Into the Message-verse!

It's like the metaverse...but for messaging?

The word “metaverse” is enjoying a resurgence. It seems we traded in “empathy” as the rhetoric fixation for the future. Instead, we are using a far out vision set from William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and later formalized in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I’m not a huge science fiction fan, and I’m skeptical of the hype. In the same way we don’t still say the words “cyberspace,” “the net,” or “the web” anymore, I’m not sure we’ll use “metaverse”, either. Like Michael Crichton once said, we don’t actually know what the future is going to look like, but companies need something to call it!

What is a metaverse? Zuckerberg describes it like this, “The metaverse is “a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile Internet.”

Okay, so multiplayer video games? I guess I’ve been in the metaverse my entire life then, hosting Counter Strike servers, and traveling between planets in Massively Multiplayer Online games like Star Wars Galaxies.

If the point here is that the true “metaverse” will connect all these disparate environments with similar 3D assets like a hat or an avatar, how will that work? It will definitely complicate world building for game designers. Will it feel like Wreck-It Ralph all the time, with Mario and Sonic avatars colliding?

Fortnite already feels like this, which succeeds in part because it is one giant shitpost. By its design, every licensed IP from Marvel to Star Wars to LeBron James can interact and murder each other. But it’s more complicated outside of the Fortnite island. In a horror game server, for example, you wouldn’t want a giant “banana man” running around ruining the aesthetic. It would break the sense of continuity that many game developers carefully craft for their virtual worlds. In other words, it would break presence.

“Presence” is another word Zuckerberg loves to use when advocating for immersive technology and the trajectory of Oculus. He and other enthusiasts claim the experience a VR headset enables is different because it activates a stronger sense of “presence.” While good social science backs this, like many aspects of the brain, presence is complicated.

There are loosely three types of presence happening when we talk about virtual worlds: environmental, self, and social. Environmental presence is how real a virtual object like a rock feels. Self presence is how real the extension of myself or my avatar feels. Social presence is how real others feel.

I’d argue that many of the problems we’re having on the internet right now, are from a lack of social presence in major social media platforms. When compounded with insane behavioral surveillance economics, it creates a recipe for disaster. If Facebook truly made us more connected, why do we feel so lonely?

When Facebook launched, part of its appeal was its asynchronicity. A Facebook page combined a lot of things, it was an identity profile, but also a mashup of a bulletin board system (BBS) features. You could leave a message, and it would be received when the other user logged in to see it. Many of the social platforms before it required being physically present at the time of communication. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) required you to respond to a message when it happened, and asked you to set an away message if you were busy.

Facebook walls were convenient, but they didn’t activate the same social presence mechanisms that instant messengers did. I felt PRESENT with my friends on AIM, mostly because I had to be also physically at my desktop computer to do so. Mobile technologies changed all of this with text messaging.

The ability to text brought clunky messaging while away from your computer. This made communication much more convenient, if brief, but it didn’t pack the same social presence that AIM did. Typing was slow (see: T9) and the low fidelity of screens on Nokia devices was devoid of much customization and color, mall kiosk face plates aside. 

This all changed with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). It was the first example of bringing the complexity of desktop IM clients to mobile. BlackBerry pioneered things like account logins, group chats, and read receipts. In 2007, as an undergrad, BBM was my social life. Even though I detested the direction Facebook was going at the time, I lived in the small communities and relationships that BBM enabled. It felt intimate and safe, where the social presence with others was both powerful and convenient.

Many years later, it’s easy to see how iMessage and WhatsApp won out over BBM by borrowing many of its features. In the last couple years though, something strange has happened. Maybe it’s the pandemic, maybe it’s a culmination of the fatigue from social media surveillance, but group chats have became social destinations. They’re where we hang out, where we seek social support, and go to be entertained by a close group.

The problem is, it’s impossible to find a group chat when you want one, and even more impossible to leave one when you don’t. Which is why I’m building my next startup Receipts, alongside messaging guru and my good friend Jordan Kutzer.

