I wrote today’s essay as a “product sense” thought piece - basically imagining how I would respond a Facebook product sense question about the metaverse:
The question: “Imagine you do not work for Facebook. Design a decentralized metaverse that is inspired by the best parts of Facebook but without any Facebook infrastructure
that will compete with Facebook’s metaverse. Construct both product vision as well as an MVP that could be led by a single person starting with just a computer.”
In an interview, I wouldn’t include the background information with as much detail as I have. But I think that’s an important element to explain my thought process since I veer so far from the commonly accepted vision of the metaverse.
Whenever the mainstream press covers Facebook’s metaverse, they show a photo of Mark Zuckerberg with his Oculus.
For reasons I describe later, I do not head that direction.
My answer to a non-FB metaverse
Product Vision and Mission
In the interview, I’d clarify the mission of Facebook: “To bring the world closer together and empower people to create communities.”
Then I would come up with a related mission for the product.
Given the initial question, I would describe the mission of this product as follows: “To foster a decentralized metaverse that creates and enhances communities while improving the accuracy of information and protecting the privacy of individuals around the world through engagement with the real world and the open Internet.”
The mission helps me to frame a solution in contrast to what FB appears to be doing. I believe that Facebook’s mission is one of the best parts about it. “Bringing people together and empowering the creation of communities” can truly make a better world.
That ethos lives in the cryptoverse.
So if I were given the problem to start this outside of Facebook as a lone individual, I’d want to frame the mission in a way that directs a strategy (arguably someone could ding me saying product mission differs from product strategy). The components are:
- Improve accuracy of information
- Protecting the privacy of individuals
- Engage with the real world and the open Internet
Each of these address either a weakness in Facebook’s products or surface area where I would not need to compete head-on. For example, desiring the improve accuracy of information and protecting privacy of individuals may not give this alternative product a competitive advantage. But it would reflect an opinionated mission against which we would develop a product thesis.
Decentralization may be a critical component if we can design it to scale as effectively as the existing aggregating flywheels Facebook has at its disposal.
Finally, because as a solo operator, I wouldn’t be able to harness VR/AR resources, I would need to think about a product that creates metaverse-like experiences based on existing or easily-built metaverse assets.
To me, starting with a “good enough” point of view for the metaverse is essential and practical. However, it’s also a weakness: this type of disruption, according to Christensen, typically works for business purchasers, not so much for consumers.
But I would argue that, given the set up, thinking this way is essential to play ball.
Personas and Actors
Normally, I would then try to define a set of personas to focus.
The metaverse has such an all-encompassing objective, especially if it has Facebook-sized aspirations, that any kind of traditional scoping would be both limiting and not-useful.
Instead, I looked at other inspirations to help me think about the psychographics for these personas (versus using strict demographics, such as “new parents” or “college graduates” or “professional creators” and the such).
To uncover hidden signals to what could be a metaverse, I thought best to put in an archeologists hat and find the alternative systems and behaviors that inspire me to what such as metaverse could be (versus looking at Ready Player One or Fortnite as the primary model).
Precursors to the Metaverse
A decentralized metaverse/game/interaction that captures a wide audience can find inspiration in the following “pre-cursors”: an illustrated book with a prize, a puzzle for cryptographers, a failed video game from right before 9/11, and a closed-down secret society set up by a former Goldman Sachs trader.
But first, what is this “Metaverse”?
My definition is probably both looser and less exciting by those who are well-versed in it: people coming together to play and build a world the strengthens communities and inspires and spreads awe online and offline.
I explain why the notion of awe was important to me and emerged after the think piece. But wanted to include upfront for readers dropping off.
Why did I pick this selection of precursors?
- I was personally fascinated by it when I heard about them (although had very little direct experience)
- They each had either global or local fascination and engagement
- They involved a mix of gameplay, imagination, and social interaction
- They were different from each other
- They did not succeed and continue to grow and exist at scale
I picked the final criteria in order to satisfy the initial problem statement, that the product’s MVP should be led (doesn’t mean designed and built) by one person. This implies that, even if I could recruit a small volunteer community, it would need to mimic the resource scarcity found in a college dorm-room.
