Convergence: The Impact of Building Across Digital and Physical Worlds
Where We’ve Been, Where We’re At
The internet fundamentally changed the world and how people interact by bringing forth previously unimaginable reach, connection, collection of information, and content. It has changed the way people create, consume, engage, and discuss content and projects; it has even changed how we interact in society. While the internet has been with some of us our entire lives and is now deeply embedded in nearly everything we do daily, it is still new. Across generations, our understanding of how to best use it, and our relationship with this tool is very different. Due to this, our relationship with technology and the internet is highly contradictory. We’ve grown up hearing to be careful on the internet and that the internet is not real life. The internet and the technology that is making it more embedded in our lives amplify both seemingly contradictory ideas. The internet is very much our real life, and we need to be careful of how we use it and perceive our relationship with it. At the same time, we understand how much of what we see there is curated, manipulated, and even fake. The question is how much that even matters when fantasy is so immersive, feels better, and can be more interesting than real life. From static media and content to multimedia and transmedia—and soon the metaverse—we’ve built new worlds. What once was fake is now a reality, and what’s reality may not be so real. So, let’s explore this evolution and what it means for art, business, and our relationships.
Escape, Nostalgia, Pop Culture: How We’ve Been Building Worlds
The building of worlds is nothing new. Still, it’s one of the coolest and most impressive things we can do. It’s central to storytelling, which is how we’ve communicated since the start of humanity. We build these worlds in our imaginations and in media, whether it’s conversations, our social media feeds, books, movies, or TV shows. We even take these worlds and put our own spin on them in the form of fanfiction. These worlds provide an escape when we need them most—when reality, at times, is too much to bear, gaining comfort and a break momentarily. They’re a way to express feelings and ideas, helping them gain traction and making hard instances more consumable and understandable. As we age, these worlds we escaped into in our past became a special place, forming nostalgia. We’ve discussed how, a lot of times, nostalgia influences creators enough to bring back new iterations of their influences in 30-year cycles. This can be dangerous when creators and consumers focus on restorative nostalgia rather than reflective nostalgia. Trying to recreate the past rather than taking inspiration from the past and putting a new spin on it, doesn’t push things forward.
However, we all have our influences—the aspects that shape and inspire us, and we want to share them if we can. Art and creation, in general, have an incredible power to communicate and connect, making the world feel less isolated. As technology has advanced, it has had a similar goal. In many ways, it’s been successful, and in other ways, it’s created new barriers, changed our social expectations, and increased isolation.
From Fantasy Life to Real Life: Where We’ve Seen It
In the media, we’ve seen plenty of iterations of stories where people escape into a new world or split time in a new world, either physically or mentally. From older stories—like “Tron” and “Ready Player One” to the surge of Isekai series in animes—Isekais are fantasy stories where the main character is transported to a different world. They usually thrive in this environment after often being outcasts in their normal environment. There’s a broad appeal for these stories as their audiences often see themselves in the misunderstood hero. In these “alternate world” series, the main characters often feel relatable or work as self-inserts, and the story provides a sort of wish fulfillment and escape into a world where things can be better.
A similar draw is in video games, another place where immersive worlds are built, and the character we control can often become an idealized self-insert. As we play them online, we see the best and worst of the internet. Digital spaces provide comfort and potential connection, but sometimes, that comfort and connection can bring out the worst in people. We often hear stories about people being verbally abused online in chats during games and those who feel comfortable using slurs and language they wouldn’t dare use in real life. People sometimes even amp up the misogyny when they hear a woman's voice. This poor behavior usually only occurs when a player feels comfortable hiding behind a screen and avatar. The immersion and escape gaming offers may be what makes this behavior seem like a more prevalent part of the culture, even if it’s from a minority of players. It also may make it easier to use gaming as a scapegoat or act like it’s a microcosm of overall online culture. But in reality, it’s not too different from general online culture. Just like any other social platform, gaming often provides people with a sense of connection and community that pulls them deeper into the game, for better or worse. In some cases, players form lifelong friendships and eventually meet in real life.
Like any social media connection, what people know and see about each other is what the other side shares and makes observable; it’s often a curated online existence. We do this in the physical world too, but comparatively, it’s not as easy to control. As social media and our online personas and footprint have increased in importance in life, the desire and ability to create a fantasy and curate the world we show around ourselves grows.
