Cosplayers On Coke, Computers, Communication, Competition, And Lack Thereof
Wherein The Funny Rabbit On Your Phone Rambles Aimlessly About Conventions, Drug Abuse, And The Current State Of Digital Interaction In An Era Of Social Monopoly
This is an article that was written in the winter of 2021, originally titled "You Are Witnessing The Death Of The True "Metaverse" (Or "The End of Self Expression - One More Final: We Need Views!")"
Due to being about eight months old, it doesn't take into account a lot of recent changes to digital landscapes (i.e. cryptocurrency crashes, impending recessions, changes to sociopolitical climates, the creation of new platforms like Cohost, etc). Try to keep that in mind before you go yelling at me about inaccuracies.
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A bunch of things you're sick of hearing about. But, y'know. In a cool way.
(Certain names and details in this article have been changed in order to protect identities, not ruffle feathers, and in general keep people out of trouble with the law. Except me. I'll take any press I can get, motherfucker.)
It is the year 2019. I'm in a bar, coming down off a disastrous cocktail of illicit substances, waiting for my friend, K. We're getting drinks together to take the edge off before going to host our first official panel on digital remix cultures at a convention. It's a bit of a watershed moment, as for the last handful of years, our friend group has made tradition of doing our panel in a distinctly DIY way -- illegally commandeering an empty table in the merch hall and yelling "YOUTUBE POOP!" at passers by, like crazed fanatics, or religious recruiters. As I sit at the bar, waiting for K, someone dressed as Isabelle from Nintendo's Animal Crossing, donned in what appears to be BDSM petplay gear, approaches the bartender. "Could I get a Long Island?" she squeaks in a high pitched slurry "Oh, and make it a double!" I'm not even slightly taken aback by this sight.
This is normal here, of course.
That morning, I was on a Spirit Airlines flight, sitting, with an unnamed cohort, directly across the aisle from former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her entire family. We both chuckled at how surreal the scenario was, when suddenly, a look of shocked realization washed over her face. "Oh, I forgot to tell you," she said to me, choking back laughter, "I have, like, a bunch of MDMA up my butt right now." I just laughed in response. After our flight landed, I waited outside the gate for Ms. Sanders to emerge. I had a question to ask. She walked out and, thankfully, her family walked to the baggage claim while she lagged behind a bit. Seeing an opportunity, I stopped her, and said "Hey, you're the lady from tv. What's your favorite Fortnite dance?" She grumbled and walked off in a hurry. A couple feet away, a man with a Mega-Man blaster on his arm laughed out loud. Then, with two people I'd just met in person for the first time, I hopped in a cab and rode off to a mansion that a group of us had rented for the weekend, where at least half of what would become the "hyperpop" scene was staying.
This is normal here, of course, of course.
That weekend, I would become so impossibly strung out that, by the 3rd night of the event, I found myself stumbling around this tiny seaside town muttering phrases like "Xbox Gaming Moment'' and "Excuse me sir, did you know I am going Sick of Mode?" to strangers. Meanwhile, a roving gang of confused police officers tried, unbeknownst to me, to track me down, as I'd gotten so inebriated that I'd forgotten that weed wasn't legal in Maryland, and had been walking around the streets smoking out of an apple. At the aforementioned "Youtube Poop Panel", a friend would nearly incite a riot by silently approaching a microphone, during a Q&A session, and wordlessly eating an unpeeled banana. The night after, a group of 20-30 people would be crowding themselves into a vending machine room in the residency area of the hotel, performing an unofficial DJ showcase with nothing but laptops and bluetooth speakers (quickly dubbed a "Pepsi Party"), while I railed adderall off hotel property just outside the door.
This is normal here, of course, of course, of course.
For all intents and purposes, this was the moment I became truly aware of how blurred the lines between digital and physical worlds had become, and, thus far, the closest I'd ever been to experiencing "the internet" in real life. This is MAGfest; a "Music And Gaming Festival" that winds up being more like a four day long drug-fueled Bemani Teenage Riot within the confines of The Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, MD, and to me, a devout fan of its chaos, its eccentricities embody everything that the internet has allowed to be possible in the last 30 years.
So why then is it that this specific brand of hedonism, so native to the internet, is getting harder and harder to find on mainstream social platforms?
