Decentraland is a virtual world. Think Minecraft or Second Life, but decentralized, user-owned, and built for the virtual reality era. The 3-D objects are passed peer-to-peer using the Interplanetary File System, making the world resilient against network attacks and centralized control. Ownership of the virtual land is tokenized on the Ethereum blockchain, so that owning tokens gives you edit-access to build whatever you like in your little patch of cyberspace.
As a disclosure, I own 23,902 MANA tokens from the project, but have no professional involvement with the company or the project.
I spoke with Ari Meilich, the Project Lead of Decentraland.
Conor O’Higgins: Tell us how you got interested in decentralization, and how the idea for Decentraland came about.
Ari Meilich: I guess at a personal level my first experience in decentralization was, before blockchain, joining a political party in Buenos Aires that was akin to the Pirate Party. It proposed liquid democracy, a type of decentralized voting where the constituents could vote on all issues or delegate their votes to a delegate. This was in stark opposition to top-down representative democracy.
At that time, in 2012 or 2013, I started using Bitcoin to pay international contractors, chiefly in Argentina, where there were strict capital controls, and a government edict fixed the price of the dollar at an arbitrary, below-market price. So Bitcoin was a great way to circumvent what I thought was a pretty ludicrous rule.
Then in 2015 I joined Voltaire, a ‘hacker house’ in Buenos Aires, where most people were blockchain engineers. Thus began a long journey of getting immersed in this new technology, and it had quite an effect. These days I barely read about anything else!
Conor: I hang out on your community chats a bit, and I do own some MANA. One thing that impresses me is the liveliness of the debate – community members are debating minutiae like whether the land should be divided into squares of hexagons. What do you think sparked that sort of interest in Decentraland?
Ari: People come to Decentraland from many different angles, but I think a lot of them are very excited with the idea of immutable ownership that Decentraland enables. Because the world is owned by the users, it’s only natural that they put a lot of effort on discussing how the world should be. We rushed to create the terraform registration dApp to let people organize themselves in districts; we’re very excited about having the different communities deciding on their own governance, economic model, if any, aesthetics, etc. The fact that Decentraland is a blank slate that is shaped by the users is what makes it unique.
Conor: Are most users planning on building businesses in Decentraland, or just building for fun?
Ari: It’s a mix. A lot of the users want to build for fun, just as they’d do in Minecraft. Others are planning to make money with their creations.
Conor: Are you building anything yourself, Ari?
Ari: Oh, absolutely. Currently I’m working with some artists and 3-D modelers on the design of the ‘first ring’, where users will spawn. Once I finish this hiring sprint, which keeps me pretty busy, I will create the Voltaire district, for my group of friends to hang out and have our monthly ‘townhall meetings’.
Conor: In early September, when you made first made MANA available, people were saying it was sniped by just five whales in fifteen seconds. What happened there?
Ari: I guess we failed at communicating more profusely that the token was being sold through token sale platforms. We only said this in our Slack’s ‘announcements’ channel, in the hopes of catering to our community.
So the community in Asia, and those who went through Bitcoin Suisse were able to buy their tokens. However, we didn’t anticipate such a high demand and the $7 million USD worth or so that were left in the public sale went in a snap.
By the time the token sale began, we had already loaded these platforms’ transactions, and people construed that as individual contributors buying millions in MANA. That was not the case, however: these were the platforms’ contributions, which comprised over 2,000 contributors.
Afterwards, as the China ban made the news, we had to refund 24,500 ETH to these platforms, and made these tokens available through a whitelist that had about 5,000 participants.
Conor: Yes, I was one of those 5,000. Why limit the land available, and bundle it up for sale? Why not make Decentraland infinitely extensible by the users?
Ari: Since users will explore the world and stumble upon users creations and applications, if the land were infinite, this experience of walking around contemplating and interacting with content would be really bad. Only with scarcity can we ensure that the world will be filled with valuable content. Without scarcity, the land would have no value. Imagine if sending transactions on the blockchain were free. There would be constant spamming attacks to the network. The same applies to Decentraland: if there’s no cost to uploading content, I could easily fill the world with garbage. Users’ attention is a limited resource, so by creating a market for the land, we ensure that only those who have skin in the game can get the users’ attention, and that the users have a good experience.
Conor: Someone could fork your code for a p2p virtual world, but remove the part about tokens, making the land infinite.
Ari: That would be akin to forking Bitcoin and making supply infinite. It wouldn’t have the same, or any, value.
Furthermore, imagine if the Facebook code were 100% open source (not that we’re anything similar, but for illustration purposes). You could fork it, but you’d need quite a bit of dexterity to create a similar network.
Conor: What developments do you hope to see in Decentraland over the next few years?
Ari: I’m hoping to see mature software for decentralized governance, payment channels to let content creators monetize their creations with little friction, a native wallet with multi-currency support, and support for rare digital assets. Also, support for rich applications and networked experiences.
On the hardware side, we are really looking forward to the Santa Cruz and other all-in-one VR headsets with inside-out tracking. I have the HTC Vive and the Oculus, but I’m a firm believer that portability will increase VR adoption by an order of magnitude. The current mobile headsets lack this kind of tracking, which make the experience pretty limited.
Conor: You’re from Argentina, right?
Conor: It’s interesting because I can’t think of another blockchain project from Latin America.
Ari: Off the top of my head, I can think of rsk.co, zeppelin.solutions, ripio.com and democracy.earth. The first two are pretty high profile.
Conor: Would you say there’s an active blockchain industry there?
Ari: Not exactly an industry, but there several very good blockchain projects. Another I forgot to mention is Xapo, one of the earliest projects in the industry.
Conor: Are the rest of the Decentraland team from around there?
Ari: Esteban Ordano and Nico Santángelo are from here, but Nico is living in Amsterdam. Ben Nolan is from New Zealand. And we have community managers in Shanghai and Canada. There’s a lot of great engineering talent in Argentina, and I’m hoping to expand the team here as much as I can, but Decentraland is a distributed company.
Conor: For my final question: Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or one hundred duck-sized horses?
Ari: One horse-sized duck for sure. I would rather focus on one large battle.
Featured image from Shutterstock