More Than Skin Deep: The Commodification of Subculture, Alt-Aesthetics, + Identity
In other news, Hardwear for the wearable Internet, and how TSwift's Midnights brings up the eternal question: if you build it, will they come?
1/ Interoperable Identities
Stranger Things is popular in part because of the nostalgia punch it packs. Like the wonder of entering a mall for the first time:
Ah, the 80s. Simpler times. In the American imagination, the mall represented Good Daddy Capitalism. A safe place for teenagers to roam, unsupervised. To discover and experiment with new identities away from the watchful eyes of parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Your parents might still see you as a kid, but at the mall, who was going to stop you from getting that sick Hot Topic chain wallet? It was a one-stop shop for everything you could want, and a social hangout to boot. The place where many of us were free to find ourselves.
Of course, the rise of the mall came with consequences — as local makers that were truly tapped into subcultures saw their stores shuttered to make way for identical Foot Lockers, Urban Outfitters, and Spencer’s outposts for the sake of corporate efficiency.
Now in the year of our Lord 2022, the reign of the mall is over. Many now sit eerily empty, if not abandoned altogether. The Internet has replaced it as the place for teens to discover what’s cool/ what’s not/ and what works for them, and Good Daddy Capitalism has revealed himself to be Bad Daddy Capitalism — as e-commerce one-upped the concept of one-stop-shopping with the instant gratification of add-to-cart and two-day shipping.
Thanks to the mainstreaming of social media and gaming, we’ve all gotten accustomed to the concept of digital goods and online handles. Like the malls of yesteryear, who you were IRL didn’t have to be who you were online. Finstas, PFPs, skins and avatars have given all of us a new avenue to try on a new persona on for size.
Gamers know these incremental purchases by another name — microtransactions, or DLC. They were designed to supplement the game you already paid for without altering the core experience: some offered to shave down on grind time, or promised to deliver additional “episodes” of story after the main campaign was over. Others were purely cosmetic. Overall, they are probably (definitely) a net negative for the person buying the game because:
It represented the piecemealing of [ experience], the splitting up of the usual full package into discrete chunks. It would enable companies to push out half-baked titles and hope they could salvage them post-launch.
- Ivan Hernandez, Polygon.
But hate ‘em or tolerate ‘em, skins scratched that “experimentation with identity” itch — in the same way one visit to the mall once paved the way for your grunge/ prep/ streetwear phase. There's always been a fine line between fandom, subculture, and identity — but now, it's more fragmented than ever. Alt-aesthetics are building increasingly specific niches as our identities expand beyond the limits of our DNA, and the commodification of these aesthetics has only just begun.
Now, for just a few bucks, you could now show off your aesthetic to a global community.
Entire new economies were hastily erected, and the gaming industry morphed to accommodate them. Cynical, yes. But also lucrative — as over $60B was spent on online microtransactions in 2021. Some consider these cosmetic “upgrades” a necessary evil. Games cost thousands of man hours to produce and the industry already has a huge problem with “crunch culture.” The proceeds from DLC/ skins/ and microtransactions literally keep developers invested in maintaining the worlds they create. Epic Games’ Fortnite is the most successful to date. It’s spawned a new “juvenile social peer pressure…where the kid with knockoff sneakers was comparable to the no-skin.”
“These market-oriented free-to-play live service games at their worst are fast fashion, disposable corporate visions meant to sap income from a revolving door of users…[The problem was] when these games shut down, their items go with them. A Shein piece might wear out after a few uses; a live-service game takes your purchases to the grave.”
You can’t take it with you…but what if you could? As the metaverse develops and more venues crop up to express your identit(ies), surely, that skin you bought should be able to journey with you from platform to platform. Sandbox to sandbox. But that’s the problem:
There’s currently no way for us to maintain our digital selves—and the assets we own—across these platforms. But the Metaverse does exist. It’s just that, instead of living inside those worlds, we live them through a looking glass that we can’t cross quite yet.
— Jesus Diaz, Fast Company.
Now, the man who coined the concept of the “metaverse” with the seminal sci-fi novel Snow Crash is working on just that. Neil Stephenson’s company, LAMINA1 is building an interoperable digital economy meant to serve as a base layer for the metaverse.
Rather than being stuck in a walled garden built by Epic Games, Meta, or Apple, consumers who purchase skins built on Lamina1’s infrastructure will be able to take them from one platform/ world to another. And there’s another perk:
“[Peter] Vessenes—who is the company’s CEO and chief cryptographer—says that right now, it takes too much effort for independent developers to build up these persistent digital worlds and monetize them. Lamina1 wants to provide all the necessary underlying technologies to indie developers. These, they hope, will be the ones creating the “cool programs” you will like to live in.”
If Lamina1 succeeds, indie developers won’t have to prioritize monetization first, and the subcultures that give rise to all the alt-aesthetics Bad Daddy Capitalism then commodifies will be able to keep the Internet as weird as it always has been.
2/ Hardwear for the Wearable Internet
If profile picture collections were the Trojan Horse of web3 — an innocuous way for normies to test the waters — we may now be approaching the next stage of adoption, as IRL fashion attempts to bridge the gap from the other direction.