A Quick Clarification
Before we get into this, I need to clarify something. The word "hedonism", to many people, carries a particularly sexual connotation. I do not disavow this iteration of its ideological teachings, but as someone who finds themselves identifying more and more with the asexual community these days, I find very little interest in it. So in the context of this article, hedonism does not refer explicitly to things that only happen behind closed doors. The personal definition of hedonism I have come to accept is one more akin to that of pure freedom; the acceptance of one's most base desires, regardless of what a more polite society might say of them, and the pursuit of becoming a version of oneself capable of achieving their personal happiness (within a somewhat loose boundary of purely objective morality, of course.) "Freaks”, as those that seek pleasure are often called, are vital to the very core functions of civilization from my perspective.
History, And Our Foley In Forgetting
(AKA “The Pseudothesis”)
Let's go back, many years, to a time before I was even cognizant, let alone able to use a computer. Usenet, IRC, and the age of Dial-Up. "Web 1.0" as it came to be known. I've had my fair share of moments with IRC, using it way back when for various gaming communities in a pre-Discord era, when running a voice chat server through Ventrilo cost monthly server fees, but Usenet was always an anomaly to me. In the modern context, access to it was sold attached to a monthly fee, almost always as a scam, on various shady torrenting websites in lieu of a proper download link. But from the mouths of many of its former power-users, UseNet was more akin to a primitive IRC, or a prototype phpBB architecture, allowing its users to set up their own personal forums and bulletin board messaging systems, mixed with a filesharing service like Napster, or Soulseek. Get banned from a certain subdomain? Want a private place just for you and your buddies? A place to share things not normally allowed on major subdomains? Go ahead! The ability to iterate on the initial idea, to make your own server and moderate it the way *you* see fit, without oversight from an overarching system of rules, is built into the architecture. Mind you, many modern programs offer a semblance of this service, but they all have a major flaw in common that something like a phpBB style framework does not; Centralization, and Dissociation of Power.
The Present Day, And The Present Time
In late 2020, facing a global pandemic, and an inability for the nonprofit behind MAGfest to run its yearly events to raise the funds that allow it to exist, things were looking dire. An online, Twitch-based telethon was run to keep the nonprofit afloat long enough to survive another year, and thankfully, they raised the money needed in no time flat. Shortly thereafter, though, disaster struck. Pages upon pages of documents, testimony, and anecdotes from internal MAG members were made public, speaking on the horrific way that they had been treated by the nonprofit’s board of directors. People were left without pay, others abused and manipulated by direct members of the company, and what’s more, without recourse to fight back. Members who had been with the group for years found themselves being pushed out by a newly appointed leader, despite their community efforts being the reason for the event’s continued success. After a long, drawn out rallying of the troops in the form of the MAGfest community, the accused stepped down, and a new board of directors was put into place, allowing those who had been wronged to both find closure in what had happened, while allowing them to continue working on and for the event that they loved.
At the same time, members of the SomethingAwful community faced a similar threat. It had become increasingly apparent that SomethingAwful’s creator, and long-time head, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, was using his position of power and influence to protect himself from a long, storied history of abuse. Not wanting to abandon the community they had worked to build over many, many decades, but also not wanting to continue using a for-pay platform run by an abuser who was prone to pushing scams and schemes onto its users, a campaign was started to oust him from the position of control he had over the forum. After months of long, drawn out battles, a deal was struck, and ownership of the platform was sold to a community member, “Jeffery Of YOSPOS”, and the members of the SomethingAwful community that had been directly responsible for making the website what it was had total control over their communal stomping grounds.
These are just two examples of how platforms being user-owned, and community-run, are vital to the healthy existence of digital spaces, and even more so, indicative of a problem with the world of corporate-owned, advertiser-run platforms we live in today.
In modern, for-profit socialization, the website's decisions are absolute, almost never reversed, and inspired by rulesets written to make platforms more agreeable to the advertisers that fund their massive scale. These decisions are made by a team of nameless and faceless people, who have to make hundreds of snap judgments on moderation per hour in order to meet their quotas, and appeals to these moderation decisions are, if not outright handled by algorithms, oftentimes read and judged by teams of people with no connection to the employees that made the original decision. It's paradoxical in its design; a centralized system whose decisions are so decentralized, that they become immediately devoid of context, leaving most users stuck in an endless void should they ever evoke the ire of fervent fandoms, political pariahs, tweaked-out teens, or all of the above. More often than not, if you're one of the lucky ones who's even given an explanation or reason as to your being outcast, even if you were completely in the right, you have to actually know someone who works directly at the company to make any headway whatsoever on being allowed to defend yourself.
