My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact I can date my childhood memories really well because I was in a different school almost every grade, so depending on which school or group of kids are in the memory I know exactly when it happened. This was the source of a lot of trauma for me (as soon as I’d make friends I’d move away and have to start all over again) which led to various trust and interpersonal relationship issues that I spent years working through, some better than others. This has manifested itself in various ways, one of which is that as you might know I’m deeply fascinated by and attracted to subcultures and communities – I never had “my people” as a kid, and when I finally found them in my high school years I never let go.
I gave a talk at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna once about my career, and jokingly said that bouncing from music to art to technology didn’t make any sense. The professor who had invited me to his class interjected that it made perfect sense, because the notable common thread through all my work isn’t the particular medium of the moment, but rather the community around it. He observed, perhaps better than any therapist I’ve ever been to, that in my work I’m always trying to build sustainable communities.Perhaps, he noted, because I never had a community growing up so I’m destined to spend my life chasing after them. Well thanks for that one there Prof.
But he was right.
I call myself a misanthoplogist which is only half a joke, most of the communities I dive into and immerse myself in are subculture, occulture even, and often skeptical of outsiders. Most of us are misfits and weirdos who didn’t fit in with the world we saw around us, so we built our own. Or since it’s so much easier these days, we found others like us and embraced the world they’d already started building. And once a part of this chosen family, which ever one that might be (or several concurrently, as I’ll get to in a moment) it becomes deeply important to us, shaping us as much as we shape it. We become the community, and the community becomes representative of us – our interests, our hopes, our dreams.
When I meet someone else from one of these communities out in the world we share an instant understanding and a bond that unless you are also part of that community, likely makes no sense. In fact, you might not even notice it. In this way, these friendships and communities become almost secret societies. Indeed, band logos, slang and inside jokes can map perfectly with some cryptic rune, sigil or foreign language. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you don’t. Forget music and just consider Hobo Symbols or Warchalking – just understanding what these markings mean puts you into a very tiny group. Now apply that same logic to graffiti’d gang tags or bumper stickers.
Those are physical world examples, but it should be no surprise to you that I’m heading towards the virtual. Years ago my ex-roommate brokep made a brilliant comment that he doesn’t use or like the then common abbreviation “IRL”(In Real Life) instead preferring to use “AFK” (Away From Keyboard) because in his perception, and for those around him, online was just as real as offline and the difference wasn’t which was real or not, but which had your attention at any given moment, and he didn’t want to perpetuate the false idea that things happening online were any less important or “real” than those happening offline. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One takes this a step further by making the online more important than the offline, and the introduction of metaverses. I’ll get back to that shortly.
My son has lived all around the world. I like to think this was a conscious decision informed by expert learnings and my own lived experience, but it could just as easily be repeating the same mistakes my parents made. Time will tell. But the point being at almost 12 years old he’s spent significant chunks of his life living in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo and now Vancouver. And he’s traveled to dozens of other countries in the interim. When I was a kid in the 80’s jumping from school to school in city to city, I often tried to be penpals with friends I’d made but that usually lasted one or two letters until we’d both forgotten about it. The internet changed all that as we know, and with my son any school he’s been in has been for at least a 3 year stretch and he’s stayed in touch with a number of friends regularly, for years now, in any number of online worlds, primarily Minecraft where he and his friends can actually build out a world that remains the same no matter where they are accessing it from.
Knowing how insufferable I am in these posts, you can only imagine how much worse I am in person. My excitement this year about NFTs has infected every corner of my life and this has rubbed off on my son who has his own collection and is an active member of several related communities. So here’s what I’m starting to get at – when I ask him, out of all the places he’s lived and all the places he’s visited, which is is favorite – he points out that it’s not such a simple question as all the places have pros and cons. He’s a smart kid. If we’re talking about food then one city might be better. If we’re talking about hiking or snowboarding or bike riding then yet another city might be better. If he’s talking about where his friends are, then he knows exactly which Discord server he’d pick. Online or offline are the same – they are just different places where he spends time.
I get that. A few years ago I played some World of Warcraft with him, which was a game I spent a significant chunk of time playing in the early 2000’s. Walking through those in game cities felt every bit the same as it feels when I visit a city I used to live in, or a favorite place to travel. I know what’s around the next corner and where to get the good food. So I assure you, he’s not the only one who feels that way. I know a lot of people in my generation and a little older who would think that sounds crazy. But this is the future, and the younger kids all get it.