Receipts is about setting new social norms to how we communicate in groups using text. The word “receipt,” originally Black vernacular and now cultural colloquial, is a screenshot of a text message. These are often frowned upon in large group texts, as Heidi Cruz can attest. This stigma makes them feel a bit messy and confusing for anyone that would like to share entertaining moments from them. As Jane Chu at Slate eloquently wrote, we want a more private internet, but we want to screenshot it, too!

We launched the Receipts app as an advanced iOS proof of concept this summer (huge thanks to our early community!). You start an open chat, others that are free can request to join, and the resulting conversation is clipped as a highlight and published as a Receipt. This can be shared, and is helpful to those that may have missed the conversation to join in the future (intentional but equalized FOMO). Because it all happens in the moment, the social presence that Receipts creates is extraordinary. It feels like BBM again, but with a larger group of friends that I never would have reached otherwise. And then it ends.

Part of the conversation is preserved, rendered in a dynamic GIF-like container:

It turns out that three quarters of what we talk about as humans is “neutral knowledge acquisition,” neither negative nor positive. Two thirds of conversation involve “social topics,” like a kiddo’s soccer game. This is all not material you would post on a subreddit, nor would it get the most retweets on Twitter. It’s mundane gossip, not of the cruel kind, but of the functional kind. It’s filler content, often called “small talk”, and serves an evolutionary function. No social media platforms of today are designed to fulfill this human need (anonymous apps and things like PostSecret orbit it, but with overly “negative” content). 

Julie Beck from The Atlantic reminds us that "We live in a very gossipy society, so everything we do, in a sense, is public knowledge." This creates the foundation for many beneficial social norms of behavior we have as humans (crying babies violate these constantly, so rude of them).

Criticism we’ve received for Receipts points to Clubhouse and says, well isn’t audio the future for this? Aren’t you just Clubhouse or Twitch for text? The answer is, sure!? I like where live audio is going, but it feels rude to others around me to constantly have a microphone on. Receipts requires no sensors. Text and messaging as it exists now isn’t going anywhere soon, and the capabilities of GPT-3 show this is just the beginning. Because of the pandemic, group chats are more popular than ever. If we’re not going to leave messaging behind, what’s it’s innovative path forward?

I call it the Message-verse. It’s a future that connects a more “embodied internet” or whatever that is to the way we communicate now: over text. It starts with groups being more ephemeral and present, like what we’re building with Receipts. But then it might look more 3D, a concept I prototyped at a Stanford hackathon called Stupid Cupid. While wearing a VR headset, those around you could text you messages, and those would manifest in your world. They became interactive assets.

The point is, we need a bridge. Receipts is a step forward to build one. We’re laying the infrastructure and thought experiments to resist the shitty and exploitative design of social media. There are no likes, no follows, and no subsidized surveillance. We’ll have content moderation problems, sure, but building a system that doesn’t incentivize social stratification solves many of those problems (Clubhouse didn’t do that).

There’s a lot of tea we share that isn’t cruel, it’s just how we connect with another human. And by opening up the conversation, it means another human might want to contribute to it, too.

Changing a social norm is hard. The resistance to sharing a screenshot out of the respect of those on the other end of it changes with Receipts. Because most of the conversation is light and mundane, there’s permission to share it. If you want to talk about something you wouldn’t want shared, then don’t talk about it on Receipts. Take it in private, back to iMessage. But there’s no guarantee the other person won’t screenshot it.

That’s the future we see with Receipts, and it’s how the internet might feel less lonely than the social media dumpster fire we have today. It means if you want to talk, a dinner party of people will be there to contribute, and it will feel like they are really there, using the convenience of text. Less shouting over each other, more quiet tea spilling. Maybe we’ll all be wearing banana avatars.

Let me know if you’d like to be part of the Message-verse journey!

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