Metaverse can be an antidote to toxic social media culture, says web pioneer
The future of the metaverse – or Web 3.0, as it’s also known – is hard to predict at best. Some are hailing it as a more level playing field for everyone from gamers to investors, but others see it as a potentially dangerous stomping ground for cybercriminals and other bad actors.
Brian Shuster hopes his Utherverse platform, due to go live by the end of the year, will answer the naysayers with a positive and inclusive experience, where the bad guys are policed responsibly, and good people get a chance to flourish like never before. He also sees the metaverse as a generational opportunity to reverse the harm he says has been caused by social media platforms such as Facebook, accused by many of creating a space where anger flourishes and isolation reigns.
As someone who helped to pioneer the internet through its first two iterations, Shuster believes he is well equipped to take on the fight to make Web 3.0 a better place – although he himself has courted controversy in his time. In the 1990s, when the publicly accessible web was in its infancy, he launched the pay-to-use pornography network XPics.com before going on to develop digital innovations such as pop-up adverts and click trackers. In 2006, when the prototypical virtual world Second Life was in its heyday, Shuster founded the Utherverse, which he claims is “the most advanced metaverse ever built.”
Yet for all his enthusiasm and optimism, and despite his personal history of success with the internet, even Shuster harbors fears that the metaverse could become a dark place if it falls under the control of the wrong entities – namely, authoritarian governments and megalithic corporations. Cybernews found a virtual space of its own in which to sit down with Shuster and pick his brain at greater length.
Could you give me an overview of the metaverse, in terms of where it's been and where you think it's about to go?
The metaverse is a pretty misunderstood concept, in my opinion. When I think of it, I imagine the completion of the journey begun when computers were first being connected. So it's the final evolution of the world wide web, and if you think about the history of where it started – with distributed newsgroups and information sites, Usenet, email, all these applications being hosted by government or educational institutions – and along comes Mozilla browser, and kaboom! You have a web browser, and all these early internet applications get consolidated and are accessible. You have the evolution of Web 1.0 – where static pages become dynamic, and communication really takes off, you have upvotes, credibility, likes, and friending – and we see Web 2.0.
And with the metaverse, now we need to look at integrating virtual and augmented reality. Right now, this is totally fragmented all over the place, just like the internet was before web browsers. But to me, the metaverse is when all this comes together. and there's a seamless integration of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, all within a single application – users can move from flat web to dynamic web pages, to immersive environments. They can be embodied in an avatar. The simple way to think about it is this new environment where there's the best of video games, hyperlinking, and web products, combined to give this rich multimedia virtual-reality experience. It's the evolution of virtual worlds that we've seen from World of Warcraft and EverQuest, where it's no longer necessarily games – it can be this massively multi-user online reality.
So we have websites all over the world like Transport for London, for example, where you check what time your train is, if there are any delays and so on – would this then become a physical thing? Could my avatar visit a virtual reality 3D version of Transport for London or any other flat website?
Yes, that's one example. But another few examples will illuminate this really well. The web was really disruptive for some verticals, stock trading for example. But we still have physical conventions and concerts because these verticals couldn't be disrupted with this technology – it sucks to watch a concert as a video on a screen by yourself.
To go to a convention, you need the networking, the immersion, you need to be able to walk the trade show floor and go to the lectures. But if you imagine you put on a headset, and you're at the consumer electronics show or any other convention – you can have trade show floors, and these can be wildly more efficient and vastly less expensive, much greener footprints and many more attendees. You still get to meet up with other attendees and ask your questions. In a sense, you can walk away with a much more complete experience because you can be taken off the trade show floor to the factory, you can actually see the products and equipment in virtual reality – and you never need to leave home. You don't need to spend the money on airfare and hotel. So for company attendees, the efficiency of metaverse reality is spectacular.
Similarly, let's say I want to redecorate my house. I have a virtual version of it, I can have the interior decorator materialize in my home, she can show me different furniture, colors on the walls, and carpeting. If I have an open house [viewing], the realtor can tell people: “let's see how this would look with your furniture, with how you'd like it decorated.” And these things can happen without the enormous hassle and expense of actually blowing up the walls and then deciding you didn't like it.
So this is the promise of the metaverse when these are all connected. I want to be able to click from the convention back to my apartment, or my store, or my class, or the networking event, and all of these things can be hyperlinked in more evolved ways than we have on the internet – because it's a much more rich media experience.