Why then, on paper, would anyone use these kinds of websites? What is the appeal of a service that seeks to digitize communication so it can be sanitized it of its most beautiful, eccentric moments? Well, the alternative would be using services that the people you know in your day to day life likely don't use, which almost always leads to a scenario where you become "out of the loop", or just flat out left out of things people would normally invite you to otherwise. These social monoliths use their impossible-to-compete-with accessibility and nearly infinite advertising money as a weapon to strongarm users like you and I into being required to use them, regardless of if we actually want to, because the more users they have, the more data they can mine and sell. In these ecosystems, if you're not a user, you practically don't exist. (I think specifically to DIY music scenes who only promote their shows on Meta-owned platforms like Facebook and Instagram.)
The problem with the centralization of modern social platforms is not the lack of user control, per se, but rather the lack of user input. We've all heard the old adage at least once in our lives: "they're a private company, they can do whatever they want." That much is true! If a user does not abide by your rules, you have every right to remove them from the community. That's how you prevent things from devolving into what most people would call "anarchy" (though this system has very little in common with the teachings of true anarchists). However, in traditional digital forms of communication, like IRC and Forums, the people making those decisions were members of the communities they moderated. If a decision was unjust, motivated by interpersonal drama rather than the rules of the community, or the greater community felt it to be an incorrect decision, there was an ability for the users to have a direct and open line of communication to the decision makers. Moreover, if enough people felt slighted by this decision, and the people in charge would not listen, then those users had an ability to defect from the community and start their own, and more than just that, their sub-communities had an actual ability to compete with the ones they had abandoned.
Just recently, in the last few years, the members of a decades old Kanye West fan forum, KanyeToThe, staged a mass exodus due to faulty moderation and started their own website, aptly named "KTT2". As of the time of writing, KanyeToThe has all but died off, and KTT2 gets multiple hundreds of posts per hour. It wasn't just real competition, they all but toppled the originating site. When it comes to modern methods of communication that get designated as "social media", this ability for the users to defend, or even speak for themselves simply does not exist. Worse yet, the ability to compete with these monoliths of digital resources erodes further on a daily basis as they continue to further grow the scope of what they control.
In The Shadows Of The Colossi
Compete, and competition, are the keywords here. Traditional forms of digital socialization and communication were by users, for users. Their rules established for the good of the community, the very existence of these websites beholden to their users’ desire to continue using them. Modern socialization monoliths, however, are not in any way beholden to their users; they are beholden to their advertisers, and investors. Take for example Tumblr, a pseudo-microblogging platform that was, in many ways, the birthplace of modern day “fandom” ideology, and spawned many underground cultures. I was once a power-user among its ranks, and can speak endlessly to its wealth of chaotic events. Ask anyone who used the website between 2010 and 2018 about “the human pet guy”, “the person who sent someone their own toe”, “the dashcon ball pit”, or “the bootleg therapist whose parents owned a human slave” and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Tumblr was a site filled with hedonism, especially the sexual kind, where the abnormal became normal, and the surreal was just another day in the life. In 2018, after the site had been sold to AOL, a shocking announcement was made -- the site’s new owners, burning money, desperately seeking ways to make the site more appealing to advertisers, decided to flat out ban any and all sexual content.
A shoddy algorithm was put into place to retroactively remove sexual content from the website, so stringent that it often flagged images with no sexual intentions, almost to comedic effect. As a result of this purge, considering many of the platform’s users came to it exclusively for the pornography, and in the face of massive, unfair, automated censorship of things that did not break the rules at all, there was an exodus. Many users abandoned Tumblr, but rather than create their own platform to house the community that had been run off, they migrated to Twitter, seeing it as the next best thing, practically the only option they had. In a traditional online community, this would have been the death of the website. However, because the decision was not based on user input, but rather input from advertisers, nothing had changed. The ousted community found their new home on Twitter, and Tumblr, now having access to a wider range of advertisers, and lacking any viable competition to its functionality, continued on. Even now I see more and more people returning to Tumblr, yearning for its features that Twitter lacks, re-joining its ranks and simply abiding by the new rules.
