I want a map of the Metaverse.
I want that moment in Red Dead Redemption when, headed towards Saint-Denis on horseback, you mistakenly take a left turn before Rhodes and find yourself in the deep swamp, discovering little shacks or facing the terrifying jaws of a crocodile.
You check the map again (the one at the top of this post), and realize you've ended up deep in the marsh, north of where you intended.
You adjust course for the bright lights of St Denis where you'll maybe have a shave and a haircut, a night playing poker.
I want to explore the Metaverse in a spaceship. Like Stellaris, I want to be able to zoom in and out - from the galaxy level and then down to individual solar systems, planets.
Or maybe I'd want to board a pirate ship - and in the distance a cluster of islands beckons, the shimmering glimpse of...are those apes? Are they really drinking martinis at the beach?
I want a map of the Metaverse because I like the idea of long, slow journeys. I like the idea of geography being revealed, of being immersed in a place, of decoding the pathways and history.
I like the idea of serendipity. Of discovery.
I like the idea that islands or planets would be grouped together - today, a cluster of Star Wars themed planets, tomorrow a group of corporate islands where I go to attend conferences on bitcoin or whatever.
How We Get There: Travel In the Metaverse
It sort of makes sense, doesn't it?
The Metaverse is being pitched as the next generation of the Internet. It will be spatial, persistent, three-dimensional and interoperable.
Which means that we’ll attend a concert in the newly interoperable Fortnite, jump over to hang out with the Bored Apes, regroup with our team in some new Facebook conference room. All without needing a separate download or a new account for each space that we enter.
In short it's, well, a universe - just a “meta” one.
Surely it has a geography?
Yes, each world within that universe may have its own map. Fornite OpenIsland will have a map that's different from Decentraland.
But wouldn’t you expect that these worlds are...connected? Wouldn't you expect continents, maybe? A Star Wars constellation of stars?
Probably. Otherwise isn't it just a more 3D version of the Web?
But the concept of a map of the Metaverse highlights some of the profound challenges in how our shared future universe is shaped.
Building a Map: A Thought Experiment
Here’s one version of what a map of the Metaverse could be. This isn’t a proposal, really…it’s a thought experiment.
- A new “meta domain” layer is created which serves as a map of the Metaverse. In theory, the map itself could be three-dimensional, but for now let’s think of it as a giant blank grid. Each point on that grid holds metadata: the URL of the world it contains, maybe even 3D objects showing what they look like from a distance.
- Worlds are registered on this map by their owners. They choose the placement and the size. The larger the space you decide to occupy (in order, in theory, to get more traffic - or as a way to contain multiple entry points), the more expensive it is. So, registering a single square might cost you $10. But each adjacent square costs a 4-fold amount. Two squares = $10 + $40. Four squares = $10 + $40 + $160 + $640 etc
- You can MOVE your squares for a fee. The fee increases based on the frequency with which you move it. This will encourage ‘worlds’ to move into clusters, while discouraging over-frequent ‘parking’.
- The map is based on blockchain so that all of the placements and transactions are open and transparent.
- The base map has an API. Anyone can build on top of the base map. So, if someone wants to create a space-themed version of traveling across the map they can. Each map builder might find new ways to monetize their map: one might add an entertainment layer on top and charge worlds for adding icons or whatever.
- How each map maker represents travel between the worlds is up to them.
- The map starts out relatively small. It grows (maybe additional 'rings' are added to the core map, extending its size) based on density.
Finally, the fees would be collected by a non-profit DAO. These fees would fund the base infrastructure of the map of the Metaverse, and in addition would go towards:
- Open Metaverse standards and best practices. The Open Metaverse Initiative, for example, might be one of the bodies that receives funding from the DAO
- Metaverse safety and privacy research.
- Policy and legal advocacy. Initiatives that focus on lobbying governments.
[As a side note, Facebook is spending considerable effort and money on lobbying government on Metaverse standards. Do we really want Facebook as the organization driving future standards?]
For the user, there is now a way to visualize the Metaverse. "Worlds" which add themselves to the map are making a statement: "we want to be part of this larger, interoperable universe...your avatar, your inventory and your wallet are welcome here".
As a user, you can travel through the Metaverse using the interfaces by the companies who build on top of the base map: one of them is a space-theme, one of them is corporate, and maybe they charge you for premium skins or for premium data layers.
Over time, the map might grow to be so large that specialized continents or map layers help us to navigate through it based on interests.
A sense of history will emerge: those few core worlds at the center and then spiralling galaxies spinning off. Entire continents for socializing, entire solar systems devoted to Bored Apes.
Like the Wayback Machine, the map of the Metaverse is stored, its evolution instantly viewable because data is on the blockchain.