This is fascinating, but we already have issues – especially since the COVID-19 pandemic – of people not getting out, being too much away from “old-fashioned reality.” Do you not think there are some health concerns around this – because we aren't actually leaving our houses when we engage with this virtual reality? What would you say to those who have such misgivings?
I would say that you said it yourself – we're not getting out, and this is a function of existing social media, of the evolution of society. The problem is, flat social media and these types of interactions are very anger-provoking, they're very isolating. In a virtual reality, I would love to wave a magic wand and say we spend six months [a year] without technology, and the other six we can go back to our computers – but that can't happen.
So how do we make the best of this inevitable trend? And the inevitable trend is isolation, social media that algorithmically creates echo chambers for people and generates anger and rage. There's the perfect solution which we can't get to, which is to eliminate social media, and the imperfect solution, which is to say: “We're engaged with real people that are in these avatars.” There are many ways it can go off the rails, and I worry about it all the time. But if it's done thoughtfully and with a community that builds up around the metaverse [it can be] positive, uplifting, good-natured. And that's encouraged and gamified in a way, to make the positive aspects really come out.
So would you accomplish that by introducing restrictions on how people can interact?
We're not saying you can't touch people in the metaverse. We're saying if somebody's bothering you, you have the tools to deal with that, but we also want to allow you to hug each other, to engage in these traits and behaviors that we've lost – at an accelerated pace with Covid, but we were losing anyway with social media.
And this is where I hope to put my stamp on the metaverse. I've done it successfully in my prior community: a wonderful group of people that get together to raise money for charities or when somebody's down to have a party and support each other. I believe that we've learned a lot of lessons about how to create social mores in a community, even if they come there skeptically. That's my dream for how I want to see the metaverse go. I'm going to work to make it that way [but] maybe it won't – maybe it will fail and be just like every other social media platform that ends up isolating and causing harm.
That's very honest of you. I can see where you're coming from in that having people interact by way of avatar in the metaverse is probably going to be more beneficial than how they're doing it via social media. One thing I would say, though, is what about the bad actors that inevitably arise? Because we're starting to see things like sexual assaults in the metaverse. What measures are you planning to protect against that, and if it does happen, take action?
We've developed quite a few tools, and some of these require understanding the operation of a metaverse under the hood. But I would say the first is to give users the power to define their own social environment. What I mean by that is being able to “ignore” somebody – you can have them disappear, and you also disappear from them. That's a very powerful tool, and we found that particularly useful. So you have like-minded people and a group of, let's say, “aggrievers” that come in. They ignore them, and the aggrievers suddenly start to see they can't really achieve their objective of trolling – because you now are invisible to them. The community votes by ignoring you. And we start to see people saying: “I'd like to come back and try this again. I was kind of a dick, can you un-ignore me?”
Then we have a system where volunteers work their way up the ladder, and people can report things to them. If it's egregious, then reporting can go to staff, and action can be taken. As far as sexual predation goes, we don't allow minors on our current platform – but obviously people sneak in. If somebody is suspected of being a minor, they can be reported up through this volunteer structure. And we don't allow anybody who's not authenticated to communicate in private chats. So this again becomes a very potent tool.
We have a know-your-client system – you need to send in identification and get an interaction with the staff to be authenticated. This prevents a lot of potential harassment. Because if you're trying to harass in public, and you give users appropriate tools, it's easy to stop that and report it or ignore it. And if it's happening in private and you report it, we know who the person is who was doing it, and then we have tools to ban or issue a suspension of accounts, which of course we do. We have a “world operations” department, which is responsible for ensuring that the environment is friendly and safe.
Fine, but who watches the watchmen, so to speak?
We have a “world justice” department where complaints against world operations can be filed – so if someone is mistreated by a volunteer or staff member, they can go through that system. And you start to see the metaverse has a lot of similarities to a world government, where it's important to create a whole suite of protections for users against abuse from other users, the company, and the system – and even things like intellectual property protection because lots of that is generated. We have this thriving community that builds and creates, and so they need all the same protections as you have in the real world against theft.
So it's quite an elaborate undertaking. The important thing that we have is almost two decades of experience running early- and late-stage metaverse companies. Because this type of knowledge of what actually happens and what are the processes and procedures to keep it safe, they are not trivial.
