Real products in the time of virtuality

Martins Untals
The Startup
Published in
9 min readApr 7, 2020


It is incredible to see new technologies and social trends emerge and slowly become part of the ‘normal’ and ‘real.’ The latest such trend that has become part of the fabric of society is that of “influencers.” Not so many years ago, having a large following on social media did not amount to anything. And couple more years back, social media itself had just born. Yet now we see that being an influencer is a thing of a real-life, not just somewhere deep in the geeky corners of the internet. It has become a new route to becoming a D-list celebrity. And it is OK.

We should use this example to explore what other ways could be there to build new products that would become just as real, as I feel there is much more to explore in the idea of the emergence and meshing of trendy products with the ‘real world.’

So what is the real world? If you asked your mom (and pressure her to actually give you the answer), she would say that houses are real, land and sea are real, families and communities are real, money and property are real, countries and corporations are real, the phone you are holding in your hand is real. And so on. She might agree that “being an influencer” is real, or she might not. While in her mind, the outfit of your character in Fortnite is definitely not real.

What exactly she thinks is real and what is not is actually beside the point. What is important is how she would put things invented by humans, together with things created by nature. In her mind, money and corporations are just as real as ground under her feet and sky over her head. And out of things invented and created by humans, physical things like houses and cars are just as real for her as corporations, countries, and money in her wallet.

If we look at the hard facts in a way that alien explorers would look at human species, then we will see that things like corporations, countries, patents, ideas, contracts, agreements, elections, constitutions, property rights, human rights are all in peoples heads. There are no underlying hard laws of physics. It is all a social construct, often dubbed “legal fiction” by scholars.

Even money and property, and value we put on things — that is all fiction that inhabits only our heads and heads of other people around us, collective head of our society if I can be excused to make such a weird analogy.

And even among such social constructs, there are more and less real things. Say the value of a plow — it is purely imaginary, of course, yet it can be linked to the potential future harvests, which in turn can be linked to the wellbeing of an owner. But take gold, you can’t eat it, and you can’t make food with it. You can only make jewelry out of it. The relationship of its value to any survival of your progeny is way way more distant, yet the value itself ends up being very strong in your mind. And the ultimate value — money. That is digitally created out of thin air at every given second, and it is still very valuable. Yet reasoning behind that value has become so complex that there is no way it can be directly comprehended when taking one specific person and one specific unit of money — it is just too global, too interconnected, and too dependent on what millions and billions of other people are thinking about it.

Now we have established that, in fact, the realness of both Fortnite Outfits and Consitution lies in the same plane — in our collective imagination. And once we have understood that, our assumption of which digital product can become a very real inseparable part of our society also should be adjusted.

And yes, while houses are real, the value of a house is purely that of human imagination, as 90% of it consists of what other humans think of it, would they want to live there or not.

Let’s look at several current product types that are very far from ‘real’ right now, and try to imagine how they could be perceived as an integral party or reality in the future. And what would it take to get there?

Digital game asset, say an Axe of Power you buy in a massive online multiplayer game. A rare, but not unique item you can get by doing some in-game tasks. You can already buy and sell it to other players using real money. But it does not really feel real yet. Not in the sense of other property.

We can imagine a future where having such a rare axe would be a permanent feature. You would log into your computer or some virtual reality desktop, to make things more futuristic, and the item would be right there, waiting for you. You might show it off to your colleagues when they come to visit your VR space. It belongs to you the same way you own a digital copy of a movie or e-book. Maybe a more show-off version of that. It could have some story attached to it, something how you got it from a dungeon that was not marked on any maps, or from a merchant in an in-game pub that you were never supposed to go to. And that now it has really changed your entire character, and every time you wield it in battle, everything changes in a weird way, and you feel like strongest in the battlefield.

OK, that does sound a bit weird for us, the people in the present. But I could imagine this happening in the future. And if I can imagine it now, everybody could imagine it one day. And as it is all in our heads, it could work out.

How to get there? We need to extract some attributes of this digital asset from the description. What makes it real.

