🤵🏻‍♂️👰🏽‍♀️ Something old, something new, and something scalable

Read to the bottom for a Facebook stat that still shocks

💍 What it’s like to have a digital wedding on the platform Topia 
📖 Read the story! Our the first Flash Fiction winner is here
🧵 Tuesday Open Thread, now on the 1st Tuesday of every month at 12pm ET


Recently, a reader replied to a newsletter and sent me this message: 

Have you explored Topia?

It's an infinitely expanding universe of customizable worlds with encrypted video chat.

My wife and I were married there.

With that, he had my attention. Maybe you’ve been to a Zoom wedding, or some other large virtual family gathering during the pandemic. In my experience, these are tacit acknowledgements that we are in weird times, we’re all doing our best, and hey, this will work in the meantime, won’t it?

But going forward, what if there was a way to do a remote or hybrid wedding that actually felt closer to a real-life wedding? And beyond that, as more people commit to longterm hybrid or remote work, and Covid drags on and on, we’re more interested than ever in digital platforms where people can gather.

There are some advantages to a hybrid wedding: you can keep costs down, allow far-flung relatives to attend, and not spend a year planning the thing. Intrigued, I met up with the reader who had emailed me, Brian Swichkow, and his new wife, Chantle Edillor. That is, we met in Topia, where Swichkow invited my avatar to “follow” his, and he and Edillor took me on a tour of the world they made for their wedding. 

Topia was created early in the pandemic as another kind of place to gather online, by a friend of Swichkow’s, Daniel Liebeskind. (Swichkow, a superuser of the platform, has business ties to Topia.) Part of the interface is familiar: there are live video feeds in little boxes, of yourself and other participants. But unlike in Zoom, the video feeds float above a sprawling, illustrated map with a simple, colorful avatar you control at the center. You use the arrow keys or click to walk, sit, and dance, and as you get close to another avatar, you can hear and see each other. You can interact with some objects, and some are rendered so you can walk in front or behind them, feigning three-dimensionality. It feels a little like playing an unfinished version of Stardew Valley or Zelda on the Nintendo, with the hand-drawn aesthetic of a middle-school fantasy map drawn in pencil on the back of a worksheet, also mixed with Zoom.

But it’s much more of a place than Zoom. “Zoom is very much like a thing you do, and Topia was a thing that we created,” said Swichkow, who runs a Reddit-first marketing agency in the LA area. “We didn’t make the platform but we made the world.” Edillor, currently finishing her PhD, added: “We attended some Zoom weddings as well and they felt like you were watching a movie. You logged into the thing and then at some point it was over and then you're back in your own experience, and part about being in Topia was that you're in the world, so you get to be immersed in the wedding aspect of it as much or as little as you want.”

The couple first tested the waters by hosting a Topia engagement party in May. “It was delightful, it was enchanting, it was weird,” said Swichkow. As they realized the pandemic would still make in-person things uncertain in November, Swichkow and Edillor decided to have their wedding on this new platform.

For their wedding, Swichkow and Edillor designed a map that resembles a clock, commissioning illustrators to recreate important moments and aspects of their relationship. There are stops along the way, beginning with their first date and going all the way to a location drawn to resemble the physical site of the in-person ceremony, which was broadcast live from a rented home in Topanga, California.

Swichkow and Edillor were able to craft a setting that was meaningful to them in a variety of ways and leave it open to interpretation for guests. For example, they record podcast episodes for fun, mainly for themselves. But when they placed a few of the episodes inside their Topia, Swichkow’s mom’s avatar sat in a virtual tent and listened to one, rapt, for 45 minutes.

With no kids or animals, they chose to represent the only living thing they take care of together—a pandemic sourdough starter. But how to turn that into a location for avatars to explore on a drawn map? According to Swichkow, Edillor had the flash of inspiration: “sourdough bread bowl Jacuzzi.” Similarly, in lieu of the traditional wedding cake, one illustrator created a three-story wedding cake building with a lookout tower, and instead of feeding each other a piece of cake, the newlyweds had a “cake walking ceremony.” Swichkow said, “it was just kind of like, you know, wacky and fun, which is very much us.” To me, the whole thing looks very polished and well-considered, but it seems like the only things you can “do” in Topia are walk around and click on something to summon a pop-up window, and I wonder if that starts to get old quickly.

While they were inventing norms and traditions for having a wedding on Topia, behind the scenes, the Topia developers rushed to complete the technical features that would make the wedding possible. The most important was “broadcast mode,” which allowed Swichkow and Edillor to share the livestream video of the ceremony to everyone within their Topia world.

I asked, if they had to do it all over, and Covid was not a factor, would they do their wedding the same way? Both said they would. There were pros and cons: While their wedding was far cheaper than average, the whole event cost more than you might expect. “We spent under $10,000 on the entire thing, including the actual physical wedding with the house rental and all the art in the world and everything,” said Swichkow. They avoided the typical stress of decisions like booking a DJ and finding a florist, and they look back on the planning process as an act of artistic co-creation, but Swichkow and Edillor recommend hiring a producer or wedding planner. “You can plan a wedding, you can produce a wedding and you can perform at a wedding, but you can only do two of those things well at any one time,” said Swichkow.

Also, like with Zoom, it was very easy for lots of family and friends to attend without physical travel. Edillor recalled friends telling her, “your wedding was my favorite because you got it to be really about you. It required nothing from me.” 

And while the guests didn’t get to rub elbows in person, Topia engendered some genuine conversation and bond-building. Exhibit A: Swichkow said, “We’ve had friends who are like, I'm going to hangout with this person, or I'm going on a date with this person, and like... how did you meet that person?” To which they answer: “your wedding.” Guests were still able to form relationships solely through the limited interaction of a Topia wedding.

