When Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, I muttered, “I don’t need to be part of any world that doesn’t include my Artemis.” A few hours later, our Instagram creator account was deactivated, and after a few fruitless attempts to retrieve it (thanks for the emails, all!), I settled into imagining what it would be like to be left behind when everyone else is living on the metaverse. I don’t think I would mind it, to be honest. I do like video games—a lot—but nothing replaces a long, meandering morning walk through the rain with an increasingly muddy dog who discovers a patch of fox poop for rolling.
Here’s the thing: We don’t know what the metaverse will actually look like or become. Zuckerberg doesn’t even know, and many people don’t like his vision. But I want to be positive about the potential for the future, so I’d like to consider the point that this is our chance to shape the metaverse into what we want it to be—especially those of us who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, disabled, undocumented, or have been marginalized or unrecognized in any way or form in our current institutions.
So, I’ve done some warming up to the idea of a metaverse—as long as it involves our dogs. I also think it’s important to get involved in these communities, if they’re of interest, because the internet is shaped by those who build it. To educate myself (and those of you in the Dog Park), I spoke to two advocates for the metaverse and dogs: Gilad Rom, who is working to build a metaverse that includes your actual dog via his company Huan, and Abby Mansfield, co-founder and resident artist of the dog-based NFT line, Top Dog Beach Club, which donates to Dogs on the Street, which is a UK-based charity that helps homeless people with dogs. If the metaverse is inevitable, I want it to be shared by dog people like you and me. We know what it means to build community around a shared interest, after all.
You may be wondering: What is the metaverse? Is this like the Matrix? Well, the answer depends on who you ask because the vision is unclear right now. Most people can agree that it’s a virtual world both unlike and like our real-life world. You can already plots of land in the metaverse, and it’ll cost you a pretty $40,000 (that’s real money we’re talking here) minimum. The sci-fi writer Ted Chiang wrote a novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, that anticipates the metaverse in regards to pet parenthood. In this brilliant story, a just-graduated animal trainer named Ana starts a job at a software company that makes digital artificial intelligence pets, called Digients, who reside in this vast digital world called Data Earth that is actually just as big as planet Earth. I love Chiang’s writing because he’s optimistic about the future and optimistic about technology, but he does not shy away from the follies of human nature that inflict technological advances. I won’t spoil the plot for you (read it and come back to me—let’s discuss!), but the story explores whether you could have a real relationship in world that is completely digital, or at least, with a counterpart that resides in a world that is completely digital. I re-read this novella a few weeks ago, before the Meta rebrand, and I have been thinking about in ever since. If the metaverse were to exist, I want one that is more like Chiang’s.
But I don’t just want digital pets, though I’m open to that as someone who grew up with Neopets and robot dogs. (I recently published an essay about how my love for artificial intelligence evolved into a love for animals in this HarperCollins anthology, Alien Nation, edited by A&A dog mom, Sofija Stefanovic.) I want a metaverse that includes Artemis. Rom, a software and hardware engineer who founded Huan, a company that currently makes GPS trackers for small pets, is trying to create a version of that world. Two-and-a-half years after launching with a simple Bluetooth device and app that uses crowdsourcing to find missing dogs, Huan has 17,000 users in the United States—a proof of concept that would elate any founder.
But Rom didn’t want people to just use his device in times of distress. “How did I turn this from a product that people use only when they’re panicking into something that people use everyday?” he asked. He realized that everyone was walking their dog with one hand holding the leash and the other hand (and nose) buried in their smartphone. “What if I could make something that was as engaging as these apps that people are constantly checking on their phone?” he wondered. He began setting out a plan to build a virtual world where your dog (or cat) becomes a 3-D avatar—aka the “metaverse.” He envisions a Pokémon Go-like game, in which the hardware helps turn your dog’s IRL adventures with you into adventures on the metaverse, too. For example, receiving virtual currency for walking 10,000 steps with your dog, or for checking into the dog run and interacting with the other dogs in the neighborhood, or for checking into a local coffee shop and being rewarded for supporting a local business. That’s the first iteration—expect to see it launched around Spring 2022, but Rom has even bigger ideas for the future. He wants to build a way so that you can interact with dogs who aren’t in your vicinity. Say, your family dog that you miss because you moved away for college. Or that famous influencer dog you’ve been following for the past two years. “I want to make the world a smaller place,” he says.
