Here’s a hot take: The metaverse is not what Mark Zuckerberg says it is. It’s not a place or alternate reality we will all migrate into. It’s not a game. It’s not a land grab (although that is happening). And it’s not just a massive branding opportunity (although there are lots of opportunities for brands to thrive).
The truth is, the metaverse is a decentralized system that has a lot in common with peer-to-peer services like Napster, Skype, and BitTorrent. Oh, and Facebook and Meta do not.
Decentralized peer-to-peer networks are where all the technologists gather and create the architecture that fuels innovation. And that’s true for the metaverse as well.
I’ll give you two examples that are relevant for understanding the metaverse (full disclosure, I had the pleasure of working with both companies earlier in my career).
Founded in 2003, Skype was part of a wave of technologies (including BitTorrent, Kazaa, and Napster) that connected individual computers in an automated, trustful way. These networks were optimized for bandwidth and reduced the bottlenecks for tapping into popular content. Why was Skype able to rise above the competition as a key player in the market? Peer-to-peer technology. It created a network of nodes that enabled an always-on hyper-efficient community and a connected network. This meant it wasn’t tied to the limitations of any telecom carrier.
Of course, when Skype moved to the Azure platform, the core technology changed. But when it first arrived, Skype was revolutionary and unlocked an incredible burst of innovation that continues to make our lives better today.
Or take Spotify. Like Skype, it used peer-to-peer technology to store and distribute content. Decentralization let the service acquire millions of users and deliver great audio, and the service eventually became ubiquitous. The fingerprints of world-changing peer-to-peer decentralized innovation and disruption are all over the internet.
And that brings us back to the metaverse
The real promise of the metaverse is new data-rich experiences and services that are faster, better, and cheaper, whether that’s in finance, virtual socialization, business meetings, healthcare, or anything else we can imagine. The metaverse will encompass all these use cases, and they will all be decentralized. In fact, decentralization is not just a feature of an open metaverse, it’s a core tenet that will avoid bottlenecks and enable interoperability that traverses wall gardens.
For the last 20 years, we’ve seen peer-to-peer or decentralized technologies start off as marginalized technology built for geeks by geeks, whether that be file sharing, peer-to-peer music or crypto mining. But these technologies need to be seen through the context of time and how they’ve improved the user experience, whether that’s enabling free calls and video or enabling instant-on music services like Spotify.
The next generation of peer-to-peer services will enable even greater participation of users who, in a decentralized metaverse, can work directly with each other and trust the network for things like money transfer and social media rather than relying on a centralized operator or service. We’re looking at you, Meta and Facebook.
Napster was a decentralized network with a central index. And that’s what Facebook is trying to build. Napster was at the center of the network and it failed. Whereas BitTorrent, a truly decentralized network, is a self-managing and self-governing technology that powers a rich ecosystem that has endured.
History shows that open networks win
The architecture of the metaverse will be more like that of BitTorrent — or better yet, blockchain. Blockchain is decentralized and truly distributed. We don’t even know who created the ledger. There is no central index. And blockchain has already unlocked an explosion of innovation that will only grow in the years to come.
You may be tempted to roll your eyes at blockchain or crypto or NFTs, but don’t think of those as fully formed products yet. They’re prototypes of the operating system for how we’re going to move forward.
And just in case you think the peer-to-peer decentralized connection is still a stretch, consider who invested in the original technologies and who’s investing in the same space today: Tim Draper. He was a big backer of peer-to-peer technology in companies like Skype, and he also believes that blockchain and bitcoin solutions are better, faster, cheaper than fiat currencies. Same guy, different year, natural evolution.
We wouldn’t have free video calling if we didn’t have peer-to-peer. We wouldn’t have instant music anywhere in the world without peer-to-peer. And we wouldn’t have cryptocurrencies without peer-to-peer. Even the Internet wouldn’t exist without it! All these technologies that we now take for granted have their genesis in decentralization.
And the metaverse is just the next step on that journey.