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Travelling without Moving - Culture and Etiquette in the Metaverse

Kelly Vero, here! Your creative badass, future-gazer, game developer and general metaverse nerd. I really fancy myself as a culture vulture. Some might say that even with a major in Greek and Roman Mythology and a minor in Art History, I’m possibly more of a philistine for turning my back on the traditional norms and focusing a little more on the glorious future. So what happens when you add digital in the mix of the traditional?

The Wonders of the World

Let's start with Fliggy because it brought so much enjoyment to my stints in lockdown. Fliggy is an online travel agency leveraging the Alibaba ecosystem. But it's one of China's most downloaded mobile apps. Why is it one of the most downloaded apps? Well, obviously, because of the quality of what Fliggy stands for, which is travel, but during the pandemic, it stepped up and went deeper into the culture of the world, starting to develop its own virtual experiences we could visit, for example, Palace de Versailles. The private apartments of the King and Queen, as well as les salons (state rooms), were open on a wet Wednesday afternoon from the comfort of my desk. Guided by an actual person, these events sought to enrich the audience with the rich seam of history, but a desire to sign up to visit what we could only eat with our eyes. Fliggy were able to pivot quickly and more importantly, innovate out of a situation. I've talked about something similar in a previous article, but the ability to humanise technology through places I wanted to visit when I was locked down is immeasurable to the strength of self during this time. Literally: if you know, you know. VR did not (and to some extent still doesn’t) provide that connection to people, places and things. Though apps such as Wander or the Google Arts & Culture website may give unbridled access to locations and visual spectacles, they are limited and distanced in their approach to the user experience. Any walls or barrier to entry creates exclusion resulting in short-term retention and a lack of joy; it doesn’t matter how many portraits you have in your galleries. So, I don't accept that 10 million daily active users as of 2020 would feel okay about just sticking with a travel agency app that didn't provide something more connective during a pandemic. In 2022, Fliggy is still killing it. I love Fliggy a lot, despite my not being Chinese, but moreover, this is a great way for us to explore culture and etiquette and not just travel: it’s the technology of travelling without moving.

The Gemini Effect

Digital twins aren't anything new to us as consumers over the last few years, we've heard them called everything from digital fashion to digital assets to 3D items. Well, any kind of technology where a live object has a facsimile in digital is a twin. I work on twins every single day of my life, and I find them to be fascinating, both outside and inside. However, when we look and think about digital twins from the perspective of culture, another really rich seam presents itself to us. It was a company called Matterport that really kicked off this love affair that we have with inside culture. Although slightly left behind over the past couple of years in Western Europe and the rest of the world, Matterport is massive in the USA. Want to know why? It’s really simple. The use cases are abundant. It is a really helpful tool for businesses that want to be effectively open all hours, and not just businesses. If you want to do an open house for your real estate sale, you can do it using Matterport. If you want to open up a gigantic film studio prop store, you can do it using Matterport and hone in on the tiny bone fragment prop from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The limitations to Matterport are really only as far as the fact that they work best on a PC. Everything else is fantastic and opens up an entirely new way of thinking about our connection with culture, the Arts etc.

Why should we in the west (particularly) care about what's on our doorstep? We could just go outside, right? Wrong. When working on a project with Dazlus AG and their amazing Hightime App, a beautifully crafted story of a city in AR, I needed to get under the skin of Munich. So, turning my attention back to Wander again, I relied upon it to help me understand the roads and streets and more importantly, the stories of the city. It was then that I realised Wander wasn’t giving me that connective experience, VR or not. I needed to look at the city through my heart or my imagination which is tough in VR. When we go into museums, galleries or historical places of interest, we use our imagination to piece together the things that we don't know. Google Arts and Culture operate a similar sort of experience to Matterport and to some extent Wander, but the problem with that is that your brain is very smart. It knows when it is looking at procedurally generated content. When you tell your brain that you want to be able to understand what the eye is seeing, that’s when these apps become redundant, and we lean on the power of Fliggy or Hightime.

Google Arts and Culture had a golden opportunity to do something amazing many years ago with the Getty Museum, and my worry is that 10 or so years on, they’ve still not nailed it. It’s ok that every single museum or place of culture gets involved with these schemes to support and showcase what the arts can do, but it’s not immersive. At all. Quite the opposite in fact.

