Blockchain, the New Jezebel
“Electricity is the new Jezebel, seducing our young men into the arms of immorality.”
120 years ago, this was the powerful last line of a warning to the citizens of Seacoast, New Hampshire. Electricity was going mainstream, the telephone was taking over, and outlets across the country were admonishing readers of its dangers. It seems silly in retrospect, but new innovations in the way we live, communicate and interact have historically been feared, be it for real concerns of risk or the social, moral, political, or economic upheaval that often follow.
Web3 is no different. More than a movement, it’s a leap forward in the evolution of the internet that puts many new technologies to work. When its principles of agency, ownership, and privacy are applied to the Metaverse, one can imagine a new era of online life free from the control and exploitation of megacorporations. In other words, much like the anxiety-inducing innovations that came before it, Web3 threatens to change the world as we know it, challenging old habits, centralized power structures, and the market domination they enjoy.
So, it’s no wonder that when the news of FTX unfolded, many jumped to a familiar way to define this new and complex technological advancement: Fraud. After making great strides in recent years to bring the promise of blockchain to a broader audience, we now face the troublesome task of winning back trust we never fully had in the first place.
So, how do we do it?
Tell Better Stories
For the past two decades, I’ve been working with artists to embrace new technology, and technology companies to invest in artists, because the only thing that sells the devices in our hands and in our homes is the connection to humans and their stories. A robust, engaging ecosystem of content is key to selling new technology. Yet many people working on the leading edge of innovation still have little understanding or appreciation for what it takes to create something sticky.
Several years into the emerging Web3 economy, one thing is clear: DeFi isn’t going to move the masses to explore the potential of this new technology. For most, the subject of money is often a source of tremendous stress and avoidance; less than half of U.S. households are able to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense. Most people are not day traders, don’t have an in-depth knowledge of financial markets and simply don’t have the money to gamble on crypto, even if it could one day lead to better financial outcomes. Factor in the distrust of new technology, and you’ve combined two of the most anxiety-inducing necessities of modern life.
But thirty years ago, Neal Stephenson, Co-Founder at Lamina1, created something sticky. A renowned science fiction writer and the originator of the term “Metaverse,” Neal imagined an alt world so vividly in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, that countless creative technologists have been trying to manifest it ever since.
Why is that? Because in a story, the needs and desires of a human always come first. The scene in which a story unfolds and the technology within it exists to support a person in pursuit of something.
Similarly, in the earliest stages of product development –– be that for a virtual world, a piece of software, or the hardware that serves it up –– success means alignment from many teams, each managing disparate pieces of the whole. An aspirational vision helps unify engineering and creative teams in making a product or experience that hits the mark.
In other words, we often first fully imagine a scene, an outcome, or a pivotal interaction and then ask: How do we get there?
Gaming offers one of the most compelling early use cases outside of DeFi, with in-game economies presenting a unique opportunity for blockchain to make its way into the minds of the masses. But a recent study from Coda Labs found only 15% of mainstream gamers were interested in playing a Web3 game. It also found the top motivation for those that do play Web3 games today is simply: earning crypto.
We move closer to the “story” when we think about the real-world problems Web3 might solve for creators.
In the early 2000s, record labels and film studios saw their business model completely upended by a period of fairly reckless digital innovation. Piracy was rampant, costing the U.S. economy $29.2–$71 billion each year, and consumption changed with the embrace of new technology, resetting the value of a carefully-crafted album or episode. When album sales slumped, record labels took additional revenue from endorsements, concerts, merchandise, and TV. Artist equity and ownership got even worse as the pressure of streaming singles and binge-worthy hits intensified.
The unsolvable equation of being a working musician today begins with economic dysfunction. “You’re spending a lot of money to make a product that you’re going to give away for free,” said alternative pop icon Santigold in a recent interview with Pitchfork, and results in a way of life and a churn of constant productivity that is unsustainable.
Recent studies have exposed the severity of unfair profit distribution in the music industry. Despite U.S. recorded music revenues reaching a record high of $15.9 billion in 2022, today’s artists are receiving just 10-16% of the profits.
The thing is, nothing is free–the cost and the revenue of music has just been abstracted from the artist and leveraged as a lead-gen tool for data-harvesting platforms.
Blockchain however has the potential to not only reduce piracy, but to connect creators more directly with their fans and share more equally in the success of their creations. These advantages, particularly if the artist owns their own rights, enable new business models that improve artist economics and offer visibility into a fanbase, and in kind, empower the creation of more powerful stories waiting to be told –– stories that represent more than the monetization or exchange of a digital asset, but the empowerment of the humanity they serve.
These are the stories that will move the masses.
Build Better Products
It’s also often the case that platforms struggle to deliver on “sticky” as they sort performance and usability challenges inherent to creating in a new medium. Instead, Web3 innovators need to invest in infrastructure and teams that build and design great products.
Over the next few years, the establishment of standards and better creator tools will support interoperability across a range of platforms. Blockchain will mature to enable speed at volume, cost efficiency, and transparency in global transactions at high volume. Network infrastructure will scale to support millions of users and their vast amounts of data.
In order to realize the multi-trillion dollar potential of the Metaverse, we need to reach a Web2 level of sophistication in our tools: smooth interfaces, seamless integrations, and low-code creator tools. Developers will continue to create sophisticated universes, but enabling brands and individual creators to also thrive and create within the 3D internet of the future will 100x the potential.
Aside from great products, quality UX is also key to mainstream adoption, and today’s crypto user experience comes up terribly short. As 2019 study of “crypto-curious” wallet users by UX researchers at Chockablock found:
“...New users, who are familiar with the security paradigm of user-generated, single-string passwords...are completely thrown off by the presentation of system-generated, multi-word pass/seed/recovery phrases which must be stored physically or digitally and cannot be retrieved via the decentralized system if lost. Simply put, they do not understand what to do, much less the ramification of not doing it properly.”
Crypto natives might argue consumers must take a more active interest and educate themselves to enjoy the fruits of the future –– but this is a privileged position that lacks empathy for decision fatigue, lack of disposable income and exposure, and lack of trust.
It must get easier. Design drives accessibility, accountability, and user understanding, which, in turn, drives adoption.
As a foundational technology in the Web3 movement, blockchain has the potential to be transformative in serving global experiences, communities, and direct transactions without compromising the rights of creators and consumers.
But the current positioning of Blockchain is not unlike the Jezebel at the start of this piece–as yet understood by few and feared by many. To realize the potential of the Open Metaverse we deserve, one that values our privacy, freedom, and humanity, we must invest in the teams, stories, and use cases that shine a positive light on what is surely one of the most revolutionary innovations of our time.