At its simplest, tying physical items to the blockchain solves a number of problems for fashion houses around authentication, validation and counterfeiting. It may look like Gucci, feel like Gucci, even smell like Gucci…but if it’s chip insert is not part of the official NFT collection on the blockchain, then it’s a fake.
But that’s just the beginning. Wearable fashion can extend who you are online into the physical world. Companies like Spatial Labs are already experimenting with phygital applications in their aptly named Hardwear line.
Founder Iddris Sandu, who refers to himself as an “Architectural Technologist,” explains his vision for Hardwear by comparing the launch of the brand to the watershed moment of the 2007 Apple iPhone Keynote:
It's the classic form vs. function debate. Just in a new guise. Apple built an empire by proposing a new design philosophy: why not both? By making devices that were as beautiful and intuitive as they were useful, Apple introduced the general public to the concept of personal computing, mp3 players, and smartphones. For the first time, non-nerds could get a handle on the transformative potential of technology, and the "creative class" could start using Apple software like Garage Band, Keynote, Final Draft, and Final Cut in their day-jobs as musicians, designers, writers, and editors.
Spatial Labs (whose backers include Jay-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners) believes wearables could do the same for web3. Creators who tap into the Hardwear ecosystem can upload ‘digital extras’ to the chip inserts in order to buy and sell phygital goods with personalized utility. For example, Drake could theoretically buy a Hardwear hoodie “upload a Dropbox file of an unreleased album exclusively into the chip, and then [resell] it on LNQ’s marketplace.” The only person who can listen to that mixtape? The owner of the hoodie.
“[Hardwear] gives us the ability to make the items we have sentimental because you can customize each one. Now, the supply and demand of the product is no longer pegged to its scarcity, but a user’s unique experience.”
— Iddris Sandu
Coming at it from the opposite angle (digital-first), NFT brand Azuki recently launched an open-source token standard called the PBT (Physical Backed Token) that’s “scan-to-own.” If you are physically in possession of the the item (hopefully via gift or sale), you can scan the chip insert to establish digital provenance as well.
Azuki, like many NFT projects, has done physical merch drops gated by ownership of the token. That is, a physical experience tied to the digital — but now they see the opportunity to tie a digital experience to the physical with the PBT. An advance that unlocks the ability to send their community on ‘quests’ and potentially upgrade their IRL gear in parallel with the ongoing storyline that’s being shaped digitally. The goal? “A new generation of storytelling and experiences” that continues to blur the lines.
3/ TSwift Schools Everybody on “How to Metaverse”
The definition of a word is shaped by social consensus, and as society evolves, often the meanings of words do as well. “Woke,” for example, took on a brand-new definition in the 2010s, and we’ve seen sentiment shift as it’s been used and misappropriated in the decade since.
‘Metaverse’ has become the latest buzzword to receive the same treatment. When Neal Stephenson first coined in the concept of “a vast, immersive virtual world” or “the 3D Internet” he envisioned virtual reality goggles as the primary point of access. For many early adopters/ purists, that technology is the primary (and maybe only) tenet of the definition. It’s also the critique of many ‘metaverse’ skeptics. They’re not wrong that no one wants to spend their lives living in a video game. Especially the way it exists now — with all the graphical dimension of a PS2:
One thing that everyone does seem to agree on is that it’s being built. And Mark Zuckerberg has, for many, become the (unfortunate) spokesman for the movement.
With the highly-publicized rebrand of Facebook and pivot towards VR, Zuck is taking the ‘if you build it, they will come' approach. But as of now, the stadium is empty. Consumers need a reason to be there other than it simply existing, and Meta hasn’t yet given them that reason (though ofc it’s still early days). If the metaverse is built but no one experiences it…is it a metaverse?
Someone who has gotten the social/experiential part right? Another polarizing personality: Taylor Swift.
For the release of her latest album, Midnights, TSwift’s nailed the interactive and immersive virtual experience part down:
“Over the past several weeks, Swift has presided over a meticulous online rollout: Ahead of the album’s drop, she launched ‘Midnights Mayhem With Me,’ a TikTok video series wherein she released the 13 track names one by one via bingo. This week, she went as far as to release a full launch schedule for fans via Instagram that detailed exactly what would happen at which times and where online—including a “special very chaotic surprise” at 3 a.m. ET last night.
— Caroline Mimbs Nyce, The Atlantic.
During that promised 3 a.m. surprise, Spotify crashed from the influx of Swifties. There’s no doubt that if TSwift ever build a 3D virtual world, it would be packed.
The final definition of metaverse will continue to evolve, and probably will never be — well, definitive — but if the metaverse is simply the next iteration of online connectedness, it should reflect how people are connecting today. And on that point, TSwift’s schooling us all.
Writer/ futurist/ game developer/ and consultant Wagner James Au said it best:
“People building metaverse platforms, most of them think it’s a technology question. But it’s really a community and culture question.”
- Wagner James Au, Why the Metaverse Matters.
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