Meme coin Shiba Inu is starting its second act—in the metaverse

 

By Connie Lin

 

On Monday at SXSW, hours after Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse jeopardized the future of most tech startups, hundreds of festival-goers filed into a Zen escape: a virtual landscape with enchanting forests of bamboo and cherry trees swaying in the wind, and an unmistakable monument to the Japanese hunting dog breed Shiba Inu. Dubbed the WAGMI temple, in an homage to the crypto slogan “We’re all gonna make it,” it offered a respite from the flailing financial ecosystems—and the first look at the metaverse being built by developers of the Shiba Inu (SHIB) cryptocurrency.

 

Without crypto’s decentralization, bank runs like last Friday’s “are inevitable,” Shytoshi Kusama, the mysterious lead developer of Shiba Inu who goes only by his pseudonym and an avatar of a hooded figure in a long cloak, tells Fast Company via Google Meet. With his video camera off, he types into a chatbox, refusing to speak out loud. He’s citing banks’ fractional reserves. “As more people realize this and decide to diversify, that 5% [crypto] global adoption number increases, and then people go . . . What’s this SHIB thing? And they learn how awesome we are.”

Not that some don’t already know. Web3 evangelists are still a niche subset of Twitter, but among the crypto degens SHIB might inspire the most cult-like following. Created two and a half years ago, the token was born as a joke idea to raise a “Dogecoin-killer”—to overtake the rival meme-based token Dogecoin—but its loyal fans, known as the SHIBArmy, couldn’t have been more serious. Together, they slingshotted Shiba Inu into, at one time, a top-10 cryptocurrency with a market capitalization of $44 billion through nothing but a bootstrapped rally on social media. (Since the onset of crypto winter, the token’s price is up 37% in 2023, although it’s still down 88% from its record high in 2021.)

Along the way, its universe has expanded with the launch of Shibaswap, a decentralized exchange platform, and a collection of 10,000 Shiboshi NFTs, which are pixelated Shiba Inu characters bearing different traits—from a pirate hat to a slice of pizza dangling from the dog’s mouth. Shiba Inu won shout-outs from Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin and crypto influencer Elon Musk, then a partnership with Bugatti, the Canadian luggage brand. And what began as glib trolling by the meme crowd has grown to 3.6 million followers on crypto Twitter, who are also some of the loudest on the platform—quick to dogpile onto news blasts, flinging hashtags like #shibarmystrong and #hailshib, promising to take SHIB #tothemoon. In 2022, it was the third-most-googled cryptocurrency worldwide.

 

Now it’s taking its biggest leap yet with its own layer-2 blockchain called Shibarium, which rolled out in beta last week, along with a set of new tokens (Leash and Bone) in preparation for a flagship metaverse—SHIB: The Metaverse, which will open with its first virtual storefront for rock ’n’ roll fashion designer John Richmond. With it, SHIB hopes to become more than just a meme coin.

Meme coin Shiba Inu is starting its second act—in the metaverse | DeviceDaily.com

[Image: Shiba Inu]

A dog-meet-dog world

Shiba Inu’s bizarre mythology is part of the allure. Its founder, Ryoshi, was also shrouded in secrecy, before suddenly vanishing from the internet last summer, his ironically cat-shaped avatar forever gone from the Discords. But he did not go without a trace: Ryoshi left behind a road map, which Shytoshi—who joined after the token had racked up 6,000 wallets, but before Musk’s tweets sent it skyrocketing—has been following ever since. (A SHIBArmy pastime is to speculate who Ryoshi could be; some think he’s Buterin himself, or disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.)

SHIB’s own finances are also a mystery. According to Shytoshi, metaverse land plot sales are funding metaverse development, while Shiboshi NFT sales cash is spent elsewhere. The team has yet to decide the tokenomics for Leash and Bone, or if they will keep a share. They declined to disclose whether they take a cut of Shibaswap’s transaction fees. They have not raised venture capital.

 

But SHIB’s greatest brag is its community, a word that’s thrown out countless times in blog posts, tweets, and magazine interviews. As Marcie Jastrow, SHIB metaverse’s lead adviser, tells Fast Company, even as they plot the metaverse, they’re incorporating feedback from the SHIBArmy. The team hired a firm to construct it, using Unreal Engine software, but there’s no creative director—they draw up concept art, first in black-and-white sketches, then publish the drafts in a blog and watch for chatter on social media, before tweaking, coloring, and rendering in 3D—over and over again. The first of 11 zones in the making, the WAGMI temple is an unspoiled fantasyland, full of grazing deer and plein air yoga.

That community extends even to other metaverses like Decentraland, the Sandbox, or Yuga Labs’ Otherside, which are typically seen as competition. But Jastrow insists that for a space as nascent—and transformative—as the metaverse, the pioneers must band together. “It was like the early days of VR,” she says. “We wanted everyone to win. We just wanted the headset to work.”

It might feel excessively chummy, especially in the lean times of crypto winter, when venture capital funding has frozen over and survival feels more cutthroat than ever. But Jastrow’s not wrong: What’s good for one might be good for all, because every metaverse is struggling to sell people on the pitch of living in Web3, or even a 3D Web2.

 

Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s feverish campaign for Horizon Worlds, Meta is now more fixated on AI than the metaverse—the concept that Zuckerberg gambled his company’s name on—after its metaverse division posted a $13.7 billion loss in 2022. Decentraland, arguably the leader in the space, has only 8,000 daily active users, and late last year Grayscale’s Decentraland ETF was trading at a discount of 60 cents on the dollar. Various metaverse coins are down by as much as 80%.