So to connect this back around, Discord servers are communities. Cyber cliques. Digital gangs. Virtual families. This is real life in every way, and the relationships we form there are just as real. I need more than one hand to count the number of friends who have had marriages end because of affairs being had with people they had never met in physical space. That’s as real as it gets. But that’s beside the point, which I know I’m talking a long time to get to, but here it is – offline I can I look at you and know who you are, know if I know you or not. Online, I look at your avatar. And your avatar can be anything. And if your avatar can be anything then you can be anyone, right? Right. That’s equal parts liberating and terrifying. If you can be anyone, how do you know who anyone is? Or maybe more importantly, does that even matter?
Going back to Ready Player One again, in the metaverse people were able to create avatars that were the perfect versions of themselves. Who they wanted to be, without the limitations of their physical lives (like, how much money they have or where they lived). And, they didn’t have to be just one person – they could be different people for different situations. This begins to really pick apart the idea of identity – but again this isn’t new or exclusive to the internet in anyway. People have had secret lives and kept separate identities offline forever. We all know someone who acts one way at the office and completely differently outside of the work environment. Or what about LARPers or Furries or hardocre Trekies. Or what about punk rockers who put on nice clothes to go to a real job between 9-5. I’m being a bit obvious but you get the point – the notion of being different people in different contexts is a very normal thing, and doing that online with an avatar in a community just makes it even more… well, real.
Back to my son – in the communities he’s a part of, no one knows he’s a kid. That’s intentional on his part, because he recognizes that people treat him differently if they think of him as a peer. And yes to alleviate any fears we know what he’s doing and who he’s hanging out with, and have regular open conversations about safety around that – but we also respect his wishes and love that he has this ability to safely explore who he is, and who he wants to be. His identity is connected to his Avatar. His Avatar shows his connection to this community, and unlocks special membership privileges. His Avatar is also a unique digital object that he owns, because it’s an NFT. There are a few thousand others who hold NFTs from this collection and while they might meet each other on the project Discord, they can also recognize each other anywhere else on the web as well. It’s a digital band t-shirt.
This week twitter announced plans to add web3 integration to the site with two examples of how they are going to do it – they are going to add tipping with Bitcoin, and verified ownership of Avatars. Now, if you’ve been reading the news or following related headlines you might have heard about the Bitcoin tipping part but likely didn’t catch the avatar bit. This is because most of the “technology journalists” writing about web3 have no idea what is actually happening and are just looking for recognizable buzzwords to drive stories and Bitcoin is recognizable but NFTs and Avatars are confusing so Bitcoin drives the story and the Avatar bit gets a passing mention just so that all the boxes are checked. I’m not just making that up, I’ve spoken with no less than 10 writers at major publications in the last 2-3 months who have all had similar stories. “I’ve written about art/web/entertainment/memes before so my editor just told me to put together something about NFTs but none of this makes any sense to me, can you try to help me understand what is happening?”
But this is a legitimately big deal. “Why would I buy it when I can just right click and save it?” falls apart the moment wallet verification is introduced, and a social platform as large as Twitter recognizing that what NFTs you own directly relates to your online identity is the tip of the iceberg. People already spend a lot of time, effort and money crafting and curating their online persona – the dismissal that they wouldn’t buy an Avatar to signify their connection to a community or social standing is silly. That’s so obviously where this is all heading. And the natural extension of this is if your identity is tied to an Avatar, and you have many different Avatars then you natively have the potential for many different identities. I might use my Bored Ape Avatar when I’m on the Bored Ape Yacht Club Discord Server and then switch to my Punk Cat Avatar when I’m on the Punk Cats server. Other people who hold NFTs from both collections might do the same, and we might recognize each other and intentionally connect those two avatars into one identity – but there’s no reason at all that I couldn’t keep an avatar in a separate wallet and when I switch to it also switch to a completely unique identity.
So far I’ve been talking about forums and websites, but as metaverses like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Sandbox, etc etc etc begin to pop up and start intermingling the situation gets much more interesting. When we’re talking about virtual worlds and not just screen names, it’s an entirely larger thing.
As someone who has been using my real name online for more than 25 years and has spent way too much time thinking about how identity and reputation and positioning impact online interactions, this is mindblowingly exciting. Scary as hell, but inevitable and totally obvious at this point. I can’t wait to see what’s next.