A Slower, Less Siloed Metaverse
As I say, this isn’t meant to be a proposal. It’s a thought experiment which lets us explore whether there are different ways to envision how users will travel through the Metaverse.
I was trying to think through a few things:
- How do we let the community self-organize?
- Can we encourage the kind of serendipity that used to be way more common on the Web? Can we find ways to discover new digital content that doesn’t rely solely on whatever we see on social media?
- Can a map help us to slow down? What’s the future equivalent of doom-scrolling in the Metaverse? If there is more of a sense of travel…of journeys…can we help to create more human interactions and serendipity?
- Can a map allow for cultures to emerge and flourish? Can we create little corners of the Metaverse for different forms of self-expression?
- Can we find new ways to monetize ‘traffic’? If all we end up with are links and teleport hubs….isn’t that the same model that led to massive data silos like Google Search and social media as a main driver of traffic?
- How will governance happen in the Metaverse? In addition to our avatars carrying around 'permissions', how will things like violence or kid-friendly spaces self-organize? Can this happen in a way that avoids huge data silos?
The Challenges of a Map
But even this thought experiment quickly bumps up against bigger questions.
A ‘Map of the Metaverse’ circles us back to questions about how it might best be constructed, what its boundaries are, and how it will be governed:
We want interoperability - but does this apply to everything? A lot of effort, for example, is being invested in 'universal' avatars. Whether you're grabbing an avatar from Ready Player Me or maybe one of the super secret CloneX NFT Avatars from RTFTK you're going to want to..well, to be YOU, right? But what happens when you drop into a Star Wars world? Will it require a dress code? Or what about your inventory? Will you be allowed to bring a gun to a knife fight?
Thinking about a map of the Metaverse is also a way of thinking about how we'll transition between spaces. I might be travelling the Metaverse in a spaceship but, like a crew member in Star Trek, I might need to assume the local culture and costume in order to 'do no harm'.
What effect do links and teleportation hubs have on the aggregation of audiences? Most of the current work on the Metaverse assumes some sort of 3D-style URL. It makes sense: a URL is really just a way to request content from some distant server. And so a Metaverse-URL is a way for a user's machine to request a 'world' from a distant server. But doesn't this also risk all of the same traffic-shaping and user-tracking woes of the past? Don't we just end up resorting to search giants and social media portals as our entryways into the Metaverse? What would a more community-focused 'search' look like? Might it look a bit like a map?
Not all worlds will look alike. In fact, a world might be a little room where you show off 3D scans of your cat. To the degree that the little room can be linked to other little rooms - is it a world? Maps create a challenge that way: you can't necessarily map the actual size of a world onto a 'meta-map'. But then if all we have are a bunch of separate 3D spatial experiences - will there be a Metaverse at all? Or is it just a 3D Web? A 3D Web supported by a bunch of optional standards, maybe, but not really what people mean by the next version of the Internet (or, indeed, the Metaverse).
Will 3D experiences bridge the physical world? By most definitions, the Metaverse encompasses AR, VR, mobile, etc. And it probably should! Computers don't care whether a 'world' is real or not. They roughly interpret spatial relations the same way. And as a user, I might want to attend an Arianna Grande concert - and do so either by logging in to a fully immersive world, or by having her pop up in my living room. For the developer, a single source of truth can be delivered to multiple devices and interfaces.
I mentioned previously that I think of Sketchfab as a headless CMS for the Metaverse. By which I meant that Metaverse content will often be separate from the delivery interfaces. If the Metaverse doesn't priviledge a particular interface, then AR devices earn the right to be included. But how would a map of the Metaverse apply when it's distributed into reality itself?
Do You Want to Browse...Or Travel?
My little mental exercise on maps opened up all kinds of questions: about standards, governance, user experiences, and whether we're setting out to truly create spatially connected worlds, or we're creating a bunch of worlds that are only loosely connected.
But it also had me realizing that there is a range of possible futures. We don't necessarily need to choose: we can both browse, teleporting into little 3D spaces from Instagram, say, and also travel - setting sail in my imagined ship and discovering new worlds, delighting in the serendipity of a new universe.
Do you want to browse...or travel? And if both, what are the circumstances that would have you choose?
And most of all: do you want the Metaverse to evolve as a grassroots, community-led, cultural phenomenon....or do you want it to end up on the same path that brought us to the Web as it is today, dominated by a few silos, governed by control and measurement of our clicks?
The way that we develop a map of the Metaverse might not prevent us from the more dystopian future that fiction warns us against - but at least thinking about it lets us ask how to arrive, like my poor tired horse, in the well-lit streets of St Denis, ready for a bath, a shave, and a rest from the weary trail.
We're in this together. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Twitter.
Let's start a conversation.