If my inspirations were things that already scaled, those models would raise the bar of expectations since the market would already be accustomed to those existing and successful solutions. Copying them would be a fool’s errand.
On the other hand, if there is something that once had a huge following but failed to subsequently scale, I might be able to adapt them to succeed with limited resources.
First up: the illustrated book with a prize.
Masquerade: The Global Treasure Hunt
The creator of the book and global treasure hunt, Kit Williams, initially came with the puzzle as a picture book for kids for his girlfriend.
What contributed to the hysteria was the prize: an 18-carat gold, jewel-encrusted hare buried somewhere in Britain.
The clues were in the illustrations. Such as the one below:
According to a BBC article, the solution included the following:
Among the golden hares and red herrings, only one theory led to the correct solution - and the golden prize. To complete it, the puzzler had to draw a line from the eye of each of the animals in the 15 paintings through hand or paw to a letter in the border. This revealed a word or phrase which, put together, formed the crucial clue.
It read: "Catherine's / Long finger / Over / Shadows / Earth / Buried / Yellow / Amulet / Midday / Points / The / Hour / In / Light of equinox / Look you."
When arranged in verse, the acrostic of the first letters spelled out "Close by Ampthill". 
What product elements could be borrowed?
There was just a single “creator” and millions of people around the world looking at artwork to find the prize.
Imagine if a similar puzzles with a prize or series of prizes were available for those performing actions or solving puzzles. Instead of bloggers, people posting selfies or short videos, creators were puzzle makers.
With the current JPEG NFT craze, images could be visual clues to parts of the puzzle; they could be issued to those who participate and unlock other clues (paywalled content or Discords, for example) where more clues could be found.
While searching for treasure sounds like the plot of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” which showed the comic dark-side of a winner-take-all game, that same game mechanic could be used to bring people together, which is what Masquerade did.
What product elements worked for Cicada 3301?
What was Cicada 3301?
Cicada 3301 took the level of puzzle complexity up by a quantum leap from Masquerade.
These puzzles were designed to be solved by an elite group of cryptographers.
So while the addressable market of participants is way to small for a mainstream metaverse, and the “ambience” of the game too conspiratorial, there were some key takeaways.
#1: Puzzles => Learning
After watching several documentaries on the topic, the small handful of cryptographers who pursued the “truth” learned much about cryptography and the history of cryptography.
There weren’t as many people searching to find the answers as in Masquerade. There was no gold at the end of the rainbow in this instance.
However, the pursuit of truth, scratching an itch to find the answer, still can have value as an incentive for learning.
In their pursuit, they learned about psychology, history of WWII, as well as mathematics and cryptography. Unlike contemporary education, these puzzles had an application, even if it wasn’t a pragmatic one.
Gearing the puzzles to direct participants to search for clues in more “validated” news sources (experts, academicians, institutions of higher learning -- yes, those have problems too, but less than the “fake news”) would instill fun and learning while reducing the spread of disinformation.
#2: Solving Puzzles => Community
“Community” has become the big thing. From the documentary, it appears solving puzzles together fosters community.
#3: Crypto Should be Mainstreamed
The ethos and knowledge of cryptography is not accessible by the mainstream. Because the goal of Cicada 3301 was to find those who were the best in the industry, the problems were hard (and remain unsolved).
However, as Bitcoin adoption and privacy concerns continue to grow, why not run a thread with more accessible puzzles and solutions based on cryptography to the point the fundamentals are common knowledge?
This would improve privacy by not depending on the actions of a few big actors and put more of the tools into a wider audience.
What product elements insights from Latitude Society?
Latitude Society was a San Francisco based secret society / alternate reality game (ARG).
