The Embodied Internet: Community Over Commerce
Written with Pamela Jaber
Right now, most brands entering the embodied internet are focused on commerce. Virtual shops, virtual malls, and virtual restaurants that look like slightly improved versions of their real world counterparts. I spent some time in a virtual fast food restaurant recently, and sitting alone in a virtual fast food joint is just as depressing as sitting alone in a physical one. Or maybe more depressing, because at least you have fries in the real one.
Commerce can be a part of it, for sure. But it shouldn’t be the main focus. The main focus should be community and brand building identifying WHAT the brand stands for and creating a place where those who want to identify with that can meet and hang out.
Think of the commercial experiences you most value, and they likely have nothing to do with the transactional part of the experience. You might have bought a nice dress, but you likely remember the look in your date’s eyes when you came out of the dressing room and that sealed the deal. You might have had a good meal at a diner, but the thing you remember is gabbing with your friends for hours over BLTs and pie.
Several years ago, Sour Patch Kids sponsored a house where touring indie bands could spend a few nights and do some recording. All they asked in return was some social media shoutouts. It wasn’t overtly about selling candy (although that was likely the end goal); it was about building a community and telling a story. The community came first, and the commerce followed. People didn’t want to hang out in the house because there were Sour Patch Kids available; they wanted to hang out in the house because it was a fun place to spend time and see some music.
The embodied internet should be your digital version of this house. A place where people want to spend time, hang out, and have fun. And getting people to come in and spend time on a regular basis takes a lot of work.
Nike’s world in Roblox, for example, is a virtual brand experience that works well as a community experience. People come back, again and again, because there are new things to do and new people to spend time with. Imagine how dead the Sour Patch Kids house would be if only two bands a month came through. An embodied internet that looks like a ghost town isn’t a satisfying experience for anyone. Brands that succeed on social media do so because they have an authentic voice, interact with fans and customers, and have a steady stream of new content. None of these principles are new; they’re just not being applied in the embodied internet yet.
Back to the fast food experience. I’m not naming the brand because at the end of the day, I always respect companies that are willing to take a risk and try something new. But imagine if rather than doing something literal, they built something that was part of their brand’s DNA and created something new and needed. In this case, the fast food chain’s founder has been outspoken about this support for adoption after adopting his own children. How much more compelling would it have been to create a space for adoptive families to connect with each other and share stories and resources? I’m not that excited to go sit in a deserted virtual restaurant, but I would be very excited to spend time connecting with people from all over the world who I share something in common with.
This is the first of a series of essays on how to build in the embodied internet. Forthcoming topics include:
Community based scarcity and scale
Creating safe spaces
Relationships in the embodied internet