Meme coin Shiba Inu is starting its second act—in the metaverse | DeviceDaily.com

[Image: Shiba Inu]

The grass is greener

Shiba Inu, however, sees its metaverse as a marketplace, one that banks on the great American dream—the belief that users can, and will, find a way to monetize anything.

Say there’s a man in India with a tablecloth shop who wants to sell his goods across the globe, Jastrow muses. “Well now, to have that exchange of currency is brilliant and easy and frictionless,” she says. “And that changes everything for the guy with the tablecloth shop. . . . Now [in the metaverse] you’ve caught 6 million eyeballs the moment you land here.”

 

That vision also involves people signing up to build entirely virtual businesses in the metaverse, from virtual dogwalkers and cab drivers to chiropractors and tour guides. It immediately seems far-fetched to think that people would pay real money to exercise a fake dog—until you remember one iconic relic of the 1990s. “Who thought that somebody would buy a Tamagotchi?” says Sherri Cuono, SHIB metaverse’s technology adviser. “But people were feeding them every hour, on the hour, because they were afraid their Tamagotchi would die.”

Cuono continues: “Somebody might have a garden and want landscaping for their yard, or they want to build a building but they’re not a modeler, and maybe they want unique architecture. These things in the real world, we don’t think twice about—paying for a dogwalker and an architect.”

Shytoshi points to Roblox—one of the few virtual worlds that’s a smash success—as a “grand example that proves this concept.” Last month, he put out a call on SHIB’s website, and more than 3,000 people flocked with their own SHIB metaverse startup ideas.

 

Still, it’s hard not to cast SHIB against crypto’s other larger-than-life giants. Above it, the shadow of Yuga Labs and its Otherside metaverse looms—it’s another ultra-hyped decentralized project that will rely on the fanaticism of its community members to work for the cause, buying and farming plots of metaverse land—presumably for their own enrichment, but well before any payoff can be guaranteed. The glory of decentralization, and its Achilles’ heel, is that it works only if other people do things—as Shytoshi puts it, “so we can sit back and let the decentralized community take over.”

He says the same thing in response to one of SHIB’s biggest conundrums: the fact that it originally minted a ridiculously large 1 quadrillion coins, which is partly why they’re worth only a minuscule fraction of a cent ($0.000011 per coin, as of today). Much of the community has been concerned with the “burn rate”—the rate at which the coin supply can be reduced by Shibarium’s mechanisms, thereby inflating the coin’s value—but Shytoshi is not. Each time a user makes a transaction in the metaverse, he says, a small amount of SHIB is burned, “and if millions contribute, those micropennies will add up. How long will it take? Who knows.”

Of course, that happens only if millions of people pour into the metaverse—and given its sluggish appeal, it’s a lofty goal. Decentraland’s slump suggests the Web3 space is still ruled by speculators, not believers. And SHIB isn’t Roblox just yet.

 

“I thought SHIB was a household name,” Jastrow said in a YouTube livestream earlier this week, “[but] we’re having to do a lot of education.” It’s also the 12th-most-purchased token among crypto whales (people who own huge chunks of digital assets), and also makes up the largest percentage of most whales’ portfolios.

Meme coin Shiba Inu is starting its second act—in the metaverse | DeviceDaily.com

[Image: Shiba Inu]

Unleashing the beast

On a call from Austin, Jastrow and Cuono admit it’s bemusing to find SHIB—with its fringe corners of Twitter and Discord, and its crypto-sphere ethos of bucking mainstream institutions—at one of the country’s biggest trade shows. SXSW is a publicity circus. Many crypto founders have dodged the press for years, or famously masked their real-life identities with internet alter egos. But according to Jastrow, her good friend Blake Kammerdiener—who programs for SXSW, and owns SHIB coin himself—cajoled her into showing up.

“All of these people who want to remain anonymous and not talk about it, I don’t get it. If you have a great product, if you’re proud of what you’re doing, why are you hiding?” she says. “In SHIB’s case, we need to grow this thing, and at some point someone is going to want to talk to a person about what the esoteric value of the metaverse is. . . . Everything up until now has just been people behind screens on Twitter or Telegram saying, ‘Rah rah rah, apes are dope, pump it up!’”

 

Shytoshi may not stay hidden for long. (Despite the rumors, he did not make a trip to Austin in disguise.) “I believe that at the right time, I will be revealed to the world, ideally to a small group at Christie’s,” he says, offering few details, except to suggest there is a plan in motion to sell his voice—an AI module, maybe?—at the auction house. Right now, not a single team member knows who he is, including Jastrow and Cuono, a situation he admits is “slightly weird.” Several of the other developers are also known only by their aliases, like Kaal, and Penny. Nobody knows who Ryoshi was. Everybody at Shiba Inu is used to the sort of meeting where they sit quietly and blink at each other, waiting for a faceless somebody’s sentences to pop up on-screen.

They see Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse as a prime time to strike, and, according to Jastrow, that might mean targeting businesses that were buffeted by the fiasco and are now searching for footholds—maybe the brick and mortar is gone, but why not open a metaverse shop? “Etsy is on my list, as we can provide a new revenue stream for them,” Shytoshi says.

It’s not a walk in the park. “You don’t just say, ‘Build it, they will come,’” Jastrow says. But maybe, if they do it right, their people will come. “SHIB’s community is so loyal, so strong, so incredibly uplifting,” she says. “To be able to build alongside them is absolutely a dream.”

 

Shytoshi agrees, but with more bite. “We are building Shibarium for the world,” he says. “If they decide to join us, great. If they don’t, they will be left behind.”

Note: This article was updated with data on cryptocurrency wallets that hold SHIB.

Correction: This article formerly misstated a partnership between SHIB and luxury carmaker Bugatti. SHIB’s partnership was with the Bugatti Group, a Canadian luxury luggage brand.

 

Fast Company

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