But what happens after your pet passes? Rom hasn’t figured out the afterlife of metaverse pet avatars—but it does keep him up at night. “I haven’t figured out how humans will cope with that,” he says. In Chiang’s story, Digients never die, but the humans can freeze them indefinitely if they need a break or lose interest—though it’s widely discouraged, just as you can’t just press pause when you need a break from your dog. If Rom’s pet avatars become more like Digients someday, with consciousness of their own, one may have to ask, in reverse, how they will cope when their humans pass (or will their humans have eternal metaverse avatars, too?).
That’s one way of considering dogs in the metaverse. Another way to get yourself involved in Web3 is by owning some of the many dog-themed NFTs available nowadays, such as Mansfield’s Top Dog Beach Club, based on drawings of flat-nosed dogs, including photos of dogs submitted by dog parents in their Discord community and this one infamous photo of Doug the Pug. Mansfield, the artist who designed the dogs, offers a simple analogy for a non-fungible token: Imagine if someone offers you a part of the Mona Lisa for $200—but you can’t keep it in your home or in your gallery space. What you can do is tell people that you own a piece of an incredible piece of art history—and you could sell it someday as it appreciates in value. Would you take them up on the offer? (Yes, probably. It’s a nice investment and it’s a fun flex.) The problem is, of course, many NFTs may end up worth nothing in the future. But for the people in the NFT communities, that’s a gamble worth taking.
Top Dog Beach Club was founded in July 2021, a lifetime in the NFT world, where things can change overnight. Mansfield and her brother-in-law, Paul Price, considered aliens before settling on pugs to create their NFTs. “Pugs just have so much character,” Mansfield notes. They created the pieces, such as floating pairs of eyes, that auto-generated into 8,000 different dogs. If you own one of these dogs, you can name them and even write a backstory for their character. I’m partial to the one named Evil Tinky Winky, who has almost zero levels of aggressiveness and extremely high levels of loyalty, along with a distinguished mustache. Gimme. I might not be able to afford one right now, though. Mansfield tells me the most expensive one has gone for $40,000. The money didn’t go to her or Paul. After they sold the first 8,000 dogs, the NFTs entered the secondary market on OpenSea (“It’s like Amazon for NFTs,” Mansfield explains), which means someone else pocketed the six-figure sum. Life-changing money for most people. Mansfield tells me about a man who sold a Bored Ape Yacht Club (one of the biggest NFT projects) for about $200,000. He quit his job and so did his wife. Now he’s gone full-time into NFTs.
Top Dog Beach Club has adopted a lot of the jargon from the dog parent community. For example, there are dog packs. When you buy a dog, you can choose to be in a pack. They even hosted a Pawlympics during the Summer Olympics, which involved packs competing against each other. This was all hosted on their website on a portal called Beach Club that can only accessed by proving that you have a Top Dog Beach Club dog via your digital wallet. (Confusing? It’s fine—keeping reading.) The team have been developing games that you can play with your dog, including an upcoming Pokémon battle-like game (we’re sensing a theme here) you can play with the dogs. “Not a dog fight, though!” Mansfield is quick to clarify. “We’re staying away from that. More like, if your dog has a pickle in their mouth, you can launch a pickle attack. Funny stuff like that.” You can redeem your winnings as $SNAX tokens (y’know, like dog treats), which is a virtual currency that they have also been developing.
If you start browsing the Top Dog Beach Club dogs on OpenSea, you may notice the jarring sentence in the description, “500 dogs were burned, making the true supply 7.5K.” That’s an unfortunate phrasing, as “burning” is just standard NFT terminology for destroying. Top Dog Beach Club is hoping to use their success to support up-and-coming NFT creators, as well as provide webinars and educational resources for people who may currently feel alienated by the NFT community. (Those like me, who had no idea that “burning” had nothing to do with animal cruelty.) In addition to donating to Dogs on the Street, they’ve also donated to Offsetra to offset carbon emissions caused by transactions happening on blockchain. (She says Ethereum 2.0 should be cleaner.)
The power of NFTs lies in the community that believes in them. Maybe that’s why dogs are so prevalent in Web3 even though we haven’t figured how to involve our real-life dogs as equitable partners in this new world—an opportunity that would be devastating to miss (or get wrong), as dogs have been our partner since the beginning of mankind, and we shouldn’t be exploring (or building) the metaverse without them.
All right, are you ready to join the metaverse with your dog? We got you. Get 20% OFF the Huan smart tag with code ARTEMIS20 at checkout. (Available only to U.S.-based dog parents, sorry!) When the augmented reality game launches next year, you’ll be able to integrate your smart tag with the new app. But in the meantime, you can avoid losing your dog in the real world.