Image: Doodle House via Vice
It did not really hit me that I was in a special sort of hell until I was walking aimlessly through Austin for SXSW and came across a venue with a few inflated geodesic domes. There were large 3D anthropomorphic rabbits plastered everywhere, which I gathered were somehow related to crypto though it wasn’t clear how. Large screens inside and outside of the domes streamed a panel where a member of Linkin Park crafted a song that would be minted as an NFT as a discussion about the liberatory potential of the metaverse carried on. And somewhere, a loud voice rang out a cultish mantra: “This is changing the future. This is FLUF House. This is the Hume Collective, so remember why you are here. Remember the power that you have. The power of this community, and when it gets hard, remember you are not alone.”
This week, while at SXSW to speak on two panels about crypto-skepticism and algorithmic labor, I was able to check out if crypto, NFTs, web3, and the metaverse really were taking over Austin. What I found was a deeply underwhelming, mundane, and frankly pathetic series of demonstrations and setups that suggest if these digital technologies do take over the world, it’ll be because of how much money their biggest boosters have and how easy it is for that money to generate interest as opposed to anything of true social utility.
NFT art installations, augmented and virtual reality (collectively called “XR” or extended reality at SXSW) demonstrations like Facebook offering a digital POV where you were the last person rescued from the rubble left by the 9/11 attacks—an absurd and disturbing idea for a “metaverse” that became an emblematic symbol of this year’s SXSW. But that’s not all. There were crypto-influencer parties and DJ sets, metaverse panels, and drones forming QR codes in the sky to advertise the upcoming television adaptation of the Halo video game series. In fact, one company that the state of Texas has accused of selling unregistered securities―Celsius Network, one of the world’s largest crypto lenders―was front and center in one of SXSW’s exhibit halls set aside for booth presentations.
For some attendees, I’m sure all this felt like the future was here. And yet, despite all the talk I heard about ushering in a new era of diversity and inclusion, it was hard to not notice that every room felt largely the same: mobs of white wealthy men who quickly volunteered that they worked in finance, tech, marketing, or some buzzy fusion of the three. This, at a conference in a state where a series of anti-trans legislative and executive pushes culminated in Governor Greg Abbott directing the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate families of trans children who receive gender-affirming care last month.
When the conversation inevitably touched upon the industry’s apparent homogeneity at SXSW despite making strides in recent years, the same old sort of posturing followed.
“I don’t want to live in a metaverse built by white men,” Alex Smeele, the white co-founder of New Zealand NFT project FLUF, told me in an interview. “If we don’t engage the rest of the world―the First Nations storytellers, Indigenous people―it’s gonna be a really shit metaverse. Black people invented culture.”
The FLUF Project is a venture by New Zealand creative studio Non-Fungible Labs, offering a collection of three-dimensional rabbit avatars as the cornerstone of a community. The focus on rabbits traces back to a giant Flemish rabbit owned by a creative director that Smeele said has become the “God of our ecosystem.”
While FLUF doesn’t have much of a public roadmap (Smeele said “I don’t think anyone would believe the stuff we have planned” and “when you commit to a roadmap from far out, especially in such a fast-moving industry, you often kind of dig yourself into a hole”), it seems to largely center on creating an ecosystem that can be fully commercialized by community members who will also be content creators and consumers. All that is then wrapped up in rhetoric about creating fully commodified and commercialized communities where interactions are mediated by transactions and markets that will actually liberate people from a world dominated by transactions and markets.
“The biggest opportunity of the metaverse: it’s actually just the ability to unlock people’s creativity again. I think everyone is born creative, but current educational structures just squeezes that out of most people pretty quickly,” Smeele said. “So it’s about how we can rethink how we learn how we play, how we work in ways that feed back to the society as a whole and empower the individual.”