The Venice Science Gallery nailed it. They produced a short experience for us to understand the importance of lost or stolen artworks: called NETCHER (NETwork and social platform for Cultural Heritage Enhancing and Rebuilding). From stealing a piece of marble from Ostia Antica to the ancient city of Palmyra and even understanding why Gustav Klimt hid a secret underneath the layers of oil on canvas in Portrait of a Lady. For them, “specific research tools and devices as well as digital, virtual and augmented reality, [...] can have a deeper understanding of these objects and of the importance of keeping on fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural heritage.” They’re not doing anything new in technology, except they are, in peeling the onion of the objects and the technology that serves them, they are able to understand the intrinsic heritage of the object through the stories and materials they yield.

The Heritage of Luxury

Recently I have been fortunate to work with a company called Audemars Piguet. They are a heritage watch brand based in Switzerland. Their outgoing CEO, François-Henry Bennehamias, is a passionate supporter and proponent of digital technology to solve some of the problems that heritage watch brands have. Heritage watch brands are those with a long design inventory, a history that spans over hundreds of years. Yet, when I was invited to their headquarters not far from Geneva in Switzerland, it didn't look very techno. Vallée de Joux is a very tranquil area where Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Breguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre have their factories and headquarters. It looked pretty sleepy, well kept and parochial. But inside AP’s fantastic new museum itself, the story of the watches suddenly made me feel as though I was a tiny ant in a gigantic universe. The great thing about what François was doing at Audemars Piguet was that he had presented the heritage watch brand with the golden opportunity of transmedia. In using it as a vehicle for telling stories, the watch became more than a timepiece, and that story could be alive just like the watch. In developing the Black Panther watch under the famous Royal Oak series brand, François tapped into an entirely new generation of audience for AP and naturally outsold its original benchmark for watch production.

However, the story of the museum itself is as strong as the watches that are inside it. It really does take the visitor on a journey and culturally with an entirely different gravitas on the visitor: from Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Shah of Iran, history is told through technology in watchmaking, as seen through the eyes of the people who made them.

But that’s not why I want to talk about Audemars Piguet. It’s about the digital transformation of that entire storytelling experience in watchmaking and design. It doesn’t leave you. The experience is wholly interactive and immersive without VR. So when a multi-Michelin starred chef was an ambassador of Audemars Piguet, you, the visitor (and hopefully superfan) are invited to participate in the sights, smells and tastes of what he is cooking in situ. For film buffs, you can get up close and personal with Arnie in a custom-made Terminator experience (Arnold Schwarzenegger is a massive fan of the Royal Oak too).

This is what the metaverse is all about, the inside-out and outside-in of UX. Most cultural objectives fall short of what is real for society, preserving the arts for those who have. You don’t have to be a heritage watch brand to get closer to your vision. You just need to execute it or curate it in a way that everyone can connect with, not just your high-net-worth donors. The metaverse is your friend.

It's one thing to create a like-for-like system twin of the British Museum. It’s a whole other thing to immerse the end user in that particular moment/scene/experience with as much ease as the Terminator experience at the Audemars Piguet watch museum.

Social Life

I'm regularly pitched by businesses who want me to look at their metaverse. They've created a metaverse for the purpose of an exhibition or showcase of what it is that they can do and create. Yeah, they want to fill it full of luxury (why?), art, or they want to fill it full of jewellery, or they want to fill it full of something. These things are just not immersive. They're not inherent and native to who we are as humans unless that weird staccato environment of being hit from all angles by flying handbags is the new normal. As humans, we have to know how to behave, adapt and connect in order to adopt tools, apps and experiences. So how can the etiquette of the metaverse help us to shape experiences away from the hazing of what we now call the mainstream media: that whole discussion about games being bad, the metaverse is bad, NFTs are bad, etc, etc. Yawn! Not everything has to be bad. Everything, including the metaverse, in moderation, is good. We can learn there, we can live there, we can work there, but not all the time. Just as in life.

There is a great deal of discussion about how the metaverse is going to change the way that we socialise and talk to each other. Our psyche and our associative responses to our social nature in this digital age shouldn’t change. It doesn’t need to. We still have the opportunity to walk away from our screens. What might happen when we start to make things more immersive? Or, even better, we start to make things less about ourselves selling a brand or an item and make it more about an experience like an amusement park. Then what happens inside the metaverse? Do we become addicted? Hell no! We become socially mobile inside what it is we have created (UGC) or what has been made for us. We get to choose our own adventures.

But I'm not sure that any Metaverse has really managed to pull this off in its entirety yet. I've mentioned before that I've got a job in Avakin Life where I cut people's hair. A limited experience, though it is, it’s fulfilling because in real life I cannot cut hair. Being a hairstylist in Avakin Life isn't something that I can participate in every single day. If I don't participate in things every single day because I'm busy working, then does that mean that I am going to suffer from FOMO or I'm going to lose out on some kind of reward? Quite the opposite: as a user or a player, I don't really miss it. What I miss is the interactivity of experiences or social events and focus inside Avakin Life rather than my actual job because I already have a job in real life (in fact, I have about 10 jobs). The job that I have in Avakin Life is just a great little talking point and a bit of fun.

Interoperability is a Big Word in a Small World

Now look, there are opportunities inside the metaverse for us to completely mess up. One of them is interoperability. If we don't look at etiquette as coming from a place of tying up all of our cultural interactions, as we did with Yahoo chat rooms back in the late 90s; then we're missing a golden opportunity for us to be able to understand exactly what it is that we want the metaverse to grow into. Do you want to know who has nailed this concept? Look no further than South East Asia. Companies such as Hyperconnect, Bilibili, Line, WeChat and KakaoTalk have created a sense of metaversal insertion into messaging platforms, creating even more interesting ways to communicate. The wake of Youtube and Meta’s “do more” promise to stop online abuse and vitriolic hate speech isn’t exactly moderation. Not in the age of AI. This is selective moderation and could possibly be based on SEO. Web3 will (and for some, currently) requires us to moderate ourselves on a ledger where what we say cannot as easily be decoupled from who we are, anonymous or not, we know. If we flip the problem on its head, the web3 approach is simple: enhance the experience and make it more immersive and real for end users - that in turn invokes natural moderation or, as my mum calls it - manners.

It’s all in the name with Hyperconnect because their vision is to create a hyper-connected humanity which is free from loneliness: machine or human. With that, they have developed a series of products inside that space. Hakuna Life, which is Chatroulette for spontaneous social entertainments (which one might argue was always the elevator pitch at Chatroulette), as of December 2020, has had over 20 million downloads globally, which tells you something about not only the product itself, but also the desire for connection from light immersion (voting) to deep friendships (group activities). Socially immersive metaverse? I’ll take it.

Bilibili, as of 2015, has served over 50 million users, 75% of whom are under the age of 24. In Q3 of 2021, the company's platform had grown to support 237 million monthly active users. For what though? Three little words - User. Generated. Content. Full commentable and shareable, it’s TikTok plus. From parodies to subcultural content creators, it is like Reddit with videos, and also, it handles mobile games really well. If the future is really mobile (something that I go on about maybe too much), I can watch the next instalment of The Penthouse there and comment on it as I'm watching it. You can't do that on Netflix. You can do that on Rakuten Viki. So, keep your TikToks and your Instagrams: Bilibili does live commenting. Allowing you to create and interact at the point of source. And as for moderation? The user plays the tune, and the user sings the song.

Express Yourself

Self-critique, moderation and obviously, expression is at the heart of culture and etiquette. We can’t have one without the other, and yet, in web2, we’ve spiralled like the cast of Jersey Shore on a Sunday afternoon. This philistine (that’s me) actually wrote her thesis on Jersey Shore and the demise of Bacchanalian theatre from 1660–1688. The arrogance! And yet, in 2022, I’m not far wrong. We are all artists regardless of how that manifests. Some of us are misunderstood, and some of us really want to be loved. We tread the boards of life, hang our images on the walls of municipal galleries and hope that we aren’t pelted with rotten cabbages and tomatoes. But we’re social creatures. We’re mobile creatures - we want to go to those places that we’re not supposed to go to, and we want to experience those moments however it suits us - some might want to monetise the experience, and some want to pay money to be the experience. However we adopt the vision, it has to be ours, not yours, and that's truly how the metaverse will conquer all. So please, stop making something artistic, spectacular and fantastic in your vision - we get it, but we’re not a part of that - instead, why don’t you join us, develop something as we move and come with us on the journey?


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