have to know where to look.
It’ll be different this time, they said. It won’t be like it was ever before. We will be free from government watch, and we can frolic in anonymity.
Investors are dumping buckets of capital in, and they want their ROI and IRR. And even if it’s set up as a DAO on these new principles and paradigms, there will still be greed — because greed shapes all realities and realms.
Take OpenSea, once revered as the Switzerland of NFTs. It’s now facing major backlash as they hint towards a potential IPO.
But I digress. Let’s get back to where we were heading in the first place: the rabbit hole.
Lessons From the Rabbit Hole
It’s no secret that Web3 has truly exploded this year, even though crypto has been around for a dozen years. And it’s easy to get overwhelmed as you hurl yourself into the abyss.
First, a word about rabbit holes: why do we go down them in the first place?
One word: curiosity. And the motivating factor behind that interest is a desire for novelty. Like moths to a flame, we chase what’s new.
While some may feel more comfortable with looking for novelty, the so-called early adopters, we’ve all got a touch of neophilia. (A love of newness and new things, although no need to be as extreme as this Neo.) Our brains come wired to seek out new things — not only is it a survival mechanism, but it also makes us happy. Research shows that new experiences activate pleasure centers in our brains, creating a rush of dopamine and other feel-good neurochemistry.
This explains why someone like me — the father of a newborn (as volatile as crypto itself) — spends time pounding away in a Discord channel, talking about the next Disney drop at 11:00 pm. Seconds after 11:00, likely because of bots and automated snipers who grab them first just like the sneaker sites and all the other scarce items in the market… but instead of sneakers or a one-of-a-kind supreme collab, it’s for a JPG…. that we can all download, but only one person can claim it’s theirs by proof on the blockchain.
Sidebar: WTF is a blockchain? Don’t be shy — I get that question all the time, not just by my dad but by some of my Fortune 500 clients.
A blockchain is like a shared, public Google sheet that’s a secure, immutable ledger. But instead of living on one company’s server, it’s decentralized and able to be verified and trusted by anyone with access to that blockchain.
All good — I’d rather grab one of DeadHead’s Skull Troopers NFTs and be a backer for launching a 3d animated creator-led series from the proceeds of thousands of believers like me. I’m happy to put some ether (ETH) behind a good cause. (Ether is the currency powered by Ethereum, a leading decentralized platform founded by Vitalik Buterin, a Canadian developer, among others.)
And that’s just the starting point. If you strip away the veneer of Web3 — all the decentralized crypto finance (DeFi) and web apps that live on decentralized servers (dapps), along with futuristic tech like extended reality (XR), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) — you’ll find all the things that drive human beings. Scarcity, fear, greed. Abundance, love, community.
The decentralized aspect is, to me, the most compelling part. Anyone can join in and trust through proof that the transactions and interactions are verifiable and, in many cases, unable to be fungible on this compostable, democratized future of the World Wide Web.
Now, you might be thinking that it’s more of an exclusive deal vs. inclusive, thanks to crazy headlines like the virtual yacht I mentioned earlier or Beeple selling his “First 5000 Days” collection last spring for over $69 million.
But keep following the trail because you might be surprised where it takes you. Check out what the buyer of Beeple’s ground-breaking NFT, Vignesh Sundaresan (also known as MetaKovan), told Bloomberg:
“If you have an NFT, I believe everyone gets to enjoy it. But you don’t need everyone to pay for it. There can be a few people who pay for this production, and they get a credit to have been part of this production. And that’s it.
It’s fine to download. I’m happy if someone were to download Beeple — The 5000 Days — everyone in the world.”
In other words, unlike priceless art that resides in a billionaire’s luxury New York apartment vanishing for no one to be able to see again, NFTs live on forever on the blockchain for all to admire.
And just as MetaKovan articulated, seeing NFTs as a way to support artists is the memorabilia for the buyer — and it’s novel. It also gives you a clue on how you can feel more comfortable navigating this uncharted Web3 territory.
Bells ’n whistles aside, it’s still powered by people. So, give the people what they want.
Everything Old is New Again
To map this uncharted territory, naturally, some people go first. And that’s what’s been happening — those who were bored by the constraints of Web2 have quickly moved in and staked their claims. So, for example, engineers have gone from building apps to building dapps. High-profile risk-takers and speculators are all in and making headlines.
But what about everyone else? What’s the value proposition of the metaverse?
Packy McCormick, who writes about business strategy and pop culture and who’s become a leading voice in emerging technology, talks about how Web3 is pushing out the “Pareto Funtier.” Pareto efficiency is all about allocating resources as economically efficient as possible, which implies trade-offs: things that are beneficial for you aren’t necessarily pleasurable, and pleasurable things aren’t necessarily beneficial. McCormick’s point is that the new frontier that is Web3 is helping minimize the trade-offs “by baking money into fun things and fun into money things.”
That begs the question: How can things be both fun and financially rewarding?
Excellent question — one I used to ask myself and my team of coders all the time back in the early days of open APIs for Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And I believe the same things that moved people from static to interactive and interactive to connected will propel them forward to a multi-channel layered community experience.
Experience Design Principles for the Design of the Next Web
All you have to do is find ways to provide a unique cocktail based on these three primary attributes:
The more you can crossover/include all three things, the more connections you can make, the better. After all, connections build community, which is all about sharing beliefs, ideas, dreams, and goals. This leads to an exchange of trust and common values, which is why and how communities build commerce.
While Web3 is a paradigm shift, it’s not so different at its core. Tribalism and our psychological need for belonging are central; all the metaverse does is expand the dimensions in which we experience things. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for people on both ends of the spectrum — those with something to sell and those who want to be part of it and want to buy.
Brands and products will benefit from more openness and transparency into their vision and roadmap, which users and believers will rally behind. And the currencies they’ll trade in are the types that fuel brands and the attention graph: time, attention, and cash (whether it’s fiat, like the dollar or the euro, or crypto-based).
So, it’s critical to know and communicate:
- What is your roadmap?
- What do you stand for?
- How will you enable your community, products, and experiences to take advantage of composable principles that build trust and ecosystems?
The Wild Wild West of the New Web
Of course, this doesn’t mean Web3 is all hearts, flowers, and rainbows. The lessons of Web2 and the toll that online activity takes on mental health is well-documented and presumably will continue to persist and evolve in new and insidious ways.
On this new frontier of the web, like our well-being, our digital wallets are also gravely at risk if we aren’t prepared. Like the pop-ups, Trojans, and viruses of the 2000s, this digital wonderland will also have its fair share of tricksters, snake oil salespeople, and false promises to steal all our currencies. (Again, time, crypto, attention.)
Still, there is a blue pill element to the current state of the metaverse that I find appealing in today’s world so rife with distrust, bias, and bad news. Back to how we humans thrive: acceptance, belonging, and choice. If you want to be a faceless Twitter profile connected to an ape, you can, which brings some bliss. (I know my late nights communing in Discord channels are a great relief and learning experience.) That identification, which has meaning and value to you and others like you, is powerful.
For those of us in the business of telling stories and creating experiences and memories, this aspect of the metaverse holds the most promise and opportunity.
If you’re inspired by this new frontier and want to talk about the possibilities, let’s connect. If you’re afraid of what this means for the future of your business or family’s mental health, let’s connect. And if you think this is just another fad or fading news cycle, let’s connect.
The future of the web is all about what it’s always been about. Connection.
Until then, I hope to see you in the metaverse.