We are constantly surrounded by identity. We have numerous identity-based categories on our IDs and passports. In addition, we click racial, gender, and ability-based identity categories on job applications and surveys. However, all of these forms of identification come with the understanding that we must present the way we identify. For example, the identity categories on your passport must match your physical appearance if you want to get on your flight. And if they don’t, there could be repercussions, like losing your ticket. Or, in the case of some LGBTQ+ international travelers, you could literally be jailed for gender identity markers not matching the way you express your gender. However, in a post-web2 world and in the emerging web3, blockchain, and metaverse industries, how will this change? When your identity is metaphysical, who are you more? The person on your ID or the person on your screen?
As a queer and nonbinary person, I am often puzzled by the question of who am I more: the version of me I feel inside or the way the world views me outside. See, to me, I am genderless. I don’t feel an affinity towards man or womanhood. I occupy some space in between and sometimes on both ends. But that’s not how the world always views me. When I had longer, shoulder-length hair, people treated me as more feminine. I was catcalled by presumably straight men, called ma’am on many occasions, and even got weird looks when I would use a gendered restroom. Then, I cut my hair. Since then, none of those things have happened to me. In fact, people have now called me sir, bro, and man more times than I can count. Now, neither being perceived as masculine nor feminine offends me. In fact, I love that I am able to be so fluid in my presentation. But the fact that something like a haircut changes what I am more to whoever is viewing me starts an interesting conversation about who I am more. The non-binary person I feel I am inside? Or the gendered versions of me people so often perceive me as?
To the government, I am a male, as that was the identity marker given to me at birth. To my queer friends, community, and myself, I am genderless, nonbinary. And to the casual viewer on the street, I am whatever they view me as. Man, woman, f*ggot.
However, not everyone has the confidence, luxury, or ability to be out and proud about their identities. In many parts of our country and the world, people who are pining for the ability to escape strict gender and sexuality roles are restricted because of a regressive culture. Often times signs of gender or sexual diversity are met with violence, hate, and death. In these parts of the world, you are more of your sexuality or your gender than you are human.
So what do these people who are restricted by culture do to finally experience life as their gender or sexual identity? They go to the Internet. Since web1, LGBTQ+ people like myself have been using the Internet as a tool to escape the entrapment of physical identity. They have used the Internet since the beginning to seek out media that validates them, connect with people of their communities via chatrooms, and finally be viewed as they want to be viewed.
These are perhaps the first group of people to see themselves more as their metaphysical identity than their physical one. The first group to see the Internet as a mode of escape, an avenue of identity, and means of experiencing gender euphoria.
Web2 saw this phenomenon skyrocket. Teens and young adults questioning their identities now had a decade’s worth of online communities to engage with and learn from. The practice of displaying your pronouns on your profile became widespread and people could create whole online identities that matched their true identities.
Of course, web1 and web2 were still heavily influenced by physical identity. Most people who use the Internet to live out their real identity metaphysically still return to the real world and are not treated how they wish to be. This all shows that in a web1 and web2 world, you are more of your physical identity than your metaphysical.
But web3 is different. In a metaverse where you can socialize, shop, and even work metaphysically, this precedent is bound to change. We will have to acknowledge that many people who will use the metaverse to live out their true identity cannot live that way in the real world. They will wear things that could get them in trouble in real life because it is the only place in which they can do so. To these future metaverse users, they will, for the first time, literally be more metaphysical than physical.
(This is all, of course, under the hope that the metaverse will not be policed like the real world. That it will be decentralized and equitable. That those living in the most queer and trans restrictive places will be able to access the metaverse and not fear persecution for how they wish to present in this new space.)
Identity isn’t going away. And as we expand our technological capabilities in web3, we must make sure we are creating the most just environment possible for people of historically marginalized communities. This means involving LGBTQ+ people, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color in every step of web3 creation. Otherwise, the issues that have existed prior to the metaverse will find new ways to affect people in the metaphysical world.
After all, the metaverse, by definition, is not the real world. It is a tool. A tool that should allow people to escape the persecution faced in the real world and foster freedom from strict identity categories. It must be a place and a tool that fosters true expression and identity; otherwise, it will be nothing more than another mode of policing and repression.