Well, that got messy
Revisiting Second Life in the crypto-Constitution-collapse aftermath
You’re reading Slow Build, a newsletter on technology and society written by Nancy Scola. Programming note: we’ll be off this Friday celebrating one of the greatest days of the year: Leftovers Day. For those of you in the U.S., a very happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
It was 2006, and I was still in my past-life phase of working in government and politics, and I was on staff for then-former Virginia governor Mark Warner as he contemplated running for president. In the summer of that year, we came up with the idea of having Warner do a town hall in what was then the state-of-the-art when it came to the metaverse: a platform called Second Life. Our thinking was at least two-fold. First an event like that — at least theoretically open to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection — could helpfully introduce Warner, who was then mostly only known in the mid-Atlantic, to a wider audience than we could reach with in-person events. Second, Warner was running as the technologist candidate. It’s how he saw himself, and he’d made much of his fortune from tech, especially as co-founder of what would become the telecom Nextel after working on spectrum policy as a Senate staffer. Dabbling in the virtual world would help shore up the idea of him as the rare politician with an eye on the future.
The whole thing was groundbreaking. It also, my friends, turned out to be a bit of a disaster.
Several things went all skewampus. But one people seemed to come away remembering was…oh, after all these years it’s still unpleasant to think about. Sigh. So, at the time, at least, the way Second Life worked was that the bodies of avatars rendered first in rough form before refining themselves, and only after that were clothes applied. Normally it happened very quickly, but because the Warner have attracted so many people (which was good!) the whole platform buffered (which was very bad). In the end, there was a period of time when the would-be candidate’s avatar was, yes, nooders. That earned those of us on the inside a good amount of ribbing, including from the inside. One consultant raged that even he couldn’t make “a cartoon” the President of the United States.
Here’s how journalist Matt Bai rendered it in his book, “The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Politics”:
At the end of August, Warner became the first politician ever to hold a virtual town meeting in Second Life, and online fantasy world. In what may have been the strangest bit of political correspondence ever recorded, the Hotline, National Journal’s respected Washington newsletter, attended the meeting through its own ‘avatar’ and described the scene his way: ‘Suddenly, Warner turned gray, and then transformed on stage into a nude, buxom woman and flew off. Hamlet Au, the event’s host, explained that Warner was ‘respawning.’”
Was the whole metaverse experiment the best thing for a potential presidential contender to take on? Arguable, for sure. But for the many millions of people not working for Warner at the time, it’s possible to see it as a bit of a gift. Was the metaverse ready to serve as a forum for serious electoral politics? Nope, not yet. And that was a proposition that we staffers tested with our sweat, money, and embarrassment.
All that ancient history was on my mind this week as we examined what’s becoming of the whole ConstitutionDAO project we discussed last week. You’ll recall that an ad hoc group of more than 17,000 crypto enthusiasts came together within just a handful of days to pool more than $40 million in an attempt to buy a rare first-printing copy of the Constitution up for auction at Sotheby’s. They didn’t win — a hedge fund CEO did instead — and now comes what’s next. The collective’s wrestling with some of the problems that we, frankly, previewed on Friday, as Vice’s Jordan Pearson and Jason Koebler detail in a new piece. The experiment, they write, “descended into chaos,” including because of the realization that fees would eat up much of the contributions and the fact that a collection that swarms together in the less than a week to buy a copy of one of the country’s founding documents doesn’t exactly have an obvious next step.
Here’s Pearson and Koebler:
In the immediate aftermath of the Sotheby's auction…the founders of the project asserted on its official Discord that, though they lost, "we still made history tonight."
"We have educated an entire cohort of people around the world—from museum curators and art directors to our grandmothers asking us what eth is when they read about us in the news —about the possibilities of web3," an admin of the project posted on Thursday.
Many donors are indeed getting an education about Ethereum and web3, but it's certainly not all positive as the community tries to quickly come up with a reason it should exist at all after failing in its initial goal.
Pearson and Koebler are up to some great accountability reporting here. But ConstitutionDAO did make “history,” and much was learned about what if anything crypto and Web3 are good for — the boundaries of which very few people actually have a clear picture of yet. Is it unfortunate for those people who are coming out of the process with no money and no claim to a Constitution? Sure, but these are folks on the cutting edge of crypto, and organizers were explicit that it was foolish to think of it as any sort of real investment.
By all appearances, the people who participated in ConstitutionDAO are people with the resources with which to gamble, and they gambled. But in doing so they brought everyone a few steps closer to understanding these new technologies — at no cost to those of us who didn’t chip in.
Other things of interest that have crossed my radar this week:
—L.A.’s Staples Center is being rebranded Crypto.com Arena in a transaction reported to be worth $700 million. Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban is a fan of the move (though with some qualms about Crypto.com being Singapore-based) but Lakers coach Frank Vogel isn’t: "I understand the disappointment the fans will have. But that's just the way of the world. This is the business we're in. Almost universally around the country, there's a business element to naming rights for the arenas. It's really out of our control." The deal put the crypto platform on the map even more than Matt Damon did, and has already “paid for itself.”
—Over on Model Citizen, Will Wilkinson digs into whether crypto is, in fact, a scam, scam, and if not, why some people react so negatively to it. Part of his take — that people are already sick and tired of hearing things like “L.A.’s Staples Center is being rebranded Crypto.com Arena”:
Once you get up to speed on the basics (which honestly takes a fair amount of work) it’s plain that a lot of crypto skepticism is little more than annoyance over the constant encroachment of baffling, unwanted crypto news into the ambit of one’s awareness.
—The Anti-Defamation League has released a new Social Pattern Library for fighting “hate and harassment” on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Pattern libraries are meant to be one-stop shops for design solutions, and here ADL has put together recommendations for things like “Hateful Post Reshare Interstitial” and “Hide Comment Option” — including details on the advantages and disadvantages for each of the approaches.
—Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is giving $100 million to the Obama Foundation. A spokesperson for the former president’s organization called it a “generous gift.”
—The full text of Federal Trade Commission commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s recent remarks ABA Antitrust Law Section’s 2021 Fall Forum is now up online, and it’s worth a read to get a better understanding of the complaints from her and others about the tenure of chair Lina Khan so far. A taste:
If the people, the FTC community, and the agency’s good work are to endure, we must heed the past and remember that overreach nearly destroyed the agency. I am concerned when those who wield the power do not share this concern. But Chair Khan recently said that when identifying the top ten threats to the agency, overreach is not on the list.
—In a new paper in the journal Political Communication, UNC doctoral fellow Bridget Barrett builds on the work of Daniel Kreiss, Shannon McGregor, and others to argue that platforms like Facebook and Google should be thought of not just as political consultants, but hugely important ones:
Ultimately, Facebook and Google are not just members of the network; they have become the most central actors in the federal digital political advertising network. Their political staffers, hired out of electoral politics and with partisan alliance to their respective parties… are clearly acting within extended party networks. While this is only a subset of the greater electoral network, the change in the position of Facebook and Google over time constitutes a change in the electoral party network.
—Local governments in places like Taylor, Texas eager to get chip makers to set up shop are offering water, tax rebates, and more, reports the New York Times’ David McCabe.
—And the Verge is out with a half-hour documentary on “the first real smartphone,” a.k.a. the Handspring Treo. I remember that thing! You stored the stylus inside it. Here’s the trailer: