There’s a common saying among those who study mindfulness: “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter how many miles we travel or borders we cross, humans carry habits, values and biases to each new encounter – even if those encounters are digital. This truth takes on new meaning in the context of Web3, an emerging, user-centered internet characterized by increasingly immersive digital experiences with blockchain underpinnings.
One area of Web3 that is experiencing heavy investment is the metaverse, a conceptual virtual world that facilitates social interaction. And while this new technology is meant to break free from the limitations of the physical world, age-old problems from our existing terrain continue to affect emerging enterprises: there have been reports of sexual assault in virtual spaces, cultural appropriation in the digital fashion industry and racial, gender and algorithmic biases across new technologies. These pervasive blindspots motivated media scholar Sasha Costanza-Chock to publish a book on “design justice,” the practice of design and creation led by marginalized communities aimed at upending structural inequalities.
It’s time we dare to imagine a technological future with empathy, inclusion and diversity at its core. A growing number of Web3 builders believe in such a future. Here, they describe the culture of the Web3 they strive for.
Building a Web3 community for your community
Dr. Hans Boateng is a personal finance educator and co-founder of The Royals, the first luxury travel non-fungible token (NFT) community to showcase African culture. Originally from Ghana, West Africa, Boateng noticed a lack of representation among crypto communities while running online education brand The Investing Tutor.
“People of color are underrepresented communities in Web3 because people in our community will not be paying thousands of dollars for a monkey JPEG,” he told CoinDesk, referencing the concept of blue-chip NFT collections that are out of reach for many early investors. “It’s just not feasible.”
Boateng came up with a vision for an NFT concept that has more appeal to his followers – a curated travel membership club that serves dual purposes: to familiarize his crypto-curious fans with NFTs and to form a global community of like-minded people who would travel together on a curated annual trip.
In December 2022, the community embarked on its first journey together, culminating at the first Royal Gala in Ghana. Each future NFT collection released will invite holders to travel and experience a different culture.
“I view blockchain technology as a tool that we can use in a positive way,” said Boateng. “I didn't want us to ignore this space and this technology just because we don't see something that we can relate to.”
Taking up space in digital spaces
Online spaces provide accessible ways for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to gather and interact. But unless there are avatars that represent a variety of identities, appearances and experiences, the metaverse will not be able to offer true belonging for its inhabitants.
Enter People of Crypto (POC), an avatar collection celebrating people of color, differently-abled and LGBTQIA+ communities. Available on OpenSea’s secondary marketplace, the POC collection consists of 8,430 fully-playable avatars on metaverse platform The Sandbox that also gives holders the ability to display their sexual orientation and pronouns.
In May 2022, People of Crypto Lab, the company behind POC avatars, partnered with the L’Oréal-owned professional makeup brand NYX to bring a Pride event to The Sandbox. To its founders, the event was more than just a party. “What we created with the metaverse Pride event was an extremely personal project,” said POC Lab cofounder Akbar Hamid. “I'm gay, I'm brown and I’m a Muslim son of immigrants. Like many of my peers who are from underserved and underrepresented communities, we've had to fight all our lives.”
Hamid recognizes the long-term impact of inclusive initiatives like POC in building the future of digital representation. “We’re shaping culture,” Hamid said, noting that the global impact of a digital social sphere will reach everyone with a computer and internet connection. “We’re seeing people in different parts of the world like India and Pakistan, where it's illegal to be gay, be able to come, join, be represented, feel seen and heard for the first time. To me that is just the most powerful thing.”
“You're coming in and feeling a sense of interconnectedness,” Hamid added.
Beyond inclusion, the metaverse gives individual creatives more opportunity to benefit from their intellectual property, explained Hamid’s co-founder Simone Berry. Through the rising prevalence of user-generated content and a new ability to turn digital files into monetizable assets, individual creators who have long influenced industry-level decision-makers can now participate in the financial upside of their own contributions.
“There is an ability to cut through the gatekeepers, remove the intermediaries and lean into what I believe diverse cultures do best,” Berry says. “That is creativity, community and culture.”
Hip-hop, Berry explained, is a multibillion-dollar industry owned and shaped almost exclusively by a handful of corporate record labels. Yet, the culture of hip-hop originates in tight-knit communities and is reflected in streetwear, language and personal exchanges. Hip-hop culture is highly profitable, “but the creators of it have not been able to participate,” Berry said.
The concept of a user-generated metaverse that decentralizes ownership was, for her, a “lightbulb” moment. “That is the true power of this technology,” Berry said. “It's built-in equity, equality and inclusion. It's literally the foundation.”