The puzzles may have been inspired by crypto-punk/fantasy, but involved more localized participation.
The game did (which had some bugs) real life interaction in specific locations. When those physical realities malfunctioned, it created a terrible UX.
But with GPS and QR Codes, interactions in the real world can be incorporated into the metaverse.
These could include parks, public open spaces, murals, museums, architectural tours.
Big insights are around the value of decentralization. Here I quote from the article:
"It was just the beginning of something amazing for me," said Society member Naomi Rifkin, a 46-year-old resource coordinator at a charter school in Oakland. "As awful as it was, the way the Latitude Society ended, I think ultimately it was good to realize that it didn't rest in the hands of one person. Jeff tapped into something he didn't own—it's a mindset that we can cultivate for each other. The friendships I've made, with people who value the ability to incite wonder, is the most valuable thing I've ever had."
The second problem that would be solved by web3 would be decentralized ownership of assets:
Their fear was compounded by the fact that Jeff owned all the intellectual property from the Latitude Society, and it was wrapped up in a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This made it hard for employees to develop a portfolio, or describe their work. (For example, Uriah told me that months after he left Nonchalance, Jeff texted asking him to remove a one-sentence phrase from his professional website because the two of them had often used it together.)
Majestic: The Product Elements from this Forgotten ARG
Majestic was another Alternative Reality Game (ARG) that had a conspiratorial theme. This hurt its adoption because 9/11 occurred after its release.
However, the concepts of asynchronous game play and leveraging all forms of media (at the time, voice mail and fax), was ambitious.
The ARG also interwoven fictitious web properties designed just for the game as well as real news and government sites. This blending with the open web creates a compelling design space.
That Wikipedia page on rockets or Youtube from NASA could cross-reference the novel V. by Thomas Pynchon -- all reliable assets.
But the puzzle makers may also create their own Youtube in which hidden messages are contained in the soundtrack.
If you want a deeper dive, watch this video from Atrocity Guide:
Although the product failed, I found some valuable pros and cons to extract:
- Multi-media: used chat, fax (!), voicemail, and blurred fictional web assets with legitimate ones
- Self-paced: The designers correctly tagged a market that did not want to sit in front of a console for 3 hours at a time. This got proved out with later simpler “casual games” more effectively, but is still legitimate
- Conspiratorial: The storyline had negative connotations, especially when shortly after its launch came 9/11.
- Maintenance: The game publisher indicators, for a centralized studio, this was hard to do
- Forced: Because of #2, the plot-lines and puzzles had to force timing.
How are they put altogether as a Product Vision?
Alright, now that we did a quick tour of some other product inspirations, let’s return to the initial mission of the product:
“To foster a decentralized metaverse that creates and enhances communities while improving the accuracy of information and protecting the privacy of individuals around the world through engagement with the real world and the open Internet.”
There are still some holes based on the precursors that need to be addressed, but I only got 45-minutes to answer so LFG!
Who are the Actors/Personas?
So let's start with understanding who the actors are in this platform.
The ones who are creating the puzzles and creating engagement. These are the equivalent of the TikTokers, the YouTubers, the influences on Instagram.
However, this is less about charismatic expression, and more about intellectual curiosity.
Puzzle solvers, the ones like the coding team from Cicada or the general public from Masquerade who are trying to solve the puzzles.
This is still likely to be a smaller set than the casual Facebook user. But even Facebook users played Farmville so there’s that (this is sort of depressing).
I’d stick to my guns on proposing one with an audience that is a smaller niche that the general population and try to solve for growth later.
Once the number of solvers starts to get higher than a single Puzzle Maker can review and respond to, we’d want to expand the number of vetted Validators.
These validators ensure that someone has solved it (if there’s a prize that can’t be granted programmatically -- although with smart contracts, crypto addresses, and on-chain tracking of NFTs -- those may not be essential).
The other Validators might play a role to ensure the games that were part of this metaverse didn’t ask players to do stupid things as part of the puzzle or prize (harming themselves or others; defacing property; spreading false rumors, etc).