The belief that we know those we follow and connect with online also develops. Building connections around key interests, values, and other commonalities are critical to growing a following. The most traditional stars in the world have felt accessible while maintaining a mystique and skill level that feels aspirational. On the other hand, influencers today are gaining star power, but they often shed the mystique and mystery for more access to bring people in. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that because people share more about themselves online, we know them; this develops parasocial relationships. According to psychology researcher and professor David Giles, “parasocial interactions take place exclusively while interacting with a persona via media and psychologically resemble real-life face-to-face interactions.” This isn’t abnormal. Humans are wired to connect, especially to faces and voices we recognize. Brands try to capitalize on this with recurring characters in commercials, humanizing their voices and posts on social media, and using influencers. But as people connect in a one-sided relationship, a fantasy may be created. We assume we know and like this person, that if we met, we’d hit it off or have some type of dynamic. We assume that the version they show us on the screen is exactly who they are in person, and often they influence us to be more like them. In a 2019 study called “Parasocial Interactions and Relationships with Media Characters—An Inventory of 60 Years of Research” by Nicole Lieber and Holger Schramm, it was found that “if an individual has a parasocial connection with a media persona, that persona can influence their political views and voting decisions, their purchasing behavior, attitudes about gender stereotypes, and their trust in various groups of people, such as scientists.” This isn’t inherently negative. It just stresses the importance of the media we’re consuming, the communities we’re engaging with, the worlds we’re diving into, and why we’re consuming and immersing ourselves in certain things. Brands and creators looking to build their influence need to be aware of the community and mini-worlds they build online and offline, the values and purpose of what they’re building, and how they want people to engage. That sets the stage for the relationship that will develop. Building a world that is immersive helps creators stand out and deepens their connection with an audience.
Donald Glover - The Early Iterations
In 2013, Donald Glover masterfully created a world with his project called “Because the Internet,” which utilized transmedia. Multimedia tells one story in one channel with multiple forms of media, such as text, photos, audio, and/or video, to maximize engagement and cater to multiple styles of consumption. Crossmedia originated in the advertising industry, where one story is told across many channels. So, the same story may be distributed across a podcast, newspaper, website, and magazine to maximize reach to a broader audience. Transmedia stories flesh out the world of the story. While each story can stand alone, they are also connected, building a larger world, creating depth, and providing greater understanding. Using different channels to tell these different stories caters to viewers and their preferred formats for consuming media. It also drives engagement across channels as a podcast-lover may pick up a magazine to engage with more of the story world.
Working across physical and digital spaces, including social media, film scripts, short films, interviews, live performances, listening sessions in the park, music, and more, Donald Glovers allowed all the elements to come together. He crafted a world for his fans to immerse themselves in. Even as a musician, Glover believes that in the modern age, “You gotta build a bigger world” beyond albums. During this time, he had a very honest Instagram post describing his feelings of depression and shared an open letter saying that with this album, he “wanted to make something that says, no matter how bad you fuck up, or mistakes you’ve made during the year, your life, your eternity. You’re always allowed to be better. You’re always allowed to grow up. If you want.” With that idea, connection, and message in mind, he wanted to inspire his audience, so he began crafting.
“Clapping for the Wrong Reasons” was the first piece Glover created in his world for his audience to experience. This short film was somewhat cryptic but set the stage and gave the first look into the world Glover was building. The audience got to know the life of his character and key themes to decipher. The first drop of the short film was a 50-second version for sharing on social media, and then a couple of weeks later, he shared a 24-minute version on YouTube. In addition, a movie poster came out that showed the characters in the film and album world. He then brought this world that was starting to be built digitally to physical reality with a set of mansion parties. The mansions were decorated to look like the main character, The Boy’s, mansion. This allowed the audience to feel like they were entering the world physically. During the rollout, he made appearances in parks across North America doing public listening sessions with fans in character as The Boy. Expressing the importance of real-world connection and interaction, he stated, “I want these listening parties to happen in the real world. To have people there so they can feel… rather than getting it curated through a Tumblr.” He felt allowed to experience more human interaction, awareness, and perspective in a real-world interaction. During these events, he engaged with fans and offered advice, such as telling them to learn to code, which would have greater implications down the road for fans to immerse themselves more.
To formally announce the impending album, Glover dropped the song and music video “Yaphet Kotto,” which foreshadows events in the BTI narrative and world. However, “Yaphet Kotto” is not a song on the project and seems like just a loosie but ties into the larger world. With the release of the album, there was also the release of a screenplay to accompany the album. Unrealized by some, during Glover’s live shows on this tour, not only did he have interactive backdrops that fans could interact with using an app, but he acted out parts of the screenplay. He merged the digital and physical worlds. The experience continued as he conducted interviews as The Boy, hid secret tracks in the source code of his websites, and created social media profiles for the characters. Rather than acting out scenes from the script, his music videos expanded the world, creating new scenarios, showing new events and environments. Effectively, the physical and digital elements of the world overlapped, creating moments and experiences for fans to dive into and discover.
