What Happens When You Die in the Metaverse?

Ethereum’s founder proposed “soulbound tokens” to give digital identity value. Is there a price to be paid?

AccessTimeIconMay 26, 2022 at 6:50 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:04 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMay 26, 2022 at 6:50 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:04 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconMay 26, 2022 at 6:50 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:04 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of Ethereum, the most used blockchain, thinks he found the next big opportunity in crypto. He wants distributed ledgers to help create and manage our identities – both on and offline – using “soulbound tokens” (SBT).

In a recently published paper, “Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul,” co-authored with Flashbots’ Puja Ohlhaver and Microsoft’s Glen Weyl, Buterin outlines a cryptographic tool similar to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that could be used as a sort of living, transparent and immutable curriculum vitae (CV).

This article is excerpted from The Node, CoinDesk's daily roundup of the most pivotal stories in blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here. This article is also part of "Metaverse Week."

NFTs are tokens used to give other digital media a type of traceable identity and market price. SBTs are similar in design but would be unique to one person’s life and would not be transferable. The idea is for a type of credentialing system, appended to the blockchain.

“Imagine a world where most participants have Souls [digital wallets] that store SBTs corresponding to a series of affiliations, memberships, and credentials,” the 37-page research paper reads. Institutions like universities would issue graduates SBTs as a type of digital diploma, or lenders could give someone a token if they pay off a loan.

The benefit would be having a transparent record of someone’s achievements that could not be tampered with. (Though, it might be said, the paper proposes SBTs might be revoked by institutions or burned by holders, if the circumstance called for it.)

Further, as a crypto asset, these tokens could be plugged into the interoperable world of Web 3 potentially enabling a host of “use cases.” And, they would also give holders control over their important documents – potentially an improvement to the current system where credentials are maintained by a host of third parties and our identities fragmented across the web.

Last year, Ethereum propagandists at Bankless began spreading a meme that someone’s MetaMask wallet (a popular tool used to interact with Ethereum) is better than a resume. The blockchain records a ledger of people’s activities in crypto; and so, if you want to demonstrate firsthand expertise, it could arguably be better to show what tokens you hold and what “smart contracts” you’ve engaged.

Soulbound tokens operate from the same perspective and could become operational by the end of this year, Weyl said. He and Buterin also said that these assets could be central to the anticipated crypto hype-cycle in 2024, similar to how initial coin offerings (ICOs) dominated 2017, and NFTs were adopted over the previous two years.

Apart from a tone-deaf brand name, SBTs do present some risks. The Defiant, another crypto news service, reported that because you hold the keys to your soul's tokens there is some chance of losing your identity permanently. Institutions might also send you spam credentials.

The larger issue stems from whether we want our achievements and life-defining associations always on view. And, if you could spare the brief interlude, it raises important questions about who we are when we’re online and whether we want our digital avatars to be carbon copies of our carbon-based bodies.

Digital identity

What happens when you die in the metaverse? Around the time the corporate entity formerly known as Facebook announced its pivot to the metaverse, a handful of people began asking that very question.

There was a ready-made answer that “if you die in the metaverse, you die in real life.” The sentiment and the quote was often attributed to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and frequently paired with an image of a bug-eyed Zuckerberg.

The origins of this meme are unknown and not yet documented on internet archival project Know Your Meme. But the response makes sense in the context of Facebook’s current societal standing and the company’s business history.

In the early days of social media when Facebook adoption was ever accelerating, the company operated around the idea that digital identity was coequal with real life and that transparency would unite and improve the world.

“I think [Zuckerberg] genuinely believed that people should share more, and that it would be good for his company as well,” Wired editor Stephen Levy told CoinDesk in a previous interview. Levy’s book, “Facebook: The Inside Story,” published in 2020, argued the company’s fall from grace was the result of its massive ambition to “connect the world.”

Facebook pages, for many years, were public by default. The company also pushed forward applications like Beacon that would update your social media status based on your location or what you were doing – without your consent. Your email associated with your Facebook account was made readily accessible to others.

“Privacy of users was clearly a secondary consideration, and I cite numerous instances in the book where Zuckerberg weighs growth and ‘sharing’ over the objections of his executives,” Levy said. The company has since changed course and instituted stronger privacy assurance in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Digital identity is a curious thing. In many ways, the people we are online are real extensions of our total experience. In other ways, however, the internet profoundly changes how we act or what we might choose to do. Cyber bullying is rampant, for instance, because the repercussions are less severe than some experts have said.

Online identity is currently mediated by the tools and platforms we use. Twitter is different from Facebook, and your writing style changes whether you’re sending an email or publishing on Medium.

The open metaverse is an attempt to bridge all of these digital environments, while also enabling more life-like experiences. You’re in the metaverse, not just logging online. Static digital avatars, potentially controlled through ownable assets like NFTs, would also be able to move gracefully from place to place in the metaverse.

By creating a more permanent and controllable digital self, perhaps it is fair to say that if you die in the metaverse you die in real life. You lose something of value because the whole idea is to treat your “hyperreal” self as an actual person (not just an account owned by Facebook).

Buterin may not have been considering the metaverse when theorizing SBTs – but the tools want to enable similar things. “Souls can encode the trust networks of the real economy to establish provenance and reputation,” he wrote.

SBTs and the metaverse are about establishing real reputations online. People can already feel a great sense of loss when message boards die out, or when their pseudonyms are kicked off Twitter – and this feeling could be heightened if we successfully integrate more real-life attributes into the digital world. SBTs, permanent personal records, are the apogee of this.

It’s still unknown the extent to which we can successfully intermix the worlds of atoms and bits – but it’s not a terrible idea to imbue digital environments and people with greater importance. Many on social media know the feeling of being harassed or disrespected. Some of this must be caused by the distance between people when they’re online, geographically and metaphysically.

Obviously, when you die in the metaverse you will continue on as a living, breathing being. Likewise, there are attempts right now to extend human life using digital tools.

Beyond the human

Buterin reportedly subscribes to some transhumanist views, or the idea that the natural limitations of the human condition can be transcended. We might live forever with the right combination of drug and lifestyle. Or we might carry on as a floating consciousness uploaded to a computer.

“What happens to a person’s belongings when they die in the physical world is determined by legal processes, but in the metaverse code is law,” HQ Han, who runs ecosystem growth for Protocol Labs, told CoinDesk. And so, we need tools to account for inheritance and recuperation of digital assets in case of death, Han said.

I don’t know what is possible when it comes to creating eternal digital lives. I don’t know if that is desirable. I do know, however, that the digital world is becoming increasingly salient and important – if only because people like Buterin keep pushing that direction. Crypto assets, at their best, allow the digital to actually be valuable.

So, what happens when we die in the metaverse? What may be “more important,” Han said, “is the guarantee that there is something to leave behind in the first place.”

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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.