The hypertext Web is the real Metaverse

17 July 2020
17 Jul 2020
West Lafayette, IN
8 mins

Part I: The Web

I find it fascinating to study the first metaphors people create for any new technology. The early Web has no shortage of corporate vernacular that shows us how we began thinking about the Web at its birth. We explored the Internet. We browsed the Web. The Web was a distinct place we entered, a finite experience that began when we opened the web browser and ended when we closed our last window. The early metaphors are built around the Web being like a zoo – we explore the Web by jumping from one place in it to another, following links that often led us to new websites we never knew about. And when we were done, we closed the browser window, locked up the gates, and left. And we were offline again. The Web, for its first decade, was a loose collection, a true network, disparately organized by our desire to connect things together.

Today, we find a different set of metaphors for the Web. We don’t go on the Internet as much, or log in and log out anymore. Instead, we’re online or offline, connected or disconnected. “Online” is a state of being, not a place to be. (When was the last time you closed your web browser?) We spend most of our time on the Web not browsing or exploring, but subjecting ourselves to the flow of information that the Internet now levies at our attention.

The Web now feels too vast, too densely connected, too rapidly flowing, for us to casually explore. So rather than explore it, we curate it, like a gardener manicuring their yard. We collect heaps of browser tabs, invented to battle the ever-expanding stream of the Web. We follow other people and accounts for their own curations on what we should explore and read. And we’ve sought refuge from this increasingly overwhelming Web by organizing ourselves into smaller group conversations, chat rooms, and messaging servers. We now find the distinct sense of place, reminiscent of the old Web, in these private conversations, which are more intimate and sensible than the tangled-up modern Web.

In this transition I think we find two trends worth paying attention to.

Part II: The One Hypertext

I think we can restore the distinct sense of place of the early Web by embracing the One Hypertext, the globbed-up, tangled Web, and treating it as a single space.

The Web is as much a backdrop of life today as the real world. Given such an important role, I think we should design the Web as a place for people, as much as a place for information. The One Hypertext should be built for life, not for information.

When I say this, I don’t mean that we should change how we design websites and services. Those have evolved independently, and will continue to evolve on their own. The thing that I want us to design more carefully, the object of our investigation, is the One Hypertext, the experience of living on the Web, and our human experience as the subjects of the Web. I want us to think more critically and intentionally about the architecture of that digital space we live in.

What might it look like to architect a Web experience with a sense of place?

The idea that excites me the most is the potential for an annotation and highlighting layer on top of the Web. The most celebrated and storied places around the globe are blessed with layers and layers of lore that gives each place depth and meaning. A downtown cafe in a city may be the one place where all the local couples go on their first date. Or the one noodle shop down an alley might be the one with the best chef in town. We crowd up fences with initialized padlocks and decorate walls with graffiti as part of connecting with and inhabiting the places in which our lives unfold. Places last and grow with people like this if they’re amenable to being worn down and written on. Places last and grow with people when they harbor traces of history.

Digital places, by contrast, are designed never to be worn down or written on. They are pristine, and we want software never to age. Many of the services on which we try to build online communities – Slack, Discord, Twitter – they work against the way humans build culture because they are impervious to cultural graffiti. They resist the wear from habitation. Reddit, pre-redesign, might be a unique exception to this rule. Reddit’s vibrant online culture is in part a testament to the importance of designing digital spaces that can wear from its inhabitants.

What if we can place a layer atop our existing Web, that allows visitors to leave notes, share stories, and annotate ideas to other visitors? I might leave an anecdote about how I met a game developer friend on a news article about them, or you might leave restaurant reviews directly on the restaurant’s site, laid over the menu to point at which dishes were your favorite. What if the entire Web, the One Hypertext, could absorb life in the way physical dwellings absorb traces of our physical life?

This kind of an annotation layer could also create more intimate contexts for conversation. If I’m doing a deep-dive research into the Faroe Islands, an annotation layer might let me know that someone else had recently visited the page in a similar frenzy of research. We might meet each other in this meta-layer in the same way we might bump into each other at a library while poring over the same row of books.

I think we’ve barely begun to tap the potential of designing the Web as as built environment and a work of architecture around our digital living spaces. When we design the One Hypertext for people, not just for information, the Web becomes something more than a resource. It becomes the Metaverse.

Part III: The Metaverse

The Metaverse is an all-encompassing virtual reality. The Metaverse concept builds on the idea of virtual experiences, like VR games and tours, to imagine a world that contains all the smaller virtual spaces and allows us to travel between them without leaving virtuality – while staying in the Metaverse.

The 2011 novel Ready Player One takes place partly in a Metaverse. Everyone in the story logs on to OASIS, a Metaverse overflowing with digital vintage that contains universes and planets each themed to be a different virtual world.

The appeal of a Metaverse is that it offers nothing short of a full, genuine living space while shedding the conventional limitations of geography, physics, and human constraints. We can travel anywhere and meet anyone in the Metaverse, and carry out most of our lives without ever going offline.

The One Hypertext done right, I think, is a proto-Metaverse. If we build a Web that feels like a place designed for life, the services and sites on the Web can stretch into the horizons of this hypertext Metaverse. We could meet people on the Web, find entertainment, connect with partners, and build a living online. But aren’t we already building pieces of this Metaverse today?

To propel this trend into the Metaverse of 90’s science fiction, I think we need someone thinking more intentionally about building a Web experience from the perspective of an architect, rather than a user interface designer. The Web is increasingly a home more than it is a tool, and our design needs should change to reflect it.

I think this work of building a Metaverse requires something different from the iterative engineering the Web industry has engaged in for the last decade. We need more first-principles design, more imagination in what kinds of places the hypertext Metaverse could contain in the future, the way an architect might dream of their next stadium or skyscraper.

And we need conscientious, considerate design, to make sure this strange power to craft our second universe yields a future that inspires us to continue to dream of it.

Thanks to Jacob Cole and Thomas Lisankie for insightful and inspiring conversations about the Web, hypertext media, and the Metaverse.

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