What you're talking about sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel – cyberpunk extraordinaire. Are you not afraid this could end up being quite totalitarian? If you have this hierarchy where people are watching you…
It can. Seriously, my greatest fear is that the metaverse is ultimately taken over by big government or corporate pseudo-government like Facebook or a giant corporation. Because of the disruptive technology that is metaverse, nothing like it has happened since the internet itself. This is the consolidation of distributed ledgers in cryptocurrencies, it's virtual reality and augmented reality with the power of the internet – this is going to be the biggest earthquake for technology in our lifetimes. I can see so many ways that governments could come in, or big corporations, and it would be absolutely destructive to humanity. So yes, I have a lot of fear around the direction it can go in.
We have had more than 6,000 weddings that have taken place in my last software and these are people who find each other online, come together, get married. Just their ability to have intimate time with each other – be they halfway around the world. I get emails from people who say: “I'm paraplegic, I never thought this could happen to me again. Here I am dancing with my bride at my wedding.” It almost makes you want to cry that you can give life back – just imagine what happens when that type of connection isn't the primary focus. When it’s: “how do we generate money off of these people and algorithmically monitor and track them?” What should be the first priority for any metaverse company is really the Bill of Rights for their players, their users – how do you ensure a safe environment for them, and how do you ensure they aren't abused by other players, or the company, or the volunteers? And that's a challenge, for sure.
I presume you got into this out of a mixture of enthusiasm – you have a scientific background – and probably wanted to make some money back in the day. It sounds to me like you still have those motivations, but you almost seem driven by a sense of duty to see this thing through as responsibly as you can.
I would say there has definitely been that pivot! I always wanted to do this properly, but as I saw these social media companies growing up… I really was railing against Facebook when it first came to dominance, about how this creates anger. You have hundreds of thousands of people on your “friends” channel, and you see a few posts a day, and it's the people who at that moment are doing the best thing that they've done perhaps in their life, and you're always feeling like “my life is inadequate.” And when you get the opportunity, finally you're doing something neat, you post it, and all of your friends feel “my life is inadequate.” How does this benefit anybody except the [social media] company? And it definitely created this new drive in me. I've been seeing what the metaverse would become for a very long time, and as we get closer, I get more driven to try to steer us in a positive way.
Do you think we're going to have lot of different metaverses, like a “multiverse?” So Utherverse might be, dare I say it, a more democratic version, but there might also be, as you suggested, platforms run by multinationals that behave like corporate totalitarian entities. Do you think we could move to a future where you have these different kinds of metaverse competing, with some much more authoritarian or greedy than others?
Certainly, that is a near- and mid-term future I see. I can't speak to what actual authoritarian governments are going to allow, but I see ultimately a future in the West where it inevitably will consolidate around one platform – because the notion of interoperability between metaverse platforms is a pipe dream. You want to buy land at Decentraland? You'd better hope Decentraland is around – because that land is going to be worthless anywhere else. It is not interoperable.
What we're doing is creating a fully interoperable platform. Anybody can come and build their own metaverse on it. We've created the architecture, so what I'm really trying to do is create the browser that uses a standard, like what html was. It's a standard language – anyone can program it, and then it's all interoperable. So if you use the Utherverse protocols and tool sets, you can build your own metaverse – you own it, but it's all interoperable. The protections are all centralized. If you're not part of the interoperability, you're going to wither on the vine. But whether China is going to say that's all cool with us? I'm skeptical.
But won't there be dozens of other providers also working on something similar to the Utherverse’s interoperability, or will they all fit together as you form agreements with each other?
It's a possible future, but from what I've seen, you need to architect it that way from the beginning – you can't create interoperability after you've created your metaverse. So Decentraland will never be interoperable with Sandbox or with us. If I'm going to pull a historical analogy, I would say Facebook. Once it achieved a critical mass... people have tried to leave Facebook and compete with it, but once the user base has decided something, what's the point of creating a website on Compuserve? You can't hit it with a browser, so you'll be there all by yourself – you could create the most spectacular offering in the world, and no one will see it. There will be a company that achieves critical mass, has an interoperable platform, and that's it. After that – unless the company does something to fail, like MySpace did – you're pretty much going to be on this platform.
And that platform could be yours – I take it that’s an ambition you harbor for the Utherverse?
Absolutely. With our next offering, there are going to be a lot of compelling reasons for people to come on board. We're not looking to compete as a metaverse – we're looking to offer the tools for people to own their metaverse. You can trade traffic – so just like a website, you come to a platform where there are 100 million users, and you build what we call an Utherverse sovereign territory. So [you have] your own metaverse on it, you own the users that come in there. Those get tagged to you, so you have a residual value for having attracted them into this system. But you can also then trade promotion and traffic with other metaverses on the system. This is the network effect that you don't really get with these standalone walled-garden competitors.