The process of creating worlds didn’t just stop with “Because The Internet,” even though that was the most involved part of the process. Before his next album, “Awaken My Love,” he created an application called Pharos. The Pharos app had a countdown that released information and allowed fans to buy tickets. He had a big concert in Joshua Tree where he created a mock town and performed. Fans could use their phone for augmented reality to enhance the stage and show. After the concert, the Pharos app turned into an entertainment app where fans could use VR headsets to replay the concert or watch new music videos he released. More and more, the physical and digital worlds are blending as new worlds are created. Creators and companies can create new and immersive worlds that lead to immersive experiences, keeping their audiences engaged longer and more fully.
The Continued Evolution
Virtual reality and augmented reality allow for more immersive worlds to be built. The process for building worlds will continue to evolve. The Metaverse is looming and offers an escape into virtual worlds. Before that, the digital and physical worlds will continue to play off each other with technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain. But even before that, we’ve seen similar interest in creative-driven virtual worlds that drive social interaction with games like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. We’ve seen Fortnite and Roblox concerts and music videos; as creators look to create new spaces, engage with new audiences, and expand the communities or microworlds they’ve built, there will be more to come.
Companies like Rally are empowering artists to build deeper communities, and even in a sense, microworlds, with social tokens that allow creators to build digital economies around their work. Social tokens are a type of cryptocurrency that a brand, community, or influencer can use to monetise themselves beyond the typical means. Many influencers, celebrities, and businesses these days use social media or other media streams to monetise their skills or services. Typically, in such scenarios, the medium or platform they use, such as Facebook or Instagram, shares the revenue and exerts artistic control on their content. With social tokens, the content creators can eliminate this barrier and bring forward a new principle of ownership in the digital economy. For example, artists can offer token holders extra perks and benefits, including hangouts, exclusive access to Q&A, video shoutouts, or even producers making custom beats. As creators build their own economies that fans can engage in, trade in, and access exclusive content, they can further build a microworld across platforms.
While there are reasons to be skeptical long-term of crypto due to the instability of endless speculation and a seemingly get-rich-quick gold rush, overall, blockchain technology has the potential to be really interesting. As we see it develop, there will be more understanding of its applications and limitations, but big tech is currently placing its resources and bets on the Metaverse.
Meta: What Does The Future Hold?
As mentioned, big tech and banks are investing resources and placing bets on the metaverse. Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella seem to think it is the future of the internet. The metaverse is defined by Anwesha Roy of XRToday as “a simulated digital environment that uses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain, along with concepts from social media, to create spaces for rich user interaction mimicking the real world.” Think of Sims, Second Life, or Playstation Home on steroids, where a digital avatar of a person is inserted into the world and simulates their real-world presence. I have yet to see a Metaverse application that is not just a Sims or “Ready Player One” fantasy. Part of that may be because the term “Metaverse” first appears in the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” where users use the metaverse as an escape from a futuristic, largely dystopian world. Sounds timely for where we are today. But again, we’re seeing the biggest creators pulling from the media that shaped them and may even be limited by that. In the current state, it does not seem to be better than Fortnite or other MMOs. However, the value is in what can be created going forward, especially if it remains decentralized.
Roy of XRToday notes several implications the Metaverse offers:
In addition to two-dimensional digital spaces, users will now have an immersive reality that they can occasionally inhabit.
Content creators and designers, especially 3D modelling and VR world-building experts, can expect new opportunities on the road ahead.
The metaverse opens a new economy where wealth can be created, traded, and enhanced using a currency distinct from but related to the real world.
The metaverse necessitates the evolution of new technologies for its execution. For example, you need a “digital me” or the digital twin of a person to simulate a real-world presence.
There are concerns around data privacy, security, diversity, and ethical behavior—problems of the real world that may take on a new dimension in a virtual one.
In this decentralized space, creators will potentially have the freedom to build worlds much more effectively. They are taking their world from pages in novels or in someone else's game to the metaverse for large swaths to experience first-hand precisely as they want and in a dynamic and ever-changing way.
Is This Good Or Is This the Result of A Damaged Society?
Whether the metaverse and the further convergence of our digital and physical world and realities is a good thing is still to be determined. Social media, the internet, the metaverse, AR and VR, and blockchain are tools that can be used positively or negatively. We’re still navigating how to use them and their impact on people. From what we know, these mediums and technologies expand the reach of creators and brands, giving them more potential for impact, engaging, bringing people into their world, and connecting them. So, with that, creators and brands should take the time to consider their goals and the impact they want to have with the communities and world they build for themselves and their audiences.
When thinking about that impact, consider why masses of people are seeking connections and delving into forms of escapism at such high rates and in ways like never before. Feelings of heightened isolation, fear that society is less stable than ever, and greater financial pressures leave people vulnerable. They may seek to get away from their real-life lives by diving deeply into another world or a new community in this state. This sort of disengagement from reality can be very dangerous and damaging. So, while creators and brands build new worlds and spaces, consider how to foster connections across the community and bring the physical world into any virtual world or reality that is being built. Allow that escape to not be disconnected from the physical world but offer a better way to experience it.