These are the ones that are going to pay for the engagement, either just the audience exposure, maybe the click throughs, depending on how those puzzles are designed.
This product sense exercise is purposefully light on a competitive analysis. First, I don’t have the ability to do a reasonably acceptable job having never worked in ad-tech. It would be important to at least show an awareness that we’d need to incorporate this consideration into the discussion.
Facebook, for example, has an advantage around demographic details. They know an incredible amount of who their audiences are and, as a result, can provide exceptional targeting combined with global reach.
This is why the Facebook boycott by advertisers had little impact on their business:
Would the design of this support both large brands, as well as smaller advertisrs?
Google / Amazon
Often seen as the perfect business, the search engine is able to capture “intent.”
Somebody is actively searching reveals active intent across the funnel.
Because players in this puzzle-oriented metaverse (my low-rent MVP), I can’t see a clear way to incorporate out-of-game search intent.
Reddit / YouTube
Reddit and YouTube seem like a compelling alternative to the detailed demographic/privacy-intrusive advertising tech.
They don’t know purchase intent. But they do know community interest by very granular topics.
As cookie tracking and the release of private information becomes more constrained, this seems like a potentially viable advertising model: to advertise knowing the topics of interest potential buyers engage with.
This may lack the explicit intent of search and the detailed demographic and behavior tracking of Facebook.
But it’s still possibly a viable business model (repeat: I have no ad-tech experience).
The primary alternatives I have seen to counter-act the privacy-intrusive businesses have been subscription. Rather than using a free product and “paying” with their privacy and attention, users pay a subscription.
Instead of free Gmail, they pay for email like Proton.
Instead of free Google Analytics, they pay for a service like Plausible.
The question is whether, by virtue of being an ad-driven revenue model, Facebook inevitably became problematic; or whether the business model can be separated from outcomes.
The easier answer would be to answer by tightly coupling the bad outcomes to the revenue model. It makes “you are the product” negative.
But what if the right frame is that the business model is neutral; implementation and interpretation of “you are the product” takes one down one path or the other.
This can take one down a separate rabbit-hole of whether advertising, itself, is a social good or not. Don’t want to go into that.
However, I do think it’s open season on the growth demands. For example, my local weekly paper is advertising driven. I enjoy reading about the local events for free, and do not feel like my privacy is being violated. In fact, I like most of the advertisements because I want to learn about local vendors and happenings.
The punishing short-term demands of the capital markets, particularly with concentrated ownership, is more likely a forcing function to bad behavior. It’s why, ironically, Jeff Bezos wanted only those who would focus on the long-term view. Those investors who understand this benefitted; while those with a short horizon abandoned the stock to their loss.
I would argue that rather than taking the path of a subscription model, an advertising-driven model that did not have the growth pressures of Wall Street, could still create a very big, growing, and sustainable metaverse with the following principles: no intrusive cookies; no collection or data-mining of personal identifying information; no addiction-inducing dark-patterns.
Now I’ve defined the product mission, the players and actors, the business model (which wouldn’t normally be in an FB interview, but it would be a legitimate point since changing the model could be a way to differentiate against a more formidable alternative), how do I address the flywheels?
FB has strong ecosystem effects both in-product and cross-product.
Theirs comes from aggregated scale. But I won’t have that.
This is where crypto, specifically token engineering, comes into play.
Tokenomics is to web3 what algorithms has been to web2.
To ensure we have designed the tokenomics properly to achieve the product’s overall goals, we need to define the primary incentives for each actor.
This is where web3 has so much opportunity if done well: to align incentives of different actors so they behave with “enlightened self-interest.”
As pure economic actors, brand need competitive traffic, engagement, or conversions. Whether this new approach can fit in a brand’s marketing portfolio depends upon the success of these metrics.