And when do you go live with this?
We're going into closed beta, within two weeks we're doing alpha testing. That will include our first virtual convention, which will take place in both our existing legacy software and some events in the new software. That will happen towards the end of May. And then we'll be in open beta certainly before the end of the year when anyone can come in. You'll probably need to pre-register because we'll be road testing.
You're indexed to blockchain – the metaverse is largely dependent on that, but cybercriminals seem to be having a field day with it. Ronin was hacked for more than $600 million in cryptocurrency a few days ago. What more can be done in terms of cybersecurity, and what are you doing in the Utherverse?
That's always a serious challenge. There are some blockchains that have demonstrated that they aren't actually hackable. The Ethereum blockchain: you're not going to hack that, you're not going to hack Bitcoin. You can do a 51% attack, but you'd need to have half the world's money to be able to buy enough Bitcoin. What I recommend to people is: don't try to reinvent the wheel. Anything that is decentralized I'm wary of, because it means there's no one controlling it, and so you're being controlled by the crowd. Don't try to create your own blockchain – that ship has sailed.
Now there are new kinds of technologies – third-generation blockchain – that really resolve a lot of the problems with Bitcoin or Ethereum networks with slow transactions, expensive gas fees, those types of things. These 3G blockchains: you or I could look at the math and say, “yeah, it's proven, that can't be hacked.” Ultimately, it's impossible to protect every individual from being socially engineered, or revealing a password, or sending cryptocurrency to an address with a typo in it and having it disappear forever into a black hole. I think that's ultimately going to become the real fear. There are a lot of ways that people can protect themselves. If you aren't in possession of your wallet's private key, you aren't in possession of your cryptocurrency – somebody else is. If it's sitting on a decentralized exchange, or even if it's staked, it's not in your possession. It could be stolen, just like funds can be seized at a bank.
So that's an example of something that shouldn't be centralized – the cryptocurrency wallet key?
Right. It's a different use of the term decentralized. If you own your wallet and your keys are in your possession, there are always concerns about that, too – if you get amnesia or the place where your keys are becomes inaccessible. Because we're at early stages, we're going to see hacks, but your stuff can only get hacked if it's accessible to hackers. And as a company, you can only get hacked if you've chosen a decentralized system that is hackable. It is possible to do all of this safely and responsibly, but criminals are dastardly and devious, and sometimes very clever.
What about inequalities in the digital land grab? We live in an era where arguably, taken as a whole, the world has never been richer – and yet never more unequal. How do you prevent the same thing from happening in the metaverse?
You have this global inequality that has been in place forever, you have these rich and impoverished countries. And what I see as a shining beacon of the metaverse is that there are opportunities of a bigger magnitude than the opportunities that were presented when Web 1.0 came into existence. In this case, anybody with an internet connection, regardless of where you are in the world, can put on an avatar just like anybody else. You have the opportunity to engage in business, whatever kind of commerce: whether it's a clothing designer, a wedding planner, a DJ, somebody that is operating a dating service, or hosting conventions – there are a million opportunities. And the currency that gets paid out is the same regardless of where you are in the world.
So I see this as the potential to be hugely equalizing for these chronically under-served peoples of the world, where if they could be making Uthercoin, for example, at the same rate as people in the First World, and the value is global – then they are suddenly enriched on a relative basis. If they're earning twenty bucks an hour where the average earning is a dollar a week, well, great – these impoverished countries are going to be contributing to the global economy, and everybody's going to win. They don't have the infrastructure to support full-on internet [access for everyone across the world], so still, people are going to be excluded – but if the community can benefit at all and people are prospering, it's going to help.
Now the digital land grab, I think this is a game of roulette. Every opportunity I've seen at this point is going to end up failing. Decentraland has a casino, and there's no verification of users, so for sure, you have fourteen-year-olds who sign up for a Metamass wallet gambling – how long before that place is shut down? People that have bought NFTs, some of them have made a fortune, but most of them not. And it's the same thing with the digital land grab, it's really a gamble. If I wasn't running my own company, I would be at a loss to pick anybody who's still going to be around in the next generation. And certainly we saw that with the huge hack that happened [at Ronin]. Did you want to have those digital assets? Six hundred million, vaporized – [how long] is that company going to be around?
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