One special benefit of using Topia: they got to keep the venue. Not only were they able to use it in the lead up to the wedding, for events like a bridal shower and dress reveal party, but they continue to use the map, sometimes weekly, for events like public dinner parties. For Swichkow, the world is an incredible tool that eases the organizational and financial burden of regular meet-up planning. You can easily go and explore the world now. (Why not walk around and meet other newsletter readers who might be in there?)

For the couple, the Topia wedding was a way to push back against the usual dynamics of social media. “Traditional social media is temporal,” said Swichkow. “It's all about timeline: you're kind of constantly building this, you have to keep serving it, you have to keep feeding it, and it's all just this linear construct of content.” Whereas Topia, he said, is primarily spatial. “In space you can have community, you can have connection, you're not obligated to continue updating it. It's not consistently feeding off of you.”

Still, Swichkow and Edillor acknowledge and are fully aware that worlds like the one they made for their wedding will likely not replace social media. “It’s not a place to keep in touch, it’s a place to connect,” says Swichkow. And I’m not sure it’s even a great substitute for Zoom in many situations. The New_ Public team had a meeting in Topia, and when it was time to focus and pull up documents, there was no point to trying to walk around anymore. But for something like a wedding, I completely see the appeal and would be curious to see how that actually works.

After Swichkow and Edillor finished showing me around their world, they taught me how to leave Topia. Swichkow said that rather than closing the window and instantly disappearing, it’s considered polite to walk your avatar away from the conversation, disconnecting the audio and video. Then, navigating behind an object, you can close the window when ready, leaving your shared world behind.


Open threading

Thanks to everyone who came out for our Tuesday Open Thread this week. We got some great questions for our writers, and a bunch of them have already chimed in with detailed responses. We’ve decided to do this monthly! So mark your calendars: we’ll start each on the first Tuesday of the month, at 12pm Eastern Time. If you can’t make it then, these conversations tend to be asynchronous, so feel free to pick it up whenever you get a chance.


Below is the first winner of our Flash Fiction contest we ran last month. It was submitted by reader Kelsey Donato, who you can find at @kgdonato3 on Instagram. As promised, each winner will get an original illustration by me, and their story will be published here. You can expect to see a few more soon. –Josh

Your Attention Please

Picture of a cat, gluten-free pasta recipe, new podcast episode airing. 

I haven’t seen my friends here in weeks. 

Ad for a video game, talking dog pressing buttons, inspirational quote about carrying on through the hard times. 

I just saw my best friend yesterday, and I'm going to dinner with some coworkers tonight, but I haven't seen my friends, on here, in weeks. 

We, as a society, voted to secure the future of our planet for the measly price of selling our souls and our attention to the tech conglomerate powers that became. Despite this I still go on willingly to engage in the act of scrolling. I'm morbidly curious as to whether the algorithms are still working. Working in the sense that they’re still shoveling out content. Everyone knows the inherently flawed system hasn’t “worked” in the way it’s supposed to in years. The conglomerate doesn't seem to notice or care that people aren’t genuinely participating as long as data analytics show that we’re scrolling for about the same amount of time daily and posting one photo a day. 

A celebrity’s smoothie, beach sunset, Amazon prime sponsored content. 

Produce and consume. That was the deal. 

I'm going to the beach with my family next weekend. 

Where the new tech overlords slipped up, right before blasting off to their new Mars settlement, was in not requiring their constituents to post their actual faces. The daily required post doesn't even have to be a photo that you took, it just has to be a photo. I haven’t seen my friends, on here, in weeks. Once social media was required by the sloppily established laws that traded our freedom for a planet that wasn’t one melted ice cap away from total ruin, it completely lost its hold. A surefire way to get a whole society to lose all interest in and abhor something entirely, is by legally requiring it. Almost immediately people figured out ways to dodge the constant consumption. Makeshift mechanisms that will scroll for you while your hands are free to do as they please; prosthetic eyes that work well enough to bypass the constant retinal scan, freeing you from the screen almost entirely. This is all “off the grid”, of course, away from the gaze of the all-seeing eyes. This is how we live our lives now. Our device location says we’re on the couch while we go out and experience real, electronic-free living. 

These days, when I make the choice to scroll, for myself, I don't see my friends in the internet world. What I see when I open social media is an algorithm-generated version of reality that is anything but real. I do, however, see my friends. Every day. In the meat world. I get to hug them, eat with them, laugh with them. We get to live in a world that's healing with our full attention on the things that matter.

I still go on social media sometimes because I think it’s important to remember what I was willingly enslaved to for a good part of my life, and it serves to give contrast to the life worth living on the other side of the screen.


Query Log

Trying out a new feature here at the bottom. This week’s question:

Francis Haugen told senators in her testimony that “Facebook knows that the people who are exposed to the most misinformation are people who are recently widowed, divorced, moved to a new city, are isolated in some other way.” Facebook has internal tools to try and help those users, like demoting certain kinds of posts, but there comes a point when it’s too late to help them. After a certain point, said Haugen, people who have been exposed to too much misinformation lose their ability to connect with their community and “no longer adhere to facts that are consensus reality.” We all know this can happen, but through their internal research, Facebook has quantified it.

According to Haugen’s testimony, how many posts a day does a person have to read for Facebook to consider them lost in a misinformation rabbit hole? Find the answer here.


Frolicking on Mars,

Josh

Illustration by Josh, Screenshots of Topia courtesy of Brian Swichkow and Chantle Edillor

New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.