Puzzle Builders are the content creators for this version of the metaverse. I looked at the problem this way:
Building Puzzles for a wider audience than those for Cicada 3302 takes less effort than a high-production movie or most VR games.
But it might be harder than a child building something in Roblox or breeding an Axie.
I explored this because I believe the skill of puzzle building is learnable and, in this environment, valuable. I don’t think all content should have a low-barrier to entry in terms of skill and quality. This contributed to the spread of false information and the need for armies of humans to patrol content.
The second reason I explored puzzle building is because this skill and approach re-uses existing content.
The Internet has made it so easy to generate anything online. Why not begin to stitch those together as they are to create experiences online layered on top of what is already there?
This is what makes Alternative Reality Games (ARG) so intriguing as an angle to the metaverse.
If you have billions of dollars, then you could create a greenfield, virtual reality.
Without it, the creators need to be able to do so with high-leverage of creativity, domain-knowledge, and low-cost tools.
Puzzle makers are such an important part of the ecosystem that we would want to incentivize them to make great puzzles.
Designing tokens that gives them a stake in how the success of their puzzles based on engagement and brand participation (funding with ad dollars) will incentivize them to make puzzles.
Influencers can be roped into the game. If tokens convey status or deepen engagement for referring or even being part of a puzzle game, this could accelerate growth.
For example, suppose a set of puzzles were geared around teenage girls learning cryptography. And Taylor Swift thought it was cool because a puzzle maker cryptographically hide clues in a cover of one of her songs.
She could just tweet about it and that would be cool.
Or she becomes more active and releases a song where the lyrics are clues, and earns tokens in this metaverse.
There’s no direct tit-for-tat exchange.
She buys into the ecosystem growing: her audience participating increases brands investing which draws in more puzzle makers which excited more influencers who bring in new audiences.
In an interview, that’s probably all I would get into.
But with more time, I would want to actually set up the dynamics to think about how the token engineering would be set up.
What is the Solution?
The solution would be a platform that gave simple creation tools and put everything on-chain. It would encourage interoperability and set up a reward system for earning tokens as an influencer, puzzle maker, and possibly even a puzzle solver.
It would initially be a non-dynamic ad buy (meaning the price isn’t programmatic) but it gets paid out by actual impressions or conversions.
I could describe this in more detail later.
What I want to get to is an example of the puzzles.
First Clue: An Image
This image could live on chain on IPFS.
It could be an NFT with meta-data which could also provide additional clues.
The actual image itself could contain a hidden file.
In fact, the version of the image I have has a cryptographically hidden file where the “key” is the word “satchel.”
Puzzle makers could do this with free steganography tools, and do so with images or sounds.
Similarly, puzzle solvers could also use those free tools. In the case of the image above, I had hidden this file:
Our budding cryptographers could try to solve for binary to text codes. This particular code converts to the following:
This isn’t a particularly complicated puzzle. It’s to go to YouTube with the video id:
This video is on public key cryptography.
But the rabbit hole could continue further.
And perhaps by a different set of Puzzle Makers.
Their puzzles could result in time-stamps, which lead to the image of a watch. That watch image then becomes part of the clue of another puzzle.
And so on.
The decentralized nature would allow different creators to participate with the broad goal of fulfilling the mission and lightly checked by Validators.
Much more thinking to go
This essay was hastily completed in a few hours fitting within the construct of a product sense interview response.
But I still feel there’s a germ here by looking at the legacy of puzzles while posing the question of whether a vibrant decentralized community sustained by brands that want to reach people with interests in different specific topics and communities.
But, anyway, I’d love to iterate with other people. Drop me a line if you’re interested by giving a follow and DM here: @timfong888
Thanks for reading!
- I recognize the top companies/FANNG do some kind of product sense, but there appears to be general consensus that FB has a distinct rigor which I have modeled here.
Listening and Reading While Writing
- Seed Club Podcast with Packy: https://player.fm/series/series-2997421/ep-3-the-importance-of-vibes-packy-mccormick