This is the nature of competition in a modern social media age, where the communities that inhabit these platforms hold no power, no sway, and have no ability to truly compete. You do not make your own platform for the abandoned and forlorn, you simply defect to one of the other monolithic platforms. People banned from Twitter find a new home on Instagram, people banned from Instagram find a new home on Tumblr, people banned from Tumblr find a new home on Discord, and so on, and so forth. To try and compete with these platforms would not only be futile, but flat out foolish. A user-owned, community-run platform will all but certainly lack the sheer amount of capital necessary to afford the resources required to truly compete with the websites they abandon; server space, moderation, back and front end development, UI design, QA testing, all things that exist just barely out of the reach of those who wish to do battle with the companies that have exiled them.
That hasn’t stopped people from trying, though. Over the years there have been an immeasurable amount of attempts at replicating the success of the social giants. Ello, a website currently taking on the form of a gentrified Deviantart-cum-Instagram, initially launched as nothing more than a paltry imitation of Twitter. Quickly realizing their inability to compete with the services they sought to ape, the site's owners pivoted to a more specific, microcosmic gimmick, pitching their platform as a sort of social-portfolio website for digital artists. Though, by all metrics, this did not help them compete with the giants, it was enough to ensure the continued existence of the service, as it still goes on today.
But what of attempts not at just competition, but full replacement? Mastodon, a decentralized Twitter-like platform that allows for users to create their own versions of its core network, known as “Instances”, has existed for many years now. On paper, one would think that Mastodon would be a veritable oasis in a desert of user autonomy, as it meets all the criteria and seemingly addresses all the issues I’ve outlined above. There lies, however, a massive problem in Mastodon as competition for a website like Twitter -- it is so fragmentary in its design that it lacks any amount of collective power. It is simply not enough for a user, banned from the main instance of Mastodon, to create their own instance for them and theirs. Despite the on-paper similarities to the aforementioned Usenet, these fragmentary instances quickly become skinner boxes, self-contained holding grounds for communities seen as unacceptable for the service’s core instance. With the ability for instances themselves to be removed from existence by the website’s core team, and specific lack of customization in the framework, each instance is all but identical in functionality and design, and the platform becomes less like a modern day web 1.0, and more like a version of Twitter where you have to opt-in to a dizzying amount of different instances just to see what your friends are saying. Much like how Mastodon has no ability to compete with Twitter, sub-domain instances of Mastodon have no ability to compete with its core instance. On top of this, security issues with the very foundation of the website allow any number of invasive practices, from instances being entirely removed from the network by the service's creator, to administrators and moderators being able to read users private messages in plaintext.
What you wind up being left with are a litany of in-fighting communities all eating each other alive in private rooms, so focused on internal drama that there’s no sense of group cohesion that would allow the service to truly topple a giant like Twitter. By trying to have its cake (decentralized framework) and eat it too (having a centralized “core” instance with overarching moderation), it becomes nothing more than an insular gamification of the cycle of defecting to other monoliths described above.
What Is, And What Could Be
Let's return to MAGfest.
The first MAG I attended, in 2015, was almost entirely by mistake. A friend of mine, who lived in Ohio at the time, had her travel plans to the convention fall though. Thinking on her feet, knowing I had a car, and loved to drive cross-country, she messaged me and invited me to the convention about a week beforehand. So I loaded up my car, got my money in order, and set off on one of the longest and most grueling road trips of my life: 24hrs straight, from central Mississippi, up to western Ohio, then out east to southwest Maryland, all in one sitting. By the end of that road trip, I had consumed enough caffeine to probably kill a small animal. There's many anecdotes from this trip I'd love to share, like how I got to learn in real time how sleep deprivation lowered alcohol tolerance after blacking out on two shots of Bacardi 151 and losing basically everything I owned, wallet included, as a result of that, or how someone invited me into a hotel room because they wanted to show me a duffel bag full of personal lubricant from a website that makes sex toys for furries they'd bought as a joke for a friend who didn't even show up that year. But one story, from this first adventure into digital realms made physical, sticks out in my mind in a modern context.
Having come down from my nightmarish flirtation with rum that could strip the paint off a car, I made my way out to the convention's unofficial smoking area, and started what would become a years-long obsession with making friends with the convention's most depraved attendees. My first year, I wound up befriending a man in a Slayer t-shirt who was unreasonably drunk simply by offering him a cigarette. He was a blast to be around, constantly stumbling everywhere, loudly belting out songs, all but begging people to join in on his off-key renditions of them.
