Why online communities thrive in physical spaces
“IRL [in real life] interactions are dead – everything’s moved online now.” Variations of this sentiment have been growing louder over the past few years. Unsurprising perhaps, considering how repeated pandemic-instigated lockdowns accelerated the digital revolution already well underway. Throw in the recent explosion of chat about the metaverse, NFTs, and web3 and you’d be forgiven for thinking that our collective futures lie solely online. However, if you find that prospect terrifyingly dystopian, panic not – because it simply won’t happen. Digital worlds will always need IRL counterpart spaces in order to grow and thrive.
In June 2022, HATTER worked with digital creator and artist Danny Casale, aka Coolman Coffeedan, on his NFT.NYC event. Danny, and his illustrated online world ‘Coolman’s Universe’, boasts a loyal community of over 10 million fans. Our partnership proved something that we, as experience creators, believe so completely we’ve staked our careers on it: physical experiences are a fundamental human need that can’t ever be fully replicated online.
Digital communities will continue to seek out physical spaces to connect – and that’s a positive thing for all of us, whether digital natives or novices.
Digital connections are entirely valid. The online world has enabled global interactions on a scale inconceivable a decade ago, offering safe spaces for people to find communities based upon shared passions and common causes (not all of them positive, let’s be honest).
And yet… repeated studies consistently show IRL interactions are better for mental and physical health, and even longevity of life. There are myriad reasons for this, but a core facet is our ability to read non-verbal cues, i.e. facial expressions and body language. We interpret tone, manner and meaning from tiny, almost imperceptible, physical movements that simply aren’t visible or clear via digital gatherings, whatever the platform.
Also, digital cannot replicate the biological high you get from non-sexual touching, i.e. from hugging, high-fiving or even shaking hands. This is caused by the release of oxytocin, known as the ‘bonding hormone’, which triggers the release of other hormones in the the same feel-good ballpark, such as dopamine and serotonin. This rush from IRL socialising is only enhanced in a ‘live’ atmosphere that engages all of the senses.
Think of it like this: an NFT collector is already a member of an exclusive club in which they enjoy certain online-only benefits. An IRL spin-off event, or a permanent space, suddenly offers a membership upgrade – new added extras.
Our NFT.NYC event included beautifully-designed activations that enabled people to see their NFTs come to life before their eyes. It made their investment tangible, an experience they could share with other visitors, in real time, and absorb their unedited and immediate emotional and physical responses. Visitors could also launch their NFTs into space, make them part of a Space Invader arcade game and then watch their hero, Coolman Coffeedan himself, draw their favourite characters live on stage, in-person.
NFT holders experienced their online and physical worlds colliding at this conference, the key point being that both worlds offered different versions of the same thing: community, acceptance, and shared adventures.
The Coolman Coffeedan event at NFT.NYC was one of only two at the conference that were open to the public, rather than only NFT holders. This was a deliberate decision to create a more inclusive and egalitarian space, sentiments that can be lacking in many digital cultures. This showed us that counterpart IRL spaces are a brilliant means of introducing the uninitiated to the benefits of digital communities, many of which pride themselves on the complicated nature of the architecture propping up their worlds. Exclusivity is a valuable commodity after all. Yet, that is short-term thinking when more interest will only drive the creativity, growth and profitability of online worlds.
People attending IRL digital-focused conferences are exactly the kind of people who are driving the digital revolution. And yet, they come in their thousands to meet each other and their artistic heroes in-person. This opens up an exciting and entirely novel task to creators, designers, and architects: bridging the reality gap between digital and IRL. We must navigate the fine line between enhancing, rather than diluting, what made the original digital communities so strong. And, in our view, that can only be achieved by truly understanding and respecting the world we’re entering.
Coolman Coffeedan’s followers are passionate, committed and loyal. They are part of a special tribe that they care deeply about. Representing this is a responsibility no experience-creator should take lightly – but what an opportunity for innovation and ingenuity it offers. We are at the forefront of a revolution, where two realities meet – and we’re determined to make the most of it.
Lose yourself in the moment. Say, “F*** it, let’s see what happens”. Channel your inner desire to play. Stop caring about what anyone else thinks.
Fully embracing joyful impulsiveness – that’s Positive Recklessness HATTER-style. It’s about creating spaces where boundaries can be pushed, limits can be tested, and worries can be forgotten. It’s about finding moments of magic in the everyday and building experiences that can change lives.