  1. It has to be rare enough to matter. if it is a singular, non-unique item, that we don’t value for the numeric amount of it (like money), then it has to be scarce enough (like an expensive watch or a piece of jewelry). Best way to emphasize scarcity is also to attach a complicated way how to acquire the item. Anything with a story gets much more value in the minds of anybody obtaining it and even anybody listening to somebody bragging about it.
  2. It should belong to the person, not to the person’s avatar in some game. Even if it is only usable inside of the game, ownership should not be somehow controlled by the game itself. We have seen plenty of scandals where corporations have revoked ownership of digital goods remotely. It did not stop people from buying e-books, but then e-books also have strong built-in entertainment value, which in-game assets might not have.
  3. It has to have a relatively complex inner structure — it should not be a simple item. If it just makes your character in-game stronger by “8 points,” then it is a simple item. Ideally, it should affect your character in multiple ways, work differently in different game regions, interact with other objects in odd ways. Maybe it also should be not a whole — it could consist of multiple parts, which could each be separately affected by the environment, could degrade over time, or also have some properties.

Claps you have amassed for your Medium posts. Currently, a somewhat meaningless number, but let’s try to imagine how this could become something valuable in the future.

It is similar to youtube views and likes, which have already crossed the chasm and have become very real — because a high amount of youtube views bring in the cash. Similar could be said about other likes, follows, and shares in different platforms — if you get enough of that, then you can become an influencer and monetize it, even if the platform doesn’t offer any direct monetization itself. But just because of that, we could look at the claps differently, not as a direct road to ad-based monetization of any sort.

So, it is the future. You arrive at the security conference registration desk, and they give you your badge. It has a blue outline and three stars in the top corner. While you put it on, you are ushered to the separate table, where you, as a distinguished opinion leader can choose if you would like to participate in any panel discussions as an extra member. And anybody you meet on your way allows you to pass through like a C list celebrity you are.

The badge would not even be required, as everybody would notice your Medium ring, with distinctive black on gold design, indicating your level of authorship. But while that works well in the casual engagements, here in the conference more precise designation and hence the badge is required. It is good to be a recognized author.

So what is required for this to happen? Key is prevalence and recognition. You can do your work somewhere and become really good at it, but for you to become akin to celebrity, this has to be widely recognized. Only when a significant portion of society, or at least your industry insiders will recognize a particular sign of achievement, it will become part of the fabric of reality.

This is how bitcoin became part of the reality without delivering any more value to users than when it still purely in geekdom. This is how online rating systems become a thing, and restaurants started placing little stickers of their Tripadvisor rating on their doors.

You could call it the network effect, but it is not really that — it is far simpler and is more similar to how new words spread in the language. At first, some niche people use them in their own, limited context. Then sometimes words escape this confinement and go to and become used by more and more people. To the horror of everybody over forty.

As a little tidbit of knowledge — it is often seen in many linguistics studies that it is women who take this task of bringing new words and other language changes to the masses. Maybe that partly applies also to other cultural concepts?

When something becomes a thing in more people’s heads, then it becomes a Thing.

So, you have a product. You want to grow it to the point that it becomes an unconscious part of everyday life, becomes enmeshed in the fabric of society, becomes something your uncle will ask you about over beers. How do you get there?

You have to imagine the future, create it in your mind, and see how it looks like when your product is very real. What do common people do with it, how they interact with each other, how they mention the product, how they talk about it to their kids and parents. How do they convince their brother, who thinks it is silly and not very real? How do they convince themselves?

And then you have to see what are the roadblocks, what are things that are very likely to stand in the way for the product to achieve this future. There will be many things that will come to your mind, both internal to the product itself, as well as in society at large.

Solutions to those roadblocks have to be the foundation of your strategy. And it has to be a real strategic outlook, where you look at your product as part of the whole society, industry, and culture. It has to be more than simply plans of what markets to attack, what new features to build, and what capitalization to reach.

The strategy has to solve for both internal and external roadblocks. Internal changes will require technical investments, while external changes will require work with the industry peers, with marketing, with thought leaders.

It is possible for society to change in the way that that is needed for your product. It can change by itself if you are lucky, and your product is very strong, or you can help it to change and reduce reliance on random luck in your strategy.



Martins Untals
The Startup

Author of “The Invisible Complexity”, IT executive, and consultant, living and working in UAE, Dubai