At one point, I wound up a little cold from the winter weather, and felt myself itching to play some games at the convention's 24-hour arcade, so I politely informed him I was going back inside. Slurring out something I still to this day cannot parse, he apparently decided to follow me inside, where he almost immediately slumped against a wall. As I stood there talking to another friend of mine, a muscular man dressed EXACTLY like Japan's favorite wrestler-turned-comedian Razor Ramon Hard Gay walked past us. This inspired my drunk, slayer shirt adorned friend to pull me in closer and whisper "Hey... I wanna fight that guy..." Almost giddy at what was about to happen, I stopped the cosplayer and simply said to him "Excuse me, my friend over there said he wants to fight you."
Wordlessly, without a moment's hesitation, the cosplayer walked over to the drunk man, lifted him up off the ground, and took a fighting stance. I watched in glee as these two men wrestled one another in the glowing moonlight of a swanky hotel lobby at four in the morning. What relevance does this have to the topic at hand? This fight took place directly in front of staff, about 6 of them, who were working security at the doors to the entrance to the convention itself, effectively a half-step down from security. These staff members not only didn't stop the fight, nor did they radio for anyone to stop them. No, these people began cheering the two battling men on, laughing as they did so, because like any good event, a large majority of MAGfest's staff is made up of volunteers and attendees -- members of the community they govern.
The next year, when I returned to MAG of my own volition, I ran into the man I knew only as "Slayer Shirt Guy" in the smoking area once again. He'd traded the slayer shirt for a jean jacket with a massive Electric Wizard patch on the back of it, but I recognized his face immediately, and went up to say hello and thank him for the show last year. Over the course of our conversation, I found out he was not only working for MAG as staff this year, but he was *head of security* for the musical acts. This is a direct image of what the internet once was, and could be: a garden of terror and pleasure, self regulated, protected, and made accessible to all by the people most willing to bare witness to the true depths of its madness.
But if the aforementioned impromptu wrestling had happened, in equivalency, though modern digital communication channels, not only would this story not have a happy ending, embodying the spirit of what digital spaces allow us to do, it's highly likely both people involved would’ve been kicked off the platform it occurred on by a strung out, overworked moderator, who lacked context for the interaction, within days, if not hours.
The beauty of digital spaces has always been in their complete abstraction from the rules of the physical world, the limitless heights of their ceilings. The true equalization of information and communications technologies is allowing the physically weak to fight against the physically strong on a level playing field, for the unknown to become known, the socially isolated to find community, and the poor and downtrodden to find wealth and purpose. In spite of that, in an era of blockchain technology and NFTs, technology being rapidly adopted by major sectors of US commerce, that on paper could have been used to create systems that allowed for mass redistribution of wealth (and was attempted initially, though quickly disregarded on all sides, with people like Li Jin and her concept of “Universal Creative Income”), we find that the disparity between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, merely grows every passing day.
There are VR spaces with blockchain-integrated maps, such that one can own a completely unique-to-them domicile in a virtual space, that no one but them can have access to, effectively introducing artificial scarcity into a virtual space, setting the stage for the existence of digital homelessness. On paper, sure, this might not seem like an existential threat when we’re talking about something happening on an optional platform, regulated to a device that you can stop using whenever you want. But what of 10, 15, even 20 years from now? These same arguments could have been made with regards to the price of computers in the 80s and 90s, when the internet was something almost exclusive to college campuses, in the age before the Eternal September, and look where we are now. Existence in the modern era without a computer is all but unimaginable, and although possible, extremely difficult. What happens when VR technologies become like traditional computational technologies; ingrained in our way of life, inescapable to the average person, and more invasive in their scope? What of digital homelessness then? Like was said earlier, this is a looming existential threat to the very way of life, digital or otherwise, we have come to know - our ancient practices legitimized, segmented, and perverted into systems of capital for the sake of exploitation. To put it bluntly, this is literal digital gentrification.