Leading by example
“The founding team of the project claimed to be the first all-female team in the ecosystem,” said Bored Becky, whose real name is Ashley Smith. “A month or so later, it was determined to be a lie. They were, in fact, men posing as women and then eventually posing to be other minority groups.”
Smith, along with a fellow Fame Ladies Squad holder who goes by NFTignition, decided to step into leadership after the original founders admitted the truth. Before deleting their social media accounts and disappearing, the founders conducted a Twitter poll asking whether they should transfer ownership of the Fame Lady Squad smart contract. More than 75% of respondents voted “yes,” and Fame Lady Squad transferred the contract to @digitalartchick, a respected personality in the space, who then transferred it to Smith through a third-party broker.
“I ended up with a smart contract for that entire collection,” Smith told CoinDesk.
Her motive for accepting the role was to help contribute positivity to the thousands of people who had joined the Fame Ladies Squad community around the false promise of representation. “For me, it was about rewriting the legacy of the first all-female project in the space,” said Smith, adding she wanted to encourage newcomers to “stick around.”
Beyond this, it was important for her to lead by example for her newfound community and show that authenticity and honesty are possible in Web3.
“Not everyone's here to suck the life and money from you, or to exploit your values,” she said.
Adding reality back to virtual reality
“We were really trying to create a collection that was more like the world you see,” said Daz3D president Matt Wilburn. “We have avatars with Down syndrome. We have avatars that use prosthetics and that use wheelchairs,” Wilburn said.
He added that the company partnered with artists worldwide, including artists from the Greater Victoria Down Syndrome Society, in the making of the collection.
Through fashion and beauty partnerships, Daz3D has been able to proliferate these values of inclusion and representation throughout the metaverse. In June 2022, the design studio partnered with beauty brand Clinique on the “Metaverse Like Us” campaign, which dropped 8,888 female and non-binary avatars with customized virtual makeup looks.
Preserving queer culture in Web3
The Queer Museum of Digital Art (QMoDA) is a community dedicated to preserving arts and culture from transgender and queer creators on the blockchain. While it’s often easy to recognize blockchain’s importance in facilitating digital art ownership, it’s just as important to recognize the role of blockchain in cultural preservation, particularly for marginalized communities.
“The AIDS crisis, frankly, is the impetus of a lot of my work,” said artist and QMoDA organizer Zak Krevitt, who uses they/them pronouns. “Artists were dying. Family members and friends were tasked with the safekeeping of their art.”
Some of those art pieces stayed in private collections over the years, explained Krevitt, while another portion ended up in museums. “But there are limits,” they explained. “If someone has an entire artist's studio of work and it’s all physical, where does it all go?”
When Krevitt learned about blockchain, they saw an important pathway to cultural preservation – by encouraging artists and collectors to speak openly about the opportunities blockchain creates for LGBTQ+ artists, despite cultural or political systems that would otherwise prevent them.
“There's this unspoken but largely felt pressure within the NFT space to stay apolitical because [Web3] is so decentralized,” they explained. “Being queer and trans is very political right now,” they said, adding that the rise in anti-trans legislation proposals in the U.S. has added to the polarization.
To combat this tension and support both emerging and established queer NFT artists, QMoDA launched in January 2023 an artist grant program in partnership with NFT minting platform Zora. Ten artists were nominated to receive 1 ETH (about $1,600) each and invited to create an editioned work on the Ethereum blockchain. The QMoDA board nominated five artists, and those artists subsequently nominated one artist each for a total of ten grant recipients. Upcoming artist exhibitions will include work from Tyler Givens, Laurel Charleston, Glitch of Mind and Kate The Cursed.
QMoDa also hosts a virtual gallery in Protoworld, an open multiplayer metaverse world where communities can gather for live events and exhibitions.
The future of Web3 tech and culture
While Web3 technology remains nascent, it is up to us to make sure we are shaping a digital future that upholds the values of diversity and inclusion.
“Marginalized people often suffer the most harm from unintended consequences of new technologies,” wrote University of Illinois doctoral candidate Breigha Adeyemo in 2021.
Web3 offers us the opportunity for a cultural reset. In some respects, there’s never been a better moment in time for prosocial ingenuity and radical imagination, a term associated with the American civil rights movement, grassroots organizing and speculative literature. Technologists routinely evoke Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel “Snow Crash” when discussing the metaverse, and while the book has certainly influenced the development of virtual reality (VR) and digital currency, Web3 beckons us to go even deeper and consider the values driving our actions across digital landscapes.
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