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Open or closed? A key battle over the metaverse is underway that will decide the buzzy technology’s future

March 12, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC

The co-founders of Fluf World, a digital scape filled with people using 3D rabbits and bears as their avatars, have some strong ideas about the metaverse. 

People who enter the game-like world, a focus of intense buzz since Mark Zuckerberg bet Facebook and its parent company’s future on it, should be able to move anything they create or buy to rival worlds, the co-founders say. If users want to relocate their digital mansions, they should be able to. If they want to take their digital labradoodles or fluorescent boots with them, that should be fine too. 

“Within the metaverse, it’s important that I can take my assets in App A, and I can put them in App B,” states Brooke Howard-Smith, of Fluf World’s two co-founders. “That’s my choice as a user.” 

Ensuring the metaverse meets that standard of openness and flexibility promises to be a huge battle in the coming years. Tech companies have traditionally tried to keep their services closed, or nearly so, so that users are unable to easily switch to competitors. Think Facebook or AOL. 

But with the metaverse, which is so new—and frankly years from being fully realized—there is a new opportunity to create a more open ethos. The challenge will be to actually achieve it despite the tech industry’s penchant for keeping users locked in. 

Already, popular metaverses like Decentraland and The Sandbox already allow users to bring in items that were purchased outside of their ecosystems. 

The underlying technology behind all of these swappable assets, from avatar clothing to virtual hoverboards, is called NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. They’re units of data stored on the blockchain that can be bought and sold and can, therefore, be portable between the different worlds. 

“In the real world, there are no barriers to take your possessions from one place to another. Why should the metaverse be any different?” muses Cathy Hackl, chief metaverse officer at Futures Intelligence Group, a leading metaverse agency that works with global brands on metaverse strategies, virtual fashion, NFTs, and world-building. “Think about it like our digital lifestyles catching up to our physical ones.” 

Hackl further explains that an open metaverse will not only solve the question of interoperability, but it is also vital to ensuring the privacy of its users. “Hopefully, web 3.0’s backbone of blockchain and decentralization will open up an opportunity for people to own their data.”

And it’s the owning of data that’s key when it comes to privacy. Unlike previous generations of tech companies, the current one—called Web 3.0— emphasizes more user control so that individuals (if they so choose) can cut off sharing copious amounts of personal information to advertisers. 

Aaron McDonald, the other Fluf World co-founder, confirms that if an open metaverse is achieved, users will have control of their data and identity. It would force many tech companies, including Facebook, which rebranded itself as Meta to reflect its metaverse focus, to change how they do business.

“This isn’t a matter of Facebook changing their name—they would literally need to be the polar opposite of what they are today. An open metaverse means a 180-degree flip,” McDonald says. 

Fluf World, which launched its first metaverse-ready collection of NFTs seven months ago and says it has attracted 10,000 users, has grown to an ecosystem that includes much more than just bunny avatars. There’s digital real estate, swappable music clips, and strange companion pets whose AI brains allow them to create their own art. 

Fluf World has also collaborated with major artists such as Snoop Dogg and Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Gino the Ghost. By building a true and inclusive metaverse, the co-founders hope to champion “data sovereignty, diversity, transparency, and accountability.”  

An open metaverse would let smaller community-driven projects such as Fluf World access a larger audience and promote artistic expression by first-world storytellers, a subject close to the founders’ hearts hailing from the Maori culture, or the indigenous people of New Zealand. 

This week, the Fluf team plans to evangelize its idea for an open metaverse at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin. The company and fellow supporters, including Altered State Machine, NFT collection Party Bears, Meebits DAO, and the Jadu Mirroverse, will hold a public forum to discuss the creation of an open metaverse manifesto or constitution. Their ambition is to define exactly what an open metaverse is and then come to an agreement on how to build it. 

“To date, the idea of an open metaverse has been a shared belief system,” says McDonald. “But we feel it’s important to give direction to others coming into the space and to draw the battle lines.”  

McDonald continues, “As a developer, company, or content creator, you need to decide which side you’re on. The large tech companies are trying to steal this movement.” 

Since refocusing on the metaverse, Meta executives have voiced support for an open metaverse system by making many of its components open source. “Facebook is an ally for inclusion in open source, and we are committed to fostering inclusive environments for all who wish to participate in open source communities,” Kathy Kam, an engineering manager at Meta, said in a blog post.

But skeptics have doubts, claiming Meta’s plans for a partially open metaverse are insufficient. For many, the rise of the metaverse is akin to the invention of the Internet itself. If this is the case, then whoever controls it —whether that’s Meta, a group of Big Tech companies, or a bunch of smaller organizations such as Fluf World—could be the next tech giants of the future.  

“It would be erroneous to say that any one company or entity is building a metaverse. Saying Meta (aka Facebook) is building a metaverse is not the correct way to look at it,” McDonald says “Meta is building an app, and the metaverse is the combination of many apps with this interoperable content that sits underneath it. If we are doing this the right way, we are all building the metaverse.”  

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