You are probably thinking "oh good, another screed about crypto and its ilk." But I assure you, this is not that. I hesitated to even bring it up, but cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, as of current, have an inherent link to what is being sold to people as "The Metaverse." However, the link between the two is not symbiotic, as the services it enables have existed long before the technology. In fact, all that blockchain technology offers, in the grand scheme of things, is a decentralized ticketing system. A mass archive of receipts and transactions that can be combed over and verified by 3rd parties. All of the services it claims to enable, all of the things that "wouldn't be possible" without it, have always been possible. From Dread Pirate Roberts to the recent smattering of technocrat-backed "Non Fungible Tokens", everything that's being done now has always been done. Where there is now TOR, and services like the long-defunct Silk Road and Alphabay, where one can buy a litany of drugs with bitcoin, lytecoin, and etherium, there were once IRC servers where one could buy any number of illicit substances with nothing more than a wire transfer, or in later years, paypal transfers. Where there are now "1 of 1" drawings of animal characters being bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars, there was once an underground market of suspiciously wealthy furries paying top dollar for fetish art of their favorite copyrighted characters, or even original characters they had designed. Where there are now "pay-to-earn" games, whose in-world items exist as NFTs, not only allowing, but actively promoting the idea of these rewards being sold for profit, there were once a litany of Ebay listings for gold in Runescape, housing in SecondLife, and even later, entire marketplaces and digital economies birthed from the item drops in Team Fortress 2. These practices have been core to life on the internet since the very moment it was available to home consumers, and these modern iterations of ancient practices serve no purpose other than to legitimize them as new forms of capital to be exploited by centralized systems. It's not a shifting of the balance of power to those without it, it is merely re-shuffling the pyramid to have different leaders.
What's It All Mean? What's (S)he Sayin When (S)he Says It?
Here, so many paragraphs in, we finally arrive at a thesis statement: if the concept of a "metaverse" is predicated on the idea of a point of convergence between the physical and the digital, then metaverses have already existed for decades in the form of conventions, "IRL Meetups", and the like. But where these events bring the rules of internet to the real world, a Zuckerbergian approach to a virtual metaverse seeks to bring the rules of the real world to a digital space, thereby stripping it of its uniqueness, and turning something with limitless potential into a watered down, focus-tested, boardroom approved tool for the continued erosion of user privacy and workplace productivity mining. When pitching their technologies, Meta almost always focuses on the most boring, walled garden, corporate applications of their software. Sure, you could argue that's simply who they're marketing to, and that it won’t be all it is used for, but with Facebook's history of trigger happy moderators, whose overreach in what would normally be private conversation is vast, and early iterations of Facebook-run social spaces in VR constantly recording audio AND video feeds for the sake of snap moderation decisions, it does not seem a stretch, to me, to assume that this overreach will merely extend itself. Worse yet, when tired moderators have 3 entire dimensions of full sensory input to judge multiple hundreds of times per day, even more people will fall through the cracks of the system. Moreover, when the rules of these spaces are not inspired by what creates a stable, functioning community, but what makes them more appealing to advertisers.
The fact these technologies are being marketed exclusively to people already at the top of the food chain is a core problem. This is a practice that, due to the lack of an ability for the end user to compete with them, over time becomes a means of virtual gentrification. Meta has entered a world that existed long before it, planted its flag in the ground, and loudly proclaimed "We created this." They are buying up what little freedoms we digital freaks have at dirt cheap prices, sanitizing them, and selling them at a 1000% markup to collectors, debutantes, and businesses. They seek not to exist alongside or in competition with the spaces we created for ourselves, but become so gargantuan in their size that they consume our cultures, our spaces, and become the only option. It's one thing when a user on a social platform is denied a voice, but with VR bringing the internet into the third dimension, these practices will deny users their very existence.
We are lucky in that Meta is late to this game, and they are the competition, existing counter and foil to the (relatively) decentralized and more niche VR Chat, where one can make their own maps, start their own instances of popular maps, and hundreds of thousands of user-created “avatar worlds” allow you to take the form of a litany of characters, both copyrighted and original, with VR Chat’s core moderation team typically letting niche communities moderate themselves, and only stepping in when harassment becomes a real issue. Similarly, however, we are unlucky in the wake of the fact that Meta is a company with near endless resources, near endless money, and a complete lack of regulation on these subjects in the technological world. They are in a perfect position to simply buy up their competition, strip them of what makes them unique, and turn them into yet another means of marketing to non-users. Furthermore, Meta as a company has already been engaging in practices of this nature with regards to software for its (as of current) flagship Quest 2 ecosystem. If that doesn't scream to you as both literal and metaphorical gentrification, I truly don't know what would.