Now, FLUF isn’t particularly unique amongst the crypto projects at SXSW, but it is emblematic: crypto’s speculative fervor has driven it to a total market capitalization of $1.8 trillion (down from a November peak of $3 trillion), each project speaks in incredibly soaring rhetoric about how it would change the world (an “open metaverse” was FLUF’s Manchurian Candidate wake word), but almost none of that was decipherable when you actually entered a space they spent time and money designing themselves.
Like most of the crypto “activations” (another word for installation), FLUF had free drinks (though one of the bars was infested with bees so I kept my distance) and live music and screens playing panels attended by FLUF co-founders. There were large dimly lit domes, one of which had an altar to a rabbit within and above pictured visions of an overgrown Bugs Bunny trapped in a sparse desert cave. “This feels like a bad trip,” I heard someone mutter at the exact moment I leaned over to tell a friend the same thought.
Above us, a woman in a trance stood on a platform and plucked on harp strings that spanned the length of the venue with such vigor that a few people I talked to and eavesdropped on debated whether she was actually playing or a recording was doing the work.
“I’m not really sure what the point of any of this is,” Liam, a social marketing manager who held a few crypto-tokens, told me during one of my visits to FLUF’s installation. “It’s all a bit lame and I don’t see any use for this but maybe other people are interested so maybe I should buy in?”
“I wish I knew what any of this was supposed to mean,” one attendee told me before shrugging and leaving the venue. Another person who tried to play me in beer pong (a table was set up near vendor booths near the front) laughed when I asked if they had a FLUF NFT and ignored my attempts to ask again. A couple I met in one of the domes argued for a bit about what the purpose of the project was: “a metaverse where we could be animals” said one while the other insisted “an NFT project with a 3D home.”
There’s something to all those attempts at an understanding. FLUF imagines it’ll use “infinite scarcity” to create highly curated worlds with “a mix of the best elements of triple A title games” as well as community content. Smeele imagined something like a “Lord of the Rings world” along the lines of Player Ready One’s branded universes, his descriptions conjuring up images of existing products like Halo‘s Forge or Epic Games’ Fortnite, but somehow less free than the former and more commodified than the latter.
Still, the most common comment from attendees was that they wagered they could make money off of it because they either knew of or heard of people flipping their NFTs for a profit. This, not a desire for community or curation, was the dominant sentiment I encountered not just at FLUF but a host of other crypto, web3, metaverse, and NFT projects and events. When asked about how to curb the sort of speculative interest that seems to drive a lot of interest in the industry, FLUF said they hoped to design NFTs to disincentivize flipping Fluffs.
“You can’t ignore the fact that people are seeing this as a way to develop an alternative revenue stream. Your generation has been locked out of the housing market,” said Brooke Howard-Smith, another FLUF co-founder. “We can try to find mechanisms and build a community dialogue, when new people come in. I don’t want to say ‘doctrinated’ but certainly onboarded by our super-positive, super inclusive [community].”
It didn’t really matter whether it was an empty “algorave” DJ set at BlockChain Creative Labs (which was a major sponsor of SXSW this year) that scarcely mentioned crypto or the company’s own work or whether there were a few spectacles to play around with like at the Doodles House with a wall that let you control a cursor to try out Paint but on a large screen, or an “XR” showcase like Marcel.art’s Gallery where digital artists showcased their art as NFTs. It all was surprisingly mundane and underwhelming.
Crypto’s never-ending appearance at SXSW seemed less like a grand conquest than a quiet takeover complete with influencers (Paris Hilton, for example, hosted a DJ set one night), free booze, gimmicky setups, networking, vague program descriptions, and the always-present promise of more money to be made (or lost if you don’t join in).
But then again, of course this is the case. Most of the hype around crypto, NFTs, web3, and metaverse is being generated, after all, by already wealthy participants eager to bring fresh blood to the casino. I just expected that the inordinate wealth present in this space would mean something more impressive than Second Life mods being projected onto screens—but maybe that means the hype is working if I naively anticipated anything other than spectacles given how little of this space is anything other than speculation: speculative finance, speculative tech, and speculative visions.