Facebook changes its name to Meta, and then a string of stories about a digital land rush begin. Investors were buying up plots of land in cyberspace, sometimes for millions of dollars, seemingly convinced there must be gold in them thar metaverse hills. And if so many people with so much money were rushing it, it must be because there’s a profit to be made. Right?
However, the language that we’ve been using to discuss this new phase of technology—describing it in terms of a singular metaverse with finite space to develop—has helped conceal a reality that more closely resembles early-access video games and common pump-and-dump schemes.The Narrative
It’s only been a couple months since Facebook’s rebrand, but it’s hard to overstate how much it’s already driven the conversation about “the metaverse.” For starters, nearly everyone describes it as the metaverse—when the reality is that there is no singular metaverse in the sense that we talk about “the internet.” Services like Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Microsoft’s Mesh don’t interact with each other, they’re just separate VR apps.
The problem with this language quirk is that it can give the impression that, for example, if a company says their VR app, video game, or social platform is part of “the metaverse,” then that specific app must be where this nebulous future is going to happen. Which is a bit like saying that augmented reality is the future, and Google Glass is an AR product, therefore Google Glass is the future.
Under this implicit framing, stories published everywhere from crypto-enthusiast sites to Business Insider and The New York Times, have touted a “virtual land boom,” highlighting the $2.4 million sale of a 116-parcel estate in Decentraland, as investors pour millions of dollars into virtual locations. In these articles, executives from Metaverse Group, a self-described “virtual real estate” company, described buying plots of land in “the metaverse” as akin to buying property in Manhattan long before the city developed.
More precisely, platforms like Decentraland or the Sandbox sell NFT-based tokens that point to sections of a map in their specific virtual worlds, but those spaces don’t cross over. As Dan Olson, a video essayist who has extensively covered online social experiences and movements, from Fortnite’s digital concerts to flat earth and QAnon, and is currently researching the crypto sphere, explained, “They’re selling their tokens that give you permission to build within their space. So you’re effectively buying into their service.”
In other words, buying “real estate” on these platforms is like buying property in Manhattan, but in a world where anyone could feasibly create an infinite amount of alternative Manhattans that are just as easy to get to. Which means the only reason for users to buy into this Manhattan is if it offers a better service than the others.
In most respects, these platforms resemble your average video game. You control a customizable 3D avatar with your mouse and keyboard (no VR or AR here) and navigate a virtual environment. The debate over whether a virtual social world counts as a video game is as old as Second Life, but whatever you call them, the primary novel innovation in them is the use of NFTs and cryptocurrencies.
Decentraland’s pitch is that using NFTs makes land in its gameworld scarce and, thus, valuable. You can own part of the land, which will increase in value as demand for the space increases, at which point you can sell it. Alternatively, you can rent out space on your property to brands that want to advertise, host events and get a cut of the sales, or open up a shop and sell digital items to users.
The language that investors, and even news outlets that cover them, use to describe this kind of development echoes real-life property terminology. A press release from Tokens.com (which owns a 50 percent stake in Metaverse Group) said the company broke “digital ground” on a tower in Decentraland—phrasing that The New York Times echoed in its report on the story—and that the tower is “under construction” on the land parcels Metaverse Group owns.
However, this is an unusual way to describe the process of designing 3D models or virtual environments. As software engineer and crypto skeptic Stephen Diehl explained, this sort of language can be more about building a story than describing a technical process. “People need to kind of have a narrative behind it. Because at the end of the day, you’re just buying numbers in a computer,” he said.
“The story that you’re buying something in a new high-rise or a building is largely kind of bullshit.”
The real deal
Decentraland is a browser-based service, and while it has been selling plots of virtual land since 2017, the virtual world itself has only been open to the public since February 2020. Inside, it still feels reminiscent of an early-access game. While the initial lobby where users first drop in often has a dozen or so players wandering around—and many more standing completely motionless—the map shows only small clusters of players gathered around a few key areas. The rest is largely empty.
I visited the “Fashion District” in Decentraland, which takes up a large section of land on the far west side of the map, split down the middle by one road. The bulk of this space is covered by the default procedural terrain, with the primary exception being a row of buildings styled after the Graben in Vienna. Digital advertisements from brands like Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Tommy Hilfiger adorn the sides of the buildings, but you can’t go in. There are no shops here, nothing to click on or buy, and it’s unclear if these brands approve of or even know their logos and designs are in use.
The space feels less like an up-and-coming bustling shopping center, and more like a movie set—a facade of what could go in this spot some day, but isn’t there now. The 116-parcel estate that sold for nearly $2.5 million is just south of the empty storefronts, and it is entirely barren. For all intents and purposes, it’s a ghost town.
There are stores elsewhere in Decentraland, but only by a loose definition of the word. Several galleries show off NFT artwork—including one display from Sotheby’s—where you can walk up to a piece and click on it. However, you can’t buy it within Decentraland itself. Instead, you’ll be redirected to an external website in another tab that can actually handle the transaction, usually a preexisting storefront for NFTs like OpenSea or Rarible. At which point, it’s easy to get distracted exploring the site itself.
“This is part of the old, old, old, back-to-the-’90s criticism of this concept of the 3D web,” Olson said. “There’s one part of our brain that’s like, man, it would be so much more interesting if the experience of going to Dominos.com were more tangible. And that’s not wrong. It would be more interesting. But you know what else it is? It’s also more inconvenient.”
This article was originally published in Wired. Click here to read more…