In order to push this technology to its truest limits, to have it be a force for real societal change, we can not hand the keys to the kingdom to productivity-focused companies beholden to ad revenue like Meta. The societies birthed by these technologies must be built on the idea of self-moderating, smaller communities, existing under a self-replicating framework, with central points of convergence created by community members, allowing for co-mingling between these fragmentary cultures if they so choose, and not dominant, primary instances. The future is not an overworked moderator forced to wear a VR headset for the entirety of their 9 to 5, a company's systems administrator keeping close watch over their pulse and where their eyes are looking to make sure they aren't distracted. The future is not a continued increase in workplace monitoring software that, often times, quickly begets workplace abuse. The future is now, and has always been, in the hands of the freaks, the trolls, the losers, the autistic, the socially forlorn, the suspended, and the permabanned. The future is a bored 17 year old, with an avatar of an oversexualized anime character, running around in a manic state, doing a 1:1 impression of Hank Hill and giving you a middle finger. That is the true nature of the internet, the one that has existed since the days of dial-up, where people are allowed the height of freedom in the most vast library of information the world has seen since Alexandria. A place where knowledge is so vast and easily accessible that the average human being doesn’t know what to do with it, and starts slapping bits and pieces of it together just to see what happens.
The “metaverse”, then, is merely the point at which these online communities begin to have real-world impact. The metaverse is a place where an unquestionably important art movement created by bored teenagers teaching themselves to use pirated video editing software can not only will itself into existence on sheer willpower and memetics, but become a core part of the modern cultural DNA, and how people communicate, and still get away with calling itself “YouTube Poop.” A place where human body language and humor in the real world can be so heavily influenced by the bored and isolated entertaining themselves with early 3D rigging software in the form of Source Filmmaker, or Garry’s Mod, that it leads to a mass wave of school-aged children T-posing as a joke, that in retrospect it can be seen as prototypical "TikTok Humor." Where a new wave of pop music can be birthed from a series of online music festivals hosted in Mojang’s Minecraft, where bedroom DJs spin mixes made entirely of uncleared samples, obscure memes, and bootleg remixes/mashups, in the middle of an otherwise debilitating and isolating global pandemic. A place where these technologies are not platforms and ecosystems made to mine content, data, and money from its users, but are treated more like tools, things with which you can create anything you want.
That is the future I fear we are going to lose, as increasing complexity of communications technologies, and the looming specter of cutthroat corporate practices, make it harder and harder for that kind of bored freak to build their own networks. To me, losing that renegade spirit, that no-holds-barred energy of hedonistic self expression, all because someone thinks you’re making them look bad to their masters by their letting you so much as exist, is not only akin to childish high school lunch table politics, but, left unchecked, will be the literal death knell of the freedom allowed by digital spaces. The metaverse is dying, and in its place, an edited down simulacrum of its former glory is being erected to trick the old vanguard into giving up what they once fought to create, all in the name of “legitimizing” their cultures. So I ask: will you fight for those you find unsavory? The embarrassing, and the cringe? Or will you merely twiddle your thumbs until you become that which is being forced out? This only ends one way - full sterilization - and if you think that your little group of ruffians is going to survive just because you use your collective power for the benefit of the people in charge, you’re likely beyond help.
One More, For The Road
The year is 2018. I'm walking around the hallways of the Gaylord, right around five in the morning. I'm talking to a friend, L, who was a staff member for a particularly infamous anime-centric website back in its heyday. I ran into him by pure chance as I was on my way out, trying to catch a cab to my hotel after waking up hungover in another friend's bathtub covered in hastily applied makeup, wearing half a Hatsune Miku costume. We were passing the time talking about how fantastic MAGfest is, and why we found ourselves coming back every year. "It's like, if only for a brief moment, I get to put my phone down, and still live in the same world I was just looking at. Everyone from the computer is here, and they're all having the time of their life." I said. He nodded in agreement, and replied "Yeah, this place has very quickly become South By Southwest for shitposters." I loved every syllable of what he had said. I took a moment to soak it in, smiled, and then projectile vomited into a nearby trash can, getting puke on my blue wig. "I hope this feeling never goes away, '' I said with a spark in my eye, wincing as the bile ate away at my throat. "I hope all this filth is encased in amber."
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